For almost 500 years Niccolò Machiavelli and his treatise, The Prince, have gotten some pretty bad press. In the popular imagination, Machiavelli is synonymous with the amoral, ruthless pursuit of power.
But seen up close, The Prince is actually much more nuanced and interesting than its popular caricature would suggest. That’s the main take-home lesson of Machiavelli (iTunes), a podcast from the United Kingdom’s Open University. The podcast is part of a series on political philosophy, Reading Political Philosophy: From Machiavelli to Mill (iTunes).
While most free iTunesU offerings from the Open University are short 5 to 20 minute snippets from the university’s longer offerings, this series has substantial 30-minute to 1-hour long discussions of important political philosophers, including Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Mill.
The Machiavelli podcast is in the form of a conversation between Open University philosopher Nigel Warburton and University of London historian Quentin Skinner, author of a book about Machiavelli. The question and answer format has a liveliness that often lacking in lecture podcasts.
A few nuggets from the Machiavelli podcast:
- The Prince was part of a well known Renaissance genre called “mirror for princes,” which featured moral and practical advice for rulers.
- Machiavelli did not advise the prince to behave like a thug. Ruthless means should only be employed, he advised, when there is no good alternative. If violence and coercion are not required, the rulers should act according to conventional morality.
- Machiavelli advised against what he called false generosity. While most contemporary advice manuals called on rulers to give lavish presents, Machiavelli pointed out that generosity and liberality required high taxes. Better, he said, to be scorned for parsimony but loved for low taxes.
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