08/17/2011 04:59 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2011

Lessons From Machiavelli

Most people know Machiavelli only from The Prince. He dashed off that short book in the vain hope of landing a job with the Medici family, and thus ending his forced unemployment. Machiavelli had been a senior diplomat for the Republic of Florence until the Medici family took over. Machiavelli ardently supported the Florentine Republic, so his cynical try at rehabilitating himself with a dictator didn't fly with Lorenzo the Magnificent.

When he took time off to write The Prince, Machiavelli had been working on his true master work, Discourses on the First Ten Volumes of Titus Livius [Livy], or just the Discourses for short. Titus Livius (59 BC - 17 AD) wrote a monumental history of Rome, from its mythical founding up to the death of Augustus Caesar. Machiavelli used incidents from Livy to illustrate his points about statecraft. Borrowing a literary device from Plutarch's Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Machiavelli also used incidents from the Italian Renaissance. Machiavelli added his take on the current events of his era to Livy's ancient history to show that his counsel would stand the test of time.

So what would Machiavelli say about today's current events? Here are just a few chapter headings from the Discourses, with my take on how the master statesman would interpret them.

  • Book 1 Chapter 36: Citizens who have been given the higher honors ought not to disdain the lesser. Jerry Brown's stint as Mayor of Oakland benefited from his service as Governor of California; similarly, his second stint as governor benefited from his service as a mayor.
  • Book 1 Chapter 43: Those who combat for their own glory are good and faithful Soldiers; and Book 2 Chapter 20: What perils are brought to that Prince or that Republic which avails itself of auxiliary and mercenary troops. Machiavelli would greatly disapprove of the extent of outsourcing in the modern U.S. military. Blackwater would never pass muster.
  • Book 1 Chapter 50: A Council or Magistrate ought not to be able to stop the activities of a City. Congress should not be allowed to play with debt default fire.
  • Book 1 Chapter 51: A Republic or a Prince ought to feign to do through liberality, that which necessity constrains them. Machiavelli would heartily approve of stimulus spending. He would have been a big fan of the Marshall Plan.
  • Book 2 Chapter 10: Money is not the sinew of war although this is common opinion. Ten years of lousy results in Iraq and Afghanistan would not surprise Machiavelli. Spending more does not bring victory.
  • Book 2 Chapter 11: It is not a prudent proceeding to make an alliance with a Prince who has more reputation than power. Just how many marginal dictatorial regimes have been our "key allies"?
  • Book 2 Chapter 13: That one comes from the bottom to a great fortune more by fraud than by force. For example, Rupert Murdoch.
  • Book 2 Chapter 14: Men often deceive themselves believing that by humility they overcome haughtiness. Obama, are you listening? Apparently not.
  • Book 2 Chapter 24: Fortresses are generally more harmful than useful. Border fences will not make the U.S. safer, nor will they solve the immigration issue.
  • Book 2 Chapter 26: Contempt and insult generate hatred against those who employ them, without any usefulness to them. Hating Obama hurts the Tea Party's cause.
  • Book 2 Chapter 28: How dangerous it is for a Prince or a Republic, not to avenge an injury made against the public or a private citizen. Punish the banks and the CEOs responsible for the financial crisis. Letting them off easy sets a bad precedent that guarantees future mischief.
  • Book 2 Chapter 31: How dangerous it is to believe exiles. A lesson George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld ignored in Iraq.
  • Book 3 Chapter 24: The prolongation of (military) commands made Rome slave. Machiavelli would deeply cut the military budget, in the interest of both deficit reduction and preservation of liberty.
  • Book 3 Chapter 29: That the faults of the People arise from the Princes. Don't blame people who took out toxic loans pushed by the banks. The entire fault lies with the banks.

Machiavelli was not the cynical toady for tyrants that seems to be his reputation. He was a small-r republican, who believed that a practical politician needs to combine principle and grit to accomplish anything, particularly anything great and lasting. In his litany of Roman and Renaissance heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies, there is much to learn about our own times. Take my advice: skip The Prince and spend a few rewarding hours dipping into the Discourses.