The Prince: A book review by Bob Morris
How and why a leader needs to be both “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves”
Those who have read one or more of the volumes that comprise Tom Butler-Bowdon’s 50 Classics series already know that he possesses superior reasoning and writing skills as well as a relentless curiosity when conducting research on history’s greatest thinkers and their major works. For these and other reasons, I cannot think of another person better qualified to provide the introductions to the volumes that comprise a new series, Capstone Classics.
Unlike so many others, he provides more, much more than a flimsy “briefing” to the given work. As Butler-Bowdon points out, “recent research has focused on [Machiavelli’s] ethics and the fact that he was a genuine moral philosopher and well-rounded Renaissance man whose overriding wish was to be useful.” This obviously challenges the mistaken but durable perception of Machiavelli as being “evil” by those who have never read The Prince and know even less about the age in which it was written.
Indeed, as Yale’s Erica Benner suggests in Machiavelli’s Ethics (published by Princeton University Press, 2009), The Prince is “best seen not as a guide on how to be ruthless or self-serving, but rather as a lens to see objectively the prevailing views of the day, and to open the eyes of the reader to the motives of others.”
For this volume, Butler-Bowdon poses and then addresses key issues such as these in order to create a context, a frame-of-reference, for Niccolò Machiavelli’s insights:
o The defining characteristics of the social and political forces of the period during which he lived and worked
o The extent to which The Prince accurately reflects that period
o The dominant influences (for better or worse) on Machiavelli’s career
o Their impact on his efforts to advance that career amidst deadly perils and equally perilous opportunities
o The unique contributions and heritage of The Prince within the development of western literature
o Machiavelli’s articles of religious faith and perspectives political realities (e.g. his “success laws”)
o His definition of “power” and how best to gain and then apply it
o Girolamo Savonarola’s significance
o The role of image and charisma in effective leadership
o Machiavelli’s “final, powerful message” to our own times
There were so many passages in The Prince that caught my eye while re-reading it prior to writing this brief review. One was cited in its title (i.e. a leader needs to be both “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves”) and Butler-Bowdon cites another when concluding the Introduction to this volume: Reflecting Machiavelli’s basic philosophy regarding the division of causal power between and chance and merit, he states that, “What remains to be done must be done by you,” as ultimately “God will not do everything Himself.” To which Butler-Bowdon responds, “The Prince ultimately is a book of action, and demands of you the reader, to act without fear to achieve noble things, acquiring distinction and perhaps a certain glory in your own lifetime.”
As indicated earlier, Tom Butler-Bowdon’s purpose in this introduction is to create a context, a frame-of-reference, for Machiavelli’s insights. He does so brilliantly and also in each of the other volumes in the Capstone Classics series that have been published thus far.
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