VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Mares: House Of Machiavelli


500 Years ago, an out-of-work Florentine diplomat wrote a short essay on politics dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici in hopes that he would unite the much fractured Italian state. The book was titled "The Prince" and the author was Niccolo Machiavelli.

Ever since then, the book has been read, debated, deplored and followed, by those wishing to gain political power and hold it. It’s hard to believe that humans are really as venal as they seem in this book, but Machiavelli insists that: Some are, and you must see men as they can be - not as they want to appear. You must be prepared to fight fire with fire, and light the first match.
In one passage, Machiavelli advises that the "prince" should be like both the fox and the lion, the first to avoid the traps and snares, and the second, to scare off the wolves, or enemies.
“It is better to have men fear you than love you,” he says, “but not so much that the fear turns to hatred and then rebellion.”
Perhaps most famously, Machiavelli taught that "The end justifies the means." In his case, the end was the security of the state, and his genius was to describe what he saw, and then let his readers decide if the de-scription was really a pre-scription.
I’ve just watched the first season of THE Netflix film series, "House of Cards." It’s about Washington politics, and I think the writers must have had The Prince open on their desks as they designed and peopled their drama. The chief protagonist is Congressman Frank Underwood, Democratic Majority whip and a good ole boy from South Carolina, until you turn your back. Played by Kevin Spacey, Underwood is a charming viper – like Al Pacino’s Richard the Third in his film of Shakespeare's murderous king. Spacey even talks to the camera as Pacino does.
Underwood lies to everyone. Yet it's not money he seeks; power and manipulation are his twin aphrodisiacs. He is completely amoral, but puffs himself up with frog-like outrage when someone turns the tables on him. Within minutes (or even seconds) he’s plotting revenge.

Today, Machiavelli is studied from boardrooms to nurseries. A blurb for the book Machiavelli for Moms describes "how a totally frazzled and stressed-out mom applied the strategies of warfare and statecraft prescribed in "The Prince" to raise a happy, well-mannered family."

More clever still was a book of 15 years ago, "The Child's Machiavelli," a primer on power. With illustrations in the style of famous artists Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter and St. Exupery, we find Machiavelli's adult advice in the language of a child. "Only give things away when people are watching." "People who cheat are always more successful than those who are honest." "If you want to take over some place don't forget to kill not just the boss, also all his kids."

Just the thing for Frank Underwood to give his children, if he were a dad – which thank goodness he’s not.