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Live and Let Die

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This week's thought is from Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince," a 1513 meditation on princely power. Machiavelli makes for interesting reading. Many will observe that his writings suggest a ruthless quality and subsequently ascribe numerous unflattering personality traits to him personally. Interestingly, I have yet to find any evidence that he actually practiced what he wrote.
Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation. A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and how to use his knowledge and not to use it, according to the necessity of the case.

Self-preservation is a necessity—else why should we bother to eat or to breathe?—but that truism's details are best left for a future discussion.

While I agree (and my own experience has shown) that a man who wishes to practice goodness at all times will experience grief when dealing with the unscrupulous, I do not agree that the solution is for a man to learn not to be good. A better solution is for a man to require goodness in his associates. Note that I do not suggest that everyone require perfection of one another. Neither do I advocate restricting one's association to others who are identical in all aspects.

Instead, I suggest that each of us has qualities that are core to who we are, that are the immutable principles that guide our lives. Understanding ourselves requires knowing the difference between that which is immutable and that which is really a matter of preference. We should be ready to accept differences in preferences and experience and we should also make allowances for imperfections in one another, recognizing that what we wish to do and what we actually do are not always in agreement. Nevertheless, there are some among us who simply behave badly, who bring grief to people who try to practice good.

Adopting the tactics of bad men is not necessary; I instead advocate refusal to have dealings with them after clear and firm statement of the objection. In some cases, this might mean action: for example, a good man with fiduciary responsibility in an organization might need to expose the bad behavior and to root it out of the organization. In other cases, the organization might not have the will to preserve its own integrity, in which case a good man might choose to abandon the organization, to refuse to continue to lend his good name and reputation to it.

Ultimately, this requires acceptance that each will behave as he wishes and that we respect their independence. Those who choose poorly and will not hear goodness must be allowed to do as they will. The good man need not become bad to stop him, he may simply ‘live and let die.’ The choice may well be difficult to make but in so doing, he may remain good while limiting the grief that he necessarily endures.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-01-30 05:45 AM


Posted by reichsamely at 2008-10-14 12:13 PM
A pretty good analysis on the prince. i'd only like to add that, although people opine negatively about the notorious machiavelo, we should remember the stage or better said, the epoch in which he lived; since there was no advanced means of communications for any leading party for facing hardships. it was a time when a king came to know about any other king´s death, probably a year after that had happened. Niccolo's prince, whose objet of dedication -of obtaining his employment as chancellor was ignored by the very same prince, is used, though denied, by many leaders these days.

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