Bad Prince Putin

Niccolo Machiavelli was not only one of the ancestorial-fathers of political science, but also remains incredibly relevant and insightful on so many topics of politics and power. In his discourses, advising the prince, he talks about a ‘bad prince’ in his reflections on republics, or popular governments, versus those governed by princes, who are hereditary or otherwise not elected by any legitimate body of electors.[1] Despite the dramatic rise of democratic theory and practices since the 1500’s, Machiavelli’s points remain remarkably relevant to contemporary discussions of the primacy of democracies over dictatorships or vice versa. He sees both republics and princes as potentially good if they are governed under laws.

However, his very old discourses bring some ‘new’ ideas to today’s debates. His whole chapter on the multitude and ‘popular opinion’ (well before the study of public opinion) often being wiser and more constant than a prince is priceless, but one particularly relevant aspect of this discourse is his discussion of the ‘bad’ prince.

Machiavelli argues that the multitude can be ‘corrupt and disorderly’ but it ‘can be spoken to by some worthy person and can easily be brought around to the right way, but a bad prince cannot be spoken to by anyone ….’, he can’t be reasoned with. Machiavelli’s logic is in part that ‘the cruelties of the multitude are directed against those whom they fear will usurp their common welfare; those of a prince are directed against those whom he fears will usurp his own well-being.’ Moreover, anyone can criticise the people ‘freely and without fear’ but can only speak ill of princes ‘on an occasion with a host of fears and precautions.’

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)

Photo: Imagno/Contributor/Getty Images

I could not help reading this discourse as a critique of the president of the Russian Federation, despite it is centuries after he wrote. Perhaps you see this as common sense, but I am constantly surprised by how much can be gained by revisiting such classics.

[1] See Machiavelli, N. (1513), The Prince, VIII, ‘The Multitude is Wiser and More Constant than a Prince’.

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