Friday, April 22, 2005

Booknote: _The Prince_

I finished reading Machiavelli's The Prince this morning while on the commute to work. I read it in a translation edited by William J. Connell, published by Bedford/St. Martin's, that contains some related documents as well. I did not read the related materials since I was only interested in the work itself. Having seen Machiavelli's play The Mandrake recently (see my previous entry), it added a bit more context to the play and to his work. In essence, Machiavelli has a pretty negative view of human nature, or practical if you happen to lean more in that direction. One of the passages I liked is where he advises the prince to know when to be good and when to be bad and to use this ability accordingly. The idea is that men are not good themselves for the most part. Machiavelli writes:

"For there is such a distance from how one lives to how one ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns what will ruin him rather than what will save him, since a man who would wish to make a career of being good in every detail must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary for a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able to be not good, and to use this faculty and not use it according to necessity" (87).

I don't think there is much more one can say about that, especially given how society can run today and does run. Of course, he also advises that it is better to be feared than to be loved when it comes to leadership. It sounds exactly like one of the pieces of advice I got right before I went to do my student teaching. As a classroom teacher, it is easier to be a tyrant when you start out and loosen up later than to be loose and then try to regain control. A teacher is not there to be the kids' buddy or pal, no matter what the psychology feel good crowd say to the contrary. You are there to teach and educate, and your administrators want to make sure you can keep discipline in the classroom. If you don't believe me, ask around. Quite a few new teachers will say that one of the questions they constantly get during interviews is the question about how to keep discipline and how to manage a classroom. Often the question is asked before or over questions about content or subject knowledge. So I know I am onto something here. Sometimes you have to be good, and sometimes you have to be mean. A commonly cited passage from Machiavelli is the one about whether it is better to be loved or feared. This is discussed in Chapter 17 of The Prince where Machiavelli writes:

"Men have less fear of offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared, since love is held in place by a bond of obligation which, because men are wretched, is broken at every opportunity for utility to oneself, but fear is held in place by a fear of punishment that never abandons you" (91).

I don't think I can say much further than that. Let them fear you first, you can always become more friendly later. Once you lose them, you can't gain them back. Machiavelli said back in his day, and countless preservice teachers are told something similar to this before they go into their first classrooms. As many readers I am sure are aware, there have been many books in the business world about leadership from key historical figures. For instance, "translations" and applications of Sun Tzu's The Art of War for managers and such. By the way, I also like The Art of War of which I have a copy in my personal collection at home. I have the edition translated by Cleary and published by Shambala if anyone wants to know. What we need now, and I might as well see if I can get to work on it, is some kind of book like that for teachers. Something that distills Machiavelli for future teachers, or maybe also add Sun Tzu, Plato's Republic (Socrates is already done), and a few others. If nothing else, might make for an interesting comparison and speculation exercise. Besides, I don't think I can do too bad when compared to the many "experts" that write about education and have never stepped into a classroom. At least I can say I stepped into a classroom and actually taught. By the way, I still do. At any rate, I do recommend the book. For those of you wanting to add a mark to your list of classics to read, this works. For those wanting to figure out why we use the term machiavellian, read the book and see that he was not quite as "machiavellian" as he has been made out to be. It is also a brief read for those who are tight on time.

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