Category Archives: Modern references

Reward or Punishment?

Carrot or stick?Which works best in compelling behaviour of your subordinates: the carrot or the stick? Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 17 that a Prince who cannot be both loved and feared, is more effective if he chooses to be feared rather than loved. Use the stick, he tells us.

And science has shown that this advice was probably correct. In a story posted on Science Daily,

A simple experiment suggests that punishments are more likely to influence behavior than rewards. The results stem from a study involving 88 students at a university.

In fact, the study found that punishment was two to three times more effective in getting results than giving rewards. Jan Kubanek, PhD, a researcher in anatomy and neurobiology is quoted as saying about the results:

…our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior. Our study showed that such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact.

Harsh is, of course, relative and in Machiavelli’s day all forms of punishment were much harsher than those we mete out today. Thomas More questioned leniency for crimes we consider minor today and counselled for harsh measures:

‘I would gladly know upon what reason it is that you think theft ought not to be punished by death: would you give way to it? or do you propose any other punishment that will be more useful to the public? for, since death does not restrain theft, if men thought their lives would be safe, what fear or force could restrain ill men? On the contrary, they would look on the mitigation of the punishment as an invitation to commit more crimes.’
Thomas More, Utopia, Book I

In those days, heads rolled considerably more often from their perch on the neck; today in the municipal or corporate world, such methods are frowned upon. Even simple defenestration is not accepted. Instead, we simply fire someone. But the symbolic effect is the same.

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Machiavelli and Marx

I started reading Karl Marx’s Capital, vol 1. recently and that got me wondering about what similarities or differences there were with or between these two great political philosophers, Machiavelli and Marx.

Form my admittedly limited and autodidactic education in political theory, the first thing that strikes me is the scope. Machiavelli aims his works at the individual leader – the eponymous prince – as the engine of social and political change. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the masses – the proletariat – and sweeping tides of history. He is often speaking to the crowd – although ironically it was the intellectual elite who mostly read his work.

(Gramsci, as I understand, makes an argument in The Modern Prince that the revolutionary socialist party can stand in for Machiavelli’s prince as the sole actor thus take advantage of Machiavelli’s advice, but I don’t think so because it involves group dynamics… it’s an argument for another post, though…)

Many of Machiavelli’s concepts – like virtu, a term undefined but rooted in morality – are personal, not group attributes. He focuses at his widest on small groups to manage events and activities – a single leader and his advisors (whose role is to mitigate the ideology of the individual leader towards common and sustainable goals).

Marx, on the other hand looks at the larger picture, a scientific analysis of events and trends. He disdained the ‘great person’ theory of history. His concepts like revolution and even capitalism would have no place in Machiavelli’s vision, any more than Niccolo’s self-reliant city republican state would have in Marx’s.

Machiavelli doesn’t address class except in general terms – the need for the leader to have the people on his side. Class is taken more or less for granted, although he does distinguish between the strata within the upper class (the hereditary rulers versus those who take or assume power; most of whom are members of an upper crust of rich and powerful families like the Medici and the Borgia).

Marx is all about class and class struggle. Both saw the masses could overthrow a leader and do so easily given the right circumstances – Machiavelli had personal experience seeing the Medicis, Savaronola, then the republic overthrown – but the circumstances for both were different and the results of such revolution more so. Marx saw the proletariat rising to take control itself; Machiavelli saw one leader (or family) replace another.

Of course they are separated by more than 350 years. Machiavelli wrote at the dawn of the modern era, when printing was just getting its start and its impact was not yet fully felt. Marx wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution when technology was rapidly changing societies and economies.

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The Soviet Machiavelli

Mikhail SuslovA 1982 obituary in the New York Times quietly noted that,

Mikhail A. Suslov, chief ideologist of the Soviet Communist Party and one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin after Leonid I. Brezhnev, died Monday at the age of 79, the official press agency Tass announced today.

For most people in the West, this announcement went unnoticed. Who, after all, was Mikhail Suslov? He wasn’t in the news, never got his photo taken, never made headlines or showed up at many public events (certainly none in the west).

Even in the secretive Soviet Union, Suslov was a cypher. The ‘eminence grise‘ of Soviet politics, once described by the CIA as the “high priest of Soviet Communism.

But Suslov was the power behind the throne; in fact behind several thrones. He had been appointed National Party Secretary by Stalin in 1946 and survived three-and-a-half decades of intrigue, outlasting all of his compatriots in one of the most challenging – and often lethal – political environments. He was enrolled in the top echelon, the politburo, in 1952, becoming a full member in ’55.

The Harvard Crimson noted at the time of Suslov’s funeral,

With the ease of a charioteer covering dead-laden ground, Suslov survived Stalin’s purges and reached the Soviet hierarchy’s highest plane of power. Widely acknowledged as the kingmaker to the Communist party’s inner circle, Suslov was instrumental in the ascendency of Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to power in 1958, and again for his downfall in 1964. The many machinations of power politics never seemed to daunt the Soviet minister, whose ferocity found outlet for endeavor in uncounted tasks during the more than 40 years he serve the Kremlin.

In a piece titled, A Communist Purist, Theodore Shabad wrote,

As the leading ideologist and spokesman in relations with foreign Communist parties, Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov was among the Soviet party’s top leaders… in length of continuous service, he was senior member of the inner circle of the leadership… he was regarded as the guardian of Communist purity, watching over signs of Western inroads into the arts, literature and morality… Mr. Suslov’s career as the Soviet party’s principal liaison officer with the world’s Communist leaders spanned the end of the Stalin era, the period of Nikita S. Khrushchev and the Brezhnev years. He presided in effect over the disintegration of the once monolithic Communist system into an array of nationally oriented parties with varying degrees of allegiance, if any, to the Kremlin.

He was the ultimate Machiavellian in a very Machiavellian system. And this is his story.

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Re-thinking Machiavelli’s dedication

Machiavelli’s dedication in The Prince has often been overlooked or dismissed as merely a job application to the ruling Medici, a self-aggrandizing piece appended to the work. But in his book, Machiavelli’s The Prince: A Reader’s Guide, Miguel Vatter argues differently, and offers new insight into the dedication.

Before we reconsider the dedication, we need to know what it says. like most works of translation, that can vary either grossly or subtly, depending on the translator.

Here is the entire dedication, translated into English in two versions. First from this site:

Those who desire to win the favour of princes generally endeavour to do so by offering them those things which they themselves prize most, or such as they observe the prince to delight in most. Thence it is that princes have very often presented to them horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments worthy of their greatness. Wishing now myself to offer to your Magnificence some proof of my devotion, I have found nothing amongst all I possess that I hold more dear or esteem more highly than the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I have acquired by long experience of modern affairs and a continued study of ancient history.

These I have meditated upon for a long time, and examined with great care and diligence; and having now written them out in a small volume, I send this to your Magnificence. And although I judge this work unworthy of you, yet I trust that your kindness of heart may induce you to accept it, considering that I cannot offer you anything better than the means of understanding in the briefest time all that which I have learnt by so many years of study, and with so much trouble and danger to myself.

I have not set off this little work with pompous phrases, nor filled it with high-sounding and magnificent words, nor with any other allurements or extrinsic embellishments with which many are wont to write and adorn their works; for I wished that mine should derive credit only from the truth of the matter, and that the importance of the subject should make it acceptable.

And I hope it may not be accounted presumption if a man of lowly and humble station ventures to discuss and direct the conduct of princes; for as those who wish to delineate countries place themselves low in the plain to observe the form and character of mountains and high places, and for the purpose of studying the nature of the low country place themselves high upon an eminence, so one must be a prince to know well the character of the people, and to understand well the nature of a prince one must be of the people.

May your Magnificence then accept this little gift in the same spirit in which I send it; and if you will read and consider it well, you will recognise in it my desire that you may attain that greatness which fortune and your great qualities promise. And if your Magnificence will turn your eyes from the summit of your greatness towards those low places, you will know how undeservedly I have to bear the great and continued malice of fortune.

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