By: Michael Kaiser
The work of Niccolò Machiavelli has centered around his widely read “The Prince” and it remains a reference for followers in disciplines as different as politics, business and academia because its royalty title can comfortably be replaced to mean CEO, COO, VP, Entrepreneur, Venture Capitalist, Innovator, etc. Several books and articles conflated his political theories with those associated to present times, e.g.:
“Machiavelli’s promotion of ambition amongst leaders while denying any higher standard meant that he encouraged risk taking, and innovation, most famously the founding of new modes and orders. His advice to (the) prince was therefore certainly not limited to discussing how to maintain a state. It has been argued that Machiavelli’s promotion of innovation led directly to the argument for progress as an aim of politics and civilization. But while a belief that humanity can control its own future, control nature, and “progress” has been long lasting, Machiavelli’s followers have tended to prefer peaceful progress through economic development, and not warlike progress.
Machiavelli however, along with some of his classical predecessors, saw ambition and spiritedness … as inevitable and part of human nature.” (1)
Less known are “The Discourses”, written about the same time as “The Prince”, but more voluminous and philosophical than the latter. In it, Machiavelli advocates that to avoid spending his life suspecting people, a prince should go in person on any expedition as others princes have done and still do. If they win, both the glory and the territory is wholly theirs. He further argues that one should
“…in choosing between alternatives, to consider the snags and the dangers involved, and not to adopt that which may entail more danger than advantage, even though they have the backing of an assembly…” (2)
It sounds like a familiar and pertinent advice even in 2013. But Machiavelli is not unique in dovetailing with our modern age needs, and therefore it is worth reaching for “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”, by Baltasar Gracián, not only for its brevity but because it pours with advice that is as significant to business as it was when he wrote it, in the early 1600’s. To wit:
“Make use of your enemies. You should learn to seize things not by the blade…but by the handle, which saves you from harm… A wise person gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.
Do not affect what you have not effected. Many claim accomplishments without the slightest cause. With great coolness they make a mystery of all… Vanity is always objectionable. The greater your exploits the less you need affect them. Content yourself with doing, leave the talking to others. Give away your deeds but do not sell them. And do not hire venal pens to write down praises in the mud, to the derision of those who know better. Aspire rather to be a hero than merely… to be one.
Three things go to a prodigy – a fertile genius, a profound intellect, a pleasant and refined taste. To think well is good, to think right is better – it is the understanding of the good. To think right is the fruit of a reasonable nature. At twenty the will rules, at thirty the intellect, at forty the judgement. There are minds that shine in the dark like the eyes of the lynx, and are most clear where there is most darkness. Others are more adapted for the occasion, they always hit on the (one) which suits the emergency; such a quality produces much and good.” (3)
- Niccolò Machiavelli. Wikipedia, 2013. “The Prince” is available in Penguin Classics.
- Machiavelli. “The Discourses”, pgs. 184 and 237. Pelican Classics, Penguin Books
- Baltasar Gracián. “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”, paragraph numbers 84, 295 and 298. Shambhala Publications, 2004