Monday, May 3, 2010

Could Machiavelli Be Right?

I read Machiavelli’s The Prince as an undergraduate and then again as a grad student; I have taught it a number of times as a part of a college curriculum. While I think Machiavelli is pretty clever, and it’s a great read for tons of reasons (how many manuals do you know that have a place in a liberal-arts program 500 years later?), I have a lot of issues with Machiavelli’s approach. Now most people (a bit boringly, in my troublesome viewpoint) complain about the man’s immorality. But my issues are, firstly, practical. Because Machiavelli is pitching himself as someone who tells brutal truths (he’s an *exceptional* salesman), we buy it. But how well do his prescriptions work? He is hugely inconsistent. Like when he goes on about the value of being feared without being hated. Which is all very well and good—but it’s not always so easy to do so. As a parent, actually, it’s a *bit* easier (though more for my husband than for me), since your kids are much more willing to love you than your average person. But, as I used to point out to my students, it’s not so easy for me to make myself feared by them...without also being despised.

I admit, though, that Machiavelli resonates with many of my smarter students. And there are places where he demonstrates real psychological acuity. One of the most famous bits of his is the whole discussion of whether it’s better to be loved or feared as a prince. It’s often misquoted or misunderstood, but essentially (while BOTH is his preference), Machiavelli concludes that it’s safer to be feared. I have to say that it often troubles me to see how most people are much more motivated by fear than anything. Tell your kids that you have some great stickers if they just manage to sleep the whole night in their own beds and they might do it. Tell them they will lose dessert if they don’t and, miraculously, they don’t leave their room. What a sad fact, thought I. Fear is simply more fundamental to human nature than (positive) desire. How unfortunate.

But recently I’ve found another way to think about it. I’ve read a couple of things lately (The Paradox of Choice and Sway among them), which address loss-aversion on various levels. Essentially, most people will go to great lengths not to lose something they already have. Those lengths are often disproportionate to the actual value we would normally ascribe to that object. While loss aversion isn’t a great thing for a lot of reasons, it does suggest an upside to our fear: we recognize that what we *already* have is tremendously valuable. We naturally hold most dear what is already ours. There is something both profoundly true, and profoundly beautiful to this. With all our competitiveness and envy and what have you, what we value most is what we already have; and we will go to ridiculous lengths to preserve it. So, somewhat ironically, our fear can point to a great source of gratitude. Recognizing that we’re afraid of losing shows us just how very fortunate we are, and how much we have to be grateful for. Our fear reminds us how lucky we are.

So yeah, I guess Machiavelli was right. Sort of.

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