You thought that reading The Prince would turn you into an evil mastermind, didn't you? Well calm down a bit before you start buying a white cat to stroke and a pool full of laser sharks from eBay. It's not quite what you think it is.
The Prince began its life as a humble little present from Niccolò Machiavelli to Lorenzo de' Medici. When Machiavelli started writing the book in 1513, he had just been kicked out of his dream job as a Florentine diplomat, arrested, tortured, and was bored out of his mind in exile in the country.
So he made a plan to get his job back.
The Prince was a way over one-page resume in Italian that showcased Machiavelli's political skills to Lorenzo by giving him the secret sauce recipe for being a good ruler. It ends with Machiavelli asking Lorenzo to unify the country under his rule so that Italy would be peaceful and Machiavelli could become political advisor to the brand-new king of Italy.
Unfortunately, his plan didn't work.
Fast-forward twenty years. Machiavelli has already died (in 1527), but The Prince is only just being printed. Pope Clement VII immediately blacklists it as being written by the hand of Satan. Why? Maybe because Machiavelli was the first person ever not to bother with all that "morality" and "ethics" stuff in his discussion of serious politics.
The controversy that started way back then still surrounds Machiavelli and his little book. His name continues to be synonymous with crafty and dishonorable politics, even though he seemed like a pretty nice guy. He's still the model for all those sketchy, tall villains who plot out evil with cold precision. His name has been dragged through the mud for five hundred years, and he's not even around to defend himself.
The kicker to all this? The Prince is so different from the rest of Machiavelli's republic-loving works that we're not even sure if he was serious or not. That has to be some kind of world record for longest literary prank ever.
Why Should I Care?
We were going to tell you all about how today's political leaders can still learn things from his wise message and his ageless wisdom. But, um, you know how many political leaders decided to follow Machiavelli's advice? None. That's right. Zero. So why bother?
Well, what's politics besides figuring out how to control people? It might sound shady, but knowing how to make people like you and do the things that you want them to do is a pretty important skill. We just have to tweak the words, and Machiavelli's little book becomes a plan for getting ahead in life, just like How to Win Friends and Influence People—only without the friends and with a lot more cold-blooded murder.
Take fear, for example. Of course you don't want people to be afraid of you, but what is awe except having a little bit of fear for how awesome and intense a person is at what they do? Wasn't everybody a little afraid of Steve Jobs?
Or what about Machiavelli's advice about ministers? Swap out "minister" for "friend," and you have some pretty good advice about how to surround yourself with honest people.
Still not convinced? We get it. Not everyone wants to approach life like they're going out to war every day. Fair enough. We still have something for you, though. At the very least, The Prince will teach you how to watch out for those guys who are trying to make you the latest corpse to display in one of their new colonies. How's that for handy?