I started looking through the World Classics, and my eye was drawn to a work that I have always wanted to read—one that has intrigued me in the same way that Stalin intrigued me in the 12th grade. That is, Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
After reading through the introduction (by the translator) and prelude (by Mussolini), I began to think about another important political document, one whose anniversary we recently celebrated—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I would now like to share some thoughts that I have had while comparing and contrasting the two.
“One day I happened to be informed… of the gift of a sword engraved with the saying of Machiavelli: ‘States are not maintained with words’.” Thus begins Benito Mussolini’s prelude to Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He goes on to explain how Machiavelli’s analysis of politics really boils down to a proper understanding of human nature. Quoting several of Machiavelli’s works, he states, “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers.” And, “Men never do anything good unless forced to, but where liberty abounds and where there is freedom everything immediately falls into confusion and disarray.”
He goes on to explain how history, both pre- and post-Machiavellian, has given proof of these facts. He explains that the implications of man’s base nature are that government by the people cannot work, and will always result in anarchy. He finishes by saying, “Regimes based completely on consent have never existed, do not exist, and probably never will exist.”
I have to say, I really agree with Mussolini (never thought you would hear me say that, did you?). I believe that the nature of us humans is to be ungrateful, to be fickle, to lie, and to deceive. I believe this is true based on my own study of history and literature, my interactions with others, and my own heart.
However, I believe that both Machiavelli and Mussolini were ignorant of—or ignored—one crucial fact: That man is not ruled by his nature alone. We have in us a spirit, a bit of something heavenly, that is not governed by earthly rules or tendencies. That spirit is not ungrateful and fickle, but noble. It is not a liar or a deceiver; rather, it seeks truth and honesty above all else.
Inside of each man, and in larger measure inside of each country, there is a sort of struggle between these two forces—the natural and the spiritual, the carnal and the heavenly.
The fact that this struggle exists raises the question: were Mussolini and Machiavelli before him wrong when they said that democracy, or government based on consent, is simply not possible? I believe Lincoln asks this same question in his famous Address.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…
And now I repeat Lincoln’s great interrogative. Can such a nation endure?
Yes. It can. It has.
Our nation has endured. It hasn’t endured perfectly, I’ll admit—we’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way. There may be many things about our history, and the current state of the country and its government, that we don’t agree with (and note that this is a politically neutral comment, because everyone, no matter what their political leanings, disagrees with something).
But the bottom line is that the United States of America has continued to operate under the constitution penned by the founding fathers for the last 206 years. The higher, spiritual part of us has won out over the natural part enough to keep this country alive and thriving.
In the words of Gandalf, “And that is an encouraging thought.”
Now, to return to the last part of Lincoln’s Address.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So, that’s what it comes down to. Machiavelli, Mussolini, and Lincoln are all dead and gone now. It is up to us, each and every one of us, to make sure our spirit wins out over our nature, so that our country can have a “new birth of freedom;” to prove to Machiavelli, to Mussolini, to Lincoln, to ourselves, and to those who will come after us that our nation, conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can, and will, endure.
“The Prince,” Machiavelli. Translation by George Bull.
“The Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln.