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Niccolò Machiavelli and the Four Princes of Pragmatism

To top off the course The Moral Leader, Professor Badaracco’s students dissect Niccolo Machiavelli’s chilling classic The Prince.

“You may think that’s an odd place to end what is essentially a business ethics elective,” Badaracco acknowledged with a smile.

Students talk about what Machiavelli has to say on one crucial key to leadership: leading in the world as it is.

Four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in their discussion—though there are at least a hundred different readings of Machiavelli for scholars who truly delve into the literature, Badaracco points out.

Version 1: “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It’s “a scholar’s dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2: “Now wait a minute. There’s some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. … To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3: Other students believe the book is still around because it’s so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it’s quite interesting what isn’t in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There’s nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You’re out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4: A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco’s mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it’s not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you’re going to make progress in the world you’ve got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.”

Students who claim the fourth Prince, he said, believe that if they’re going to make a difference, it’s got to be in that world, “not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”