Tuesday, October 22, 2013

That Eton exam and The Prince

The Prince was written 500 years ago and it's still, after a fashion, making headlines. That's pretty impressive.

Item: Last May a New Statesman column (via) criticized an Eton scholarship exam question which asked candidates to imagine themselves as prime minister and to write a speech justifying calling out the army to deal with violent protests. The gist of the question (shortened and paraphrased) was: It is 2040. You are prime minister. There have been violent protests in London and you have deployed the army, which has killed some civilians. Write a speech for national broadcast in which you defend your actions as necessary and moral.

The headmaster apparently defended the question by saying it was intended to gauge candidates' knowledge of The Prince. This is, if not exactly amusing, somewhat bemusing. There are, I suppose, two or three quotes from The Prince that one might, if pressed, dredge up in answering this question, but not many more than that. Machiavelli certainly does not advise the prince to kill his own subjects as a routine matter -- if you need to be cruel, he says, do it all at once and get it over with in one fell swoop -- and I think he likely would not countenance it at all except perhaps in extremis. And by the time 'extremis' is reached, the prince is probably done for anyway (cf. Bashar al-Assad).

The New Statesman columnist seems too caught up in understandable indignation to grasp that the question is a weird one even on its own (i.e., the headmaster's) premises. She has a throwaway line suggesting The Prince should be read as satire rather than as instruction manual. While both those views can be found in the literature, I think neither is very convincing. That is, I don't think it's a satire except insofar as it may be indirectly satirizing the "mirror of princes" genre that was popular at the time. But I think Machiavelli was serious about the contents. As for 'instruction manual,' that's too narrow to encompass what is better seen as, to trot out a clichéd phrase, a meditation on the nature of power and authority.  

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