Saturday, 14 September 2013

Advice and feedback in 1513

Published five hundred years ago this year, while the early modern world was being born:

XXIII - How Flatterers Should Be Avoided

... there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.  Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. ... each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

... A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that anyone, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

... this is an axiom which never fails; that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice ...

... but if a prince who is not experienced should take counsel from more than one he will never get united counsels, nor will he know how to unite them. Each of the counsellors will think of his own interests ... Therefore it must be inferred that good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.
Nicolo Machiavelli - The Prince*
There are a few different, interesting, and perhaps not wholly compatible ideas in there. My interpretation for those of us who are not the princes of early-modern Italian city states, but who may still be attempting complex, ambitious or difficult matters:

Seek out information and advice you consider worth hearing. Pay a fair price for it, or reward it in other ways. Take unwelcome information calmly, but do not listen to people who don't know what they are talking about, or to bullshitters who speak only for effect. Do not commit yourself to an idea too soon; once committed, do not vacillate.

Accept that it will all very often be contradictory and difficult to reconcile. Accept that you may make the wrong choice of adviser, and the wrong choice of advice. These are real difficulties; take full responsibility for your enterprise; use reason and experience to overcome them, with time.

Never tolerate a liar.

* The above translation is not my own; it's from my Wordsworth Reference translation, which includes a translator's introduction but doesn't name the translator, who I would credit if I could. As the book was very cheap, I suspect the translation was out of copyright when I bought it in the 90's.


Melina Sedo said...

Thanks for that reminder of a great piece of literature. The Prince is one of my favourite renaissance writings and Machiavelli is so often grossly misunderstood.
He and his contemporaries changed the world - dunno if for the better... ;-/

C said...

This is worth a look :o)

msHedgehog said...

@Melina: I enjoyed the book immensely. It seemed he was exploring a new way of thinking - looking at causes rather than reasons. Asking himself whether what was thought, was actually true. I found that very appealing. He was making an effort to abandon bullshit and see where that took him. It's well worth going back to.