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Machiavelli quote

The Prince and Pop Culture

The Prince and Pop Culture

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


September 8, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

If it’s been awhile since you have read Machiavelli’s The Prince, you might consider reading an excerpt with us this fall. We will examine two chapters of it in the October Quarterly Discussion. (Reach out to Alissa at as****@hm*.edu for more information). I was also thinking about how one might teach this work, how to bring it to life in the eyes of the students. Because of its brutal honesty and cut-throat nature, The Prince is very accessible and should easily engage nearly every age group. It is one of the few classics that requires little from the reader, by which I mean that it isn’t difficult to enter into the world of The Prince. For this reason, it is a great way to teach critical thinking skills, particularly around issues of morality and virtue, which are never so straightforward as we would like them to be.

Machiavelli’s advice to the prince sounds harsh and impersonal because it is. However, the no-nonsense approach has had a lasting effect on humans. Whether you believe Machiavelli is a cynic or a realist, you cannot ignore the power of his slim work. Today’s blog proposes some pairings from popular culture for those who may want to teach The Prince. It is meant to encourage student engagement. I figure that it always helps to see political ideas played out – particularly in fictional, fantastical worlds of elves and lightsabers.

1] The Prince to Poldark:
Chapters XVIII and XIX of The Prince talk about appearances. Machiavelli believes that, for the prince, it is more important to appear to be something (like merciful, just, fearful, or fair) than actually to be it. In fact, appearances can help the prince who might need to change their behavior on a dime. It is easier to alter appearance than to change one’s nature, according to Machiavelli. This fits nicely with some of the characters from Poldark (books by Winston Graham, tv series from BBC). In this series, Ross Poldark impulsively seeks justice, often at his own expense, whereas George Warleggan acts with selfishness, but often appears merciful. While Ross Poldark never successfully changes his nature, George Warleggan, on the other hand, often makes appearance work to his advantage – something Machiavelli might have applauded.

2] The Prince to Keeper of the Lost Cities:
In Shannon Messenger’s series Keeper of the Lost Cities, the elves learn that what they thought was a peaceful world, is actually full of injustice. As the veil is slowly ripped away, the elves learn about brutality and injustice firsthand. Without giving too much away (and while waiting for the tenth book in this series!, as well as the potential film), the reader learns that elves are responsible for some pretty bad stuff, which shakes their community to the core. Conspiratorial groups are sometimes hidden in plain sight which reminds me of the way that Machiavelli addresses conspiracies. Machiavelli writes: “the difficulties that confront a conspirator are infinite” (Ch. XIX). The difficulties presented in the Messenger novels prove to be pretty infinite too.

3] The Prince to the Hunger Games trilogy:
The popularity of The Hunger Games cannot be downplayed. Suzanne Collins’ novels-turned-films have captured popular attention for a long time, which has something to do with great characters and a riveting plot, but it also has to do with the heartless treatment of citizens by elite, tyrannical leaders. What could be more Prince-ish than that? The real question is, would Machiavelli have sided with President Snow or President Alma Coin?

4] The Prince to Lord of the Rings:
This is an easy match to make with various kingdoms being managed by various warlords. See what happens as hobbits band with elves and others to defeat the most evil warlord of all. I wonder what Machiavelli would have thought about the nature of a balance of powers? Either way, most students enjoy the rapid pace of Tolkien’s fantastical world.

5] The Prince to Shakespeare:
Admittedly Shakespeare is not exactly popular culture, but who has written more about avarice, greed, and royalty than Shakespeare? Any number of plays will fit Machiavellian themes. The War of the Roses trilogy is a good place to start with the tragedies of Richard II, and Henry IV, parts I and II. I also recommend the BBC film series to accompany it. You might also use bits and pieces of The Prince when talking about Romeo and Juliet or King Lear or Macbeth….and the list goes on!

6] The Prince to The Princess Bride:
Satire is a fun way to play with some of Machiavelli’s theories. Prince Humperdinck tries out a number of Machiavelli’s proposals, although they don’t always go according to plan. Use satire as a bridge between the history and the culture of Machiavelli’s world.

7] The Prince to Star Wars:
It goes without saying that the Star Wars realm remains dominant in popular culture. Television shows such as the newest Ahsoka series continue to develop characters and worlds from the Star Wars universe (as have previous series like The Mandelorian or Andor, for example). With this in mind, any one of these worlds would offer food for thought about repressive regimes, the way that a regime retains power, and the nearly impossible task of guessing what a population might do in response to repression and starvation. Science fiction and fantasy allow us to isolate certain features….say the desert landscape of Rey’s home planet Jakku…which applies very specific limitations on the population. Star Wars worlds might enable a conversation not only of power politics, but also of resources and environmental limitations.

While the amount of literature that could be mentioned here is endless (think Black Panther, almost any comic series, Akata Witch, etc, etc,), hopefully these ideas have sparked your own curiosity. The Prince is engaging and accessible. Pairing it with contemporary literature only makes Machiavelli’s world feel more alive. Add any resources that you might pair it with in the comments below.

Also, remember to reach out to Alissa if you want to discuss an excerpt from The Prince in the upcoming October Quarterly Discussion. Email as****@hm*.edu for more information.

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