Can you trust Midas Jones?
Can you believe what you read in The Modern Prince?
You bought the book because you hoped it would help you live a better life, not because you believed it to be great literature. So why should you base your life and future happiness on any of the ideas expressed in The Modern Prince? After all ... The book is not based on new scientific discoveries. The author is not a distinguished psychologist or a renowned philosopher but a plain computer programmer who consults to universities and colleges about the processing of student data. Previously, he taught in the business college of a very ordinary state university for a decade and a half. We admit he is a lifelong compulsive reader and that he collects ideas like a botanist collects leaves or a biologist collects butterflies. Even so, it is not the author’s credentials that make the book worth reading.
And, even though the book is based on an assemblage of great ideas composed by one of the Western world’s greatest thinkers - Nicolo Machiavelli - that in itself is not sufficient to recommend recommend the book to you. Machiavelli’s book is considered by all scholars to be a profound work and it always near the top of a short list of the great literature of the Western world, but we must admit that Machiavelli has many more critics than he has admirers. Moreover, our code of total honesty with our readers compels us to admit that Machiavelli’s life did not end well. After a period of considerable success, he was arrested, tortured, and finally exiled from his beloved native city, Florence. Despite his many efforts, Machiavelli was never able to persuade his Prince to restore him to a position of power. If Machiavellianism didn’t work for it’s inventor, why should you think it should work for you?
The answer to that question can be found in Aztec history (as well as in many other places). Be patient for just a few more lines and we will get to the point, or skip the Aztec stuff and go straight to the point.
Amazingly, the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas never conceived of the idea of a wheel. The Incan, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations never built a simple wheeled cart - something that could have been done by their humblest European contemporary. The Aztec calendar you see at left is evidence that the natives of America could imagine and construct wheel-like objects, but they never affixed this shape to an axle and used it to transport heavy items. The carved wooden sculpture at right shows that they definitely knew how to work wood. The Incas used llamas to carry burdens, but they never hitched one to a cart. Aztecs (no llamas in Mexico) had a special class of workers who took the place of donkeys and carried heavy loads (up to 90 pounds) over distances as great as twenty miles per day.
How can this be true? Surely at least some of the engineers and architects of those ancient cultures had IQs bigger than yours and mine, and the idea of a wheeled vehicle is obvious to us. Aztec children had wheeled toys that they pulled by a string, but no Aztec imagined a bigger, more practical version. A ten year-old child in our culture building a sidewalk hot rod out of an apple-crate and rope would know that she needed wheels on the thing. For thousands of years, illiterate European peasants have been building wheeled carts. The simplest peasants in Peru and Mexico - descended from those great native cultures - can build wheeled carts now.
Some scholars have argued that the American ecology lacked large grazing animals, like horses, to pull carts - though the American buffalo would seem like a possibility for domestication as a beast of burden - at least to the native cultures of North America. Others have argued that the American terrain did not lend itself to transport by wheeled cart, but the broad avenues built by Aztecs (right), Mayans, and Incas look pretty smooth to me. Surely a team of human porters could have pulled or pushed carts filled with heavy burdens along these impressive boulevards.
What can explain this paradox? The answer is this: the simplest ideas seem perfectly obvious to all of us, but only after some genius has first thought of it. Surely those Aztec and Inca engineers gaped with open mouths at Spanish carts filled with stolen gold, thinking “Ehecatl-dammit, that wheel-thing is so obvious. Why didn’t I think of that?”
The world of ideas is full of similar examples:
- The Chinese invented gunpowder, but used it only in firecrackers to frighten away demons. Some European genius saw gunpowder and imagined the first gun-propelled bullets. Now guns are easily understood by all of us.
- Ancient Egyptians never imagined a war chariot until they first saw their enemies use them. Then they became an obvious tactic to every Egyptian general and were quickly copied.
- Gravity is such a simple concept, and we all understand that things fall toward the center of the earth. Why, then, did no one think of it until Isaac Newton described it to us? Why was it believed that the sun and all the planets circled the earth, until Copernicus pointed out the obvious truth that they circled the sun instead.
- Isn’t the computer an invention for which there is an obvious need and for which there are many applications? Then why didn’t the greatest science fiction authors (Robert Heinlein, Isaac Azimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and others) incorporate computerized devices in their classic stories, many written in the fifties and sixties - after the invention of the computer by Eckert and Mauchly?
Start thinking about it, and you can come up with many examples of obvious - even childishly simple - ideas that only became obvious to you after you first heard them from someone else or saw them?
Finally, we come to the point, which is this. You can believe the ideas in The Modern Prince because after you read them you will think, “That is so obvious. I’ve known that for such a long time. I’ve just never expressed it to myself in quite that way.” As you read The Modern Prince, you should have the growing certainty that the book describes the world as you have seen it and experienced it. You have been taught that the people and events that make up the world are governed by an ethical code, a particular religion, or a profound philosophy, but there has always been a dissonance between what you have been taught and what you have seen with your own eyes. Machiavelli had the unsettling habit of expressing obvious truths that we have been taught to disbelieve. Everyone says that the emperor has clothes on, but Machiavelli was like the boy who said, “The emperor looks naked to me.”
Machiavelli did not recommend that we lie, cheat, or steal, but he observed that all of the successful people he knew had lied, cheated, or stolen to attain their success. He observed also that it is sometimes necessary to lie, cheat, or steal to get what you want or keep what you’ve got. Can this be denied?
The choice between losing and cheating is a difficult choice, but Machiavelli didn’t recommend either cheating or losing. He just said, choose what is best for you but be aware of the consequences of either choice. Many of us prefer to believe in a world where cheaters never win and winners never cheat, but that world is not this earth. That world is found only in fantasy and delusion. Live boldly, Machiavelli said, and live according to your own nature.
If, in The Modern Prince, you read ideas that resonate with your perception of the world - with what you have seen with your own eyes - then there is your proof of the value of the book to you. Do not trust Midas Jones. Trust yourself.
If, on the other hand, Midas Jones’ description of the realities of human life seem crazy, stupid, or silly to you, then take the book to a used bookstore and trade it for something else that will be of more use to you.