Lessons in Strategy from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

Lessons in Strategy from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

 

Niccolò Machiavelli was an eminent philosopher and diplomat in the Florentine Republic, between the late 1400’s and the early 1500’s. His renowned writing on strategy and politics led to the creation of the term Machiavellianism, which refers to the use of cunning and duplicity in statecraft and in general conduct. Furthermore, because of his notable contributions to these fields, he is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern political science.

Machiavelli’s best-known work is The Prince, which is considered to be one of the premier books about political philosophy. The book is intended as a how-to guide for rulers, but many of the lessons there apply to everyday people too. In the following article, you will see a selection of some of the most valuable lessons from The Prince, which you can apply yourself in various areas of life.

 

The lessons

A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent.

(VI)

 

A prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice.

(XXIII)

 

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

(XXII)

 

There is no other way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth; but when everyone can tell you the truth, you lose their respect.

(XXIII)

 

There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, and the third is useless.

(XXII)

 

All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.

(III)

 

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

(VI)

 

He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.

(VII)

 

The Romans never allowed a trouble spot to remain simply to avoid going to war over it, because they knew that wars don’t just go away, they are only postponed to someone else’s advantage.

(III)

 

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

(III)

 

A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.

(XV)

 

I say that every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel. He must, however, take care not to misuse this mercifulness.

(XVII)

 

It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

(XV)

 

You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary to know well how to use both the beast and the man…  A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this.

(XVIII)

 

…and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

(XVIII)

 

For a Prince is exposed to two dangers, from within in respect of his subjects, from without in respect of foreign powers. Against the latter he will defend himself with good arms and good allies, and if he have good arms he will always have good allies;

(XIX)

 

The best fortress which a prince can possess is the affection of his people.

(XX)

 

It should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion.

(VI)

 

Men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

(XVIII)

 

Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.

(XVIII)

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Niccolò Machiavelli was an eminent philosopher and diplomat in the Florentine Republic, and is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern political science.
  • Machiavelli wrote The Prince, which is considered to be one of the premier books about political philosophy. The book is intended as a how-to guide for rulers, but many of its lessons apply to everyday people too.
  • These lessons encompass a variety of topics, from accounting for the fickleness of a crowd, to understanding how you will be judged by others.
  • One of the main lessons in The Prince is that a person should know how to be strong-handed, and be willing to use a forceful approach when necessary.
  • Of all the lessons however, the most important one is that a wise person should always seek the advice of other knowledgeable people, and listen to them in a way that encourages them to share their advice again in the future.

 


The Overkill Backfire Effect: on the Danger of Having Too Much Evidence

The Overkill Effect

 

The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject arguments that they think are too complex, in favor of arguments that are easy for them to understand. Often, this means that past a certain point, presenting additional evidence in support of your argument can actually make people less likely to accept it.

In the following article, you will learn why people are susceptible to this effect, and how you can reduce the risk of them being influenced by it when you present an argument.

 

What causes the overkill effect

The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to prefer explanations which are easy for them to understand, over explanations that are difficult to process.

Simply put, because it is more cognitively taxing to process a large number of complex arguments, the more information you present in support of your stance past a certain point, the smaller the likelihood that the person you are talking to will be able to successfully internalize that information, and the smaller the likelihood that they will agree with your overall argument. As such, while you might intuitively want to present as much evidence as possible in order to support your stance, adding a lot of arguments is often counterproductive.

For example, in one study on the topic researchers asked participants to think of reasons that could explain why a certain belief of theirs is wrong. They found that while asking people to generate only a few reasons was often effective in getting them to change their belief, asking them to generate many reasons had an opposite effect, meaning that it often caused participants to reinforce their original stance.

This is especially an issue when trying to refute common myths and misunderstandings, since many of them offer a simple and compelling truth, which contrasts sharply with the large amount of complex scientific evidence needed to debunk them. As one paper on the topic states: “simple myths are more cognitively attractive than lengthy, complicated refutations”.

 

How to avoid the overkill effect

To avoid the overkill effect, you essentially want to simplify your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, while still presenting a cogent stance. This means that when you present your argument, you need to ensure that it is clear and concise, without any unnecessary technical jargon. Furthermore, if you’re presenting any statistical information, try to explain it in simple terms, in order to make it easier for your recipient to understand.

In addition, you should make sure to focus on only a few key points when supporting your stance. This ensures that you give your recipient enough information to convince them, without causing them to feel overwhelmed by all the new information.

Doing this also has an added advantage, since focusing on your strongest evidence when stating your argument makes it harder for your opponent to use strawman arguments against you. This is because using strawman arguments often involve cherry-picking the weaker aspects of your claim, and arguing against them as if they represent your entire stance. When you only include the strongest pieces of evidence in your argument, it makes you less vulnerable to this type of rhetoric technique.

Based on this, if you have 5 pieces of evidence in support of your stance, 3 of which are “strong” and 2 of which are “weak”, you will generally be better off discussing only the 3 “strong” points, while avoiding the weaker ones. In addition, your argument should be presented in a clear and concise manner, and if necessary, should be simplified in order to make it easily intelligible to your target audience.

 

You are also susceptible to the overkill effect

It’s important to remember that we are all human, and are therefore all susceptible to the overkill effect. As such, it’s important to take the potential influence of this cognitive bias into consideration when you’re listening to arguments presented by other people.

Specifically, try to identify cases where you automatically accept the argument which is simpler and therefore intuitively appealing, without giving full consideration to the more complex arguments that you heard. Then, make sure to actually consider the complex arguments, and try to simplify them, using the same techniques that you would use if you were presenting them to someone else.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject arguments that are complex, in favor of arguments that are easy to understand.
  • This occurs because it is cognitively taxing to process a large amount of complex information, and people often reject arguments that are difficult for them to process.
  • This means that for a lot of people, once they reach their cognitive saturation point, seeing more evidence in support of a certain argument might actually reduce the likelihood of them being convinced by that argument.
  • To avoid the overkill effect, simplify your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, and make sure to use clear language, while avoiding unnecessary technical terminology and overly-complex statistics.
  • In addition, make sure to focus on only the strongest pieces of evidence that you have, rather than mentioning all the available evidence from the start. Doing this will not only reduce the likelihood of an overkill effect, but will also make it more difficult for your opponent to use strawman arguments against you, where they focus on your weakest pieces of evidence in order to attack your overall stance.

 


An Introductory Guide to Logical Fallacies

A Basic Guide to Logical Fallacies

 

A logical fallacy is a pattern of reasoning that is rendered invalid by a flaw, either in its logical structure or in its premises. Fallacies, in their various forms, play a significant role in how people think, and in how they communicate with each other.

The following article serves as a brief, introductory guide to logical fallacies, which will help you understand the different types of fallacies, and allow you to account for them better.

 

The types of logical fallacies

There are two main types of logical fallacies:

  • Formal fallacies- this type of fallacy occurs when there is a flaw in the logical structure of an argument.
  • Informal fallacies- this type of fallacy occurs when there is an issue with one or more of the premises of an argument.

Therefore, the difference between formal and informal fallacies is that in the case of formal fallacies there is a flaw in the structure of the argument, while in the case of informal fallacies there is a flaw in the premise of the argument.

For instance, the following is an example of a formal fallacy:

Premise 1: If it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy.

Premise 2: The sky is cloudy.

Conclusion: Therefore, it’s raining.

Both premises are valid, but the conclusion is not, since there is a flaw in the logic of the argument. Specifically, premise 1 tells us that if it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy, but that doesn’t mean that if the sky is cloudy (which we know it is, based on premise 2), then it’s necessarily raining. That is, it’s possible for the sky to be cloudy, without it raining.

On the other hand, the following is an example of an informal fallacy:

Premise 1: The weatherman said that it’s going to rain next week.

Premise 2: The weatherman is always right.

Conclusion: Therefore, it’s going to rain next week.

Here, the logical structure of the argument is valid. Specifically, since premise 1 tells us that the weatherman said that it’s going to rain next week, and premise 2 tells us that the weatherman is always right, then based on what we know, we can reasonably conclude that it’s going to rain next week.

However, there is a problem with this reasoning, since premise 2 is flawed, because our assumption that the weatherman is always right is in fact incorrect. As such, even though the logical structure of the argument is fine, the use of a flawed premise means that its final conclusion is invalid.

In the next sections, you will learn a bit more about each type of fallacy, as well as about how they are used, and how to counter them.

 

Formal fallacies

As we saw above, formal fallacies involve an invalid argument, where the conclusion does not logically follow from the preceding premises.

An example for this is the masked-man fallacy, where an invalid substitution of two identical entities leads to an invalid conclusion. For example:

Premise 1: The citizens of New York know that Superman saved their city.

Premise 2: Clark Kent is Superman.

Conclusion: The citizens of New York know that Clark Kent saved their city.

The conclusion here is invalid, because even though Superman is in fact Clark Kent, the citizens of New York don’t necessarily know his true identity, and therefore don’t necessarily know that Clark Kent saved their city. As such, even though both the premises are true, there is a flaw in the logical structure of the argument, which renders its conclusion invalid.

 

Informal fallacies

As we saw above, an informal fallacy occurs when one or more of the premises in an argument fails to support its proposed conclusion, either because the premises are false, or because they are irrelevant.

An example for this is the strawman fallacy, which occurs when a person distorts their opponent’s argument, in order to make it easier to attack:

Alice: I think we should increase the military budget.

Bob: I disagree, since if we spend the entire federal budget on the military, there won’t be anything left for education or healthcare.

Here, Bob’s argument is valid from a formal, logical perspective: if we spend 100% of the federal budget on the military, there really won’t be anything left to spend on other things, such as education and healthcare.

However, Bob’s reasoning is fallacious, due to his unverified assumption that when Alice suggests increasing the military budget, she actually means that the entire federal budget should be allocated to the military. Essentially, Bob is making a logically-valid argument, but one that is countering an irrelevant point that no one is trying to make.

 

Just because an argument is fallacious doesn’t mean that it’s wrong

Just because an argument contains a logical fallacy, and is therefore not logically valid, does not mean that its overall conclusion is necessarily false.

Assuming that this is the case is a fallacy in itself, known as the argument from fallacy (or the ‘fallacy fallacy’). This is because an argument can rely on logically-fallacious reasoning, and still be correct.

For instance, let’s go back to the original example that we saw for a formal logical fallacy (which is known as affirming the consequent):

Premise 1: If it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy.

Premise 2: The sky is cloudy.

Conclusion: Therefore, it is raining.

The conclusion here is invalid, since we can’t be sure that it’s true based on the premises that we have. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the conclusion is false. In fact, it’s entirely possible that it is raining, we just can’t conclude this based on the premises that we were given.

The same holds for informal fallacies. For example, consider the following argument:

Alison: it’s amazing how accurate my horoscope is.

John: no it isn’t. Horoscopes are nonsense.

Here, John is using an appeal to the stone (an informal fallacy), by dismissing Alison’s argument as absurd without providing any proof as to why. However, that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong; even though John uses fallacious reasoning, his argument against horoscopes is still right, as shown by research on the topic.

Overall, this shows that an argument can contain faulty reasoning, whether in the form of a formal or an informal fallacy, and yet still lead to a conclusion that is factually correct.

 

Countering logical fallacies

Being able to counter logical fallacies is important, both when other people use them in discussions, as well as when you rely on them in your own thought process. Each fallacy is countered in a slightly different way, and specific guides for each are available in my posts on logical fallacies. However, the basis for countering them all is to point out the issue with the reasoning that leads to the logical fallacy in the first place.

The appeal to nature, for example, is a fallacy which assumes that something is good because it is “natural”, or bad because it is “unnatural”. The best way to counter it is by giving specific counterexamples which show that things which are “natural” can be bad and that things which are “unnatural” can be good, or by demonstrating the issues with trying to define what “natural” means in the first place.

When you counter fallacies that other people use, it’s important to remember that not every use of a logical fallacy is intentional, and to act accordingly. Specifically, attacking your opponent too forcefully for using a fallacious argument might lead to a backfire effect, where they are not willing to change their mind on the topic, even after you show them the problem with their reasoning. Therefore, where possible, try to assume that the person you are talking to is not using fallacious arguments on purpose, and help them internalize the error in their reasoning, by pointing it out in a non-confrontational manner.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Logical fallacies occur as a result of invalid or faulty reasoning, and play a significant role in people’s thought process and communication.
  • There are two main types of fallacies: formal fallacies, which occur when there is a flaw in the logical structure of an argument, and informal fallacies, which occur when one or more of the premises in an argument fails to support the proposed conclusion, either because it’s irrelevant, or because one or more of its premises are false.
  • Example for a formal fallacy: based on the premises that “if it’s raining, then the sky will be cloudy” and “the sky is cloudy”, then we conclude that “it’s raining”. Specifically, based on these premises alone, we cannot logically conclude that it’s raining just because it’s cloudy.
  • Example for an informal fallacy: based on the premises that “the weatherman said that it’s going to rain next week” and “the weatherman is always right”, then we conclude that “it’s going to rain next week”. Here, the logical structure of the argument is valid, but the conclusion is not, because one of the premises is incorrect (since the weatherman isn’t always right).
  • It’s important to remember that an argument can rely on fallacious reasoning and still have a correct conclusion. Assuming that a conclusion is incorrect just because the argument used to reach it is invalid represents a logical fallacy in itself, known as the ‘argument from fallacy’.