In one of my seminars this semester, “Classics of International Relations,” we read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. It is a cold, calculating manual for how to gain and keep power that not even the last chapter, a rousing call to liberate Italy from foreign occupation, can redeem. And it is a book that appears on many syllabi of international relations as well as business strategy – after all, the belief seems to be, conquering a city is not that different from expanding market share.

But maybe next time I teach the class, I will skip Machiavelli – or at least, read his Prince together with a completely different book, The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Yes, that classic for kids and for discerning adults who can see an elephant inside a boa constrictor.

The reason is that le petit prince understands social order and what is needed to maintain it much better, or least much more fully, than the Prince. For the latter, fear is the dominating emotion when we encounter other people. Others, in fact, are hell – or at least potential hell. They are “ungrateful, fickle, pretenders, evaders of danger, greedy for gain”, according to the Prince (chapter XVII). If that’s the case, only political power – a polity that dominates over us – can supply the necessary conditions for social cohesion and order. Political power is thus not an outcome, but the foundation of order.

The Little Prince is different. Upon landing on earth, he seeks others because loneliness does not satisfy him. He develops friendships, with a fox and then with the author, a pilot stranded in the middle of the desert. Friendship requires time, patience, slowly developing ties of mutual dependence. It is inevitable that there will be pain as friends go away or fall short of our expectation (“it is sad to forget a friend”!), but the risk of pain should not move us away from our humanity: to be human means to be a friend and to have friends, whatever the impossibility of predicting a friendship’s future serenity. Being alone – an ideal for The Prince who seeks complete autonomy based on overwhelming and efficient power – is hell for le petit prince.

So, next time I teach this class, Machiavelli may have to be tamed by the Little Prince. Niccolò’s Prince may offer technical knowledge of the political machine, but the Little Prince gives us wisdom of human interactions; the former fears and dominates others, the latter seeks others so he may love. Who would you rather follow?

This is based on a longer essay published in 2014 in The American Interest:

Two Princes


Jakub Grygiel, Ph.D. is associate professor at The Catholic University of America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *