Unlike Machiavelli’s Il Principe, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is not on the standard reading list of policy analysts and international relations scholars. But this other princely book should be. The reason is not that the famous Florentine’s early 16th-century classic is overrated or unperceptive. Quite the contrary: Machiavelli is a sharp observer of the often violent and frequently personal political tactics that shape history, and offers timeless insights into the behavior of men and women, the powerful and the weak, individuals and masses. But like similar renderings from other cultures—Unsur al-Mo’ali Keikavus’s 11th-century Persian classic Qabus-Name (“A Mirror for Princes”) is a good example—Machiavelli offers a view of political order that is at best incomplete and at worst misleading. The Little Prince can serve as an important corrective.
Both Saint-Exupéry and Machiavelli (and we can add Hobbes, in many ways Machiavelli’s direct intellectual heir) wrote in dire circumstances. The Saint-Exupéry of the book is a pilot who has just crashed in the middle of the desert, preoccupied with surviving another day and busy fixing the plane that could bring him back to safety; in real life, he was in self-imposed exile from Nazi-occupied France and would disappear over the Mediterranean in his reconnaissance plane a year or so after publishing the book (almost exactly seventy years ago as I write). Machiavelli wrote in political exile, during a period of political collapse in an Italian peninsula ravaged by incompetent and shortsighted political leaders and facing the rising power of larger, more muscular foreign states. So both their Princes were born out of the twin realities of personal isolation and angst amidst political disorder. But how the two princes understand and act upon their circumstances is profoundly different.
The key difference lies in how the two books present the social urge that drives human political interactions. Machiavelli penned the incipient modern view that puts fear at the center of political order, turning politics into the craft of fear management. And it is a craft, properly speaking, not a science; yet the flavor of early modern times helped give rise to what we optimistically call today political science. The French aviator’s short book, on the other hand, describes the deep human desire to be social out of love toward others, not from fear of them. For the former, fear of others is the source of social cohesion; for the latter, the source is the need for others. The former would repel others, the latter attract them. In the end, the simple wisdom of the Little Prince may trump the calculating shrewdness of the Prince, or at the very least it complicates and complements it.
The problem is that in the world of Il Principe politics becomes at the same time too little and too much. It is too little because Machiavelli’s Prince, the quintessential modern political leader, manages fear with little or no thought given to the purpose of his actions. Machiavelli’s Prince cares for his own reputation and the sure survival of the state he may have established and, as Isaiah Berlin interpreted Machiavelli, a well-ordered realm is not something to be taken for granted; it can be justified as a minimalist end, considering the alternative.1 Still, even a well-ordered realm does not proclaim its own purpose. It is too much, on the other hand, because a politics organized around fear management becomes an impoverished means of our salvation, the supposed only tool that frees us from the dangers stemming from our own wickedness.
The Little Prince, however, points to a primordial source of political order—friendship—that is ignored by The Prince. Friendship—filos to the ancient Greeks—is foundational of social order. Without it, polities are either fragile or overbearing, yet state policies have little control over friendship, or what we moderns sometimes reduce to social trust or social capital. Hence, the Little Prince comes before politics and serves as a limit to it.
The modern approach to politics—one given to us in distilled form in The Prince and more elaborately in the Discourses, and is then expanded by later authors such as Thomas Hobbes—starts from the assumption that we humans do not enjoy each other’s company. Rather, we relentlessly compete with each other for things and for thoughts, for safety, and for status. It is a dim view of men, “ungrateful, fickle, pretenders, evaders of danger, greedy for gain” (The Prince, XVII). The outcome is a constant clash that often degenerates into the war of all against all. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Huis Clos (“No Exit”) in the same year that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry plunged into the sea: “L’enfer, c’est les Autres.”
The solution to this condition—the execrable “state of nature”—is political power. The Prince makes society among men bearable, perhaps even possible. As French political theorist Pierre Manent writes in Metamorphoses of the City (2013), “The political order is the instrument of the solution to the human problem. . . . Order among humans then derives entirely from the political command.” Without a common power that overawes us by instilling even greater fear than that which individuals can stir in one another, we cannot help but look at each other with great suspicion and trepidation. Fear, first of each other and then of the Prince, is the source of the social urge and of social cohesion.
If we are social because we fear each other, then every type of association, from friends to family, tribes, cities, and states, must somehow be a tool to manage this fear. Social groupings are thus transactional arrangements whose existence may be expected to last only as long as they respond effectively to the demands of fear. If one can offer a more efficient mechanism of fear management, it will supplant the others as frightened individuals flock to the most promising deliverer from “l’enfer.”
Love and friendship are sources of danger in this worldview. Not surprisingly, for Machiavelli, men are “tristi”—sad, wicked—and will break the ties of obligation built by love whenever it is convenient and profitable. Indeed, they are more likely to “offend” those who love them because lovers, by the very fact of loving, make themselves vulnerable and thus become prime targets. More importantly, a prince can engender fear with greater ease and control than he can establish love. Fear can be dialed up or down by its managers; love can be destroyed by a careless word or a willful betrayal, but it cannot be created on command. As Machiavelli puts it, “Since men love at their convenience and fear at the convenience of the prince, a wise prince should found himself on what is his, not on what is someone else’s” (The Prince, XVII).
Le Petit Prince presents a very different picture. The Little Prince from a distant asteroid is also a keen observer of human affairs, but less jaded than the retired Florentine diplomat and his modern followers. He is a gentle soul in search of others whom he can befriend and love. In one of the many moving moments in this quirky little book, the lonely and somewhat sad Little Prince who had just landed on earth screams from a mountaintop: “Soyez mes amis, je suis seul.” Deriving apparently little pleasure from his loneliness, the Little Prince seeks others, not to dominate them but simply to be with them and engage them in conversations. As he says to a fox, “Come and play with me. . . . I am so sad.” (Ch. XXI).No Principe, no man in Machiavelli’s world, can fathom the idea of seeking others simply to enjoy their company. La tristezza of the Prince leads him to fear others; la tristesse of the Little Prince leads him to seek others.
Of course things are not so simple nor so cleanly divided. Many modern thinkers do acknowledge the innate yearning for the company of others. After all, even Niccolò had friends, if only at the local osteria where he would pause on his morning promenade. But the conversations among friends in the “Orti Oricellari”, the garden in Florence where lively intellectual debates occurred under the auspices of Bernardo Rucellai, were at the margins of political life, which was in any case controlled by political enemies. Friendship was seen as a place of refuge in times of political exile, a circumscribed and marginal space of calm amid chaos and violence. Perhaps conversations among friends could also seed a revolution or two, but it was best to limit the number of conspirators since trust is always in short supply.
This view of friendship is derived in part from the Stoic tradition of withdrawing from political life into the separate space of true friendship, as Cicero’s friend Atticus did centuries before. The private, non-political nature of friendship remains deeply embedded in modern thought, which separates friendships and politics into distinct realms with little or no overlap. Friendship in any form cannot be the basis of a polity; it can at best be a parallel reality that may or may not be politically desirable and socially useful.
The friendship of the Little Prince is different, showing tints of a premodern intellectual tradition. The key lesson that a red fox teaches the Little Prince, who then in turn passes it to the author, the stranded pilot Saint-Exupéry, is that friendships arise slowly out of a process of “taming” (apprivoiser) each other. As lonely, fully independent individuals we are sad, and naturally seek others. But friendships do not spring up on command, simply out of a motivation to achieve a well-defined and limited objective, whether that be greater security or a more efficient ability to compete with others for scarce resources, or even simply satisfaction of the need for companionship. Relationships of fear respond to commands; their rhythm is staccato. Friendships take time, patience, and perseverance, for that is what is required to create the smoother rhythmic flow of mutual dependence. This idea of “taming” is, as the fox says, “often forgotten” but it means “to create ties.” Once such ties are created, it is as if the sun shines on life (ma vie sera comme ensoleillée).
Taming and the resulting ties are a form of dependence, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that such ties produce a sense of belonging to each other. Consequently, a friendship, the smallest human association, is often a source of tears. Every friendship developed by the Little Prince, with the rose on his planet or with the fox and the author on earth, brings sadness to both sides because the person on whom they grew to depend departs or dies. As Saint-Exupéry writes, “C’est triste d’oublier un ami” (Ch. IV). But the pain does not mean that one ought to avoid friendship. To be human means to be a friend and to have friends, whatever the impossibility of predicting a friendship’s future serenity.
To our modern understanding, shaped by Il Principe and his intellectual heirs, to be dependent means to be not free. Being dependent on the other is synonymous with being constrained if not dominated by the other, a notion that seems to flow from the premise of primordial individualism so key to the very definition of modernity. Any time we are close to another person, whether a friend or spouse or trench buddy, we put ourselves in some sort of danger, because we give away material or spiritual self-sufficiency. This is a condition that the modern mind deems perilous, ever doubtful of human virtue and deeply mistrusting of the possibility of disinterested action. The danger is always the other.
It may be that the parlous conditions in which Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote skewed their appreciation of a more varied human nature, and pushed them unwittingly from sober realism into cynicism. It may be, too, that their view of politics applies best in those circumstances—and they are not few—when, as Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold” and society loses its cohering power in revolution, collapse, and exhaustion. But for most societies and most polities, most of the time, the Little Prince reminds us that such a view is incorrect.
Being alone as independent, solitary, and perfectly “free” individuals is painful more than it is dangerous. The Little Prince experiences the modern ideal of independence in the desert, where he can’t find anyone to tame and befriend. He also witnesses it on his preceding interplanetary voyage. He meets many such independent individuals, alone and safe on their small worlds, seemingly content in the pursuit of their narrow and senseless tasks. But, as he points out in a moment of anger, their condition is not human. Referring to one of these self-sufficient individuals, he remarks: “He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over. . . . ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’. . . But he’s not a man at all—he’s a mushroom!”
Machiavelli and modern political thought seem to turn all of us into mushrooms. Freedom has been reduced to a desiccated, extreme form of liberty in the form of a fully autonomous individual, independent from others and even from human biology. But to achieve individual freedom we need the Prince and his state to protect us from other men; yet it is the state that, as we learned to our dismay during the century past, is best placed to deny individuals their freedom, if not also their lives. If the state becomes the provider and guarantor of our individual “freedom”, it has leave to subsume all other forms of social order. As we atomize our conception of actual human social nature, we invite the state to usurp its functions.
The Little Prince, instead, longs for the ties of dependence without which freedom is an illusion, not to mention a solitary and brutalizing experience. There is no visible polity in his terrestrial peregrination because it is not needed, and indeed its modern quest to guarantee complete independence may hinder the development of friendships.
Another crucial and related difference between the two Princes revolves around a question that is apparently limited to epistemology, but that has significant political consequences. The Little Prince observes that human interactions are not, and cannot be, based exclusively on visible, calculable features. As Saint-Exupéry famously puts it, “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” For Machiavelli instead, “Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are” (The Prince, XXVIII). Measurable appearances are more important in the life of the Prince than what is invisible to the eyes, but they are useless for the Little Prince. In anthropologist James Scott’s words, in order to function the modern state requires its citizens to be “legible”: to have a clutch of numbers citing address, age, and income, coded and used to place individuals in various categories. The Little Prince would find the very idea of legibility puzzling and inhuman, and Saint-Exupéry himself would not have been the least surprised to learn, had he lived long enough, that the Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of their victims. The Little Prince’s criticism of the grown-ups, or us moderns, is that we approach others by focusing on calculable appearances. To know something or somebody, we measure it. When we introduce a friend to an adult, he asks: “How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Similarly, when we try to describe a house, its price is one of the first features that we use to convey its beauty. “You have to tell them [grown-ups], ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs’. Then they exclaim: ‘What a pretty house!’” This is our scientific approach, another essence of our modernity: By counting and measuring, we think we assess the other side as rival or friend, we think we grasp his potential behavior, and, above all, we think we can manufacture benign social arrangements on this basis.
This is not real knowledge, and consequently it cannot generate real order. The questions one ought to ask are different. Knowing the price of a house pales before a description of it as a “beautiful red brick house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof.” Similarly, if you want to get to know somebody, ask: “What does his voice sound like? What games does he like best? Does he collect butterflies?” Only by asking such questions can one start the long process of “taming.” The development of true social bonds is possible only when based on this deeper, yet far more elusive kind of knowledge. Knowing how much money one makes may be helpful to manage the Prince’s mechanism of fear, but it does little to develop true friendship and lasting order.
Why is the Little Prince’s view of friendship and of society preferable, and more policy relevant, than that of the Prince? Perhaps only the most cold-hearted, power-hungry politician wants to live the solitary life of the Prince, and looks down at the Little Prince as a naïve kid not yet well versed in human affairs. For the rest of us, including political and national security analysts, Le Petit Prince is a treasure. The Prince may offer technical knowledge of the political machine, but the Little Prince gives us wisdom of human interactions. By offering an alternative, rather more premodern, view of the social urge, the Little Prince alerts us to the existence of a whole realm of human and political behavior mostly ignored by modern political thought. Most modern political thought cannot account for familial, friendly, or patriotic love. Yet certainly within a normally healthy civil society we are not all parties in transactional contracts that can be discarded as soon as their functionality has weakened or as our material needs have been satisfied, leaving us in search of another, more efficient arrangement.
Il Principe is at a loss when it comes to responding to the “why” of national security. By placing fear at the source of society, the modern approach is severely handicapped when it comes to explaining why one ought to defend one’s own country. It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to sacrifice for another individual if, according to the modern view, he ought to fear that individual. Nobody wants to sacrifice time, resources, and more to protect something—namely, a state whose primary function is to mitigate the effects of our mutual fear—that is morally equivalent to the rival. The last chapter of Machiavelli’s book attempts to redress this flaw by hearkening back to the “antico valore” of Italians, a patriotic call to both the manager of fear and his subjects. But it is an addendum that does not convince.
The Little Prince, on the other hand, has a deep sense of duty to his first friend, the demanding rose back on his asteroid. He loves his old and new friends, not as part of a political arrangement but as a calling that is prior to it. Like the idea of “taming”, this is a simple, yet forgotten truth: Unless our minds are addled by Hegelian hogwash, we love our fellow, particular individuals more than we can love the state. Indeed, we love the institutions of the state only insofar as they help us maintain friendships and families. For the Little Prince, friendships precede state institutions, which are absent in the story. This primacy of personal bonds is clear to most soldiers who fight for the buddy next to them rather than for some abstraction. When the polity in which we live becomes an abstraction based on fear management, sacrificing for it becomes impossible.
Finally, Le Petit Prince reminds Il Principe of the limits of political power. The modern elevation of fear as the basis of society promotes politics to something more than what it actually is, or can be. Politics, in both its domestic and foreign versions, becomes an endeavor to figure out how to solve conflicts and wars, or more broadly, how to solve problems of human behavior. It becomes no longer an attempt to understand and manage the human condition but to solve it. If human interactions are problematic because they are always a source of fear and danger, leaders (and political scientists, at a remove) thus become the great would-be redeemers of humanity who can deliver us from ourselves. In modernity they suck up the authority and the energies of religion and redirect them into salvationist politics. This is more than futile; it is dangerous.
Human associations—societies, nations, families, friendships—are both prior to the state and cannot readily be reordered simply by rearranging state institutions, offering material incentives, or manipulating the level of fear. They can, however, be distorted, emaciated, and even smashed if enough authoritarian coercion is applied over and against them. Primordial human social associations are not mechanisms of competition or tools of fear abatement; they are, as modern social science tells us, natural predicates of human beings as cooperating, educating, and creative social animals. As every thoughtful observer from Aristotle to Madison understood, these associations precede the state and form the social regulatory rhythms the effective state depends on, particularly the Liberal (in its earliest, original 19th-century meaning) state.
The presumption that political power can alter prior social institutions for the better lies at the very core of the modern creed. In its modern liberal form it constitutes an auxiliary motor powering the Whig trajectory of history itself. In foreign policy it has sometimes led to pushing for regime change as a panacea for conflicts and international tensions, and at home it has stoked the drive to mold society (even to reshape the very idea of the family) through legal changes and regulations, taxes, or penalties.
The Prince wants the Little Prince to adapt, willfully or not, to the mandates of political power. In the end, the latter has a truer sense of life and of happiness. The Prince and his commands will pass, along with the mythic postulates of primordial individualism and raw quantified rationality that sustain them. The Little Prince and his friends will stay with us. We will not be alone.
1Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli”, in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Viking, 1980).