The movie version of “Le Petit Prince” has just been released in France and, perhaps because of that, I stumbled on what turned out to be a French translation of an English language article in “The American Interest” last year – in it the author compares the two princes – Machiavelli’s and Saint-Exupéry’s.
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.
What the author is highlighting is the acute difference between these two authors in their view of their fellow human beings.
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.”
Well, this certainly rings a bell. We are force fed a daily diet of fear – fear of terrorism, crime, disease, immigrants…..you name it!
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.
If one of the key differences is the creation of a society based on fear vs one based on friendship, then the other key difference this author notes is between the quantitative and the qualitative.
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.
I’ve quoted pretty extensively from Jakub Grygiel’s article but I do think it really merits a full read – you can find it here.
Maybe this will whet your appetite to either go out and buy a copy of “The Little Prince” by Saint-Exupéry, or to go see the movie. Delight, pleasure and food for thought if you do!