The Prince


Given that Machiavelli's classic how-to course in duplicitous pragmatism is a re-read of something I've studied fairly recently, I was surprised how much new food for thought I gleaned from this last tête à tête with The Prince. It just goes to show how sometimes reading for pleasure can bring out a whole different set of impressions than reading for edification. When I tackled this as part of a college seminar (the same one I keep banging on about, for those keeping track at home), we viewed it primarily through the lens of Renaissance constructions of identity and the self-made man - an interesting, but narrow, focus. It certainly is a work rife with claims about self - about which groups people belong to, and in fact about how the world is divided into groups in the first place. Machiavelli is able to refer, for example, to "the ruin of Italy," implying that Italy can be understood as a unified concept, capable of being ruined - and yet his political analysis of current events is still dominated by the formation and breakdown of piecemeal alliances among all the individual nation-states that would not be unified into modern "Italy" until the nineteenth century. He captures a moment when the nation is just beginning to coalesce, when people are just beginning to believe that someone from Venice might have something in common with a Florentine that she didn't share with a Parisian, though all three cities were erstwhile outposts of the Roman Empire.

Likewise, Machiavelli is way ahead of his time in the proto-scientific application of "method." While the Renaissance was characterized by a huge influx previously unknown biological, lingual, human and animal specimens into Europe, botanists and entomologists were just beginning to get the idea of classifying these specimens, of grouping them by type. (For more on this fascinating process, and the difficulties in deciding which characteristics to group by, see Steven Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums.) People had cabinets of wonders, but not organized, methodical collections of specimens. While Machiavelli was writing The Prince, only the very earliest so-called "methodists" were beginning to work on the problem of classification in plants and bugs. And yet, listen to Machiavelli trace the branching of possibilities, for all the world like the Linneus of practical politics:

All the states, all the dominions under whose authority men have lived in the past and live now have been and are either republics or principalities. Principalities are hereditary, with their prince's family long established as rulers, or they are new. The new are completely new, as was Milan to Francesco Sforza, or they are like limbs joined to the hereditary state of the prince who acquires them, as is the kingdom of Naples in relation to the king of Spain. Dominions so acquired are accustomed to be under a prince, or they are used to freedom; a prince wins them either with the arms of others or with his own; either by fortune or prowess.

He goes on like this: appended territories either share a language/culture with the conquerors, or they don't; ministers are either appointed, or hereditary; new principalities can be ruled by devastation, relocation, or oligarchy; and so on. One could actually draw a diagram of the bifurcating either/or choices Machiavelli gives new princes, much like a modern plant-classification guide will have you answer a series of questions (leaves or needles? opposite- or alternate-branching?) to identify a botanical specimen. All this has fascinating implications for a culture in turmoil, in which citizens sought for new ways to define themselves and each other faced with the breakdown of relatively stable Medieval ways of life.

None of this, though, addresses the real reason The Prince is famous: not for its proto-scientific methodology or nascent nationalism, but because it earned Machiavelli the reputation of not being a very nice guy. You know, because he says things like

Settlements do not cost much, and the prince can found them and maintain them at little or no personal expense. He injures only those from whom he takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and these victims form a tiny minority, and can never do any harm since they remain poor and scattered. All the others are left undisturbed, and so should stay quiet and as well as this they are frightened to do wrong lest what happened to the dispossessed should happen to them.

Not too troubled by conventional morality. And the first time through I took all this at face value, but since then I've heard some interesting murmurings: it seems some scholars argue that Machiavelli intended The Prince as SATIRE. Think about it: Machiavelli himself spent almost his entire life as a devoted civil servant in the Florentine REPUBLIC. In 1512 the Medicis reconquered Florence, arrested and tortured Machiavelli, and exiled him to his country estate. He then wrote a book ostensibly dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, all about how difficult and treacherous it is to be a prince in a principality one just conquered - especially a principality in which the citizens are accustomed to freedom. Sound familiar? This time through, then, I decided to read with an ear for satire - and doing so not only convinced me that of Machiavelli's satirical intent, but increased my enjoyment of his achievement many times over. Take, for example, this passage, which actually seems to break through the wall of satire and enter into a straight-up impassioned threat on behalf of the downtrodden Florentine republicans:

Indeed, there is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation. Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself; because, when there is a rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions, never forgotten despite the passing of time and the benefits received from the new ruler. Whatever the conqueror's actions or foresight, if the inhabitants are not dispersed and scattered, they will forget neither that name nor those institutions, and at the first opportunity they will at once have recourse to them, as did Pisa after having been kept in servitude for a hundred years by the Florentines.

If you were Lorenzo de Medici, how would you feel reading this passage? Would you feel like the author were dispassionately encouraging you to sack and pillage Florence? Or would you read here an assurance that the republican citizens would never forget, and would rise up against their oppressor no matter what he did or said? Yeah, I'm inclined to the latter view.

One of my favorite such double-edged pieces of advice comes later in the essay, when Machiavelli is discussing how princes should cultivate an appearance of many virtues (generosity, compassion, etc.), while all the time preparing to act in the opposite way should the need arise. He says

You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. [...] A certain contemporary ruler, whom it is better not to name, never preaches anything except peace and good faith; and he is an enemy of both one and the other, and if he had ever honored either of them he would have lost either his standing or his state many times over.

This is such a brilliant double-bind into which Machiavelli puts Medici. Since Medici is indisputably a new prince, he must either be cultivating a false appearance of virtue (and be incapable of holding onto his territory without resorting to hypocrisy), or else he's NOT a hypocrite, in which case he's setting himself up to lose his kingdom.

Obviously, The Prince is not limited to satire: Machiavelli genuinely is fascinated by the art and science of political conquest, and the reasons one ruler is able to hold on while another is overcome. It speaks to his subtlety, and the razor-sharpness of his classifying mind, that he is able to craft simultaneously a serious political study and a scathing send-up. I thoroughly enjoyed both aspects of The Prince this time around, and am looking forward to spending some time, next, with my old friend Michel de Montaigne.


  • How fascinating! I have not read this yet but it is on my list. I will definitely keep in mind the SATIRE aspect. It sounds like it really changed the read to a more delightful experiences.

  • It is an interesting question as to the intentions of Machiavelli. I don't see his views as all that different from those of the contemporary Chicago School, which assigns a cost-benefit analysis to political choices, eschewing morality as a factor for consideration, since it relates to emotional rather than "rational" analysis. And this method of evaluating policy choices is widely shared. So it certainly seems plausible to me that he could be sincere rather than satirical. But you're quite right: one has no way of knowing, and your interpretation is quite intriguing!

  • I didn't know there was any element of satire when I read this a few months ago and them someone mentioned it to me afterwards. I didn't want to go back and try to find it so thank youfor such a great review and pointing out the satirical elements. It seems so obvious now that I wonder how I missed it!

  • Rebecca: Given your interest in "Really Old Classics," you would probably find The Prince interesting. I'd be interested in your thoughts!

    Rhapsody: I should clarify that I don't think it's really a question of sincere versus satirical; I think there Machiavelli's observations about how the world works are sincerely and accurately made, and the whole essay works if you read it just on that level. But then there are certain parts that have another layer of personal pointedness and double-edgedness about them, which I thought was interesting. And then, to further complicate things, there are moments when that pointedness seems just to insult Medici with truth (as in the last passage), whereas at other times Machiavelli seems almost to be saying the opposite of what he really means. It's definitely a tangled web.

  • Stefanie: Oh, it was you! I was looking for that blog entry because I wanted to link to the essays that another commenter pointed out, but I couldn't find it. I don't know; it's not one of the more obvious satires I've read - I don't think it would have occurred to me if I hadn't read a little bit about Machiavelli's life. And since there are parts that seem completely sincere, it's hard to sort out. Glad you enjoyed the review, anyway! :-)

  • I've never read The Prince in its entirety, Emily, but perhaps this will finally be the year. By the way, have you ever read Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography? Another memorable work that will give you a great feel for Renaissance "Italy" (both the artistic and political sides). Ciao!

  • I read this in high school, but I must read it again.

    Thanks for letting me know about the satirical edge. That will help me in the reading.

  • I reread this for a college class (Modern Political Philosophy), and there were a few passages that struck me as so bald-face-dly amoral, I couldn't help wondering if they were tongue-in-cheek! I think I had some of my favourite class discussions around this; it's so much more interesting than the social contract stuff that popped up later (but I did that to death in high school, so maybe the freshness made it interesting).

  • Richard: I haven't read Cellini, but thanks for the tip! Renaissance Italy, like late-19th-century New York, is one of those times & places I just kind of happened into some information about, without any initial interest, but eventually learned enough that I started finding them fascinating. Funny how that works sometimes...

    Isabel: Glad to be of assistance! Thanks for stopping by. :-)

    Eva: I agree, it does have a certain freshness - I just came to it from medieval Christian tracts, so it seemed refreshing from that angle, but it's interesting that it also seems refreshing coming to it from 16th & 17th-century stuff. Thanks for the comment!

  • I'm not sure I've read this all the way through, although I'm pretty sure I read parts. That's the problem with college anthologies -- it's hard to remember what I read in excerpt and what in its entirety. Maybe I should sit down one day and read this again all the way through, so I know I've done it! I had no idea about the satire argument -- interesting.

  • Dorothy, I know what you mean - it's hard to keep track of those pesky anthologized sections. I was going around thinking I'd read the entire text of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and then I looked back at my anthology & realized I've only read about three pages of a book-length work! I think The Prince would appeal to your love of essays - it's very tight and sparkling in its language.

  • Very interesting thoughts. I would never have thought that The Prince is anything close to satire. And it's amazing, Emily, how even when you talk about reading for pleasure, I still finish reading your thoughts feeling like I'm instantly smarter :)

    I've recently acquired a copy of the Oxford Classics edition of The Prince and have read some part of the Introduction. Now you make me want to spend the whole day just reading it! Since I do tend to get interested in matters of political and military strategy, I guess I'll focus on that aspect of the book when I write my review.

    Thanks again. This is a very enriching essay as always :)

  • Mark David, you are too kind. :-) I'd definitely recommend The Prince to anyone remotely interested in political & military strategy - I don't count myself among that group, but even I catch glimpses of why it's interesting at certain points during Machiavelli's book. As for the satire element, if you do read the whole thing you might want to peruse that article I linked to - he makes the case much more cogently and at greater length than I do. Cheers!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography