Some Observations on Machiavelli’s The Prince

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced.

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced.

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced. Nay, an honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to reclaim them, without the help of the knowledge of evil. (Francis Bacon)

What is the best way to limit abuses of power in the state? For many centuries the most obvious and popular answer to this question in Western Europe and elsewhere remained the same: mitigating abuses of political power requires a ruler who understands and practises virtue. Thus, the education of a prince destined for governing power must attend carefully to his moral character.

This emphasis on character as the most effective control over abuses of political power produced the literary tradition known in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as Mirrors for Princes, books of instruction, often with plenty of examples of appropriate and inappropriate regal conduct. These texts typically continued the classical tradition, suitably modified to mesh with Christian doctrine, of insisting that an informed understanding of virtue was a necessary prologue to the study and practice of politics.

Most of these books are little known nowadays, but one of them, The Prince, written in 1513 by Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat and writer, created a great stir, helped to revolutionize the study of politics, and has remained at the centre of modern debates about the ways our military, political, and business leaders should exercise their power.

Like its literary “Mirror” predecessors, The Prince focuses directly on the relationship between political action and the character of a new ruler. However, Machiavelli’s analysis breaks with tradition in at least two provokingly new respects. The first is his insistence that a study of politics must be grounded in the real world: it must set aside concerns about lofty, unattainable ideals (like traditional notions of justice) and focus on what political leaders actually do and have always done in order to secure and maintain their power and glory. And to achieve that, political analysis must focus on the facts, the empirical evidence from contemporary politics and from the historical records, ancient and modern. The second is his famous (or notorious) analysis of the ways a ruling prince should conduct himself if he wishes to succeed.

Machiavelli is by no means the first to write about the gritty facts of political life. But what is remarkable is the way he divorces from these any ethical or theological considerations. Politics is what it is – a frequently duplicitous, nasty business – and anyone who wishes to succeed in the political realm must adopt a ruthlessly pragmatic approach based on the objective facts of life in a world full of evil people:

But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation. . . .

Machiavelli’s text is primarily designed to inform a prince of the practical matters he needs to attend to in order to preserve and, if possible, increase his power and status. He must always keep in mind that human beings are generally wicked, that the state contains politically ambitious rivals and an often resentful, capricious populace, and that, as a result, to rule effectively he must use all the means at his disposal to anticipate and forestall any threat.

The most important characteristic a successful prince must possess Machiavelli calls virtù, a word which has no simple English equivalent. It hearkens back to the Roman concept of virtus (often translated as manliness, with an emphasis on military prowess: courage, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, and so on) but which in his text also refers to a group of less reputable qualities: lying, cheating, breaking promises, putting on gruesome public displays, and instilling fear in his potential rivals and subjects, if necessary by extreme cruelty. It is much more important for a ruler to be feared than to be loved: “. . . men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.” The prince’s goal is to protect or increase his power and status, combining the bravery and force of the lion and the cunning of the fox. That political priority always justifies the means.

It is important, Machiavelli stresses, for the prince to appear trustworthy and virtuous, but he must not let such considerations prevent him from actions necessary to protect him: “for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.” A prince cannot abuse his power, but he may use it inefficiently or fail to use it when necessary.

Machiavelli concedes, sometimes rather gloomily, that virtù may not be sufficient because political events are also driven by the contingencies of life: luck, chance, or fortune (fortuna), which, in a famous metaphor, Machiavelli compares to a river. Much of the time, the river is peaceful, but at other times it can flood uncontrollably and threaten the state. The prudent prince can anticipate some of fortune’s effects (building dikes and levees in advance to control the flood) or adjust quickly to meet the changing times, but often a change in fortune (like an unexpected death) leads to his ruin.

The power of fortune – “the arbiter of one half of our actions” – raises some interesting questions. If it is the case that “fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out,” then certain issues arise concerning Machiavelli’s confident assertions about the pragmatic efficacy of virtù. After all, how can virtù be so useful if the prince who practises it often comes to grief by some sudden turn of events?

This question inevitably arises with some of Machiavelli’s examples, especially in his detailed treatment of Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli praises fulsomely (“I do not know what better precepts to give a new prince than the example of his actions”). But Cesare ended up a failure, defeated by fortune. And for some readers this raises questions about Machiavelli’s purpose in calling such attention to the antagonism of fortuna and virtù. Similarly, when Machiavelli praises Hannibal’s “inhuman cruelty” towards his soldiers in comparison with the more easygoing nature of Scipio, a reader may well wonder why he includes this example when virtually all his contemporary readers knew that Scipio defeated Hannibal and crushed Carthage.

The ironic tension latent in Machiavelli’s treatment of virtù and fortuna has, along with certain other aspects of Machiavelli’s style and of his life, persuaded some readers – notably Jean Jacques Rousseau – that the The Prince is a satire intended to mock the brutal, arbitrary, and immoral nature of Italian politics, especially of the Medici family (the text opens with a dedication to Lorenzo de Medici). With a judicious cherry picking of the text and certain details of Machiavelli’s life, it is certainly possible to make a case that there could be a satiric or at least a deceitful intent at work. Consider, for example, how we are supposed to react to the following advice: ““In fact, destroying cities is the only certain way of holding them.” The only sure way to maintain one’s power is to destroy the very thing one wishes to have power over—that’s the final security Machiavelli is recommending. What is the value of something one has to destroy in order to assure oneself that one’s control over it is complete? This is a reductio ad absurdum, but it is clearly the logical outcome of what Machiavelli is recommending. And for some commentators it’s very difficult to read that particular sentence as anything more than a satirical blow against his own recommendations and (more importantly) against the princes to whom his advice is directed.

This notion that The Prince is a satire is a long-standing and still current interpretation, but it has apparently always been a minority view. Most commentators seem to have concluded that Machiavelli means what he says and that his advice is genuine. That view still leaves open, of course, what we are to make of Machiavelli’s text. How should we interpret and respond to what he has to say?

The attempts to answer that question have given rise to a long and intriguing argument in the modern study of politics, ranging from outright dismissal of The Prince as an immoral and irreligious text (it was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Pope Paul IV in 1559) to commendations for Machiavelli’s sturdy empirical account of the realities of political life, which liberates the study of politics from theological and ethical bias. Some have argued that Machiavelli, by promoting the security of the state or the unification of Italy, is essentially a utilitarian, concerned about the greater good of the greatest number of people. Others see in The Prince a call for the political elite to move beyond considerations of good and evil in order to augment the state’s power and glory (as well as their own) with deception and military aggression. The mark of the truly intelligent and courageous patriot is the willingness to break the moral norms adhered to by lesser beings. This last view is allegedly at the heart of the neoconservative movement in the United States, which played a key role in initiating and justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (where, thanks to fortuna, the “mission accomplished” triumph quickly turned into an expensive and enduring political mess, all in the name of “national security” or “the war on terror”).

The Prince circulated in manuscript for a few years before being published in 1532, after Machiavelli’s death, and quickly generated considerable interest, launching the arguments which continue to this day. Machiavelli’s name became a popular byword for duplicity, cunning, and evil (the English words Machiavellian and Machiavel date from the 16th century), even among those who had not read his work. Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta (1590) features a prologue spoken by a character named Machiavel. It is not clear whether or not Shakespeare had read The Prince (the first English translation appeared in 1640), but his imagination was obviously fascinated by a range of political, moral, and psychological issues arising from Machiavellian behaviour.

Shakespeare’s Second History Cycle – Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), and Henry V – is, among other things, an exploration of the effects of Machiavellian tactics on the language of political discourse. Manipulating language to suit immediate short-term goals is a potent weapon, and an effective leader needs to be able use words in ways that will augment his power. Shakespeare clearly acknowledges this fact. At the same time, however, lies, deceit, and broken promises can poison public discourse, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear and leaving the state without a shared trust in a common political language. When that happens, resolving political problems without the use of brute force becomes difficult, even impossible, for the different factions inevitably become extremely suspicious and fearful of each other, and disagreements must be resolved on the battlefield, either in civil wars or foreign invasions. Shakespeare does not resolve the contradictions for us, but he forces us to recognize the intractable complexities of the issues when the practical realities of Machiavellian politics collide with our desire for moral clarity and the inevitable contingencies of fortuna.

Nowadays we are familiar enough with the corruption of political discourse and some of its more important consequences, particularly in the United States, where the constitution is designed to require discussion, compromise, and bipartisan agreement before significant legislation can be enacted – activities which the debased language makes increasingly difficult. Perhaps we are moving into a post-Machiavellian age where our political leaders make no attempt to appear virtuous and simply shout and tweet obvious lies, aggressive slogans, and demeaning nicknames at mobs eager to repeat them. ♦