I can see how it could misguide one to govern in a bellicose and amoral way, if mistakenly interpreted, but, hey, it was not meant to be a guidance manual for rulers. It’s merely a treatise of political science and philosophy. It completely reflects reality and one can even apply it to modern politics. I now understand that the use of the word “machiavellian” is utterly wrong most of the time.
If this sounded like a 10th grader’s review on it, it’s because I actually AM a stupid 10th grader, so yeah, sorry for taking your time, but I was excited, because it was pretty cool and everyone should read it, even for pleasure, like I did 😉
Something to keep in mind about The Prince.
Recent scholarship suggests it was written as farce, basically the 16th century equivalent of version of a Stephen Colbert monologue. Even if that theory isn’t true, the Prince Machiavelli was writing to had exiled him, so Machiavelli had no interest in telling the Prince anything but what he wanted to hear.
Machiavelli really gets bump rap, and he had a lot to do with Europe moving away from absolutely monarchies and towards republicanism and constitutionalism.
I’ve never liked pushing the notion of The Prince as satire, I also think the idea that he was just saying what wanted to be heard is somewhat problematic and misunderstands what I see as Machiavelli’s motivations and influences in writing. I do agree that he gets a bum rap though.
Seeing The Prince as satire is largely irrelevant because that’s not how it has been used. In this instance (and arguably all instances), while there’s value in interpreting what the author meant by a statement, the greatest value of the work is expressed in how it’s functionally interpreted and how people functionally use the work. The reality of the piece comes from how it’s realised, not necessarily how it was intended.
For me the most important aspect of Machiavelli’s works comes from their foundation of perhaps not an ethical nihilism but certainly an understanding of politics as an expression of power. People may interpret Machiavelli’s work as indicating that politicians should be aggressive, scheming, bellicose as littlescarletbegonia puts it. However, in his phrasing in Discourses, Machiavelli places priority on creating the most productivity. That is the reason he expresses for a justification for the republic, not out of an ethical notion of equality nor natural rights. In this sense I have to disagree with the OP in saying it’s misguided to see Machiavelli as amoral: amorality is one of his strongest features.
It seems to me concurrent that this is why Machiavelli wrote The Prince for d’Medici. His prioritisation of function, productivity and unity led him to believing that at that particular moment in time the best thing to do would be to strengthen d’Medici’s power and in doing so bring prosperity. I don’t think Machiavelli is so easily simplified into this notion of writing satire nor writing to win favour but from his very evident sense of civic duty. Gramsci states, I think quite eloquently and succinctly, what I largely see to be the source for the distinction between Discourses and The Prince:
He [Machiavelli] was unable to detach himself from the republic, but he understood that only an absolute monarchy could resolve the problems of the time.
He is able to separate between personal, ethical quandaries versus a functional approach to achieving necessary ends. The quote which has been floating around of his the last couple of days, “politics have no relation to morals” (if anyone has a source for where that quote comes from I’d appreciate it), is perhaps something people don’t like to agree with but is absolutely true. Politics is about power: who has it, who wants it and how that power will be used. What does it matter how morally superior a person considers themselves to be if they’re not in a position to put that morality into substantive action? Take, for example, veganism: what does it matter if one person or a small group refuse to eat animal products, when that in itself has no substantive effect on the use of animals? All the good intention and moral superiority will not alone be able to have a substantive effect nor cause any real change.
That, to me, is the meta-lesson of Machiavelli’s writings. The specifics (whether or not to use mercenaries versus having a standing army, and a plethora of other pieces of knowledge) are really very secondary to the wisdom it encourages. That is to say what Machiavelli is really teaching us isn’t neither satire, an appeasement, nor an imperative as to how you should organise a republic or princedom. What he teaches us is how to understand fully the mechanics of politics. Rhetoric used to outwardly justify an action, in all instances rather than simply the most outwardly obvious, is an obfuscation of the reality that there is a conflict of power relations at play.
Congratulations to littlescarletbegonia on reading what is possibly one of the drier political philosophy texts that I’ve head the pleasure of reading 🙂
I just finished reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince.