I studied Machiavelli’s The Prince for part of my History A Level, as well as for one of my first year modules. I was always told to read it literally, and that he was genuinely advising the prince (Lorenzo de Medici) on how to rule most effectively.
Here are the bare bones of Machiavelli’s background for those that are mostly unfamiliar with his plight:
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. From a modest beginning he rose up through the ranks of the Florentine government. As a strong supporter of republicanism, he was brutally tortured in February 1513 by Lorenzo de Medici when his family returned to power. He was deemed an anti-Medici conspirator and exiled. This reputation that he had gained meant that it would be virtually impossible for Machiavelli to be employed once again in Medici’s Florentine government - at least in a position of trust.
It is agreed amongst historians that Machiavelli wrote The Prince between July and December of 1513, and unpublished manuscripts were circulated soon after. Here is an excerpt from the introduction of the work:
“Accept, therefore, Your Magnificence, this little gift in the spirit that I send it; if you read and consider it carefully, you will discover in it my most heartfelt desire that you may attain that greatness which Fortune and all your own capacities promise you. And if Your Magnificence will turn your eyes at some time from the summit of your high position toward these lowlands, you will realize to what degree I unjustly suffer a great and continuous malevolence of Fortune." (Bondanella, P. and Musa, M. 1979, pp: 78-79)
So, if we’re going to take this at face value, Machiavelli is imploring Lorenzo de Medici to take The Prince as honest work in the hope that perhaps he will no longer be regarded as a conspirator and may get his old job back. But is this really what he means?
“[F]or some time I have never said what I believed and never believed what I said, and if I do sometimes happen to say what I think, I always hide it among so many lies that it is hard to recover.” - Machiavelli
Without getting into a complex analysis over whether Machiavelli is being honest in this statement - if he truly does lie most of the time, why would he be honest about his frequent manipulations? Or is that just what he wants us to believe? - it definitely throws a spanner into the works.
Now, if you apply the pretence that Machiavelli is being untruthful in the opening passage of The Prince, then the meaning changes drastically. The except now runs along the lines of: “I’ve written this book not to support you, but to undermine you and begin a revolution. Your fortune permits that you deserve to be ousted from your position as ruler. Hopefully you will realise in time that a republic is the best way to rule Italy.” Well, something like that.
If Machiavelli’s own confession of his manipulative nature isn’t enough to persuade you of his true intentions for his little how-to guide, then just take a look at the context of its writing: Machiavelli spent his entire political career championing the case for a republic. Because of his political ideology he was tortured for two weeks by Lorenzo de Medici. Only a few months after his torture he wrote this book which, on the surface, is praising Lorenzo and telling him what a wonderful ruler he is, and giving him ‘good’ advice on how to be even better. Machiavelli appears to want only the best for the Medici family. Now ask yourself: would you immediately give up all your political beliefs and want to work for someone who tortured you, only a few months after they did that to you? No, I didn’t think you would.
That’s the first red flag. Now, let’s look at what Machiavelli actually says in The Prince. He claims that it’s perfectly acceptable - and even advisable - for a Prince to use deception in his ruling. Considering the fact that at this time Catholicism was very prominent, so the fact that Machiavelli was condoning un Christian values is very shocking.
Think of this scenario: Machiavelli’s book finds its way into the hands of ordinary citizens, and they read it. How do you think they’d react to learning that it is apparently suitable for a Prince to act in such a way? They would most likely be disgusted, and could potentially revolt. It could violate any lingering notion that the Medici were honest rulers.
Additionally, Machiavelli devotes a chapter to how to rule a state that was once a republic (which is what Medici’s situation was at the time of writing). Through some clever historical examples, Machiavelli whittles Medici’s choices down to one ‘realistic’ option: to destroy the country. Then, the people would be so disheartened that they would not be able to fight back against the Prince. How can this really be considered good advice?
Of course, as with most of my blog posts, I could ramble on about this for hours. What I want you to take from reading this post is to read The Prince from another perspective, other than the generic one of “Machiavelli wants his old job back”. Machiavelli is a master manipulator and deceiver, as has been seen throughout pretty much all of his works, so I believe that The Prince should be read with the same motivations in mind.
Bondanella, P. and Musa, M. (1979) The Portable Machiavelli, New York: Penguin Group. pp. 9-40, 77-111
Dietz, M. G. (1986) ‘Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception’, The American Political Science Review, 80(3), pp. 777-799
Shephard, R. (?) ‘Machiavelli and the Medici: was The Prince a sugar-coated poison pill?’