What is the Point of Machiavelli’s The Prince?
Machiavelli’s work, especially The Prince, can be read as a set of “Machiavellian” tactics for advancing one’s political power through cunning, written for hereditary princes (princes who rule through bloodline).
Some take the book at face value. Others suggest it was meant, at least in part, as an effort to win over the favor of the Medici family who had previously exiled Machiavelli.
Both of these views are reasonable, however, neither one holds up fully under a close reading of Machiavelli’s other work (such as the Republican manifesto DISCOURSES Upon The First Ten [Books] of Titus Livy) and a close examination of his life story. After-all, Livy flat out expresses a preference for a Republic, and Machiavelli’s story involves a political career in the [sometimes] free-republic of Florence and exile and torture by the Medici family, who ruled as hereditary princes and dissolved the the Florentine city-state and the republic.
Considering nearly every philosopher worth their salt has been a Republican (as in favoring a Republic), from Plato to modern thinkers, it would be odd for the father of political science who influenced so many to break the mold… and the two excerpts below should be a strong first clue he doesn’t.
ALL STATES, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities. – The first line of the Prince
“… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII of Livy
NOTE: Don’t be mistaken, the Prince is most certainly a set of ruthless Machiavellian means for achieving specific political ends, but the idea is to teach criminal virtue to the otherwise virtuous. If read as satire we can see Machiavelli’s Republican philosophy from Livy poking through, and pairing that with his life we can confirm his intention was not one of supporting despotic Princes (but one of supporting Virtuous leaders who would ensure free-trading Republics).
TIP: Machiavelli read the Greeks and knew about the concept democracy. He just didn’t see any evidence it existed in practice. So for him all states were either “a state for a sovereign people” (Republic), or “a state by a single absolute sovereign” (a Monarchy or “Principality”).
FACT: Machiavelli is said to have said “the ends justify the means”… but while his work hints at this, he never actually said it. He actually points out that using wickedness will ensure that a leader is never seen as a timeless great. So even if means are worth it, they aren’t just magically justified by the ends (it is more complex than that).
TIP: The term prince and king have the same general meaning, while a Republic is a popular government ruled by law and “the few” (rather than ruled by the will of “one” Prince and his aristocracy, it is ruled by “a few” representatives of the people). The distinction Machiavelli makes is then, “either a nation is ruled by representatives of the people (republic) or the prince (principality)”. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the term Republic, I suggest looking at our types of government page. It is hard to understand this argument without knowing the basic forms of government.
Reading Machiavelli’s The Prince as Satire
This line of thinking says that, while the book pretends to be advice for princes, it actually targets “virtuous” leaders who might otherwise lack the “vice” it takes to obtain and retain political power. Machiavelli considered “criminal virtue” necessary to make it in politics, and his intention was likely to convey this lesson to those for whom vice didn’t come naturally.
As can be seen in the opening of Chapter XV which displays Machiavelli’s wit and realist philosophy, “…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 a matter than the imagination of it… 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. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” In other words, we can’t rely on ideals and virtue to obtain and retain power in a state.
Likewise, but from a more passive aggressive viewpoint, the Prince can be seen as an attack on, rather than a plea to, the Medici dressed up as an essay on “the Art of Political War.” After-all, what is Chapter XIV “That Which Concerns A Prince On The Subject Of The Art Of War” if not this? Not to mention Machiavelli’s other book The Seven Books on the Art of War.
When read as satire, the text shows support for democratic ideas, republicanism, and liberty. It consistently points out the freedom of people in popular republics. Machiavelli does this by the use of backhanded or ambiguous statements such as, “But in republics there is more vitality, greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance, which will never permit them to allow the memory of their former liberty to rest; so that the safest way is to destroy them or to reside there” from Chapter V and “He who would attack that state from the outside must have the utmost caution; as long as the prince resides there it can only be wrested from him with the greatest difficulty” from Chapter III.
Why tout the freedom of people in popular Republics? How can one insinuate that people are so free in Republics its best just to destroy them or join them as they won’t be able to tolerate knowing they have lost their liberty if not being satirical? Why offer advice to a Prince in power on how to wrest power from a Prince? We can argue that the book is talking about colonization, and not be wrong, but one can’t help but to argue that perhaps the book is also talking about taking back Florence.
Thus, in these ways and more, The Prince can be seen as a populist undertaking, cleverly disguised as a guidebook for hereditary Princes, but meant for anyone but the Kings it pretends to teach, especially the tyrannical ones. This is, of course, itself, rather “Machiavellian.” Of course, we don’t call Machiavelli the father of modern political science for nothing.
This line of reasoning makes sense when we consider Machiavelli’s own time in politics in a free republic in Florence before his writing career. As we will discuss below.
TIP: One call also read the book as a call for mixed-governments (of which a mixed-Republic with separations of powers is; and arguably Machiavelli is the first modern philosopher to champion mixed governments). In Livy, it is clear that Machiavelli favors popular governments, but it is also clear he appreciates tradition. Consider Livy CHAPTER XXV WHOEVER WANTS TO REFORM AN ANCIENT STATE INTO A FREE CITY, SHOULD RETAIN AT LEAST A SHADOW OF THE ANCIENT FORMS and Prince CHAPTER III Concerning Mixed Principalities.
The Story of Machiavelli’s Political Career in Florence
Aside from reading his works, which are clearly Republican on aggregate (even if we make arguments the Prince isn’t, Livy most certainly is), the best way to understand the character of Machiavelli and his Prince is to understand his political career in his Florentine Republic.
During Machiavelli’s political career, Machiavelli commanded a peoples’ militia. He used citizens rather than mercenaries, as he didn’t trust mercenaries. He had obviously read the late Roman authors who cite the use of mercenaries as one of the greater causes of the downfall of Rome. He had seen weak but virtuous leaders fail, including the one he served during most of his political career.
Machiavelli proudly and happily served under a morally admirable, but rather inept, leader, Piero II. He lived in a free republic, enjoying his status and job, until a hereditary prince, a Medici, took over, fired him, had him tortured and imprisoned, and ended his career in politics.
His bitterness may well have driven him to create a work of satire, a guidebook for leaders like the ones he enjoyed his career under, and a defense of the corresponding free republic. As noted above, the other theory is that the book could, in whole, or in part, be meant to butter up Medici. This theory is hard to believe given his other work. However, it’s popular enough that we can’t ignore it here.
The Medici – Secrets of the most Powerful Family in the World (Full Documentary).
TIP: see the Medici’s rise to power. The Medici are also at the heart of the story of the history of banking, the story of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the story of modern governments. There are reasons why one wouldn’t blatantly attack the Medici.
The Prince Banned
Despite its satirical tone, the book was banned by multiple sources, including the Pope in 1559, due to it being regarded as a threat to Roman Catholic authority. It was in direct conflict with the dominant Catholic and scholastic doctrines of the time concerning politics and ethics. Whether the church saw satire and feared its Republican nature or they disliked the concept that virtuous leaders couldn’t lead correctly, the effect was the same.
Machiavelli’s Other Works: How Discourses on Livy Essentially Proves the Prince is at Least Partly Satire
The idea that The Prince is satire becomes even more viable when one considers his other work, Discourses on Livy, which he eludes to in the first lines of The Prince, and in which he describes liberal and Republican principles in more detail.
Meanwhile, the validity of his rules (which are effective, satire aside) and his appreciation for blunt and combative tactics can be seen in his rules for the Art of War (read the book). Although Machiavelli never says who should use the rules and in the Art of War, he is clearly critical of anything less than free republics and benevolent monarchs. He constantly notes Tyranny as a negative thing.
Consider, Machiavelli even wrote a work called The Golden Ass where he decries greed. It is almost a wonder he managed only to be exiled and tortured and not beheaded, as even a close reading of his work is rather radical and would have put him at odds with both the Medici and the Church.
Below we offer some proof from Machiavelli’s books and life to back up the idea that The Prince’s intended readers were anyone but princes.
“The notion that The Prince is what it pretends to be, a scientific manual for tyrants, has to contend not only against Machiavelli’s life but against his writing”…”the book is, first and foremost, a satire, so that many of the things we find in it which are morally absurd, specious, and contradictory, are there quite deliberately in order to ridicule … the very notion of tyrannical rule”. Hence, Johnston says, “the satire has a firm moral purpose – to expose tyranny and promote republican government.” – From Garrett Mattingly: The Prince: Political Science or Political Satire?
FACT: Despite the popularity of The Prince, it is Discourses on Livy that has historically been used as the guidebook of Republicans.
Republics, Liberty, and Proof Machiavelli’s The Prince is Satire
Aside from reading Machiavelli’s work, and noting its clearly populist Republican nature, the best justification for the Prince as satire comes from within the book itself, as noted above.
Despite the title and introduction of The Prince eluding to the book being about hereditary princedoms, Machiavelli spends the book comparing “new princedoms,” “hereditary established princedoms,” republics, and mixed systems.
Consider the first line of the book:
“All states, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities.”
Not only does he start of the text by spreading awareness of republics, Machiavelli also essentially coins the modern usage of the word “state” and popularizes the idea of non-hereditary princedom. That alone makes one question whether or not the intended audience is made up of royalty.
In the next chapter, Machiavelli tells us he will leave out republics and focus on princedoms as he has already written about republics. He is almost certainly referring to Discourses on Livy when he writes those words. Despite his words, he doesn’t leave out republics at all. Instead, he brings them up repeatedly and compares them to princedoms, sometimes in almost a tongue and cheek manner and sometimes not.
HAVING carefully considered the subject of the above discourses, and wondering within myself whether the present times were propitious to a new prince, and whether there were the elements that would give an opportunity to a wise and virtuous one to introduce a new order of things which would do honour to him and good to the people of this country, it appears to me that so many things concur to favour a new prince.
Virtue against fury shall advance the fight,
And it i’ th’ combat soon shall put to flight:
For the old Roman valour is not dead,
Nor in th’ Italians’ brests extinguished.
If anything proves the book was written for a virtuous prince, it is perhaps these bits of the last chapter that flat out call for it.
Not only does Machiavelli’s book conclude in this fashion, his other work essentially mirrors this Machiavelli who appears most clearly in the last chapter. As noted above, Discourses on Livy (read online) discusses similar themes, but in much more detail, and often more freely. His Discourses discusses democracy, an appreciation for liberty, and even ideal systems (like mixed-republics). His works as a whole comprise what can be said to be a bold humanist philosophy of the early 1500’s, a sort of Utopian discourse not seen until much later in history. Unlike Prince, Livy and some of his other works are not written as satire, and thus we can get a clearer view of his actual thoughts, which make even more sense when paired with his life story.
It seems fairly clear that Machiavelli was a fan of a free republic, but then the question becomes why he wrote a book of underhanded tactics for Princes. Let us answer that below again clearly given all the above.
TIP: As noted above, one of Machiavelli’s later books is called The Seven Books on the Art of War online 1772 edition. Other books written commoners but disguised as advice for elites include: include the Art of War, the Tao, and Bernays’ Propaganda and more. Likewise, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and BOOK XV. CHAP. V.: Of the Slavery of the Negroes from his infamous Spirit of the Laws are both clearly satirical. As we’ll discuss below, being able to speak openly is a relatively new human right, and certainly it is not enjoyed by all even still today.
If the Prince is a Populist, Humanist, and Republican Manifesto, Why is it Written for Princes?
The question one might have is, “if Machiavelli was for a Republic, why would he write a book of tactics for Princes?”
- Firstly, as noted above, Machiavelli was a career politician working in a free Republic in Florence until a Prince (the Medici) came and took it over and fired him. During the time he wrote his work it would have been unwise to speak out against the new Government, especially considering he spent his life trying to get his job back.
- Secondly, and related to the first point, Machiavelli would probably have been put to death if he had he written a Republican guidebook that was critical of Princes. He would have had to conceal his intentions, regardless of what was happening in Florence’s political culture at the time. (See Sir Thomas More, who was killed at around the same time. He had the audacity to write a book called Utopia, so the king had him beheaded).
Consider this passage from an Introduction to the Prince:
“His youth was concurrent with the greatness of Florence as an Italian power under the guidance of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico. The downfall of the Medici in Florence occurred in 1494, in which year Machiavelli entered the public service. During his official career, Florence was free under the government of a Republic, which lasted until 1512 when the Medici returned to power, and Machiavelli lost his office. The Medici again ruled Florence from 1512 until 1527, when they were once more driven out. This was the period of Machiavelli’s literary activity and increasing influence; but he died, within a few weeks of the expulsion of the Medici, on 22nd June 1527, in his fifty-eighth year, without having regained office.” i.e. a Prince kicked Machiavelli out of office and dismantled the free Republic in which Machiavelli had enjoyed his political career. It is likely the book is directed at leaders like the one who employed Machiavelli and who lost his Florence to Medici.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – BBC Documentary.
TIP: The Printing press became popular in about 1500, so the books of Niccolo Machiavelli’s time were some of the first printed in the West and if these books aren’t a set of tactics for overthrowing tyrants and ensuring a free-Republic, then Livy was perhaps the most confusing book ever written. Certainly, it confused Buchanan, Rousseau, and myself (with the confusion of the first two having of course a much greater impact).