Having been exposed to Voltaire’s misanthropic worldview, shared and gained experience with Candide, journeyed with Hythlodaeus and been cerebrally utopiated by More’s steady hand, we now turn our attention to one of history’s most misunderstood and maligned writers. Nicolò Machiavelli is, to all intents and purposes, a self-contained paradox. History has cast him at once as the father of modern political science … of heroic morality … of radical, critical, naturalistic humanism … of modern Italian Nationalism … but also the teacher of despotism, and terrorism … he was atheist, realist, positivist, proto-Jesuit, existentialist, pragmatist, proto-Marxist. The list goes on … and on and the question of ‘who’ or ‘what’ Machiavelli was becomes ever more meiotically effervescent. Many, if not most of the epithets attached to ‘Machiavelli’ are loose at best and often consummately apocryphal. However, there is every likelihood that the author of the political Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
, the comic play, The Mandrake
, and the brilliant but tainted Florentine Histories
would most likely have been forgotten by history had it not been for the widespread appeal of one little book. Without The Prince
it might even be said that Machiavelli’s name would have all but disappeared – except, perhaps, from the somewhat strabismic view of the student of Renaissance Italian politics or poetry.
I doubt very much that there is need here to outline Machiavelli’s life or the rather well-known events surrounding the composition of The Prince
. However, convention stipulates that some minor lip-service need be paid to these aspects of the book.
Machiavelli was born in Florence on 3 May, 1469. In his late teens, he attended lectures by Marcello Virgilio Adriani (the distinguished humanist and Florentine politician) and was then, in the 1490s, much impressed by the ‘unarmed prophet’, Savonarolla. It was on the violent demise of this latter figure that Machiavelli rose to prominence in Florentine politics being confirmed in 1498 as the second chancellor of the Republic, elected secretary to the Ten of War. By November of that year he was considered proficient enough to be sent on his first diplomatic mission on behalf of the Ten of War. This was to Piombino in Livorna. Over the next fourteen years, Machiavelli would be sent on diplomatic missions the length and breadth of Italy whereby he met nearly all the important figures of the day. Additionally, he made four missions to the French court of Louis XII and one to the court of the Emperor Maximillian. Thus, Machiavelli was, as far as is discernible, a competent diplomat able to be entrusted with the most important of missions.
In 1512, Spanish troops invaded Florentine territory. Having been responsible for the raising and training of a militia, Machiavelli was deeply embarrassed by the fact that the Florentine militia simply ran away from the army of Cardinal de’ Medici. This opened the doors for the ruthless sack of Prato. In Florence, news of the sack turned many a citizen to advocate surrender. Medici supporters fell upon the Pallazzo della Signoria and demanded the resignation of Gonfaloniere
Soderini. Machiavelli’s final official task was to carry Soderini’s official surrender to Cardinal de’ Medici. On 1 September, 1512, the Medici were restored to power in Florence.
Somewhat correctly, Machiavelli was seen as one of Soderini’s closest supporters and was thus tainted and stripped of office, deprived of his citizenship and fined 1,000 florins (entailing near bankruptcy). He was banished from the city and retired to a smallholding several miles to the south. His reputation and career were ruined. But, as so often happens, fortune
turned against Machiavelli and his bad situation got worse. In early 1513, an anti-Medici plot was uncovered in Florence that dragged Machiavelli back to the centre of controversy. Whilst there is no evidence that Machiavelli was complicit in the plot, he was nonetheless arrested, gaoled and tortured.
The strappado was the common form of torture in Florence. Both hands were bound behind the back and the victim was slowly raised up high. In the midst of this agony, the victim was then dropped. But the ground was not met – the rope halted the fall and the arms were jolted yet further up behind the back. The most common result was that the shoulders were dislocated or broken.
Machiavelli was subjected to six 'drops' of the strappado without 'confession'.
Our seemingly forsaken author remained languishing in gaol until being released upon the timely death of Julius II. Cardinal de’ Medici was elected Pope and took the name Leo X (after the Lion of Florence). Machiavelli was released as part of a general amnesty and left to furtively make his way home to rebuild his life. It was in this state of extreme disrepair that he sat down to write The Prince
. The Prince
cannot be understood without a measure of understanding of its wider context. The political situation in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century was a complex one. To sum up the situation in one word, ‘disarray’ would be a good candidate. Essentially, the four biggest states, Milan, Venice, Naples, Florence and the papacy dominated affairs. Each of these powers were perpetually seeking to either extend their territory or defend against their perfidious neighbours. Intrigue, fragile alliance and outright treachery were standard political tools. For instance, in the early 1490s, Florence had an alliance of sorts with Milan, watched Venice with trepidation and suspected the Borgia pope (Alexander VI). These suspicions of the pope were largely justified: Alexander VI held ambitious plans for the extension of Roman (not Papal) territory by means of conquering the Romagna (previously part of the papal lands) – a move that both Florence and Venice viewed as threatening.
This segmented, disparate collection of city-states made Italy as a whole in a particularly weak and vulnerable state. To the north, behind that forbidding Alpine partition lay France, the most powerful state in Europe. Across the Mediterranean to the west lay a Spain with an eye on Naples. To the east, the Ottomans were sweeping through the Balkans. It is hardly surprising that the larger Italian states, whilst dominating the smaller Italian states, also looked for alliance with larger foreign powers. Italian politics were complicated.
In 1494, two years after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico de' Medici, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy to take up the Angevin claim to Naples and so sparking nearly sixty-five years of intermittent warfare within the peninsula. On the approach of the French army, the new Medici ruler of Florence, Piero ‘the unfortunate’ de’ Medici, did everything he could to hasten Charles’ movement through Tuscany by capitulating and ceding fortresses and paying sums of money to the French. Having upset many of the more influential Florentines before going to meet Charles, he found himself ousted from power. Medici rule in Florence was at an end.
But this end did not materialise purely from the weakness of the Medici or from the appearance of the French. The power of the Medici was dealt a severe blow by an ‘unarmed prophet’ in the shape of the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. Having been afflicted by a series of bad harvests, foreign threats and epidemics, the Florentines found themselves very receptive to Savonarola’s firebrand, Jeremiad style. It was time to repent after the years of lavish Medicean illuminations and Savonarola was very able in organising such displays of contrition that culminated in the ‘bonfire of vanities’ in 1497. This particular display of self-mortification was probably a step too far for the city so well acquainted with conspicuous consumption. When Savonarola attacked the Church, the Borgia pope found it prudent to engineer his downfall and organise for him a personal bonfire Piazza della Signoria. Machiavelli watched, and learned. Then, probably with the quiet sponsorship of the Pierfrancesco branch of the Medicis, Machiavelli was elected secretary of The Ten of War.
But the complex political world of the Italian peninsula remained.
When it is evening, I return home from the inn and retire to my study. Before entering I take off my everyday clothes … and go through the ritual of donning my robes of state. Thus fitted out in appropriate dress, I enter the venerable courts of the ancients, where they kindly receive me.
Besides political context, The Prince
requires a measure of cultural context as well. Machiavelli makes good use of the dual concept of Fortuna
. The concepts are derived from ancient Roman thought. Fortuna
was originally a Roman goddess, the bona dea
, the good goddess. She was generally considered a malign power, though unpredictable and capricious … because she was a woman. She was often depicted with a cornucopia that signified a source of wealth, steering a ship as she steered lives, and on a ball or a wheel to indicate the randomness and unpredictability with which she might play the ultimate card in a person’s life. Virtus
, on the other hand, derives from the Latin word vir
meaning ‘man’, and thus depicts true manliness, masculinity, strength and energy. It is this typically Roman understanding of the term that Machiavelli seems to have adopted in The Prince
rather than the Christian understanding (from which we get ‘virtue’). The conflict between virtus
was limited on account of her being immortal and he being not. That being the case, he could not control her actions. Stoic ideas suggest that through virtus
man should withdraw importance of actions of fortune
rather than try to determine them. Machiavelli’s use of the concepts would surely be something worth discussing below.
But such a discussion ties in nicely with another potential debate: how does The Prince
(or indeed, Machiavelli) deal with Christianity? Clearly our intrepid time-travelling author found much to admire in the ancients. What was his relationship with the Christian Church?
Was there an ulterior motive? The Prince
is, on some accounts, directly oppositional to all of Machiavelli’s other works and contradicts his propositions of free state-hood and republicanism. Other accounts maintain that The Prince
parodies the concept of advice books for princes that had evolved during the previous centuries into an 'enormously popular' form, The Prince parodied and mocked the concept 'like a political Black Mass'. Alternatively, that The Prince
is a polemical work addressing the temporal power of the papacy. Further more, of the many other possible explanations of the work, one other is worth close consideration, that The Prince
is a direct and pragmatic response to the ills that were racking the Italian peninsular in the early sixteenth-century. Be this as it may, I think that whichever theoretical explanation you find more appealing, it remains essential that Machiavelli’s little advice book is understood within the contemporaneous political atmosphere. What is clear and distinct is, however, that The Prince
was addressed specifically to potential tyrants. So, taken at face value, Machiavelli’s 'little book' is quite explicitly an advice book for tyrants – this would not have been unnoticed by contemporary readers.
As if the aspersion of ‘tyrant’ was not explicit enough, Machiavelli applies the example of Cesare Borgia as a man of virtus
and so a model of ideal princely behaviour to be aspired to. Son of a pope and installed by a foreign power, Borgia held a striking resemblance to Guiliano de’ Medici. As the Medici came from an illustrious Florentine family where three generations had been proclaimed as ‘first citizen of the republic’, somewhat astonishingly, a Medici prince was now being advised to follow the model of a Spanish bastard. And this particular bastard was widely held guilty of the crimes of fratricide, incest, and other crimes (as if the first two were not significant enough); who was deeply hated in Tuscany for his military conduct; and most astonishingly, as a prince who was perhaps one of the most spectacular failures in ‘Italian’ history. Of all these facts, Machiavelli was more conversant than most. His diplomatic papers reveal a degree of contempt, or revilement, for the tyrant. Whilst many recent studies have painted the Borgias in pastilles as a stabilising force, Machiavelli, and by extension the rest of the peninsula, would not have been so benevolent to the Borgia memory. At the time Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Cesare Borgia was simply detested. Its very much worthwhile asking Why did Machiavelli falsify historical events?
Historian Garrett Mattingly insists that because of all these enigmas within The Prince
, the work is a satire. By using the downfall of the Borgia prince as an example, Machiavelli effectively warns Guiliano de’Medici that without his brother, Pope Leo X’s support, his position, like that of Cesare’s is precarious. In chapter VII of The Prince
, the Medici readers are advised that Cesare shouldn’t have allowed the election of Julius II as he was supported by the French – instead, Cesare should have installed a pope who would have been backed by the Spanish as a means of reinforcing his own power. Yet, the Medici were backed by the French and Julius II. In a way, without Julius, Leo X would possibly not have been. So why would Machiavelli attempt to curry the favour of the Medici by criticising those very people who had placed the Medici in power, and without whom they would not have been able to maintain this power? If, as Mattingly suggests, The Prince is viewed as a satire, then all these enigmas iron themselves out. Mattingly also suggests that the work was never presented to the Medici as there is no trace of it.
Other historians have suggested that The Prince is an attempt at encouraging the Medici to rid the peninsula of the papacy and bring about a solution to the divisions and vulnerabilities that Machiavelli is aware of. Cesare, as unlikely a protagonist as he his, highlights the effects of his having failed to act efficiently enough and ridding Italy of the papacy and the College of Cardinals. Machiavelli’s solution to a divided Italy, is to highlight the vulnerability of the church’s position and suggest that a strong prince might act where Cesare had shied away.
Mary Dietz has suggested that The Prince
is an extravagant trap. Machiavelli is enticing the Medici prince to act in a way that is profligate and unpopular and would thus destroy their rule allowing for the rise of a republic that is possibly in line with his republican ideals. In this scenario, The Prince is a prequel to The Discourses – entice the tyrannous prince into undermining the despotic state and then establish this kind of republic. But then, The Prince – short as it is – is a rather densely packed document. It deals with ecclesiastic matters, internal state security, and foreign policy amongst others. It does seem rather implausible that Machiavelli would write such an elaborate trap that is, to all intents and purposes, strangely instructive. This fact brings us back to the most general assumption that the ‘little book’ is indeed what it says it is: an advice book for princes.
So, where does that leave us? Well that’s for you to decide. This ‘little book’, this most notorious of ‘little books’, throws up so many potential talking points. How many can we find?