Machiavelli´s Principe versus his Discorsi

Nov 2016
Would Machiavelli have been thrilled with Stalin? I mean, on the contrary, he would have been horrified. The real Machiavelli is the Machiavelli of the "Discorsi", a convinced Republican and admirer of the Roman Republic, who hated all tyranny. Stalin, however, was a tyrant par excellence, who studied Machiavelli's "Principe" eagerly because he saw in it a model of state and leadership that would accommodate his megalomania and sadism.

So what is the "Principe" all about? Did Machiavelli reveal his real thoughts in it? Hardly, because they are in the "Discorsi" and have nothing to do with the ideas in the "Principe". There are several theories about this contradiction. The most common one says that the "Discorsi" treat the ideal case of a republic and the "Principe" the exceptional case of a hopelessly disintegrated community, which can only be led to new strength by the merciless severity of a "prince". Cesare Borgia is described in several places as a model for such a political saviour and praised to the skies, which seems strange because Machiavelli actually despised the cruel pope's son. Moreover, Machiavelli also despised Lorenzo de Medici, for whom he wrote the "Principe" to recommend himself for reinstatement in public service. Lorenzo was considered brutal and power-hungry, so Machiavelli presented him with a political model that flattered the tyrannically inclined Medici psychologically.

The real ulterior motive, however, was perhaps to provide Lorenzo with advice that would ultimately plunge him into political ruin, because a tyrant of the "Principe" would necessarily fail. That was the opinion of a contemporary of Machiavelli, Cardinal Reginald Pole. The theory that the "Principe" is absolutely not meant seriously, but a coded criticism of tyrannical princes, arose even before the publication of the text in 1532. Some interpreted it as a poison intended to sensitise the reader to the danger of tyranny by painting it in its most terrible colors. Unfortunately, the history of the text was such that the "Discorsi", written almost simultaneously and containing the true Machiavelli, receded into the background, while the scandalous "Principe" gradually gained the reputation of a serious textbook for political practitioners.

Here is a passage from the 2nd chapter of the 2nd book of the "Discorsi", in which Machiavelli's attitude to the republic and tyranny is well expressed:

And it is easy to understand whence this affection arises in a people to live free, for it is seen from experience that Cities never increased either in dominion or wealth except while they had been free. And truly it is a marvelous thing to consider to what greatness Athens had arrived in the space of a hundred years after she had freed herself from the tyranny of Pisistratus. But above all, it is a more marvelous thing to consider to what greatness Rome arrived after it liberated itself from its Kings. The cause is easy to understand, for not the individual good, but the common good is what makes Cities great. And, without doubt, this common good is not observed except in Republics, because everything is done which makes for their benefit, and if it should turn to harm this or that individual, those for whom the said good is done are so many, that they can carry on against the interests of those few who should be harmed. The contrary happens when there is a Prince, where much of the time what he does for himself harms the City, and what is done for the City harms him. So that soon there arises a Tyranny over a free society, the least evil which results to that City is for it not to progress further, nor to grow further in power or wealth, but most of the times it rather happens that it turns backward. And if chance should cause that a Tyrant of virtu should spring up, who by his courage and virtu at arms expands his dominion, no usefulness would result to the Republic but only to be himself; for he cannot honor any of those citizens who are valiant and good over whom he tyrannizes, as he does not want to have to suspect them.
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