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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


Review:                  Machiavelli, The Prince, in The Portable Machiavelli, edited and translated by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (Penguin Books, 1979).

Machiavelli's The Prince is undoubtedly his most famous work, the book that gave "Machiavellian" to the English language as a synonym for "deceitful."  Machiavelli does not appear to quite deserve his reputation for immoral manipulation, however.  As the editors point out in a useful introduction, The Prince was written for a very specific purpose.  In 1513, Machiavelli was living in forced retirement after the Medici family overthrew the republican government of Florence in which Machiavelli had served.  During his service in the Florentine government, he had had the opportunity to deal diplomatically with kings and princes from all parts of Europe, and he wrote The Prince as a gift to the new Medici rulers of Florence:


I have not found among my belongings anything that I might value more or prize so much as the knowledge of the deeds of great men, which I learned from a long experience in modern affairs and a continuous study of antiquity . . . [There] could not be a greater gift from me than to give you the means to be able, in a very brief time, to understand all that I, in many years and with many hardships and dangers, came to understand and to appreciate.[1]

One reason for Machiavelli writing the book was as a means of returning to a position of power.  His name had been on a list of possible enemies of the Medici's, so he was currently out of favor with the rulers of Florence.  It is notable in this regard that he advises "the wise prince" that the best friends he could find after taking control of a new state are his former enemies, because they will appreciate his friendship more than those who helped him into power.  The other prime motivation behind The Prince was that Machiavelli viewed 1513 as a historic opportunity for Giuliano de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, to unite most of Italy and expel the French and Spanish "barbarians" from Italian soil.  Giuliano's brother became Pope Leo X in March 11 of that year, and Machiavelli believed this was the strongest position of any Italian prince since Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia combined a similar amount of secular and religious power.  The Prince was Machiavelli's advice to Giuliano on how best to use the opportunity presented by "Fortune" in 1513.  The Prince was not published until seven years after Machiavelli's death, and was not really intended as a public work.  Machiavelli's reputation has been largely created from reading his book without reference to its historical context.

Machiavelli's thesis can be summed up in his own words:


I . . . believe that the man who adapts his course of action to the nature of the times will succeed and, likewise, that the man who sets his course of action out of tune with the times will come to grief.[2]

This view animates every part of The Prince, including his infamous chapters on the utility of the various qualities usually associated with good rulers.  His advice to the wise prince on these matters is completely based on pragmatism:


One will discover that something which appears to be a virtue, if pursued, will end in his destruction; while some other thing which seems to be a vice, if pursued, will result in his safety and his well-being.[3]

Thus, at every step, a wise prince should consider the situation and adapt his actions according to how they will further his interests, not on abstract considerations such as morality.

Despite his pragmatism, Machiavelli often offers general laws on all sorts of subjects.  There is no inherent contradiction however, because Machiavelli's generalizations are based on his view of human nature, not any "laws of war" which would soon be outdated.  Like Thucydides, Machiavelli assumes human nature is unchanging and essentially corrupt:  "[One] can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain."[4]  The longevity of The Prince, similar to The Peloponnesian War, suggests that human nature has not in fact changed much in the past 400, or 2400, years.

[1]  The Prince, Introduction, p. 78.

[2]  Ibid., Chapter XXV, p. 160

[3]  Ibid., Chapter XVI, p. 128.

[4]  Ibid., Chapter XVII, p. 131.

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