Machiavelli’s Prince is one of the first modern political works to propose a non-religious end to political activity; to argue not that the good life or eternal salvation, but freedom and security in this world, ought to be the ends pursued by the political government. The Prince teaches the use of evil means in the pursuit of legitimate political ends. But Machiavelli made two additional points in relation to his way of introducing evil into politics that were frequently forgotten by his subsequent critics and admirers.
About the Author
Niccolò Machiavelli is one of the finest plants to have grown in the extraordinarily fertile soil of Renaissance Florence, the city where he was born on May 3, 1469, and died on June 22, 1527. Like many of the other great artists, thinkers, and statesmen of his time, Machiavelli did not come from one of the wealthy and noble families that ran the affairs of the cities.
But his father, Bernardo, a lawyer and an amateur intellectual (or “humanist” as they called themselves), tried, within his modest means, to provide his son with a respectable “liberal arts” education, despite not being able to afford the schooling necessary to teach at a university or practice law.
Machiavelli’s overriding passion was not the contemplative life but politics, the active life. In comparison with other humanists of his age, he was not erudite and lacked the antiquarian’s love of ancient books for their own sake.
He read and wrote whatever he thought useful in making sense of the political world where he carried on his diplomatic career. Only once, when he had lost his office and found himself unemployed and disgraced, could he afford to spend his evenings reading and thinking in the company of ancient writers.
During Machiavelli’s life, there were no publishing houses, and universities did not remunerate their professors for writing books. The usual way to get something out of a book was to dedicate it to a patron, of which Machiavelli had, during his time in exile, none that he could count on. Instead, he dedicates his book to two different Medici scions.
In a letter, he wrote to a friend announcing that he was working on The Prince he mentions his intention to present the work to Giuliano de’ Medici, who was rumoured to receive a principality.
Later, he changed his mind and dedicated it to his nephew, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was the ruler of Florence. Both Medici were not officially princes but were thought by Machiavelli to be on the way to becoming so. Thus, the book is titled “The Prince” as it is dedicated to two Princes and aims to provide knowledge about efficient governance.
The Purpose of the Book
Princes tend to be busy people not known for dedicating much of their precious time to underlings and their insignificant gifts. Thus the dedication is comparable to the ten-second pitch that an unknown scriptwriter, if lucky, gets to present to the famous producer.
The first thing Machiavelli says is that his little book contains all the “understanding of the deeds of great men” he has gathered from his experience and studies, which cost him much trouble. He underscores that he is giving the prince “knowledge and understanding,” later even saying that the book demands to be “diligently studied and read.” Machiavelli is thus offering an education to the young prince, a lesson to a student.
Machiavelli wants to make sure that the reader Prince arrives at that greatness that his fortune and his other qualities promise him, and he offers a sure way to reach such greatness by giving “rules for the conduct of princes.” That sounds doubly presumptuous: not only is Machiavelli styling himself as a teacher of the prince, but he is going to give him rules.
He is addressing his book, or script, to a Medici, and the Medici pride themselves with having run the great city of Florence for more than a century from behind the scenes, hence their accumulated knowledge about power, ruses, conspiracies, etc. would be hard to match, especially by a young and humiliated second-rank secretary of the defeated Republic.
‘The Prince’ as a work of rhetoric
During the course of the last 500 years, no book has incurred more blame for giving politics the bad reputation it continues to enjoy to our days than Machiavelli’s Prince. According to one influential version of the history of political thought, developed in the aftermath of World War Two, Machiavelli turned politics into a technique of domination and the state into a machine designed to crush under its cogs all human freedom.
The Prince was thought to outline new rules of political conduct, a new “science” of politics that, like all other modern social sciences, remains neutral toward the values for the sake of which its techniques of power may be employed.
The Prince is better understood as a renewal of the ancient art of “rhetoric” rather than as the first work of modern political “science”. Cicero once said that laws existed so that human beings could live together without masters. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion perfected by Roman writers, is the other side of the coin: because we are free, no one has the right to coerce us to follow a given course of action; they first need to persuade us that this is the right course of action for us.
On this Ciceronian view, without the rhetoric, there can be no republican political life. It is undoubtedly for this reason that the study of rhetoric became so important for the Italian city-states 28that claimed independence from Church and Empire, and the renewal of rhetoric led the way to the emergence of civic humanism discussed in the previous section, which in turn is a crucial context within which to understand The Prince.
In The Prince, rhetoric becomes an instrument of the common people to fight against the vision of the world proposed by classical wisdom, and along with that to change the relation of power between élites and masses. Machiavelli uses rhetoric in order to open up the field of politics to the participation of a previously excluded actor, the people, and in so doing he also changes the character of the study of politics, making it possible eventually to develop an experimental scientific approach to the study of social and political institutions in which the whole is the result of the causal interaction of the elementary parts.
If today so much of modern political science is a matter of sophisticated “bean counting,” of analysis of parliamentary procedures and electoral results, then this is in no small measure due to this revolution in the meaning of rhetoric which took its egalitarian content and turned it around to destroy the non-egalitarian political wisdom of the ancients.
Concluding Remarks and a Critique
No other work in modern political thought, with the possible exception of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, remotely competes with the influence exerted by Machiavelli’s Prince. Thick tomes have been written on the history of its reception. There is no question that The Prince teaches the use of evil means in the pursuit of legitimate political ends. But Machiavelli made two additional points in relation to his way of introducing evil into politics that were frequently forgotten by his subsequent critics and admirers. The first one is that
there is no novelty in the use of evil means to the end of establishing good government.
In The Prince, he suggests that anyone who reads the Old Testament or “the ancient writers” (by which he means Greek political thinkers like Socrates or Plato) without prejudices will see that evil means are advocated in both, though perhaps not as openly as he dared. He also claims that his originality is not in having uncovered the violent side of politics, but in trying to limit the use of evil means to the function of providing freedom and security to those who are subject to government.
Machiavelli’s Prince is one of the first modern political works to propose a non-religious end to political activity; to argue not that the good life or eternal salvation, but freedom and security in this world, ought to be the ends pursued by the political government.
But whether it is in order to manipulate and terrorize them, to organize them and lead them to freedom, or to manage their security and pursuit of happiness, all four traditions of interpretation share a common feature:
they understand that the revolutionary achievement of The Prince was to place the people’s desires as the fundamental material which governments and statesmen have at their disposal and on which they need to work.
It is on the adulation, judgment or opinion of their people that states and statesmen ultimately rely on. Having brought to light this rebellious material, and the limits with which it confronts the resources of political philosophy is the signal theoretical achievement of The Prince.