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The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | Context


Machiavelli did not conceive of any of his works as philosophy. He saw the purpose of his writing as describing the most effective ways to conduct political and military affairs, with the goal of maintaining stability and prosperity in the world as it actually exists. Philosophy, on the other hand, was seen in Machiavelli's time as an attempt to identify an ideal world and make it a reality (or, to merely realize how the real world would always fall short of perfection). Thus, The Prince should be read as a manual for how the ruler of a state can best conduct his government, given how people and governments actually behave.

There have been enduring controversies about The Prince. Was Machiavelli giving genuine advice concerning how to conduct government, or was he subtly expressing his disdain for monarchical governance through ironic writing?

The idea that The Prince does not genuinely reflect Machiavelli's views has a long history. In The Social Contract, or Principles of Right Thought, Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that the clear contradiction between what Machiavelli says in The Prince and what he says in the Discourses on Livy indicates Machiavelli always favored the republican form of government.

Some critics support the argument that The Prince does not express Machiavelli's actual views. Machiavelli made his career as an official in a republican government—a government that was overthrown and replaced with the sort of government depicted in The Prince. It may be that Machiavelli wrote The Prince in order to gain the good favor of the Medici once they regained power—and allay their suspicions that he was working against them. The work was written in a short amount of time after the Medici takeover and presented as a gift to the head of that family.

These considerations do not necessarily indicate that The Prince was written to criticize the principality form of government (a government headed by a prince). Various authors have claimed not only that Machiavelli did not favor the form of government depicted in The Prince, but also that he wrote the work as a satire—that is, a work meant to highlight and mock the flaws of principalities. However, at least two considerations might contradict this claim. First, it is clear that Machiavelli was trying to regain the favor of the Medici and secure for himself their patronage. The dedication to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici at the beginning of The Prince demonstrates this intention, as do Machiavelli's other efforts to escape from the exile imposed upon him after the fall of the Florentine Republic. Second, the Medici were willing to harm those whom they suspected of subverting them. If the Medici thought The Prince was a satire, it would have ruined Machiavelli's chances of securing their patronage and put him in danger of being tortured—and perhaps killed—by the Medici. These possibilities would have been clear to Machiavelli. His attitude during this time, according to an analysis of his collected letters by James Atkinson and David Sices, was one of desperate desire to return to politics and be active in the life of his native city. In this light, a satirical reading of his work looks less appealing

Additionally, the historical examples Machiavelli uses in defense of his account of the ideal prince are neither fabricated nor exaggerated. Those rulers who took and maintained power did have the characteristics Machiavelli attributes to them, as did those who lost power and were ruined. Even if Machiavelli thought there was something inferior about principalities, that does not mean he thought there was no effective way to govern in such a manner. Machiavelli sharply distinguishes what is moral from what is effective, and much of his advice goes against what modern commentators would consider moral behavior. In both The Art of War and Discourse on Livy, there are passages with a similar message. It is, therefore, reasonable to interpret The Prince as providing an immoral or amoral guide to effective governance in a principality.

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