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Lecture on Machiavelli's The Prince

[This following remarks are the text of a lecture delivered in Liberal Studies 302 at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University) by Ian Johnston in February 2002. This document is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. The lecture was part of a panel presentation offering differing views on The Prince]

[Quotations from The Prince are taken from Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


The previous two lectures offered us a glimpse of two major ways of interpreting Machiavelli—both based on the a reading of the text which takes Machiavelli at his word, that is, as a serious political thinker sincerely offering an analysis of political life with recommendations about how to succeed, and hence a political theory worth attending to.

My take on this book is representative of a widely held (but distinctly minority) view of The Prince, namely, that the book is, first and foremost, a satire, so that many of the things we find in it which are contradictory, morally absurd, and specious are there quite deliberately in order to ridicule two things—first, the Medici family itself and, second, the very notion of tyrannical rule embodied in the government of the Prince (hence, the satire has a firm moral purpose—to expose tyranny and promote republican government). Such a way of reading this text, it should be clear, is distinctly at odds with any reading which assumes that Machiavelli's analysis and text are totally without ironical undercurrents which qualify, indeed contradict, his literal "message."

As I say, what I am going to present is a minority view, although there is some evidence to suggest that many of the first readers of the book read it in this way (i.e., as a satire). Some later thinkers, like Rousseau, have also been part of this interpretative camp and found the book an extremely funny attack on the very things the literalists like to take so seriously. However, if the book was intended as a satire, then I think one has to concede that it must be one of the most famous examples ever written of a largely unsuccessful satire, to judge from the number of readers who respond to what Machiavelli says here with literal seriousness, missing the ironic intention.

I don't mean to suggest by that a particular failure on the part of such readers. If The Prince was originally written as a satire and if (as is evident) a majority of readers fail to recognize that, then the fault lies in the writing—the ironies are not sufficiently clear throughout (for whatever reason) or, alternatively put, are too lightly shaded or require too much of a contemporary Florentine sensibility, so that the literal meaning overwhelms the moral purpose (as if, for example, readers of Swift's "A Modest Proposal" either heartily endorsed the notion of eating children as a solution for the economic difficulties of Ireland or were indignant at the inhuman morality of the author, both groups failing to see that the proposal is ironic throughout).

Now, apart from the response of Machiavelli's first readers, there is some contextual evidence to suggest that the meaning of The Prince might not be as straightforward as it first appears. Machiavelli seems to have been a life-long republican in his politics, he was punished (and tortured) for that by the Medici family to whom The Prince is dedicated, and the Medici family, or at least certain members of it, were not universally well regarded in Florence. Moreover, Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli holds up as a role model, was viewed by many contemporaries as something of a brutal fool or, at least, a colossal failure. In addition, the literal meaning of The Prince is starkly at odds with Machiavelli's other political writings in which he reveals his staunch faith in republican virtues. And we might recall that Machiavelli was an accomplished writer of satiric drama. These contextual facts could remind us that a satiric construction on this text might find some basis in Machiavelli's life and times.

However, as you know, I don't by nature place much value on contextual arguments (since they can so often go in any direction one wishes—hence the old saying: if you torture the contextual facts sufficiently, they'll confess to anything), so I'm going to confine my comments to Machiavelli's text. I don't have much time in the lecture to make my case, but I'd like to draw your attention to some ways in which certain ironic and satiric possibilities open up for me as I read the book.

[This issue of the weight one gives to contextual evidence is particularly interesting the case of The Prince, since a letter was discovered in 1810 in which Machiavelli talks about his book in a way which indicates he meant it to be taken literally as an attempt to gain the favour of the Medici family.  Even if we assume the letter is genuine (and there is no compelling evidence not to do so) that does not rule out other possibilities, given that we don't know the motives behind the letter (was Machiavelli being entirely candid?) or that, like a number of other authors, Machiavelli may not have been a very astute interpreter of his own work.  No matter what he intended or says he intended, our task is to respond to the text as we have it.]

The Tension in Machiavelli's Moral Vocabulary

One feature of Machiavelli's style which exerts a certain ironic pressure on the reader is the yawning gap he creates between a conventional moral language and the immoral activities he is proposing, a common satiric technique. Here's an example from The Prince:

I believe that this depends upon whether cruel deeds are committed well or badly. They may be called well committed (if one may use the word 'well' of that which is evil) when thy are all committed at once, because they are necessary for establishing one's power and are not afterwards persisted in, but changed for measures as beneficial as possible to one's subjects. Badly committed are those that at first are few in number, but increase with time rather than diminish. Those who follow the first method can in some measure remedy their standing both with God and with man. . . . Those who follow the second cannot possible maintain their power. (33)

There's an inherent tension here between the words indicating Machiavelli's approval or disapproval (well and badly)—words which, in common speech and writing tend always to have important moral connotations—and the acts which he is analyzing. The style calls attention to the moral absurdity of Machiavelli's universe (as his parenthetic comment makes clear). If people can break God's laws in the most serious way and later "remedy their standing with God," then the notion of taking one's standing with God seriously, by any Christian orthodoxy, makes a mockery of religion or, alternatively, the phrase is a way of making a satiric mockery of the suggestion. In a society in which one's standing with God was, for many people, more than one more political strategy, the phrase would carry significant satiric weight.

Machiavelli, it strikes me deliberately rubs our noses here (and elsewhere, although not so clearly) in the moral absurdity of what he is proposing. It would have been relatively easy to avoid using moral language altogether (as he does in much of the text), for example, using instead of words like "well" or "badly" words like "efficient," "inefficient," "prudent," "imprudent," and so on. To bring into play moral concerns in the vocabulary is to do more than merely state that efficiency is more important in politics than morality: it is (potentially, anyway) to remind the reader of the satiric point that the literal recommendations empty the world of any significant value:

The main foundations of all states (whether they are new, old or mixed) are good laws and good armies. Since it is impossible to have good laws if good arms are lacking, and if there are good arms there must also be good laws, I shall leave laws aside and concentrate on arms. (42)

If we accept the loaded term "good" in its usual moral sense, then this statement is a truism, and Machiavelli's advice is unnecessary—the virtuous use of force is indeed the essential foundation of a just state. But if, to understand what Machiavelli is driving at, we have to empty the term "good" of its moral meaning (something his argument requires), then his vocabulary here tends to remind us of the moral emptiness of his argument, which removes from moral language its moral meaning. To see the potential satiric effect of the above statement, try substituting "effective" or "efficient" for "good." Such a substitution does not affect the literal meaning of what Machiavelli is saying here, but it removes the latent ironies calling our attention to the major satiric point of the text: the ruler's obsession with efficient power at the expense of everything else is absurd—it neutralizes any vocabulary of value.

One can make the same point about the ironies Machiavelli directs against his own advice. For example, high on his list of things the Prince needs to attend to is his own security, and he goes to great lengths to point out the various things the Prince can do (or must do) to keep himself safe. Among my favourite examples is the following: "In fact, destroying cities is the only certain way of holding them" (18). Now think about this for a moment. The only sure way to maintain one's power is to destroy the very thing one wishes to have power over—that's the final security Machiavelli is recommending. What is the value of something one has to destroy in order to assure oneself that one's control over it is complete. This is a reductio ad absurdum, but it is clearly the logical outcome of what Machiavelli is recommending. And it's very difficult for me to read that particular sentence as anything more than a satirical blow against his own recommendations and (more importantly) against the princes to whom his advice is directed.

The point is that Machiavelli's satire is emphasizing how a dedication to immoral behaviour (even under the pretense of moral conduct, an important quality in the ruler) makes the word morally absurd and makes the language of morality meaningless and political action without enduring value. Many of Machiavelli's comments keep reminding the would-be prince that he must pay attention to moral qualities like "loyalty," and form "good alliances," and so on, but his text points out that by following his recommendations such words are emptied of significant meaning and thus the enduring value of what the prince needs to stay powerful is gone. How can one appeal to the prince to think about "good laws, strong arms, reliable allies and exemplary conduct" when the moral language which makes these valuable is empty. If one is prepared to abandon morality in order to achieve certain ends, then how is one to apply a significant moral vocabulary to justify the end or expect people to respect a moral vocabulary essential to human trust?

Machiavelli himself calls attention to the absurdity this creates (both moral and political absurdity) when he provides his advice to rulers about alliances. First he says that allies will be grateful for the help one provides, so there is nothing to fear, once the alliance has gained a victory: "men are never so dishonourable that they would attack you in such circumstances and display so much ingratitude. Moreover, victories are never so decisive that the victor does not need to be careful, and especially about acting justly" (78). But on the very next page he cancels this advice: "a ruler should be careful never to ally himself with a ruler who is more powerful than himself in order to attack other powers, unless he is forced to, as has been said above. For if you are victorious together, you will be at his mercy, and rulers should do their best to avoid being at the mercy of other powers" (79). First he gives us advice about how to make honourable and just alliances and then denies the possibility of what he has just recommended. In the climate of fear and paranoia created by Machiavellian principles, words like "honourable" and "just" are without content and cannot provide any reliable basis for one ruler to trust another.

As if to underscore the absurdity of his advice at this point, Machiavelli launches into one of the first of his melancholy reflections on the impossibility of providing workable advice based on any coherent principles:

No government should ever believe that it is always possible to follow safe policies. Rather, it should be realised that all courses of action involve risks: for it is in the nature of things that when one tries to avoid one danger another is always encountered. But prudence consists in knowing how to assess the dangers, and to choose the least bad course of action as being the right one to follow. (79)

Such a view is, of course, a recipe for paranoid politics: no matter what one does, the success is only momentary. Lasting security in politics is unattainable, so one is, in effect, committed to a ceaseless scramble to keep one's head afloat with whatever bad means are available. This vision of politics, which Machiavelli (as I shall mention later) comes back to repeatedly raises the obvious question: Why bother? If this is what politics is reduced to, then Machiavellian policies make no difference (if anything it makes matters worse), and it might be a great deal more prudent to try to base one's politics on moral principles or, if that is not possible, to abandon the endeavour.

Interestingly enough, this seems to have been one of the major conclusions Shakespeare is moving towards in many of his political plays (and Shakespeare, who had probably not read Machiavelli's book but who was familiar with the basic principles of Machiavellian politics, at least in their popular manifestation, is the great commentator on The Prince). Once the power-seeking Machiavel has destroyed the moral weight of public language (by breaking his promises), there is no moral language for him to use in order to consolidate his own kingdom. His own conduct has created a situation where he cannot trust anyone, and no one can trust him—hence the civil wars must go on and on in an increasingly absurd confusion. A politics based on solely on efficient power generates resistance in the form of another efficient power (that's inevitable, given that a lack of trust generates fear), and the clash continues until power eats itself up.

Shakespeare, of course, is no naïve sentimentalist yearning for a world in which all rulers are virtuous. He understands that modern politics requires certain Machiavellian skills. But without providing a clear answer, his plays raise again and again disturbing questions about the self-defeating logic (personal and political) of a political program based merely on those skills. A satiric reading of The Prince would argue that that's precisely what Machiavelli is calling attention to as well.

This point is commonly underscored in arguments about the ends justifying the means. If the means permitted are judged solely on the short-term attainment of one's power goals, then the end one reaches is not only precarious but empty of value (or rather, precarious because it is empty of moral value). What relationship, personal or political, can be maintained when no one observes basic moral principles (like keeping promises) in order to attain those ends? The political and moral absurdity of this position appears in Machiavelli's first basic principle:

From this may be derived a generalisation, which is almost always valid: anyone who enables another be become powerful, brings about his own ruin. For that power is increased by him either through guile or through force, and both of these are reasons for the man who has become powerful to be on his guard. (14)

Given that modern political life requires alliances, agreements, shared programs of efficient power, and so on, this first principle would seem to be another reductio ad absurdum:: any such alliance for whatever reason is ruinous. How in such a climate is political life possible?

In fact, one might wonder why, in a world governed by Machiavellian politics, anyone would obey a Prince.  If human beings are really what Machiavelli says they are (greedy and power-hungry animals) and if the reality of political life is constant deceit with no shared language of trust, then why would anyone with any power at all trust a Prince?  Of course, fear might keep a lot of people quiet and obedient (as Machiavelli points out), but fear would drive anyone with the power to resist and a knowledge of the prince's Machiavellian platform to fight against the prince, even if there were not immediate reason for conflict (for without a language of trust, the future is always radically uncertain and dangerous).

The Irony of Machiavelli's Examples

This point about the ultimate futility of what he is recommending becomes repeatedly apparent in many of Machiavelli's examples (and these, of course, form the core of his argument). If he is indeed keen to persuade people to adopt the tactics he is recommending, then why does he so often select people who were political failures and (more pertinently) why, in the midst of praising them so effusively, does he constantly remind us of those failures? The purpose of such examples is clear enough if we sense a satiric intention behind them.

The famous example here is Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli clearly sets up as a role model for any future prince. 

If the whole career of the Duke is considered, then, it will be seen that he succeeded in laying very strong foundations for his future power. I do not consider it superfluous to discuss it, for I do not know what better precepts to offer to a new ruler than to cite his actions as a patters; and although his efforts were in the end unsuccessful, he should not be blamed, because it resulted from extraordinarily bad luck. (23)

This makes the Duke's example something like the famous saying "The operation was a success but the patient died." What is the point of "laying very strong foundations for . . . future power," if you end up dead. If Machiavelli's most powerful example, his favourite role model, whose actions are the embodiment of what Machiavelli proposes, is a notorious failure (for whatever reason), surely that casts some interesting ironic light onto the entire slate of Machiavelli's recommendations. This is surely an important possibility when Machiavelli, having highlighted Cesare's extraordinary bloodthirstiness and duplicity, stresses the futility of all his efforts and adds (in what strikes me as a very sardonic tone), "Having reviewed all the actions of the duke, then, I would not wish to criticise him; rather, he seems to me worthy to be held up as a model. . . . . given that he possessed a great spirit" (28). But what, one is entitled to ask, is at all worthy or great about that list of atrocities and lies, especially when the final political result was failure? The thought arises that perhaps if Cesare had really understood what those words mean, his career (and the political conditions in Italy) would have been significantly better than they were thanks to his glorious adventures.

Later in the text (60), Machiavelli compares Hannibal and Scipio, in order to commend Hannibal's harsh discipline and criticize Scipio's more humane treatment of his soldiers. But every schoolboy know what happened to these two men: Scipio defeated Hannibal, and the Roman destroyed Carthage. The force of this comparison calls into question the very reason Machiavelli is praising the loser's qualities. After all, the final test of one's pragmatic efficiency is victory—the loser, in Machiavelli's world, has failed. So why is he keen to hold up short-term winners and long-term losers for our admiration?

In fact, if The Prince is not a satire, then one has to wonder why Machiavelli seems to go out of his way so often to find examples of people who, like Cesare Borgia, have followed the methods he is apparently recommending, enjoyed some short-term success, and then failed miserably, and why Machiavelli is so keen to remind us of the speed with which they came to grief?

After all, if he were fully committed to the program he seems to be offering, then he could have come up with a great many better examples of successful Machiavellians, those who applied his skills and succeeded over a long period (there are some of these, of course, but one wonders why there are not a great many more). And this is all the more ironic, because many of those people whose conduct he appears to be recommending are directly responsible for the situation he wants corrected, so that in places The Prince seems to be saying that if we want to cure the political infection endemic in Italy, we should simply expose ourselves to the same disease in stronger dosages.

In fact, Machiavelli's principal method of supporting his argument by analyzing examples has potentially the satiric effect of inviting the reader to come up with counter examples of people who have ignored the advice he is offering, who have tried as far as possible to keep their promises and to base their political rule on justice rather than expediency, and who have succeeded far better than any of Machiavelli's examples of short-term political efficiency at any price. Such a list would not be difficult to establish.

Machiavelli's Final Recipe for Success

The ironies undercutting Machiavelli's recommended tactics emerge also from what seems to be his final advice to the Prince, out of which one might construct a program very hostile to the very existence of princes

Near the end of The Prince, Machiavelli concludes with some very gloomy reflections on the nature of fortune, on the shifting circumstances rulers face, and on the general impossibility of any success lasting for very long, no matter what the ruler does. What has worked for him to gain power will be the very thing that makes him vulnerable to the next power. In such an unstable world, he finally concludes, it is better to be impetuous than calculating (87). The empirical record, he tells us, does not allow us to draw any other conclusion.

But if that's the case, then what's the point of all the advice in the previous pages? If being impetuous (acting quickly and without much carefully efficient forethought) is more likely to make you fortunate than calculating is, then the entire central thrust of the book is denied and the futility of Machiavellian political tactics is revealed by the very man proposing these tactics.

But Machiavelli is not entirely pessimistic. He repeatedly stresses that the best security a ruler can possess is the loyalty of his people, good laws, and good weapons. One might see in this the subversive point the satire is pressuring the reader to realize. Having reduced his own apparent recommendations over and over again to absurdity, Machiavelli is inviting us to think about the moral components of "loyalty," "good laws," and "good weapons."

And to the extent that protecting oneself from invasion and foreign control is a major political concern of Machiavelli's here, we might see in the following remarks his hidden meaning—the only way out of this political nightmare is a form of government in which tyrannical princes have no place, that is, in free republics.

Anyone who becomes master of a city accustomed to a free way of life, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it himself, because hen it rebels, it will always be able t appeal to the spirit of freedom and its ancient institutions, which are never forgotten, despite the passage time and any benefits bestowed by the new ruler. Whatever he does, if he does not foment internal divisions or scatter the inhabitants, they will never forget their lost liberties and their ancient institutions, and will immediately attempt to recover them whenever they have an opportunity. . . . (18)

Some Final Comments

Having tried to make the case that Machiavelli's The Prince can be read as a satire, I need to return to my original point—that if it is a satire, it is a spectacularly unsuccessful one for most readers. Why would that be the case?

The most obvious reason why the work does not (for the majority of readers) register as a satire is that, if Machiavelli intended the work to be read that way, his ironies are not sufficiently maintained throughout. It is possible to cull the work (as I have done) for moments in which a satiric tone seems possible (even probable), but that ironic tone is very uneven and (I must confess) often rather tame, insufficiently mordant and funny (although, to judge from some student responses, those who do read it as satire can still find a good deal of humour in its pages).

It may well be the case that Machiavelli intended the contemporary force of some of his examples (especially Cesare Borgia and the other examples from recent Italian politics) to help the ironies register in a much more obvious way. One can see how that might well have affected the receptions of the work among a readership largely made of those for whom Cesare was an object of brutal stupidity and contempt and for whom the Medici were a grave and unwelcome political threat. But if that is the case, then The Prince is a fine example of a satire that has lost much of its bite once the familiarity with the contemporary references is lost (so that, say, the apparent admiration of Cesare Borgia registers as genuine because we have no immediate and shared knowledge of the man in action).

If we do not read The Prince as a satire, then its conclusion still appears morally absurd and politically disastrous. It may well be (as I have said) that Machiavellian tactics make up a great deal of modern (and ancient) politics, but if that is all there is to it (as Machiavelli repeatedly stresses) then goals like the unification of Italy become morally indefensible (unless one resorts to the sorts of defences of those applauding fascism because the dictators made the trains run on time or solved the central European Jewish problem) and politically unattainable (for any long-term plan to unify Italy requires a vision, trust, loyalty in a shared enterprise, and all those things Machiavelli seems to dismiss as inappropriate for a wise ruler—thus, the attainment of Machiavelli's concluding vision of a united Italy would seem to be rendered impossible by the very advice he is providing).


If one wishes to read The Prince unironically, it's possible, as we have heard (from my colleague Norm Cameron's lecture), to attach to Machiavelli's advice some moral vision similar to an early anticipation of utilitarianism--to argue, in effect, that Machiavelli is urging the Prince to think of the greatest good of the greatest number and thus use his unscrupulous tactics for the long-term betterment of as many people as possible.  While this view does not deny the harshness of Machiavellian tactics, it at least seeks to mitigate the moral unease one feels by suggesting that there is a long-term moral goal in view.

The difficulty with this approach (as Dr. Anne Leavitt pointed out in her lecture) is that it is by no means clear that Machiavelli has any such long-term utilitarian program in mind.  It's true he often talks about the economic well being of the people and one could infer (I suppose) from his desire to avoid foreign invasions and constant warfare a concern to maximize the benefits of peace and security.  But if that's the case, one wonders why he is not a great deal more explicit about it.

For one might fairly ask which has a higher priority in Machiavelli's argument: the power base of the Prince or the well being of the people.  When Machiavelli talks about the state, for example, it's not at all clear that he's referring to the people that make up the state rather than to the Prince's power base (and these are not the same thing). And the well being of the people (when Machiavelli talks about it at all) sounds a great deal more like one more tactic for remaining in power, rather than the over all goal of the entire political program.

Moreover, such a utilitarian reading of Machiavelli still leaves unanswered the important question whether the tactics he is recommending are the most effective means of securing the greatest good of the greatest number.  As I pointed out above, given the extent to which Machiavelli's tactics would seem to encourage a politics of paranoia, one might argue that the climate of fear, suspicion, and hostility they would encourage among the Prince's subjects would guarantee a political life in which the continuing scramble for power might well prevent rather than foster the well being of the people (and it would not be hard to derive from the historical record a sufficient number of examples to illustrate the point).


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