Machiavelli The Prince
He is still a scandal. Yet to read Machiavelli is also and always to take a very deep breath of fresh air, and that despite the almost five hundred years that have elapsed since he wrote The Prince. How can these conflicting reactions coincide? The fresh and bracing air blows, no doubt, from our immediate sense that this man is telling the truth about realities normally sugared over with rhetoric. The scandal lies in the fact that Machiavelli himself is not scandalised by the bitter truth he tells.
The very idea behind The Prince overturns any official hierarchy of values, whether ancient or modern. Machiavelli decides to give us a manual not of how a prince, or political leader, should behave, but how he must behave if he wishes to hold on to power. Every action will be judged with reference to that one goal. Power thus becomes, at least for the Prince, an absolute value. There is no talk of man’s soul. There is no question of power’s being sought in order to carry out some benevolent programme of reform. The good of the people is not an issue, or even a side issue. The Prince must hold on to power… e basta.
Societies and military strategies, individual and collective psychologies are rapidly and efficiently analysed. A wide variety of possible circumstances are established and enquired into. Examples are given from classical literature and recent history. The aim is never to savour the achievements of a given culture, to assess the attractions or otherwise of this or that political system, the balance of weal and woe under this or that regime: what we need to know is how, in each specific situation, a prince can best consolidate his authority and security. The underlying assumption is that, whatever may have been written in the past, political leaders have always put power first and foremost, and indeed that any other form of behaviour would be folly.
The scandal of the book is not felt in its famous general statements: that the end justifies the means; that nothing is so self-defeating as generosity; that men must be pampered or crushed; that there is no surer way of keeping possession of a territory than by devastation. It is easy to imagine these formulations arising from the transgressive glee of the talented writer who simply enjoys turning the world upside down.
No, it is when Machiavelli gives concrete examples and then moves on rapidly without comment that we begin to gasp: the Venetians find that their mercenary leader Carmagnola is not really fighting hard any more, but they are afraid that if they dismiss him he will walk off with some of the territory he previously captured for them: “So for safety’s sake, they were forced to kill him.”
Hiero of Syracuse, when given command of his country’s army, “realized that the mercenaries they had were useless… It seemed to him impossible either to keep them or to disband them, so he had them all cut to pieces.”
Cesare Borgia, having tamed and unified the Romagna with the help of the cruel minister Remirro De Orco, decides to deflect the people’s hatred by putting the blame on the minister and then doing away with him: “one morning, Remirro’s body was found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it. The brutality of this spectacle kept the people of the Romagna for a time appeased and stupefied.”
Borgia then consolidates his position by “destroying all the families of the rulers he had despoiled.” “I cannot possibly censure him,” Machiavelli concludes, because “he could not have conducted himself other than the way he did.”
This sense of coercion, of there being simply no alternative to brutal and murderous behaviour, is central to Machiavelli’s at once pessimistic yet strangely gung-ho vision. It involves the admission that there is a profound mismatch between the qualities that we actually appreciate in a person – generosity, loyalty, compassion, modesty – and the qualities that bring political success – calculation and ruthlessness. As Machiavelli sees it, this mismatch occurs because people in general are greedy, short-sighted and impressionable and must be treated accordingly if a leader is to survive. “I know everyone will agree,” he concedes, “that it would be most laudable if a prince possessed all the qualities deemed to be good among those I have enumerated, but, because of conditions in the world, princes cannot possess those qualities…”
Since the modern English reader of Machiavelli has largely been brought up on a rationalist, utilitarian philosophy which ties itself in knots to demonstrate that, given the right kind of government, self-interest, collective interest and Christian values can all be reconciled, it is something of a relief to come across a writer who wastes no time with such utopian nonsense. Yet though Machiavelli never actually welcomes the world’s awfulness and certainly never rejoices in cruelty, our own upbringing prompts us to feel that he should at least have seemed to be a little shocked by it all.