01 February 2010

The Prince, Part 1

For a number of reasons I have been stimulated to re-read Machiavelli’s The Prince, which I have read twice, but only when I was much younger, with less education and less experience than I now have, and, in both cases, read hurriedly. And it is my experience that a worthwhile book requires several readings, separated in time with other relevant reading in between to provide greater context and connectivity, to be even reasonably well understood.

It is a relatively short work, so it seemed appropriate to blog my way through it, to share my thoughts with others and to get their thoughts in return. I will not make an attempt at exhaustive explication, detailed analysis, or thorough and original interpretation, but will, a chapter or two at a time, comment on what happens to strike me as I am reading. It would be lovely to make this a weekly event—and who couldn’t get amped for Prince Mondays?!—but being both busy and bipolar, please don’t hold your breath in anticipation. However, if you’re at all interested, read on for the first installment, in which I give a backgrounder on our author, Nicollo Machiavelli.

Scholars are still arguing over just why Machiavelli wrote The Prince. He was at work on his Discourses, which took about a decade to write, when he suddenly took a break and whipped out his short classic, using, in part, sections cadged from his longer work (which is readily available, but rarely read—I confess to not having read it thoroughly myself). Machiavelli had been an administrator, and apparently a very effective one, for the Republic of Florence, including the organization of a citizen-army. His effectiveness stemmed in part from his very astute observations of political reality. When the Medici took power, ending the Republic, he was out of a job and retreated to his farm, where he wrote not only these political works, but The Art of War, a history of Florence, poetry, and plays.

Despite having lost his government position because of the Medici, Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to “Lorenzo the Magnificent, son of Piero di Medici.” Some have interpreted this as Machiavelli selling out. It does seem that he missed his life as an administrator, so perhaps he was willing to sell out just to get back into a position of influence, and back to the work he enjoyed. Knowing what we do about the human desire for power, that’s not too implausible, although I personally would like to think more of him than that (I admire him as the first positive political theorist.) A small number of people view it as Machiavelli being satirical, and purposefully trying to give the Medici bad advice, which, if accurate, means all of us today who think his arguments are sound have also been fooled. I find that implausible. A view that has grown in popularity, but which is certainly not unanimous, is that Machiavelli hoped to use the Medici to both unify Italy and turn it into a Republic. Certainly the final chapter of the book makes this a plausible interpretation, and it neatly fits with the delicious idea that Machiavelli was being, well, Machiavellian. But for Machiavelli to have believed that the Medici, if strong enough to unify Italy after “liberating her from the barbarians,” might then devolve power to the people he would have had to engage in a bit of wishful thinking, which is uncharacteristic of his work. It’s not impossible, though. For myself, with no basis whatsoever except my general understanding of how politics work, I suspect that Ol’ Nick probably had a desire to get back into the government for two reasons: 1) just to fill that empty hole in his life that came with the loss of influence; 2) because he persuaded himself that, working from the inside, he could help lead the Medici toward a republic. That type of personal delusion seems all too plausible, even for a guy given to a coldly analytical view of others’ actions.

Oh, and that Ol’ Nick business? The world wasn’t quite ready for positive political theory. All political theory up to that point had been normative, an effort to explain the ideal society and its structure. Niccolo’s emphasis on what is effective in achieving one’s goals, rather than on what is good, led people---most of whom had never read him—to equate him with Satan. And that's pretty much still how normative political theorists today still view positive political theory. Sigh. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The great irony of his life was that although Lorenzo ignored his book others in Florence became aware of it, and when the Republic was restored (alas, only briefly) and Machiavelli sought a position in it, his advice to Lorenzo doomed his chances of earning a position. A pity—perhaps he could have helped the Republic last a little longer.

As I write, I will link to the chapters online so that anyone interested can read along with me. (Or you can download the whole book from Project Gutenberg.) If you’re like me, and find you don’t have enough time to sit down and read at length as you would like, please join me, as I will stick to short sections and announce in advance which chapters I will be reading next (sort of the "read the Bible in one year" approach, except it shouldn't take that long). Then you will be well equipped to argue with me that I have misinterpreted him, or missed the really significant points he makes, etc. That kind of interactive discussion while reading would really make this worthwhile, for me at least.

Next installment, planned for next Monday: Chapters 1-3.

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