21 March 2010

The Prince, Part 7 (Chapter 7)

The Prince chapter 7: Of New Dominions Acquired by the Power of Others or by Fortune."

This chapter, in any normally partitioned work, would not be separate from the prior one. Chapter 6 discussed dominions won both by one’s own ability and via the powers of others, with examples of the former. This chapter discusses the same thing, but with examples of the latter. The structure is somewhat unusual, but it works well, at least for me.*

However this particular chapter doesn’t work.
For the first time, Machiavelli’s argument fails to persuade. I get an odd feeling reading this chapter, because I believe his argument—that those who acquire their principalities through the good graces of others placing them in power are almost inevitably doomed to failure—is correct, but the example he uses to defend it doesn’t work on its own terms.

Here is the single claim around which the chapter is structured:

Those who rise from private citizens to be princes merely by fortune have little trouble in rising but very much in maintaining their position….They neither know how to, nor are in a position to maintain their rank…unless he be a man of great genius…

The rest of the chapter is an extended discussion (this is one of his longer chapters) of one case, that of Cesare Borgia (aka Duke Valentine), who was placed in a position of authority by his father, Pope Alexander VI. ** Machiavelli seems to intend that this be another “hard case,” one that convincingly demonstrates the claim by working out as the claim predicts despite seeming to be least likely to do so. He holds Borgia up as the “man of great genius,” and shows that even he—despite doing almost everything right—cannot hold onto his dominions once his patron dies. That is, he doesn’t use as his example a weak and foolish man who was put into power because of his weakness and foolishness make him easy to control and easy to remove when the time comes, but someone who despite doing all the right things after being put into power still fails. Here’s a sample of the right moves made by Borgia/Duke Valentine.

  • He crushed the important families of Rome so they could not oppose him.
  • He conquered other principalities so they could not oppose him, but he would have their forces aligned with his.
  • He found a way to throw off the influence of the French, whose assistance had been necessary to bring him to power but whose continued influence was a threat to his power.
  • He gained influence in the College of Cardinals, so that—when his father died—while he could not determine who would become pope, he could block anyone whom he opposed.

Despite all these great maneuvers, and the ones he was involved in at the time his father died, he had only partially secured his control. But,

had he succeeded, as he had done before, in the very year that Alexander died he would have gained such strength and renown as to be able to maintain himself, without depending on the fortunes or strength of others, but solely by his own power and ability.

The intended takeaway lesson is, “Had Borgia depended on his own considerable ability from the beginning, he would not have been at the mercy of uncontrollable events like the death of his patron.” And indeed, he would have had no patron whose continued support he needed.

But the example fails because of two other factors, one a bad choice by Borgia and one an uncontrollable event of “fortune,” that he would have succumbed to even if he had gained his territories through his own ability.

First, when his father died, although he could effectively control the selection of the pope, he allowed the wrong person to be selected. Machiavelli is unsparing in his criticism.

The only thing he can be accused of is that in the creation of Julius II he made a bad choice…he ought never to have permitted any of these cardinals to be raised to the papacy whom he had injured…

So one could argue that Borgia’s failure was due to bad choice, rather than to fortune. Granted, this might support Machiavelli’s claim that “Those who rise from private citizens to be princes merely by fortune … neither know how to, nor are in a position to maintain their rank.” Perhaps even Borgia, despite pretty good judgment, didn’t have the requisite “genius.” But Machiavelli has said that even the man of genius will have a hard time holding his position of power, and though he doesn’t come right out and say it, the implication is that the genius won’t be able to overcome all the factors against him because—having gained his position before creating a solid footing--too many things will be against him. But the doom of Borgia from the choice of new pope was not one of those many factors against him; it was just a mistake.

Second, Machiavelli discusses Borgia’s ill-health at this time, calling him “half-dead,” and arguing that “had [he] been in good health, he would have survived every difficulty.” That argument suggests he would have survived even the poor selection of pope, but that he was becoming too physically ill to continue to succeed. And in the end, he died only four years after his father. Certainly this had nothing to do with his coming to success through fortune, so the same overriding factor that doomed him as a “prince through fortune,” would have doomed him as a “prince through ability.”

So ultimately Machiavelli’s example doesn’t prove what he wants it to prove. The two causes of Borgia’s failure are not necessarily attributable to his having become a prince through fortune. Machiavelli is limited here, I think, by the reliance on anecdotal evidence rather than something more statistical. Although he predated the development of the formal approach to political analysis—he could hardly be the grandfather of it, as he is, if he did not in fact predate it—he would probably have been better served by using multiple examples, with less detail in each, to show that a variety of princes brought to power by fortune—those with greater and lesser “genius,” and those with more favorable and less favorable circumstances—nearly all failed to maintain their position. Of course to do that properly would also require showing that a greater number of those who came to power through their own abilities, without a patron, were able to maintain their power once in it. Whether the evidence would show that, I can’t say.

On a closing note, as the chapters proceed, Machiavelli’s admiration for the man of genius, who can command political authority and shape events to go his way, is abundantly clear. As I noted previously, this is not a dispassionate analysis of such men, but the promotion of them as the type of man to emulate. Machiavelli the bureaucrat was himself not such a man, although he is said to have had his own genius as an administrator, but it seems as though that is the type of man he would like to work for. Psychological implications abound, of course, but without enough evidence, I think, to talk meaningfully about them. More significantly, it bears on the hypothesis that he wrote the book in an effort to persuade Lorenzo di Medici to become the kind of prince who would restore the Florentine Republic, and seems to undermine that thesis. The kind of active powerful and aggressive person he is promoting does not seem like the type to set up a republic and step aside. The ideal Prince he has outlined so far is no Cincinnatus. But two chapters from now we come to his first discussion of the “civic principality,” and perhaps at that time we shall see something to support the hypothesis. For now I’m not reading ahead, and I don’t remember the details of the book from my last reading roughly 16 years ago, so I’m not sure what we’ll find.

Next Week: Chapter 8, "Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy"


*For whatever reason, as I get older, my attention span gets shorter, so that—like my students—I struggle with long chapters and long works. Which isn’t to say I don’t like longer books; I just finished re-reading Shogun as my bedtime reading, and next on my list is the third book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

** To follow his example clearly, one needs a working understanding of late 15th century Italian and Catholic history, which I, for one, do not have. The concept of a Pope openly having children puzzled me, despite a vague understanding that the Catholic Church had at some time in the past been astoundingly corrupt. And the surfeit of names, places, and events that occur in this chapter are a bit mind-boggling, although having occurred in Machiavelli’s lifetime, they would have been very familiar to his first readers. For my part, I am very grateful to the anonymous students of Italian and Catholic history who have written Wikipedia’s pages on these men.

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