Fortune, Ability, and the Civic Prince
If anyone has thought that it was the aristocratic class of men that Machiavelli admired, rather than the strong individual, this chapter sufficiently dispels that error. Here his disdain for the aristocracy is displayed plainly; that is, without excess, adornment, excuse or vitriol, but in the most straightforward and off-hand manner.
At the beginning he makes a curious distinction between civic principalities and the more “traditional” principalities he has previously been discussing, when he argues that the civic principality cannot be achieved “either wholly through ability or wholly through fortune, but rather through shrewdness assisted by luck.”* I take this to mean that because the civic prince depends upon the political support of others, ability alone cannot enable one to rise to that station, as it’s not simply a matter of will and good decision-making. But luck—or fortune—alone is also insufficient, because this is not a case of having one good connection (such as a father/pope) who can put you into power; the support of too many is needed to rely on luck alone. So ability is necessary but
requires some good fortune to make success possible, and good fortune is necessary but requires the ability to take advantage of opportunities. It strikes me that this is a good descriptor for our civic prince, the U.S. President. No one becomes president without some real political skill, yet skill alone will not suffice, and every successful seeker of the presidency has had good fortune along the way. I would hazard a guess that the same is true of prime ministers as well.
That this is still true is not surprising. Absent a fundamental change in human nature, we would not expect the essential politics of a large aggregation of people to change. But again we see Machiavelli moving political theory toward modernity, as he focuses on the effect of structure, rather than on arguments about the ideal or the just.
The People vs. the Aristocracy
And if it may be permitted, Machiavelli has a Marxist moment here, as the entire context of this chapter is focused on class warfare. The civic prince comes into power with the support of either the people or the aristocracy, and that, as Robert Frost would say, "has made all the difference." Let’s not take the “Marxist moment” too far, as Machiavelli is arguing that the governing ideology of the society is a consequence of this class conflict. But Machiavelli clearly sees an irreconcilable conflict of interests between classes, with each trying to use government to protect itself against the other.
When the nobles see that they cannot resist the people they build up one of their own and make him a prince in order to satisfy their ambitions under his protection. Or it may be that the people, unable to resist the nobles, will pick one man and make him prince so as to be protected by his authority.
The Civic Prince, however, should try to find his support among the people, rather than the aristocracy, whichever put him in place, because the aristocracy are untrustworthy. Their sense of their own greatness, and consequence jealousy of the Prince’s power, make them a threat.
The one coming into power with the aid of the great finds it more difficult to maintain himself, for he is a ruler surrounded by many who think themselves his peers so that he cannot manipulate or command them as he would like to.
After all, they did put him in power, so they must naturally think of him as their property, their puppet whose purpose is to look after their interests. The moment he threatens their interests they will naturally turn against him. By contrast, there is security in the support of the public.
He who comes to power by the favor of the people, however, finds himself alone in his eminence and has about him, at worst, only very few unprepared to obey him.”
Fortunately, the Civic Prince with some ability can handle the aristocracy fairly easily. Machiavelli notes that some of them will act in such as way that their fortune is tied to that of the Prince, so they can be relied upon. Those who do not act in such a way will be of two types: those who don’t because they are “pusillanimous” and “lack spirit” or they are scheming and ambitious. The first should be used to the Prince’s advantage, as they will support him in good times and be too afraid to act when he is in danger, thus do not present a danger themselves. The scheming and ambitious type the Prince “must regard as open enemies.” However the Prince can protect himself from that type, as
he can well dispense with individual nobles since he can degrade them or create new ones every day and bestow honors or take them away at his pleasure.
The public, by contrast, wants little more than to be left alone.
Hence, one who attains power by favor of the people must keep the people always friendly to him, which will indeed be a simple matter, since all they ask is not to be oppressed.
And, he says, even if it is the aristocracy that brought the Prince to power in the Civic Principality, he must gain the favor of the people, which can be done simply by protecting them from the aristocracy.
From Republic to Civic Prince?
At the beginning of the chapter, Machiavelli notes that the conflict between the people and the aristocracy can lead to one of three outcomes: "either a one-man rule or liberty or anarchy." He is criminally vague at this point, but after several re-readings, the only way to make sense of this chapter is to take him as writing about the one-man rule, which he also calls absolutism. Clearly he is not talking about anarchy, but also this civic principality is not a republic, or "liberty." The distinction between this "Civic" prince and any other Prince is not, perhaps, immediately clear, since the civic prince is just as much an absolute ruler—he is not, so far as I can make out, the prince of a republic, because that would be self-contradictory in Machiavelli’s categorizations.
But however we look at it, his final paragraph in this chapter does not seem to support this schema.
Regimes of this sort generally find their dangerous moments when they are passing from the state of civil organization to absolutism. For the princes command either directly or through magistrates and in the latter case their position is weaker and more dangerous, for they [the princes] are in the hands of citizens appointed as magistrates who, especially in adversity, can easily take the state from them…In time of danger too, the prince is not in a position to seize absolute authority, for the subjects and citizens, accustomed to receiving their orders from the magistrates, are not, in emergencies, disposed to accept his [orders]…
This seems to presuppose a prince who is head of a civic principality and wishes to move it into an absolute, one-man, rule, meaning that it is—at the moment of the prince’s action--not one-man rule. Since it’s also clearly not anarchy, it must be "liberty," which, along with W. K. Marriot in the translation found online, I take to mean the self-governing republic. But one-man rule over a self-governing republic does not fit in the schema Machiavelli laid out at the beginning of the chapter. He seems to have both distinguished between the civic principality and the republic, and to have allowed for a civic prince of the republic. Perhaps he simply needed a good editor/reviewer here. I’m not sure how much it matters, as the rest of the chapter is clear enough and well worth pondering (how does Machiavelli’s emphasis on reliance on the public rather than the aristocracy relate to contemporary populism, for example?), but it does create a gap in understanding, and precisely in an area of great interest to Machiavelli, his systematic categorization of different types of governments.
Next Week: Chapter 10: "How the Strength of All States Should Be Measured."
* For those who care, I am shifting from the translation I previously used, by Luigi Ricci (c. 1903, and used in the Modern College Library Edition) to that by Thomas G. Bergin (c. 1947 and used in the Crofts edition, which I serendipitously found hidden between two much larger books on my bookshelf a few weeks ago. I find it more clearly and elegantly written than the Ricci version, and find both to be superior to the 1908 W. K. Marriot version to which I’ve linked online. Were I to assign The Prince to a class, I would unhesitatingly use the Bergin translation. (Oddly, I don’t specifically remember how I came to have this old Bergin copy, published in 1947 and now literally falling apart, but from the name written inside—Karine Schomer—I know I acquired it at Golden Gate University in San Francisco in the years 1990-91, when she was a Dean there and I was a part-time student and receptionist. I was too lowly to come to her attention, however, and precisely how this book came into my possession is a curious mystery.)