The Prince Is Not a Satire

In the comments to yesterday’s BoingBoing piece, there was a bit of chatter in the comments to the tune that The Prince was a satirical work, not to be taken seriously, and Machiavelli was laughing up his sleeve at the Medici as he wrote it. Cracked was referenced.

While this theory is one that’s been kicking around in revisionist circles for a while, there’s not much evidence to back it up. Machiavelli was indeed a strident proponent of the republic, but he also believed that republics grew from principalities.

Machiavelli’s model was the Roman republic, not surprising in Renaissance Florence, passionate for all things Roman. His masterpiece on republics took the form of a meditation on the first ten books of Livy’s history of Rome. In Rome, of course, the republic grew out of the expulsion of the Tarquinian kings. Machiavelli envisioned a similar course for modern Italy. In machiavelli’s time, Italy was a playground in which nation states like France and Spain campaigned against one another and there was little the divided city states of Italy could do about it. Even the Idea of “Italy” as a political entity was the province of poets. Machiavelli was the first, in his exhortation at the end of The Prince, to take the idea seriously. He imagined a powerful prince could unite the peninsula by conquest, because he knew there was no way it would happen by treaty. If a prince could bring laws and stability to Italy, then a republic would grow out of that, as it had for the ancients. So Machiavelli was not an enemy of the princedom, but he viewed it as a necessary foundation to the creation of a republic.

The idea of The Prince as satire is also problematic because of motive. Why would Machiavelli do this? What could he possibly hope to gain? There was no freedom of the press in Renaissance Europe and Machiavelli in his exile lacked powerful allies to protect him in the event that the Medici took exception to his ‘satire’. His allies in the government like Vettori were so useless they couldn’t even procure for him a government office of any kind. If the Medici wanted his lifeless body tossed in the Arno, they wouldn’t lift a finger.

It has also been posited that Machiavelli despised the Medici for his mistreatment at their hands. But in fact, Machiavelli was done in by incompetent would-be conspirators who got together to plot against the Medici, came up with a list of potential allies they would try to recruit, and then wrote their names down on paper. Think about that. Machiavelli’s name was on that list and he was picked up by the authorities and subjected to some enhanced interrogation techniques. He was let go in the general amnesty when it was clear he had nothing to do with the conspirators.

Occam’s Razor is very useful here. Machiavelli wanted desperately to be back in the government. He wrote dozens of letters to Vettori and Guicciardini begging them for any assistance whatsoever to get him a government post. Whatever grudge he might bear the Medici was more than outweighed by his love of Florence and the knowledge that they were the only game in town. It’s a fallacy to believe that Because he believed the republic superior to the principality that he felt the principality was evil or useless. All evidence points to the Prince being just what Machiavelli claims it is: an earnest treatise of all he knows about the creation and maintenance of a stable princedom.

But the strongest argument to his sincerity is in his own words, from his letter of December 10, 1513 to Vettori. So I’ll close with that.

I have discussed this little study of mine with Filippo and whether or not it would be a good idea to present it [to Giuliano], and if it were a good idea, whether I should take it myself or should send it to you. Against presenting it would be my suspicion that he might not even read it and that that person Ardinghelli might take the credit for this most recent of my endeavors. In favor of presenting it would be the necessity that hounds me, because I am wasting away and cannot continue on like this much longer without becoming contemptible because of my poverty. Besides, there is my desire that these Medici princes should begin to engage my services, even if they should start out by having me roll along a stone. For then, if I could not win them over, I should have only myself to blame. And through this study of mine, were it to be read, it would be evident that during the fifteen years I have been studying the art of the state I have neither slept nor fooled around, and anybody ought to be happy to utilize someone who has had so much experience at the expense of others. There should be no doubt about my word; for, since I have always kept it, I should not start learning how to break it now. Whoever has been honest and faithful for forty-three years, as I have, is unable to change his nature; my poverty is a witness to my loyalty and honesty.

10 thoughts on “The Prince Is Not a Satire

  1. I found your site via the Boing Boing post and think you’re doing phenomenal work here. I’m a fan of the Florentine and it’s nice he’s finally getting a decent crack at the interwebs.

    Any chance you’ll be releasing this as a distinct product in epub or hard copy format?

  2. Thanks! Yes, I’ll be releasing when it’s done, in one format or the other or both, but I’m not sure of the details yet.

  3. Although I have not studied Machiavelli from this perspective, basically I agree with you. For me, the strongest reason to believe that The Prince is not a satire is that there is no good reason to think it would be one. It is over the top, but no more so than parts of the Discourses. Machiavelli was a republican but above all for nonmoral reasons: he saw the republic as a uniquely resilient political structure, and the republican state as the most powerful war machine ever invented. Also, his republicanism does not mean equality, fraternity and liberty: it is compatible with a great deal of inequality. Thus in his view it is no misnomer to talk about princes of republics.

  4. You said:

    All evidence points to the Prince being just what Machiavelli claims it is: an earnest treatise of all he knows about the creation and maintenance of a stable princedom.

    And I say that The Prince is a subtle warning to the new prince. The Prince is a treatise on how to get executed by an angry mob in short order.

    You ask what Niccollo had to gain? I say two things:
    a) Either the young Prince would get the subtle warning and not govern in the wrong way.
    b) Use The Prince as manual and get himself killed – thus possibly open an opportunity to create Florence a Republic.

    He wanted “Italy” to be united – but he notes in Discourses that no state has ever acquired great wealth or dominion if it was not democratically governed.

  5. I hope that it is a satir; anything else, and it is some of the darkest most sinister crap I have ever read. there is a reason why Lenin kept a copy on his nightstand.

    If I were to address your primary point regarding “lack of motivation” due to lack of censorship, might I suggest that satire is not defined by censorship? Rather, satire by its very nature is designed to highlight the lunacy of an idea or action. No doubt, reading his work, many students alike have given thought “how long would it take for such a lunatic Prince to be assassinated?”

    I will say this: it is either a manual designed to lead to self destruction, or it is a manual designed to warn through satire, of what actions will lead to self destruction. I tend to have hope in mankind, and therefore I support the satire theory, as the opposite just plain scares me.

    And a word to those who haven’t read it: please don’t, unless you already have a good and thorough understanding of philosophy.

  6. Obviously, I don’t share this dark view of The Prince, and I don’t think that anything but the most cursory reading bears it out. If the hypothetical 16th century Italian prince who followed the advice and learned from the examples cited in The Prince were headed for self destruction, it would not be due to his reading of Machiavelli. The Prince can be alarming because the realities of leading people can be alarming. That said, Machiavelli cautions time and time again that the worst thing for any ruler to be is hated, that a ruler should seek to earn the respect of his people, that he should create a stable state. The realities of 15th/16th century Italy—political instability, constant warfare, sacking of cities—were more horrifying than the advice that Machiavelli gives.

    I recommend, of course, that anyone can and should read The Prince, whether or not you have formal training in philosophy. The acquisition of knowledge and wisdom should be open to all; it is not the exclusive preserve of anyone.

  7. What was his motive? he was tortured and exiled by the guy he wrote the book for! What more of a motive do you need. It was clearly a satire you only need to compare the prince to discourse on livy to see that.

  8. Are you 12, Ben? I don’t see how anyone could do a critical reading of this book and come to such extreme conclusions.

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