Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a pamphlet explaining how a ruler of nations should act. This classic work has been the center of a debate lasting for several centuries. Traditionally, scholars have taken Machiavelli at his word, that “hypocrisy and ingratitude, meanness, cruelty, and treachery [are] the traits proper to princes.” 1 However, Hans Baron, one of the twentieth century’s leading experts on Machiavelli, first believed that Machiavelli and his contemporaries began to doubt the “‘ethical purity of political aims’” that distinguished Leonardo Bruni and his contemporaries.2 The debate heated up when Baron began to assert that The Prince was written before The Discourses on Livy and that Machiavelli thought a republic based on Florence’s experiences and the Roman model was the ideal government.3 According to Garrett Mattingly, The Prince “contradicts everything else Machiavelli ever wrote and everything we know about his life.”4 This contradiction and the knowledge of Machiavelli’s opinions provide evidence that perhaps Machiavelli did not really suggest everything he wrote in The Prince.
With all of this in mind, we must reexamine Machiavelli’s life, The Prince, The Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli’s other works, and the historical foundations of his works. This will uncover clues as to his true political ideals and the true meaning of his handbook.
As with most writers, Machiavelli has been studied, interpreted, and critiqued for centuries. His works, especially The Prince, became immensely popular shortly after publication, probably because of its subject matter. In the nineteenth century, Jacob Burckhardt based much of his History of the Italian Renaissance on The Prince, describing the politics of the time as one of Machiavelli’s princes would have seen it. Machiavellianism is used to describe the political aims found within The Prince (e.g., the end justifies the means). William Shakespeare used themes found in The Prince within many of his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth. Almost everyone who has heard of Machiavelli associates his name with The Prince and the ideals he espouses within the work; very few people consider him a republican. However, as more information becomes available, scholars have had the opportunity to look at the entire corpus of his work and have come to regard Machiavelli as “totally misinterpreted.”44 Scholars have most recently focused on this idea.
Hans Baron did not spend his career studying Machiavelli but did write an article to prove that the beginning of The Discourses on Livy precedes The Prince. His first interpretations argued against conventional thought—The Prince is a work to be taken seriously and that Machiavelli suggests “hypocrisy and ingratitude” are traits for a prince.45 Later, Baron believed that the dates of the works proved that Machiavelli’s ideas shifted from an “early enthusiasm for a monarchical solution” for uniting Italy to a renewed faith in republicanism.46 Baron presented two possible motives for writing The Prince: to reveal the need for an absolute prince’s cruelty as a way of warning the Florentines about tyrants, or to entice Lorenzo de Medici to commit the suggested crimes so as to reap the Florentines’ harsh judgment sooner.47 Baron heartily believed that Machiavelli was a republican, and it was this belief that motivated him to provide evidence to the scholarly community.
Other scholars have followed in the same line of thinking as well. Margaret King wrote that Machiavelli was a republican “by principle, and, at first, by party allegiance.”48 She goes on to mention how difficult it must have been for Machiavelli when in 1527 the Florentine government refused to grant him a post because his Medici connections did not demonstrate his true loyalties. Jacob Burckhardt may not have recognized that Machiavelli’s true political beliefs are contradicted in The Prince, but Burckhardt did call Machiavelli “a patriot in the fullest meaning of the word.”49 Bernard Crick stated in his introduction to The Discourses on Livy that Machiavelli believed the republic is the most favorable form of government because it is permissive of inner strife and disagreement.50 The idea of Machiavelli as a republican has become more and more popular and helps explain parts of The Prince.
Garrett Mattingly believed that Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a satire because to read it as such clarifies the difficult and confusing passages and gives different meaning to passages that were indistinct before.51 In Book Four of The Prince, Machiavelli uses an ancient example of Spain, France, and Greece frequently rebelling against Rome, but in the footnote, Adams comments that only Spain rebelled and that France was very submissive.52 Machiavelli misled the reader either because he did not know or because it helped further his point. It seems unlikely that Machiavelli did not know because he was well studied in the political history of ancient Rome. Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli champions Cesare Borgia as an ideal prince who did everything right. Machiavelli uses him as a model many times and seems to admire him, but in previous and later works, Machiavelli describes Borgia’s follies and mentions his distaste for Borgia.53 Something must have changed Machiavelli’s opinions.
For further evidence of The Prince as a satire, Mattingly compares it to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal because of the “matter-of-fact tone” Machiavelli uses to describe his prince.54 A Modest Proposal is a satirical essay written in 1729.55 In it, Swift recommends that the Irish eat their children to prevent their nation from starving to death. This work was taken seriously at the time and therefore was misunderstood. Both The Prince and A Modest Proposal concern sensitive topics and give advice that few people would be bold enough to follow. Given this and other parallels, it is possible that The Prince is a satire because Machiavelli was not serious about his intentions for using The Prince. Mattingly provides a great deal of evidence in support of The Prince as a satire, as do the other aforementioned scholars in supporting their assertions that Machiavelli was republican. The evidence mentioned in this essay, when combined with the evidence found by other scholars, provides sufficient justification that Machiavelli did not intend The Prince to be taken seriously because he favored republics rather than monarchies.