A critical review of Machiavelli’s The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli, born in 1469 in Italy, took on a career in government during his adult years. In 1498, soon after the Medici family’s expulsion from power, he went to work for the new Florentine republic as defense secretary. With this position, he went on countless diplomatic missions and met and observed the leadership of many foreign rulers. These observations would later be used in the writing of The Prince. In 1512, because of internal strife and repeated foreign invasion, Italy ended up back in the hands of the Medici family. After being imprisoned for a short time by the Medici Monarchy, Machiavelli retired to his countryside home and began work on writing his book. In the nearly five hundred years since he wrote it, Machiavelli’s book has been widely read and surrounded by controversy. Critics of The Prince are divided on their opinions of Machiavelli’s character, his intent in writing the book, the meaning of his avocation of cruelty and violence, the contribution it has made to modern politics and the significance the dedication to Lorenzo de Medici and final chapter of the book hold.

Written by Machiavelli in 1513, The Prince reads like a political how to succeed manual. In his book, he instructs his reading audience on the ways and means of absolute rule over others. Machiavelli dedicates his book to Lorenzo de Medici, leader of the family who overthrew the government he worked for. The book begins with a discussion of the four types of absolute rulers: hereditary, those of mixed kingdoms created from a military conquest, new, and religious. Using examples from history to illustrate these different types of rulers, he offers suggestions on how they each can best obtain and maintain their power. Believing the military plays an important role in maintaining this power, he offers advice on how to build and maintain an army. Machiavelli outlines the important attributes he believes rulers should have. In identifying these attributes, he focuses on how historical rulers succeeded, including both the moral and immoral acts necessary for the success of their rule. Believing evil actions become necessary at times for the survival of the state, the book suggests a truly good ruler will set aside morality when the political situation warrants. Being a realist, Machiavelli does acknowledge the role luck plays in ruling and concedes situations do occur over which rulers have no control. He ends the book by discussing the specific political situation in his own country, Italy, at the time he wrote it and makes a plea for a great ruler, one capable of following his suggestions, to come forward and free Italy from its foreign domination.

There are a variety of opinions on the character of Machiavelli. No criticism has been harsher than the reactions of the Elizabethan English (Ruffo-Fiore 139), who condemned him as “a truly evil man.” Wynham Lewis (66) claims Machiavelli unfairly became associated so strongly with evil because the English first learned of him through a highly critical work written about The Prince. Not until almost one-hundred years later would The Prince be translated into English so they could read and judge it for themselves (Lewis 66). Unfortunately the negative opinion about Machiavelli had already firmly set into the minds of the Elizabethan English (Lewis 66). Frederick of Prussia (31) shared the same negative opinion about Machiavelli as the English did. In his book Anti-Machiavel, he refers to Machiavelli as a “monster” who with his book tries to destroy humanity (31). Leo Strauss (11) believes all of the rhetoric from current study of Machiavelli, likening him to a “patriot” and a “scientist”, only serves to cloud the real issue of what he truly represent. He argues Machiavelli “was a teacher of evil” and therefore “was an evil man” (9). A much less hostile view of Machiavelli, Herbert Butterfield views him as simply a teacher of political theory who wanted to promote “a more scientific statecraft” and effect change in the way politics operated in his day (16). John Scott and Vickie Sullivan consider Machiavelli as “perhaps the first truly modern thinker”(887). Because Mary Dietz (77) contends Machiavelli wrote The Prince as some kind of mad conspiracy to unseat the Medici from power in Italy, she views him as a “true patriot,” a “radical republican” and a “master of political deception” (777). Critics often judge authors based on an interpretation of the content of their work. The diversity of the opinions on Machiavelli’s character demonstrate the many different views held by critics about The Prince.

Nearly all of the critics surveyed speak of Machiavelli’s intent in writing The Prince. According to Dante Germino (25), the complexity of Machiavelli’s mind makes it impossible to get a fair read on what his true intentions were in writing the book. Sydney Anglo (60) argues he had only one intention in writing the book, to secure a job for himself in the Medici government. Machiavelli hoped he would impress the Medici with his political knowledge so they would eagerly ask him to come work for them (Anglo 60). Philip Kain (36) views Machiavelli’s intent as being completely selfless. He thinks The Prince was written with the greater good firmly in the mind of Machiavelli (36). He believes Machiavelli hoped his advice would serve to help free the Italians from their foreign domination (37). Hurbert Butterfield (16) describes the purpose behind Machiavelli’s writing as a method for offering a more scientific approach to the practice of politics. He claims Machiavelli could see the need for change in the manner which countries were run, especially in light of the many problems facing his own government (15). Without any selfish intent, he simply wanted to change the way politics were practiced in his time (Butterfield 16). Scott and Sullivan maintain Machiavelli wrote The Prince with an ultimate goal of getting rid of the Papacy (898). They believe Machiavelli advocates the destruction of the church as the means to his ultimate goal of the reunification of Italy under a republic. Dietz (777), like Scott and Sullivan, asserts Machiavelli wrote The Prince with an ultimate goal of restoring the republic in Italy but differs from them on how she believes he intended his book to accomplish this goal. She argues Machiavelli wrote the book as a “masterful act of political deception”(777). Filled with intentional bad advice he hoped the Medici would follow, Machiavelli aimed to trip them up bad enough to make them lose power, enabling a new republic to come in (Dietz 777).

How the critics view Machiavelli’s intent seems to relate to the overall theory they hold regarding The Prince. The critics are widely divided on their opinions of the use of cruelty and violence in The Prince. Frederick of Prussia thinks the avocation of violence by Machiavelli serves as evidence he has no regard for human life (109). Strauss believes it misleading to explain away Machiavelli’s avocation of violence as the political realism of a true patriot, as many modern critics do (10). He argues the violence and cruelty Machiavelli advocates in The Prince are nothing but lessons in “public and private gangsterism” (9). Germino (26) views the use of violence and cruelty by Machiavelli as being a way for him to illustrate the failures of other rulers in a dramatic and ironic way. He claims Machiavelli, far from evil himself, simply tried to show the political realities as they really were in his time (32). McDonald (211) takes a fairly neutral position on Machiavelli’s use of cruelty and violence in The Prince. He explains it as being natural to the “Nietzschean” philosophy Machiavelli holds (211). He relates how this philosophy comes out more clearly in The Discourses (one of Machiavelli’s later political writings) (211). In it, Machiavelli “seems to say that the rule of life is dominate or be dominated; take it or leave it but, in the name of Rome, please do not moralize about it”(McDonald 211). Deitz (781), because she views the book as being an act of deception, considers the avocation of violence as trickery, the opposite of what Machiavelli would think wise in reality. By acting with violence and cruelty, the outcome would, in Machiavelli’s plan, cause the downfall of the Medici ( Deitz 781). The variety of opinions critics hold regarding Machiavelli’s avocation of cruelty and violence, make the question of whether or not Machiavelli can be called a Machiavellian difficult to discern.

The critics differ on what contribution they believe Machiavelli’s book made to modern political science. Strauss contends The Prince can not be viewed as a scientific work because a true scientist is objective in everything and the book is loaded with all kinds of value judgments (11). He thinks the book has had very little influence on the formation of modern political science (11).McDonald (212) agrees Machiavelli’s work can not be viewed as scientific. He believes the contributions of Machiavelli must be viewed by considering all his writings, not just The Prince ( 212). When all his works are considered together, the inconsistency of what he teaches and his weakness as a scientist comes to light (212).According to Isaiah Berlin (79), Machiavelli’s primary contribution to modern political science relates to his bringing into light an age old conflict all politicians face, “the necessity of sometimes having to make agonizing choices between incompatible alternatives.” He argues Machiavelli did a great service for future leaders by candidly facing the realities of political life. By bringing this necessary evil for the greater good dilemma out into the open, he made commonplace what leaders often experienced and struggled with.. Kain (35) argues Machiavelli’s approach to leadership can be called scientific because throughout the book he counsels the Prince to set aside personal feelings and do only what the situation demands for the good of the state. This objective approach to political problems would have to be classified as scientific (Kain 35). He believes Machiavelli stands as one of the forerunners of modern political thought (35). Butterfield (20) also asserts Machiavelli’s work can be classified as scientific, referring to it as “the science of statecraft.” He claims Machiavelli, although not the first to invent “statecraft”, or a group of rules for a government to follow, does have the distinction of being the first to write down his “statecraft” into the form of a book ( 20). He thinks Machiavelli’s book belongs in the category of those writings which began the science of politics as we know it today (20). According to Dietz (778), Machiavelli’s contributions to political science have been skewed because The Prince has been completely misread. Because the full genius of his “master deception” has not been recognized, his skill as a political strategist has been severely underestimated (778). The debate about Machiavelli’s contribution to modern political science remains unsettled but, by considering the various opinions critics hold, readers can gain some understanding of the significance of his work.

Critics have different opinions about what significance the dedication Machiavelli makes to Lorenzo de Medici and the final chapter of The Prince hold. Ruffo-Fiore (30) claims Machiavelli originally intended to dedicate the book to Lorenzo’s uncle Giuliano as a way of thanking him because he released him from prison. Because Giuliano died before the book’s completion, Machiavelli had to change the dedication at the last minute (Ruffo-Fiore 30). He made it instead to Lorenzo, the man who took over as leader of the Florentines upon his uncle’s death (Ruffo-Fiore 30). Kain (37) believes Machiavelli uses the dedication to Lorenzo and final chapter of his book as a means of setting himself up to function as a political advisor. By using flattery, he hopes Lorenzo will be impressed enough with him to ask him to work for him (Kain 37).Angelo (80) also thinks Machiavelli wrote and made use of flattery in the last chapter in hopes it might help to secure a position with the Medici government. Angelo goes on to admit the final chapter also served to sum up the arguments Machiavelli made throughout the book and appeared to show some degree of concern for the fate of Italy (80). Scott and Sullivan (888) contend Machiavelli dedicates the book to Lorenzo because, being the leader of Florence at the time, he has the most opportunity to carry out what he hopes his book will accomplish, the elimination of the Papacy. They also contend the final chapter, with its anti-Papacy rhetoric, serves as added proof The Prince was written as a call to get rid of the Papacy once and for all (887). With the conspiracy theory Dietz (778) holds, the dedication to Lorenzo, because of its flattering nature, would make perfect sense as a means to suck him into Machiavelli’s dastardly plans for him. She refers to the final chapter as “the bait” needed to drag Lorenzo in and believes Machiavelli sets him up by giving him visions of grandeur and “political immortality” (796). The dedication and final chapter of The Prince can be interpreted in a variety of ways and the explanations critics give seem to depend on the overall view of the book they hold.

Readers of The Prince, in order to get a balanced view of it, must consider the different ways of viewing both Machiavelli and his work. As shown, Machiavelli has had a long reputation of being an evil and immoral man but this assessment of him should not be considered universal. Viewed by some as evil, Machiavelli has also been described as a scientist, political theorist and patriot. His intent in writing the book has been described as being both selfish and selfless. Machiavelli’s use of cruelty and violence in the book has been contrasted as gangsterism, dramatic irony and political trickery. Critics believe the contribution The Prince has made to modern politics ranges from one of the primary influences of modern political science to not scientific at all. There appears to be little agreement among scholars about the significance of the dedication in the beginning of the book and the appeals made by Machiavelli at the end. No one theory holds the definitive answer to the puzzling questions about Machiavelli and his work, but readers can benefit by surveying what the scholars say about The Prince. By considering all of the different possible theories, readers will be able to more fairly and objectively form opinions about Machiavelli and his work.

by Carolyn Kunkell
College Writing II
Dr. Lantry

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