Despite its outsize influence, many are still not sure what to make of Machiavelli’s
The Prince after all these centuries. Is it a reflection of the author’s actual feelings or merely an attempt to curry favour? A practical guide or a cruel satire? A reflection of a turbulent period or principles that are timeless?
These and more questions come up in French historian Patrick Boucheron’s engaging new book,
Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, in an English translation by Willard Wood. It’s drawn from a series of daily talks on French public radio, in which Boucheron investigated the protean nature of Machiavellian thought to sharpen our understanding of the present.
It was historian JGA Pocock who, in 1975, wrote of “the Machiavellian moment”, defined as the point when a republic “confronts its own finitude, as attempting to remain morally and politically stable in a stream of irrational events”. Pocock outlined the intricate efforts of Florentine city-states to achieve stability during the Renaissance and then explored the ups and downs of civic humanism in the English and American contexts.
For Boucheron, it’s clear that another Machiavellian moment is here. Interest in Machiavelli always revives in the course of history when the storm clouds are gathering, he writes, because he’s the man to turn to in heavy weather. If we’re reading him today, “it means we should be worried. He’s back: wake up”.
A word never pronounced without a shudder
While not emphasising one interpretation over the other, Boucheron clearly wants us to re-examine our assumptions about the Florentine thinker, and to unearth “the face of Machiavelli that lies hidden behind the mask of Machiavellianism”. He interrogates notions such as those of Émile Littré who, in his dictionary of the French language, defined Machiavelli as “a Florentine author of the sixteenth century who theorised the practice of violence and tyranny used by the petty tyrants of Italy”. From this, figuratively speaking, we arrive at: “Any statesman lacking principles”. Flaubert, in his impish
Dictionary of Conventional Wisdom, defined Machiavelli by stating: “One hasn’t read him but thinks him a scoundrel”. As for Machiavellianism, it is “a word never pronounced without a shudder”. The Prince is conventionally seen as a handbook for despots, bedside reading for those who use duplicity and force to maintain power. When Machiavelli wrote it, however, he was in exile from Florence following a Medici coup, and desperately hoping to win back both favour and a public post. That’s why the book carried the famous dedication: “To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De' Medici”. His intentions were spelt out even more clearly a little later: “Let your Magnificence, then, accept this little gift in the spirit in which I offer it; wherein, if you diligently read and study it, you will recognise my extreme desire that you should attain to that eminence which Fortune and your own merits promise you”.
Boucheron asks us to consider not why, but for whom Machiavelli wrote. Is
The Prince actually a primer for the unscrupulous, or is it a warning for those who want to resist oppression? Opinion has been divided over the years. Diderot, for one, was clear that it was a manual on the art of autocracy, but Rousseau took the opposite view, writing that “he is instructing the people on what they have to fear”.
Machiavelli’s political philosophy is one of necessity, asserts Boucheron. This hard-headed and pragmatic notion of politics is, in fact, the key reason for comparisons with the work of Chanakya. The aim is self-preservation, first and last: “The prince is not called on to do good or evil; he does well or ill what he has to do”.
This is a stance that asks us to suspend moral judgment. Expediency is everything. In Boucheron’s Hobbesian explanation, “the prince must always put himself in the position of expecting the worst from those he governs”. The legislators of today ought to know this well, he continues: “You don’t make laws hoping they will be followed in a virtuous and disinterested way. You make laws, or avoid making them, anticipating their most nefarious use.”
Machiavelli entwines notions of virtue and fortune
The Prince’s ultimate distillation – that what matters is the end, not the means – Boucheron attempts a defence that, one could argue, rests on semantics. It would be impossible for the means to justify the end, he asserts, “since, at the moment one is acting, the end is still unknown”. Machiavelli, in this reading, “is an awakener [who writes] to say the truth about things”.
There are other scholars who believe that
The Prince shouldn’t be the bellwether of Machiavelli’s legacy. They point to his discourses on the Roman historian Livy, for instance, maintaining that when his output is seen in totality, Machiavelli entwined notions of virtue and fortune to promote republican views. Boucheron explores these opinions but for him, the work on Livy is about recognising and creating popular sovereignty more than anything else. As always, it’s the tough, no-nonsense streak that predominates.
One way or the other, given the machinations of today’s politicians, there’s little doubt of the charismatic Florentine thinker’s continuing significance. As Boucheron says: “We are with him, according to him, against him, right up against him. But never without him.”
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. Read his columns here.