More on Machiavelli

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[Update1 – Lawrence Ludlow also reminded me of his informative piece on Machiavelli at the FFF site.]

While I was only pointing out a wine that I thought was both charming and marginally related to the topics discussed on this blog, a reader has taken things up a notch: Thanks to reader KT for pointing out this interesting article on Machiavelli. Garrett Mattingly makes the case that The Prince is really a subtle satire on the rulers of the day. Thus, Machiavelli is really a sympathetic partisan of liberty rather than an opportunistic cynic.

This could very well be. I must admit I’ve never been quite comfortable with the fact that The Prince is so totally opposed to Machiavelli’s principles as put forward by the Discourses. According to Mattingly, The Prince is also pretty much the antithesis of everything else Machiavelli had written.

So then, it may be that Machiavelli gets a bad rap and that he’s actually a master of irony. I’m not a Machiavelli expert, so I’ve just always uncritically accepted the predominant orthodox view (number 1 below), but Mattingly makes a compelling case.

The problem is to explain why The Prince is so unlike the Discourses (and apprently everything else M. wrote). The only explanations possible that come to mind at the moment are:

1. Machiavelli really believed what he wrote in The Prince and this was because he was disenchanted by the violence he had seen in Italy since he wrote the Discourses. He therefore abandoned the Discourses and made The Prince his new orthodoxy. (This is the version of events put forward by every introduction to The Prince I’ve read.)This theory, if correct, would make Machiavelli honest and brilliant, but deeply in error about what constitutes good government.

2. Machiavelli did not believe what he wrote in The Prince but was trying to ingratiate himself with certain ruling parties within Florence. This theory, if true would make Machiavelli a dishonest and opportunistic cynic.

3. Machiavelli intended The Prince as an extremely subtle indictment of the rulers of his time. Specifically, he is subtly excoriating the Borgias in the subtext, while he is praising them in the text.

If Mattingly’s article is true, it wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve all missed the irony of something. Amazingly, there is still a debate over whether or not Thomas More’s Utopia is meant ironically or not, although the irony seems pretty obvious to me.

Nevertheless, some people still make the case that More was really a secret communist. I’m not sure about that, but it could certainly be that the official political science texts are all wrong about Machiavelli.

5:45 pm on May 17, 2008