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MACHIAVELLI'S THE PRINCE: 500 YEARS LATER / Vol. 81, No. 1 (Spring 2014)

John P. McCormick, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

This issue marks the five hundredth anniversary of Machiavelli's The Prince. This edition of Social Research expresses just how meaningful this text remains to our contemporary social and political life

This article considers the relationship between Machiavelli’s The Prince and the circumstances surrounding its composition. Its contextual reading suggests that the view of Machiavelli as a pessimist, a critic of Renaissance humanism, and a compliant counselor to princes merits rethinking. Situated in light of Machiavelli’s professional troubles and Florentine politics in 1512–1513, The Prince reveals Machiavelli’s stubborn optimism and his polemical denunciation of Italy’s rulers.

This article traces the reception of Machiavelli's The Prince amongst political writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At different times, The Prince was considered a manual for tyrants, and also a radical book of political criticism. Much of the evolution of how readers perceived the book took place in discussions about Machiavelli's revolutionary idea of practical prudence, in particular, chapter 18 of The Prince. Following debates about Machiavellian prudence shows how essential the Dutch political writer and humanist, Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) was in disseminating Machiavelli's ideas and setting the basis for the modern, republican reading of The Prince. Lipsius both popularized and rendered palatable Machiavelli's radical interpretation of political morality and prudence.

The standard “realist” reading of The Prince assumes that the book is a straightforward treatise whose various maxims and examples Machiavelli recommends in earnest. But there are good reasons to doubt whether The Prince always speaks in Machiavelli’s own voice. The book is full of artfully crafted ambiguities that challenge its own most loudly asserted views. One of its neglected features is Machiavelli’s patterned use of words that seem to praise individuals or actions, yet subtly question their prudence. If we decode The Prince’s ironic language, we discover a brilliant critique of charismatic one-man rule and imperial politics.

Machiavelli has a bad name. But so, now, does politics. We no longer talk or write much about “statesmen” or “statesmanship.” We speak instead of “politicians” or, at most, “leaders,” about whose motives and honesty we have considerable doubts. In the second half of the twentieth century, “liberal democracies” and “people’s republics” began to be considered the only legitimate forms of government. Yet, despite the apparent victory of democracy, popular trust in the institutions of government continues to plummet. A fresh reading of Machiavelli’s classic treatise suggests that these phenomena are not unrelated. Machiavelli thought it was necessary to debunk the noble pretensions of political actors to make governments responsive, if not responsible to the desires of the governed. He also urged the people to be suspicious of the motives and goals of the individuals to whom they entrusted the powers of government.

While The Prince addresses the single power-seeker who aspires to rule a principality and The Discourses speak to the few deemed worthy of governing a republic, both texts also take into consideration those who want to be free of the harmful effects of the State, regardless of the form it may take. The starting point of this paper, therefore, is Machiavelli's most basic grouping of humanity into those who crave power over others and those who desire not to be oppressed. What do Machiavelli's ideas about state formation, the role of the ruler, conspiracies, war and citizen armies, taxes, fortresses, and property rights have to contribute to the perennial question of political power versus personal liberty?

Machiavelli's The Prince is famous for recommending that aspiring princes rely as much as possible on their own virtue rather than on fortune in the acquisition, maintenance and expansion of their states. Through an analysis of the examples of Cesare Borgia, Agathocles the Sicilian and Liverotto of Fermo in The Prince, this article elaborates the extent to which Machiavelli thought that resort to crime was a necessary aspect of virtue and the expect to which Christianity was hindrance to the princely practice of virtue in the modern world.

In chapter XIV of The Prince, Machiavelli warns present and prospective princes not to neglect the art of war and to be “professori di questa arte.” By exhorting the prince to be an expert in the art of war, this passage establishes the paradigmatic status of the arte della guerra for the arte dello stato. But what precisely is this art of war, which the prince is supposed to master? In order to answer this question, I offer a new interpretation of Machiavelli’s dialogue on military affairs, the Art of War. My essay casts Machiavelli’s politics-war nexus in a fresh light that emphasizes soldiers’ bodies and practices and highlights the popular dimension of Machiavelli’s militia. In contrast to The Prince, where military troops are typically described as a (potentially treacherous) tool of the prince, Art of War figures the popular army as dynamic political and social force and a potential catalyst for popular revolt and upheaval.

Machiavelli’s praises of the political utility of religion in general, of the pagan religion, and of a patriotic interpretation of Christianity enable him to criticize the Church and actually existing Christianity and obscure his critique of religion in general and his praise of radical human self-reliance. He understands political success and failure, including those of religious leaders, in terms of fortune and virtue rather than divine punishment and grace. He considers not only the political utility of religion but also its claim to truth and calls into question the Christian or biblical claims that human nature has changed, that men can be born again, that the world was created by God, that miracles inexplicable by human reason occur, and that religions are revealed by God rather than ordered by human founders.

Machiavelli's The Prince is often credited with introducing a modern conception of the state. However, there is controversy over whether such a conception is compatible with his republican theory of freedom. This article delineates the ancient, medieval and modern roots of Machiavelli's state and offers an hypothesis as to how principality and republic fit together in his political thought.

The distinguished Italian economist and politician Tommaso Padoa Schioppa once spoke of European Monetary Union as a “collective prince.” The essay takes this observation as a starting point to reflect on princes not as individual leaders, but as institutions engaged in projects of political integration. In particular, it is asked whether The Prince might shed light both on the history and the prospects of European polity-building. It is argued that the architects of Western European politics after 1945 prioritized vivere sicuro over any conception of vivere libero by institutionalizing a model of “constrained democracy.” Various “institutional princes,” the European Commission in particular, complemented this process at a European level. Finally, the article returns to the notion of a monetary system as Europe’s prince. Against the background of the Eurocrisis (generally considered an existential threat to the European Union as a whole), some possible Machiavellian futures will be sketched out, in particular a new version of a collective prince and, alternatively, a strategy that trusts what Machiavelli called tumulti—ongoing political conflict—ultimately to generate a more robust form of political unity. This latter strategy also puts its faith in popular judgment in a way that very much goes against the main currents of political developments in postwar Europe.


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