Machiavelli’s The Prince as a Satire:
An Exploratory Look at Machiavelli’s Works to Determine His True Political Inclinations
Analysis of The Prince
The Prince, written in 1513, is Machiavelli’s most famous work. This short pamphlet was written in the “mirror of the princes” style common at the time but seems to ridicule the genre rather fit into it.13 It advises Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, to whom the work was dedicated, on how to obtain and maintain power. Machiavelli focuses on new principalities, won by arms, fortune, or virtue. He discusses the different types of principalities, the different types of armies and military leaders, the characteristics of a successful prince, and ends with advice on uniting Italy. Most of his advice within the work appears to be morally unacceptable, and thus in part led to its immense popularity. The Prince must be read carefully in the context of Machiavelli’s life and other works in order to correctly interpret Machiavelli’s message.
There are several theories as to why Machiavelli wrote The Prince. These reasons range from a method of gaining the Medici’s trust and obtaining a position within their government, as a warning to the Florentines to look out for tyrants like the Medici, or as a dare to the Medici to rule in such a vicious way that it would cause a rebellion. Machiavelli wanted to see a united Italy under one government or prince; according to Pasquale Villari, Machiavelli believed the Medici family would be the best candidates for uniting Italy. The current Medici leaders did not possess the same leadership qualities as their ancestors, Lorenzo the Magnificent and Cosimo the Elder, so Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a guide to Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, on how to unify Italy and maintain power. Another theory about the purpose of The Prince is that it was written to gain favor with the Medici family. Machiavelli had been fired because of his association with the previous regime and had been falsely accused of conspiring against the Medici in power. All of this ill will toward Machiavelli prevented him from living in Florence and participating in government in the manner he desired. The Prince, therefore, was written to gain favor and as a résumé for a position within the Medici government.
There is a great deal of evidence throughout The Prince supporting the idea of it being a résumé. Machiavelli wanted a job and wrote The Prince as a means to “bring him to the notice of ‘our Medici lords.’”14 This was a failure because Lorenzo de Medici “barely glanced”15 at it. Within the dedication to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici,” Machiavelli begins with a comment about the customary search for the “favor of a prince” and goes on to express his “readiness to serve [Lorenzo].”16 Machiavelli clearly wanted to work for the Medici somewhere in the government. He knew that in order to obtain a position within the government, he would have to regain the Medici’s favor because a prince can “abolish honors or create them.”17 Machiavelli writes that “noblemen can be seen as essentially of two sorts: either they manage their affairs in such a way as to be entirely at your disposal, or they do not.”18 Although Machiavelli was not of noble descent, this generalization can be applied to any person working for the Medici government and therefore to him as well. Machiavelli probably would have viewed himself as being completely under the Medici’s control.
In Book XV, Machiavelli writes that The Prince is intended to be “something useful to an understanding reader” and explores the “real truth of the matter [rather] than to repeat what people have imagined.”19 These phrases may be interpreted in a few ways. The first interpretation would be literal, that Machiavelli will analyze why some men are praised or blamed using facts, not popular beliefs, as evidence. Other interpretations might play on the word “useful.” For example, Machiavelli may have intended the handbook to be useful because he was giving the Medici advice and expects them to consider and implement the ideas. On the other hand, “useful” could be a subtle nudge at the Medici on Machiavelli’s part to convince them to give him a position within their government. Even more interpretations could center on the “real truth” that Machiavelli claims to discuss. These truths could again be literal, or they could be a warning not to listen to rumors. Machiavelli claims not to include rumors or falsehoods in his handbook and to not downplay the truth.
This claim may not be true throughout The Prince’s entirety. To help convince the Medici of his loyalty, Machiavelli used examples of princes from ancient Rome or recent Italian history that he twisted to serve his purpose. One example that Machiavelli inserted in his chapter about building fortresses and other defensive policies is about how Pandolfo Petrucci, Prince of Siena, ruled with help more from people he did not trust than from those he did. In the footnote to this passage, translator Robert Adams comments that while Petrucci may have used men whom he did not trust to help him rule, no other historians have provided evidence for this conclusion.20 Machiavelli may have included this little-known fact, or even fabricated the fact, to support his argument for a position within the government. Adams also says in his note that Machiavelli knew that the Medici did not trust him because of his republican ties.21 Therefore, by describing someone who gave second chances and was successful, Machiavelli attempted to persuade Lorenzo that it is acceptable to do the same in the present case with Machiavelli.
A great deal of evidence within The Prince suggests Machiavelli wanted the Medici to trust him. For example, Machiavelli discusses how much more faithful a previously suspected man is compared to trusted men; previously suspected men are more willing to “serve [the prince] faithfully” because they recognize that “only good service” will cause the prince to forget or forgive his previous misgivings.22 For another example, Machiavelli writes “in order to keep a tight grasp on the state...other [princes] have made a point of winning over those who were suspect at the beginning of their reign.”23 Machiavelli understood what he wrote and expected it to be understood in a certain way. He was suspected of conspiracy at the beginning of the Medici’s reign and he held a position for the previous regime that was hostile to the Medici family. Machiavelli used this handbook as a way to convince the Medici that they could trust him with a position within their government.
Each passage Machiavelli included to convince the Medici of his allegiance did not explicitly state his intentions but rather hinted at what he sought. He employed sarcasm and irony as a way to criticize the Medici’s leadership without insulting them outright. One critic of Machiavelli wrote that he was always “apt to push sarcasm and satire to the point of cynicism, jesting even on things and persons that were sacred to him.”24 An example of this appears in Book X when Machiavelli advises the prince to destroy a newly acquired state, go live there, or let the state stay as it was before. The state Machiavelli had in mind was most likely Florence, which he would never seriously have suggested someone destroy.25 If he gives advice about which he is not serious, then there may be many more pieces of sarcastic advice scattered throughout The Prince.
Along with his sarcastic advice, Machiavelli used words and phrases that have two meanings. At one point, Machiavelli asserts that a new prince should arm his unarmed subjects, because “their arms become yours.”26 This may not only be about weapons; arming them could also be giving out offices or jobs. Machiavelli suggests that he would be indebted to the Medici if employed. The double meaning of armament can be extended into a metaphor for Machiavelli’s troubles right after the Medici took control. He states that “when you disarm [your subjects], you begin to alienate them; you advertise your mistrust of them, which may come from your suspecting them of cowardice or treachery.”27 The following words can be interpreted to represent Machiavelli’s troubles: “disarm” stands for his suspension from the chancery; “alienate” refers to his exile from Florence; and conspiracy replaces “treachery.” By reading the passage again with the different meanings, Machiavelli can be seen as commenting on the way the Medici treated him, and perhaps reminding them of what they put him through.
As a Science
Part of The Prince’s appeal to readers over the years has been that it focused on facts; it did not touch on moral issues. Margaret King writes that when focusing on principalities, Machiavelli works with “what kinds there are; how they can be won, preserved, and lost; [and] what qualities the prince must have to be successful.” He does not discuss “moral issues pertaining to the existence of one-man rule, or the forceful acquisition of power.”28 He separates the moral issues from the other issues, creating a science out of politics. He may not have agreed with everything he wrote; in fact, he acted as a neutral third party commenting on the state of affairs without interjecting his own opinions about what was morally correct. In Book XVII, Machiavelli generalized that all men are “ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.”29 This generalization allowed Machiavelli to study politics as a science. He likely knew that there are always exceptions to the rules, but to analyze the way a ruler should act, he needed to determine the overarching behaviors of most people in certain situations. It was his ability to see politics as an art form and as a science that made The Prince and Machiavelli so famous and immortal.