Machiavelli’s Prince as satire

SavonarolaThere are scholars and readers who have suggested Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a satire, along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. That he was pointing out how leaders should not behave, a sort of tongue-in-cheek work.

As early as 1958, Gerald Mattingly wrote an article suggesting this in The American Scholar, Autumn edition. More recently, Erica Benner has also raised this idea*. It makes a sort of sense, since in many ways the advice in The Prince contradicts pretty much everything else Machiavelli wrote. And in his plays and poetry, Machiavelli certainly wrote a lot of satire.

Some have suggested that he was using irony, identifying the worst methods and tactics in the hope that tyrants who should follow his advice would get into trouble in their kingdoms. That their rule would implode as the people rose up against their repression. Sic semper tyrannis, as Plutarch has Brutus saying as he stabbed Caesar.

Perhaps he hoped that the young and feckless Lorenzo de Medici, Florence’s ruler to whom Machiavelli dedicated his book, would take his advice and thus bring about the end of Medici rule in that city. the republic would return to Florence. After all, it was because of the re-appearance of this family that Machiavelli had lost his job after 14 years. And he was imprisoned and tortured following the Medici return. It would be fitting revenge, some suggest. And it might get Machiavelli a republican job again.

Or perhaps he was writing a cunning satire on the popular “mirror for princes” book, a burlesque that subtly made jest of the prim, sanctimonious Christian morality that filled those works. He knew from his close relation to the Church and the Borgia pope was corrupt. By mocking the lessons in Christian morality he was mocking the church’s hypocrisy.

I don’t think so.

Machiavelli was above all a realist. He was also a historian and a keen observer of human behaviour. He knew what trouble could arise from the overthrow of the current ruler. Better the devil you know, I imagine him thinking.
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Reward or Punishment?

Carrot or stick?Which works best in compelling behaviour of your subordinates: the carrot or the stick? Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 17 that a Prince who cannot be both loved and feared, is more effective if he chooses to be feared rather than loved. Use the stick, he tells us.

And science has shown that this advice was probably correct. In a story posted on Science Daily,

A simple experiment suggests that punishments are more likely to influence behavior than rewards. The results stem from a study involving 88 students at a university.

In fact, the study found that punishment was two to three times more effective in getting results than giving rewards. Jan Kubanek, PhD, a researcher in anatomy and neurobiology is quoted as saying about the results:

…our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior. Our study showed that such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact.

Harsh is, of course, relative and in Machiavelli’s day all forms of punishment were much harsher than those we mete out today. Thomas More questioned leniency for crimes we consider minor today and counselled for harsh measures:

‘I would gladly know upon what reason it is that you think theft ought not to be punished by death: would you give way to it? or do you propose any other punishment that will be more useful to the public? for, since death does not restrain theft, if men thought their lives would be safe, what fear or force could restrain ill men? On the contrary, they would look on the mitigation of the punishment as an invitation to commit more crimes.’
Thomas More, Utopia, Book I

In those days, heads rolled considerably more often from their perch on the neck; today in the municipal or corporate world, such methods are frowned upon. Even simple defenestration is not accepted. Instead, we simply fire someone. But the symbolic effect is the same.

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Machiavelli and Marx

I started reading Karl Marx’s Capital, vol 1. recently and that got me wondering about what similarities or differences there were with or between these two great political philosophers, Machiavelli and Marx.

Form my admittedly limited and autodidactic education in political theory, the first thing that strikes me is the scope. Machiavelli aims his works at the individual leader – the eponymous prince – as the engine of social and political change. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the masses – the proletariat – and sweeping tides of history. He is often speaking to the crowd – although ironically it was the intellectual elite who mostly read his work.

(Gramsci, as I understand, makes an argument in The Modern Prince that the revolutionary socialist party can stand in for Machiavelli’s prince as the sole actor thus take advantage of Machiavelli’s advice, but I don’t think so because it involves group dynamics… it’s an argument for another post, though…)

Many of Machiavelli’s concepts – like virtu, a term undefined but rooted in morality – are personal, not group attributes. He focuses at his widest on small groups to manage events and activities – a single leader and his advisors (whose role is to mitigate the ideology of the individual leader towards common and sustainable goals).

Marx, on the other hand looks at the larger picture, a scientific analysis of events and trends. He disdained the ‘great person’ theory of history. His concepts like revolution and even capitalism would have no place in Machiavelli’s vision, any more than Niccolo’s self-reliant city republican state would have in Marx’s.

Machiavelli doesn’t address class except in general terms – the need for the leader to have the people on his side. Class is taken more or less for granted, although he does distinguish between the strata within the upper class (the hereditary rulers versus those who take or assume power; most of whom are members of an upper crust of rich and powerful families like the Medici and the Borgia).

Marx is all about class and class struggle. Both saw the masses could overthrow a leader and do so easily given the right circumstances – Machiavelli had personal experience seeing the Medicis, Savaronola, then the republic overthrown – but the circumstances for both were different and the results of such revolution more so. Marx saw the proletariat rising to take control itself; Machiavelli saw one leader (or family) replace another.

Of course they are separated by more than 350 years. Machiavelli wrote at the dawn of the modern era, when printing was just getting its start and its impact was not yet fully felt. Marx wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution when technology was rapidly changing societies and economies.

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