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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Atheist Machiavelli?

Don MacDonald's artA recent article in the Catholic Journal by William Borst suggests Machiavelli was “(m)ost likely an undeclared atheist…” but the author gives no reference from Machiavelli’s works for this statement. I would argue that, while he may have been critical of church politics at times, he carefully did not express any solid statements about faith that allow us to label him in any way as either believer or atheist.

He certainly wrote about secular topics, politics and war in particular; in The Prince he separates theology from politics, by not putting the Christian stamp on his advice and referring back to scripture for his authority. His prince does not manage by the grace of God but by the realities required by pragmatic politics. It could even be called situational ethics. But was that being an atheist? Not by the standards of his time.

First, it’s important to appreciate that atheism as we understand it today is a relatively modern perspective on religion. During the Renaissance and the later Reformation, the term atheist was applied to people who challenged church doctrine, dogmas or politics: that taking a stance against previously accepted wisdom or presenting natural law instead of divine law, was godless or denied God’s involvement. It did not mean a lack of belief in God; that sense comes later, in the late 18th century. Most of those accused of atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries were still believers in God, but not in all human interpretations of the divine or its will.

Calling Machiavelli an atheist today is an example of presentism: “…in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past.” As I read him, Machiavelli knew far too much about church politics and history – some of it from personal experience – to be anything but cynical towards the divinity of either.*

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