There 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. Continue reading “Machiavelli’s Prince as satire”
My first read/edit of The Municipal Machiavelli and its makeover into Machiavelli for Mayors is almost finished. I have to read through a couple of appendices and the bibliography to complete that phase. It’s just shy of 78,000 words at present. I have been contemplating reducing it to around 75,000 by removing a couple of the appendices (they will still be available online).
After that is done, I will do a second read looking for some specific items, and a final spell check. Then I will format it for production – a PDF and an ebook. I’ve used Word for the writing but will use QuarkXpress for the layout and formatting. After that, I have to consider options for releasing it online. I will likely consider both iTunes and Amazon. Any recommendations or suggestions about ebook production and publication will be appreciated.
I have two recently published books about Machiavelli on order (Viroli’s The Quotable Machiavelli and Benner’s Be the Fox) but I don’t expect either to provide any significant changes or updates to my text.
I have also been reading translations of Xenophon’s Cyropedia (The Education of Cyrus) and Herodotus’ The Histories. I have been thinking of adding one or two relevant quotations from them to the text to reinforce a couple of points. But I’m still iffy about that. It’s probably long enough, and with sufficient cross-references as is.
Is Machiavelli still relevant in the post-truth era? Can he help us understand the rise of modern demagogues like Donald Trump? I believe so, but in great part it depends on the translation.
Many readers were introduced to Machiavelli’s masterwork, Il Principe, through the translations of late 19th and early 20th century editors like William Kenaz Marriott. Thanks to the lapse of copyright, the 1908 Marriott translation is easily the most commonly version reprinted today and most discount editions are simply reprints of his work. Some are a bit rough because they’ve been ported from paper to digital format and back to paper without careful proofreading.
Some are the result of OCR (optical character recognition) scanning of an old text. When OCR works well, it’s a great, time-saving tool. But in my own experience, a murky or aged text can baffle the software: is it an “o” with a broken or faint right side? A “c”? An “e”? A “d” missing the stem? Scanned text requires a keen editorial eye to find these errors, and that’s not always provided in public domain editions.
Not that Marriott’s version is per se wrong: merely outdated and somewhat florid by today’s literary standards. The same is true of the Dacres version – translated in 1640 – and the Neville version – translated 1675 – both of which can also be found among the public domain editions. Purple prose from any era can distract the modern reader from the message. Like the King James Bible versus, say, a modern translation, it can feel archaic, stuffy, formal. That can dilute the relevance of Machiavelli – and his punchy practicality – to modern politics.
Some subsequent editors appear to have used Marriott as the base for their own later translations. Most of the editions I’ve read have been crafted by academics rather than politicians or historians who might have a better grasp on the implementation, not just Machiavelli’s theory.
Some translators focus on the individual words or grammar, rather than the overall sense and the message within them. The results may be technically or linguistically correct, even paralleling Machiavelli’s own style, but often come across as stilted and fusty as Marriott.
Of course, it isn’t always easy to make a 16th century work (and an early 16th century one, at that) read like a modern book. It’s not simply the language that has changed, but the cultures, technologies, religions, social interactions and attitudes, foods, clothing… pretty much everything. To make the ideas and the words relevant to modern readers, a translator must present them in ways that not only make sense to us today, but provide a comfortable read that doesn’t have us always hunting end- or footnotes to clarify a phrase or word.
And no translation is ever perfect: each one will be spiced by the translator’s own views, background, understanding, opinions and education. A translation is always an interpretation. You need to choose one that speaks to you in a meaningful way. Continue reading “Tim Parks translates The Prince”
Don MacDonald’s historically-accurate graphic novel about Machiavelli has finally been released and can be purchased though his website. He describes it as a ” …historically accurate graphic novel; hand drawn, hand painted and set in Renaissance Florence.”
If you’ve followed the story on MacDonald’s blog, and seen the artwork, you’ll know his engaging style and storytelling. It’s a great addition to the literature about the Florentine political philosopher, and I hope it will make Machiavelli accessible to a new audience. And, perhaps, help clarify who Niccolo really was.
MacDonald gave a TED talk about his interest in Machiavelli and you can read a transcript or watch the video on his own website. In that talk, he says Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian in the modern, pejorative sense of the word:
…in popular depictions of Machiavelli, like The Borgias on TV, the old caricature persists. Machiavelli is portrayed as a paragon of his own adjective, always in the shadows, ready to whisper the some sort of dark advice into the ear of power. But Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian, actually.
It’s a good talk and worth reading. I recommend both the book and his website to all my readers.
Machiavelli read Xenophon and was so impressed by him that Niccolo cited Xenophon’s works eight times in The Prince – more times than he cited Plato, Aristotle and Cicero combined.*
Xenophon was author of many works including histories and philosophical dialogues, However, it is his Cyropaedia – The Education of Cyrus – that was an important guide for Renaissance humanists in the art of princely rule. Along with Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, it formed a trilogy of political guides. But whereas Aristotle and Plato focus on the ways to create the best state, the Cyropaedia focuses on how to establish personal rule. Civic community versus personal ambition.
The Cyropaedia is, I believe, the first comprehensive examination of personal rule. Xenophon’s shorter piece, Hiero, examined (and defended) tyranny, but was presented as a dialogue, not a lengthy history (with moral, political and philosophical components) as the Cyropaedia was.
Xenophon gently suggests that there is a conflict between the moral restrictions demanded by a state focused on the greater good and the personal needs of its citizens to grow, to acquire and to succeed. And in lowering its standards to allow personal growth and success, the state fails.
Machiavelli was ambivalent about the popular interpretation of “just empire” of Cyrus, as contemporary humanists moralized about it, and whether the generous and affable character of Cyrus really contributed as much to his achievements as his cunning, his treachery and his use of force (both direct and indirect).
He argued the point obliquely in Chapters 15-19 of The Prince. There, Machiavelli contrasts the methods of Hannibal and Scipio in managing their armies: the former with severity and force, the latter with kindness and generosity (Machiavelli says Scipio was too easily influenced by Xenophon’s Cyrus), noting that Hannibal was the more successful of the two.
He is suggesting that Cyrus’ successes were worth celebrating precisely because of the methods he used to rise to the top and manage his state effectively – and they should not be overlooked when reading Xenophon. And, as Paul Rasmussen wrote, for Machiavelli, morality was not iron: it was “malleable” in the service of the ruler, and a “‘just’ regime is one in which the citizens feel secure in their pursuit of their own selfish interests.”
Philip Freeman’s second book has been billed as a “sequel to How to Win an Election” reviewed here in an earlier post. Like the first book, this is a short (132 pages in a small format) book with a mix of English and Latin content derived from the writing of Marcus Cicero. I personally don’t feel it lives up to the first in either layout or content. But it has its strengths.
The first book juxtaposed the Latin and English texts on alternating pages, making it reasonable for anyone who might want to attempt to translate the former themselves or just for curiosity’s sake. However, the second book lumps the Latin at the end of the book, making readers all too aware that only slightly more than than half the little work is in English. And anyone wanting to attempt translation and compare their translation to Freeman’s, has to jump back and forth to do so.
Where the first book was one cohesive piece of writing (a single letter by Quintus Cicero, to his older brother, Marcus), this one is a mix of bits and pieces from the elder Cicero’s letters, speeches and texts.
The actual amount of Cicero is itself minimal. Freeman selects snippets – sometimes as little as a single paragraph – from Cicero’s volumes of writing. He cobbles his translations together under a dozen themed categories – natural law, leadership, persuasion, war, tyranny and so on – and introduces each category with a brief note on either Cicero’s life or Roman history and politics.
Most annoying is that the translations lack citations to identify the source – you need to hunt through the Latin original to find out what original document Freeman is drawing from. For someone like me, who wants to see the entire work (or learn if it is in one of my existing translations), it means paging around to get all the information.
There is a lot to learn from reading the classical authors, but care has to be taken not to turn them into some sort of Nostradamus, making every quotable line into a prediction. Hindsight does that to us. We want to have the past mirror the present to justify our acts, our decisions and our perspectives (this is why tacking words like “ancient” and “traditional” onto quack medical products gives them an air of legitimacy).
While some of their words are timeless, the writing of people like Cicero was mostly about contemporary times, events and politics, and has a specific context. It’s far too easy to lift quotes from that context and drop them into current events as if the original context and the new were the same. Cicero’s Rome and the modern world have things in common, but many more differences.
In the summer of 64 BCE, Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for the office of consul in Rome. It was a bitterly-contested fight.
His younger brother, Quintus, wrote him a letter – called the Commentariolum Petitionis – to advise him how to win that election. That “Little Handbook on Electioneering” is today a classic of politics and campaigning in which Machiavelli would have reveled.*
The short ‘book’ is controversial today, not simply for its content which espouses some “dirty” politics in order to win (along with some basic and valid advice), but because of its authorship. Some scholars doubt that Quintus is the author. As Wikipedia tells us:
Many scholars believe that it was not in fact written by Quintus for the purposes proposed, but in fact by a Roman in the Early Roman Empire, between the periods of Augustus and Trajan, as a rhetorical exercise. Such exercises were not uncommon in that time period. Others claim that it was in fact written by Quintus, but with the view to be published, perhaps as a piece of carefully distributed propaganda.
But for non-scholars, it is the frank content that holds the interest more than the authorship. We can measure today’s political campaigns by Quintus’ suggestions. As Peter Stothard writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Quintus’s election book is frank about the gullibility of the masses and firm in its requirement that they be deceived in their own best interests. Rome was a “cesspool of humanity,” and its would-be leaders could be excused of behavior to match. An assumed personality need not be maintained for long. But Marcus, his brother advised, must make himself seem to be a man of the people while reassuring the wealthy that the “new man” knows his place. There has been much modern argument about how democratic Rome really was. “How to Win an Election” shows that a campaigner’s concerns have remained just as constant as the debate about whether any democracy is ever democratic enough.
The letter is available in a modern translation by Philip Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2012) and is well worth reading by anyone interested in politics and history – and in Machiavelli. It is instructive to see that many of Niccolo’s ideas were presaged by a Cicero. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Quintus was in many ways the first political consultant, and his little-known book remains a mostly undiscovered treasure. For centuries his concise guide has been read only by Latin scholars, but it deserves a much wider audience.
In 1555, Bishop Stephen Gardiner wrote a treatise to King Phillip II of Spain, in which he borrowed (aka plagiarized) extensively from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses. Gardiner did not credit Machiavelli or attribute any of his quotes, but rather copied some of Machiavelli’s content verbatim or very closely.
This was less than two decades after Machiavelli’s works had been first printed, and before Pope Paul placed it on the Index librorum prohibitorum, effectively banning it in Catholic countries (but also making it more interesting, as any banned book inevitably becomes, thus guaranteeing its publication and translation).
Some two decades earlier, in 1536, Cardinal Reginald Pole wrote his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum. Pole claimed that The Prince was a satire, albeit an evil one (one that exposed the aracana imperii, or secrets of rule). He denounced Machiavelli as being “in league with the devil” and that Il principe was “written by the finger of Satan”:
In the Apologia ad Carolum Quintum (1539) Reginald Pole claimed to know, on the basis of a conversation with Thomas Cromwell some ten years earlier and subsequent inquiry into Cromwell’s views, that Machiavelli’s Il Principe had been the inspiration behind Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, declare himself head of the church, and seize the property of the English monasteries.*
That suggests The Prince was well known by Cromwell, and possibly even by Henry himself. Who supplied Cromwell with a copy of the work is unknown, but Pole had been in Italy in 1529. However, 1529 is too early for a printed copy: the first printed edition of The Prince was 1532. Perhaps he obtained a hand-copied edition.
Pole’s Apologia, however, was not published until 1744. It might have been shared among his peers and fellow theologians, but it did not have a wider reach for another two centuries (when it provided leverage for the popular notion of a Machiavellian Henry VIII).*
Nonetheless, this and other contemporary denunciations helped bring Machiavelli’s The Prince to the attention of the English court very soon after its first publication (q.v. The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, ed. John Najemy, 2010). Ideas spread rapidly during the Renaissance.
By the time of Gardiner’s writing, Machiavelli had been denounced many times, by many more critics (especially by church allies and defenders). He was even declared a “literate atheist” in 1557. That same year, the Inquisition demanded the “utter destruction” of all of Machiavelli’s works. Ironically, this helped spread them faster in an era of intellectual curiosity and questioning or authority (it was the Reformation, after all, so anything the church opposed was consumed with relish by advocates of reform).
Gardiner – Bishop of Winchester under Henry VIII, and later Lord Chancellor to Queen Mary – was a staunch Catholic, but obviously both curious and intellectually intrigued, even by a writer which his fellow theologians like Pole denounced. He died shortly after writing this final work, so his motives were never questioned. However, in Gardiner’s defence, he was writing before Machiavelli was placed on the Index, so there was no official proscription yet.
He wrote this piece in English – surprisingly not in Latin which was the lingua franca of governance and church then, and a language in which Gardiner was fluent. The treatise was translated into Italian posthumously, in 1556, for presentation Phillip II (Queen Mary‘s Spanish husband; Mary was herself to die shortly afterwards, in 1558), then in Brussels. Phillip II, however, could not speak either English or Italian, but was fluent in Spanish, Latin and French.
The translator was George Rainsford, a courtier in the late Henry VIII’s circle. The English version of Gardiner’s work hasn’t survived, but there are two copies of the Italian translation intact (q.v. A Machiavellian Treatise by Stephen Gardiner, by Peter Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1975). The treatise is titled “A Discourse on the Coming of the English and Normans to Britain,” and when sent to Phillip II, it was paired with a piece Rainsford himself wrote, called “Ritratto d’Inghilterra” or “Portrait of England.”
Gardiner’s part is structured as a dialogue between two men, in which “Stephano” teaches “Alphonso” about the English historical experience in Machiavellian terms. It is essentially a guide for Phillip II in how to rule England using the techniques Machiavelli described in his books as used by people such as Caesare Borgia.
Had it been exposed before his death, there is good reason to believe other members of the English court would have felt it treasonable. Many in the court feared that Phillip would become king of England when Mary died. Had Gardiner lived, he could have faced serious consequences – even execution – under Elizabeth.
Gardiner read Machiavelli. Who else in his circle also read him? How widespread was knowledge of Machiavelli in Tudor England?
Machiavelli’s dedication in The Prince has often been overlooked or dismissed as merely a job application to the ruling Medici, a self-aggrandizing piece appended to the work. But in his book, Machiavelli’s The Prince: A Reader’s Guide, Miguel Vatter argues differently, and offers new insight into the dedication.
Before we reconsider the dedication, we need to know what it says. like most works of translation, that can vary either grossly or subtly, depending on the translator.
Here is the entire dedication, translated into English in two versions. First from this site:
Those who desire to win the favour of princes generally endeavour to do so by offering them those things which they themselves prize most, or such as they observe the prince to delight in most. Thence it is that princes have very often presented to them horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments worthy of their greatness. Wishing now myself to offer to your Magnificence some proof of my devotion, I have found nothing amongst all I possess that I hold more dear or esteem more highly than the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I have acquired by long experience of modern affairs and a continued study of ancient history.
These I have meditated upon for a long time, and examined with great care and diligence; and having now written them out in a small volume, I send this to your Magnificence. And although I judge this work unworthy of you, yet I trust that your kindness of heart may induce you to accept it, considering that I cannot offer you anything better than the means of understanding in the briefest time all that which I have learnt by so many years of study, and with so much trouble and danger to myself.
I have not set off this little work with pompous phrases, nor filled it with high-sounding and magnificent words, nor with any other allurements or extrinsic embellishments with which many are wont to write and adorn their works; for I wished that mine should derive credit only from the truth of the matter, and that the importance of the subject should make it acceptable.
And I hope it may not be accounted presumption if a man of lowly and humble station ventures to discuss and direct the conduct of princes; for as those who wish to delineate countries place themselves low in the plain to observe the form and character of mountains and high places, and for the purpose of studying the nature of the low country place themselves high upon an eminence, so one must be a prince to know well the character of the people, and to understand well the nature of a prince one must be of the people.
May your Magnificence then accept this little gift in the same spirit in which I send it; and if you will read and consider it well, you will recognise in it my desire that you may attain that greatness which fortune and your great qualities promise. And if your Magnificence will turn your eyes from the summit of your greatness towards those low places, you will know how undeservedly I have to bear the great and continued malice of fortune.
A new book on The Prince arrived at my mailbox, last week: Miguel Vatter’s Reader’s Guide to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Vatter is professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He has written about Machiavelli before.
I’ve been reading it since its arrival and am, so far, impressed by its scope and approach.
…a clear and thorough account of this key philosophical work. Setting Machiavelli’s text in its historical and philosophical context, the book offers a detailed review of the key themes (epistemological, social, ethical and theological-political) and a lucid commentary that will enable readers to rapidly navigate the text. Geared towards the specific requirements of students who need to reach a sound understanding of the text as a whole, the guide explores the complex and important ideas inherent in the text and provides a cogent survey of the reception and influence of Machiavelli’s work. This is the ideal companion to study this most influential of texts.
It’s a book about Machiavelli, his times, his sources, and his political ideas – much like those titles by Mansfield, Viroli and others. It is not a chapter-by-chapter guide to The Prince, which is what one might expect from a title that extolled a book as a “Reader’s Guide.” It’s a thematic approach: Vatter organizes Machiavelli’s chapters by broad theme (I had hoped for an annotated version (similar, for example, to Gardner’s annotated Alice in Wonderland, or the annotated Sherlock Holmes).
Nonetheless, it’s a welcome and important addition to the bookshelf and adds to the conversation about what relevance Machiavelli has to modern politics.