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Machiavelli's The Prince: Four Interpretations

Updated on July 9, 2012
Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, now residing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy; headcrop.
Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, now residing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy; headcrop. | Source

Introduction


The Prince endures because it speaks to our times. In fact, ever since it was written, it has always spoken to the “current” times. The lessons in it can be applied to ruling monarchs, businesspeople, or even parents taking care of their children. Is it better to be feared or loved? Ask the mother of any teenager, and they will surely have an answer for that one. Is it best to group all your injustices into one fell sweep or spread them out? Ask any company that has decided to engage in “right-sizing” their business and lays off fifty percent of their staff in one afternoon. Do you need to appear as if you’re sincere, or really be sincere? Talk to any politician, from a councilperson to the President; they’ll always appear sincere. What he writes has a ring of truth to it, and all of his information is correct. The big question is what he actually meant when he wrote it.

Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 1555-1565.
Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 1555-1565. | Source

Four Theories


Four common theories as to why The Prince was written are in circulation. The first is that Machiavelli was serious, that he meant everything that he said. The second is that Machiavelli was attempting to give Lorenzo Medici a poison pill, and that he hoped that Lorenzo would take the advice seriously, even though it was meant to cause Lorenzo’s downfall. (This interpretation assumes that Machiavelli was trying to take revenge on the Medicis for exiling him.) The third is that the book was written tongue-in-cheek and that Machiavelli assumed that Lorenzo would know that the book was actually meant to be a what-NOT-to-do guide, as opposed to words to live by. The final interpretation is that Machiavelli was serious when he wrote it, but that over time he changed his mind, and that the republican leanings in it were the beginning of his thoughts towards to his philosophy.

I’m not entirely sure which one is correct. I think they all have some degree and merit, and since it is now hundreds of years later, it will be impossible to know the truth unless someone unearths a letter Machiavelli wrote that tells us. All we can do is speculate. However, my personal belief is that it is one of two options – he either knew that Lorenzo would know to take it as a farce and understand the true message, or that he was attempting to give Lorenzo a poison pill. I cannot be sure which is true for a few different reasons.

There are several reasons to believe that Lorenzo would know it was a work of satire and act accordingly. Even on my first reading through it, I had to wonder if there were times where he was being facetious. On page 40, Machiavelli is speaking of Pope Julius. He tells of his “great” deeds, and then says, “[…] and he is worthy of even more praise, since he did everything for the increased power of the Church and not for any particular individual (Machiavelli, 40).” This doesn’t sound serious to me because Machiavelli also said that you only need to appear to be pious, and he attacks Ferdinand of Aragon, the King of Spain at the time, for invading other countries and killing people in the name of religion – basically the same thing that Julius did. So if he doesn’t think that Ferdinand is truly doing the things he claims in the name of religion because of religion, why should he believe that the Pope was sincere? According to his own ideas, as long as the Pope appeared sincere, that was acceptable. So what made one wrong and the other right? Was Machiavelli such a true believer in God? Even if he was, that doesn’t mean he held faith in the Pope or others who act in God’s name. Again, without knowing more about Machiavelli and his true belief, it’s impossible to tell. If we assume that Lorenzo was intelligent, then we can also assume that he would understand Machiavelli’s point, and that it was merely the language used that caused future generations to misunderstand.

Another reason to believe this is the true interpretation is because of the language used at the beginning of the book. Machiavelli spends quite some time telling Lorenzo how wonderful he is. Machiavelli also goes on to say how the work that he, Machiavelli, has produced is unworthy for Lorenzo. This is quite obviously flattery. The question is whether he was serious or not. From the fact that he has an entire chapter, chapter twenty-three, entitled, “On How To Avoid Flatterers,” I would have to assume that he wasn’t, which makes me believe that he knew that Lorenzo would understand what he had written.

If we assume that Lorenzo was intelligent enough to understand that the book was teaching him the truth by telling him about history, than he would have to notice that most of the people Machiavelli lists as people to emulate are people who were generally overthrown or killed by their own people. Lorenzo should have realized that is not a good idea to follow the lessons of those presented in the book if he wanted to continue living.

Finally, I would believe that he knew that Lorenzo would understand it was not true because he was hoping that Lorenzo would succeed using The Prince as Machiavelli seemed to genuinely believe in the unification of the Italian city-states. (Of course, that could have also been a Machiavellian ploy.)

I can also see the book being written as a poison pill. If Lorenzo was not intelligent, and was easily led, he might believe the book was true. Machiavelli is the only one who knew how he thought Lorenzo would take The Prince. The book does have the appearance of teaching how to act to take and hold power, since the men discussed are all widely known, and since Machiavelli presents them as wonderful leaders. Someone who doesn’t know how it was to be taken could understand it either way.

A crucial reason for my believing that it is a poison pill is because the Medicis tortured and exiled Machiavelli. I couldn’t blame him if he wanted revenge of them, and if Lorenzo was the type to believe what was written as truth, it could have been Machiavelli’s way of getting revenge while appearing to be a repentant friend.

I have more faith in those two theories than the other two. There are too many reasons for it not to be true than for it to be true. From his writing and what little I know of his life, Machiavelli was an intelligent man. In writing The Prince he had to realize the types of men he was chronicling, even if it wasn’t until he was done with it. He may have started writing with one purpose, but I believe that by the end he must have realized that he wasn’t truly honoring good leaders, but those who were actually quite evil and bad. I also find it hard to believe that Machiavelli had an about-face on his philosophy of government. Even within The Prince, Machiavelli repeatedly says that rulers must treat their populace well, and not to mess with their women or their property. That doesn’t really sound like someone who believes in the supremacy of a prince, but one who believes in a republican way of doing things.

Conclusion

I don’t know that we’ll ever truly know or understand The Prince without more information coming to light, but the theories that surround it are helpful in shedding more light on the possibilities that exist.

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      Ausseye 2 years ago

      The politics of power is always on the dark side of nature and nurture. Death and destruction go hand inhand with the ultimate quest for power and few are innocent. Revenge, hatred and advice are in the realms of savage endevours , so very princely !!! Love the pondering and the well written account.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 20 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great book review. It's so insightful and interesting to know about it.

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