On Machiavelli

Dear Jenna,

I wasn’t able to justify my love of Machiavelli properly last night. Allow me to do so here. I love The Prince because it is as subversive as The Art of War.

The Art of War is a Taoist book. This feels contradictory because Taoism is all about peace. Yet the book, despite talking about war, is actually anti-war. The best victories are those that come without fighting. Protracted war is the worst. Moreover, it defends this anti-war position by using the language of the belligerent. It is a smart, subversive book.

The Prince is also a subversive book. It’s written to a jerk and couched in amoral language. However, he warns princes not to isolate themselves from the people. It’s in their best interests (amorally) to be supported by the people. One can’t get this from merely reading the Prince, although if one reads it with the right frame of mind, one can feel its subversive nature. Those who have ever read The Prince and laughed aloud know what I’m talking about. The evidence comes from The Discourses, where he makes clear his love for Republican government. The next evidence comes from his life. Machiavelli despised mercenaries and tried to build a citizen army. He spent his latter years in exile, spending most of his time reading the ancients. Through his reading, he conversed with men such as Cicero, no doubt. These people were obsessed with virtue and freedom. Machiavelli was also a fun person, constantly playing practical jokes. This leads me to believe that he’d have the necessary mindset to write a subversive text. He did not take himself too seriously, so I wonder why the rest of us do.

I think people also make the same mistake with Plato and Ben Franklin. There is an intellectual tradition of not taking one’s self too seriously, and I believe Machiavelli is a part of it.

Sure, an asshole businessman can read The Art of War, and maybe get something out of it, but he won’t understand the message behind the book. The same applies to The Prince.

Perhaps one day, I’ll back this up with all the necessary textual evidence. For now, I thought it important to defend my thoughts, no matter how poor that defense was.

As always,

2 thoughts on “On Machiavelli

  1. Jenna

    Dear Shawn,

    As I hope you’re well-aware, the satirical, subversive nature of “the Prince” that you take for granted is actually up for debate and has not been proved in any concrete, irrefutable sense. There was even a term coined from the book, “Machiavellianism”, to describe the very politics discussed in the text, so others believed him to be sincere as well. It is not like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, where we know he was insincere. Personally, I believe that most good satirists will give the reader more clues to recognize the satire as such, often by making their work so ridiculous and extreme that it’s unreal, yet linked to reality at the same time. To use Swift as an example, there was no popular support to literally eat babies, but the cruelty towards the Irish at the time lessened the gap between reality and such a horrible act. The subject-matter in “The Prince”, however, is very real, and is highly reflective of how politics were treated in reality at the time. If it is a satire, it fails, because it is not evident.

    So given that the satirical nature of “The Prince” is not confirmed, I view the text as it is on its own, and I disagree and dislike what it says. Knowing all of those little details you gave about Machiavelli’s life does not change what the text says. It can change the way I view it, but personally, it does not. Furthermore, I don’t automatically love something or get a good laugh out of it because it MIGHT be subversive. When I read “The Prince”, it makes me think about how many people would take what it says to heart and follow it, and not disagree with it, not see the monstrousness and ignorance of it. I think about how it is still reflective of the worst kinds of politics today. To me, in our present-day context there is nothing subversive about a text that can empower those kinds of minds. And if you have to know all of this background knowledge about Machiavelli’s life and the Discorsi to have the “right” frame for it, again, it’s not a very successful satire. Most people who read it do not have that background knowledge and take it on its own. I don’t hate Machiavelli or presume to know what his aims were, but I can certainly form my own views about the text. Even if (big “if”) it was subversive at the time, again, to me it isn’t anymore, and I won’t like it simply because it once was.

    See you at rafting! : )

  2. Shawn R. McDonald Post author

    It’s not satire; it’s something different. The Art of War contains no exaggeration. I don’t know what to call it. Subversive is the best word I can use for now, but it carries a lot of personal connotations that I have yet to write about.

    Most scholars today think Machiavelli wasn’t an evil guy (according to Mansfield), but my specific view of the text isn’t what most people think. Maybe one day I’ll give it a better defense.

    I also wonder if we have different ideas about what weight to give context outside a book. That could be an interesting discussion (not debate).


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