Before I will start the discussion of this book (in the english version translated by W. K. Marriott), I will give a short sketch of the life of Machiavelli, which is necessary to understand why I see it like I do. Machiavelli lived from 1469 to 1527 and was a loyal citizen of Florence. He worked as a secretary of Florence in the time that it was a republic. Before and after the republic was Florence governed by the family of de Medici, who were not really in favor of Machiavelli. They have tortured and exiled him, executed friends of him who were accused of plotting against the Medici. Yet is this book dedicated to Lorenzo II de Medici, who was the prince of Florence and hence indirectly responsible for the misfortunes of Machiavelli. Originally was the book dedicated to Giovanni de Medici, who became pope Leo X. That is the man responsible for the torturing of Macchiavelli, but he wasn't the ruler of Florence anymore when Machiavelli presented his book. I read therefore this book with the next question in my mind:
I have read this book years ago not with this question in my mind. Then I was bewildered with the cynical way of thinking. How low can you go? How free can you think in nothing else then my own goals, my power? It was a shock to me. But with this question in my mind, the book changed completely. It became the best advice you give to a man you want to burn in hell. Even better, because you prepare him for that by making him do things which makes his life on earth already hell on a daily basis.
Yes, Macchiavelli describes the dirty part of politics. And Italy in the Renaissance was a hell of a political jungle. But this is not a book how to act as a politician. It looks like it, but please do not follow the advices given in this book. You will suffer from paranoia, alienation of all your friends and when you fall, you will be all on your own. Is it better to be loved or to be feared? Caligula is said to use a quote from some tragedy Oderint dum medirant (They may hate me, as long as they fear me.) Always nice to be on his side in history, I presume?
With this information in mind how can one read the next quote at the start of the book: 'In this way you have enemies in all those whom you have injured in seizing that principality, and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected, and you cannot take strong measures against them, feeling bound to them.', page 4. To me, it shows what a world Macchiavelli is trying to lure the prince into.
Another one: 'And what ever you may do or provide against, they never forget that name or their privileges unless they are disunited or dispersed but at every chance they immediately rally to them, as Pisa after the hundred years she had been held in bondage by the Florentines.', page 21. Besides that Pisa was under rule of Florence when de Medici's were in power until 1494 and Machiavelli himself succeeded to bring Pisa back under Florentine rule in 1509, it gives the nasty feeling that animosity will never stop, even when people seem to be friendly. Now it is not only a sword above one's head, it is an entire city ready to jump onto their evildoer.
Sometimes one must read what is not written. He never mentions the name of de Medici in the book. Lorenzo II de Medici had at least two big ancestors in Italian politics, Cosimo de Medici and Lorenzo 'il Magnifico' de Medici. Illustrous names. Machiavelli gives a lot of examples of other princes, also at the times of his ancestors, he is even referring to Francesco Sforza, who was close friends to Cosimo de Medici. Nevertheless, he is never mentioning these ancestors. Using the name of Francesco Sforza he comes that close to the name of Cosimo de Medici, one can imagine that his great grandson is expecting to read the name of his ancestor, but it is missing desperately. On the other hand is he writing about certain people with admiration who he can be expected that they are hated by de Medici's. Cesare Borgia was a very unscrupulous man. Lorenzo II de Medici was for sure not an admirer of Cesare Borgia. The Borgias were Spanish and were delivering the pope. No Italian family liked it that the pope wasn't an Italian. Not the combination of emotions you would willingly create, when you would be sincerely dedicate your book to that particular man. Machiavelli, being a diplomat, must have known this very clearly and everybody knowing him had to understand that immediately. What a book of dedication.
In chapter 7, which is called 'Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired Either By The Arms Of Others Or By Good Fortune' is he writing elaborately about Cesare Borgia. But if you take a closer look at the strange title of the chapter, then can it be read as a description how de Medici's regained control over Florence. They regained control over Florence by the army of the Pope, hence this chapter is actually dedicated to the situation in which the armies of de Medici besieged the army of Machiavellis government. But Machiavelli never mentions that fact in this chapter. On the contrary, he writes about Cesare Borgia and mentions shortly Francesco Sforza – but not once de Medici nor himself.
Chapter 7 is one of the longest chapters of the book, talking at length about anything else then what one should expect. He ends with that chapter mentioning the Pope, which was delivering the troops by which de Medici were able to reconquer Florence, characterizing him like 'He (Cesare Borgia, LB) who believes that new benefits will cause great personages (the Pope, LB) to forget old injuries is deceived. ', page 36. De Medici regained control over Florence by the army of the Pope.
'..that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed., page 26.
In that time there was a friar called Savonarola, who was preaching in Florence about returning back to the true faith and propheting. He was unarmed. In the end the Medici arrested him. He was executed shortly afterwards. It looks like he is writing about the difference between the friar without an army and the pope with an army, but in the same time he writes about the Medici accepting help from the wicked ones while responsible for killing the good guy.
In order to convey the real message it must not be straightforward to understand. If it is too obvious that Machiavelli is writing to get even, the person will lay the book aside. If it is too witty, then he will be in a too good mood to get disturbed by the cloacked messages of revenge. It the book is not good enough, he will not spend time on it. Therefore must this book also have some interesting thoughts to pursue the reader to continu despite the rest. One of them are his thoughts about mercenaries. If one reads about these soldiers, then it is understandable that Machiavelli is not positive about them. For instance, they did not want to fight in the winter, did not perform any nightly attacks and could have a fight four hours without having a lot of casualties. They got a very good loan instead and the states paying them had to keep on paying, else they would fight for their enemies. When fighting they did not go for the kill, but preferred to take prisoners and then ask the city to pay for their freedom. His treatise on this point is on the one hand very solid and in the same time an affront to de Medici, because Machiavelli was using Italian soldiers where de Medici relied on mercenaries.
On the other hand one must show that the literal text should not be taken seriously and hence have bad arguments, like the next one: 'The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old or composite, are good laws and good arms; and as there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws.', page 55. That a certain situation is not true, does not imply that the opposite situation is true. When you can not see very good, that does not imply one is in need of glasses. It might be night. And when the arms are very well, there is a very sick reason why the laws might be bad altogether – and you will say that they are good. He must have known this himself. I can imagine he was laughing writing this down. When he writes on the end of the book about fortune, he will talk very bluntly again. I interpret those reasonings as a proof that one should not seriously read what he is writing.
Never forget his relationship with de Medicis, when reading chapter 18 Concerning the way in which princes should keep faith, which has caused the most dedain. In this chapter he describes that a prince should appear to be a man of esteem, but that he must be able to act like a beast. And then those sentences appear: 'If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.', page 84. (italics are mine.) Quite astonishing to suddenly change the way of speech. Page after page is he telling about politics in third person, now is he suddenly addressing the reader directly. The official reader of this book is the one to who this book is dedicated, namely Lorenze II de Medici. 'And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion.', page 85. (italics are mine.)
Was this book not dedicated to a new prince? Most of the time speaks Machiavelli in the third person, but sometimes does he change the style of his writing. These are two of the few times he is addressing directly. How friendly is it to tell in public that Machiavelli understands that a new prince like you is not faithful, not trustworthy, not human, not religious? Machiavelli is praised for bringing in realism in political theory, but what were his motives?
This one is also in the most despised chapter of his book: 'Of this endless modern examples could be given, showing how many treaties and engagements have been made void and of no effect through the faithlessness of princes', page 84. The modern example of the proper faithfullness given by Macchiavelli is pope Alexander VI, the father of Cesare Borgia. I would definitely write this sentence and give that man as an example in a book, which I dedicated to an Italian prince and believe that I would get my old job back. :-)
Piero the Unfortunate, which is the father of the dedicated person, inherited the state of Florence from his father Lorenzo Il Magnifico de Medici. This is what Machiavelli is writing in chapter XXIV 'The princes of Italy have lost their states':'Thus it will be a double glory to him to have established a new principality, and adorned and strengthened it with good laws, good arms, good allies, and with a good example; so will it be a double disgrace to him who, born a prince, shall lose his state by want of wisdom.', page 117. Reading the rest of the chapter with Piero de Medici in mind it is undoubtly bashing. If you doubt about that, please rereqad the title of the chapter and try to find any good reason to make a chapter about this subject. 'On losing a state' would be much more neutral. The book is really dedicated to Lorenzo II de Medici. The conclusion of this chapter is very clear directly pointed to the person of dedication:'This again either does not happen, or, if it does, it will not be for your security, because that deliverance is of no avail which does not depend upon yourself; those only are reliable, certain, and durable that depend on yourself and your valour.', page 118 – 119.
Utmost unbelievable is he when he writes at the end of the book about fortune – and frankly said, this was the part that provoked me most and convinced me that I do not read what I am reading: 'For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.', page 124.
One might wonder if he is serious, until one reads the start of the next chapter, which is chapter 25 An exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians 'Having carefully considered the subject of the above discourses, and wondering within myself whether the present times were propitious to a new prince, and whether there were the elements that would give an opportunity to a wise and virtuous one to introduce a new order of things which would do honour to him and good to the people of this country, it appears to me that so many things concur to favour a new prince that I never knew a time more fit than the present.'(page 125).
Right, both sentences start with Macchiavelly considering. Yet those two sentences, only separated by the heading of a chapter, completely contradict eachother. They give a task to the prince, which is impossible to fulfil. Considering that you have to misbehave in order to succeed, and considering that if you are wise and viruous, you will succeed.
In the last chapter he is so cunning. With an unbelievable sincerity, a pious surrender to his prince, he is telling that everyone is waiting for him. There is a war to fight and every Italian is willing to be on the side of the true Italian cause:'Further than this, how extraordinarily the ways of God have been manifested beyond example: the sea is divided, a cloud has led the way, the rock has poured forth water, it has rained manna, everything has contributed to your greatness; you ought to do the rest.', page 127. What a task to accomplish, referring to Mozes as if God is on the side of the Medici, putting him on a height from which he can only fall down. Macchiavelli knows of course that no prince in Italy can draw himself out of the swamps of the Italian politics. But he does not tell that, he gives ambition and guidance to the prince how to succeed. But succeed in a way, that he will not let him die, but let him live in a daily hell of paranoia and solitude and in the end fail.
Other people think differently about this book. A good introduction in that is presented at stanford university. If it had to have a meaning, it might be a satirical one. Yet, I think it is a diabolic one. Yes, he wants revenge, no, he does not show his cards as this might hinder his self interest. After all, he is realistic in politics.