Not as sinister as it has been made out, case of Richard III-ing at work?
For the record, I am reviewing the latest Oxford World Classics edition, with notes and translation done by Peter Bondanella and an introduction by Maurizio Viroli.
Okey dokey, let’s get a few things out of the way: Machiavelli is in no way some sinister, conniving advocate of tyranny as the Platonic ideal of leadership. It is a deliberately pragmatic, cynical and – in places – sarcastic analysis of what an invading/ascending Prince (used to mean leader, not in strictly royal sense) should do to retain and consolidate that power in their principalities, using years of political experience at the top of the Florentine Republic and examples from recent and ancient history to back himself up. I repeat, this is not an ideal world scenario – it is a reaction to the situation in which Machiavelli found himself in. That situation was that the Medicis had taken back Florence, after they had been booted out by a period of Republic, Machiavelli had lost his position at the top of Florentine government, been arrested and tortured and seen the Republic he had helped build turn back into a dictatorship; “the Prince” that he addresses is none other than Lorenzo de’ Medici. I think The Prince is sheer pessimistic sigh of “so this is how it’s going to work from now on, then?” If you want Machiavelli getting idealistic on us, then try Discourses on Livy.
Having said that, Machiavelli was a clever bugger. There are political leaders today which would benefit from following some of the advice, David Cameron for one would have been well-advised to have made himself more feared than liked by his back-benchers – whom, in case you don’t know, like to make trouble for him on a regular basis. (Incidentally, this puts Machiavelli against conventional wisdom of the time, which said the opposite. He reasoned that people will more easily betray someone they like, rather than someone who puts the fear of God into them). Equally, Louis XVI could have avoided the Revolution if he’d heeded Machiavelli’s advice that it is better to take the people’s side against the nobility, rather than the other way round; on the grounds that there are more of them and it is their support which gives you your authority, whereas the nobility can be taken care of relatively easily in comparison – by removing their privileges etc – and are a walking liability to the Prince.
The Prince is an extremely concise and lucid book, the translation in this edition is equally so – a quality rarely found in Renaissance classics. Yes, it is Machiavelli and not just Bondanella’s translation that’s clear; I know this because no translator, however good, has ever been able to make Tolstoy lucid. Machiavelli assumes a short attention span and accordingly gets on with it, telling his historical examples as if they were merely anecdotes to back up a point that he was making to a friend over dinner, and never dwelling on a subject longer than necessary. It’s also Italian History 101, as all of his contemporary examples link up to form the recent collective bloody history of the disparate duchies and city-states.
5 out of 5, the notes are actually invaluable, the translation’s good and the content is pretty damn sly and very well put. Old Mackers was a master of rhetoric, and likes to use my favourite rhetorical device – chiasmus – from time to time, so I’m inclined towards him on the grounds of sheer flair. All the same, a state run precisely like this book doesn’t bear a lot of thinking about. I’m sure that’s partially the point.