Niccolò Machiavelli penned the political treatise “The Prince” between 1512 and 1513 while exiled from politics. He dedicated this work to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici who was a member of the Medici Family of Florence and served as the Lord of Florence beginning in August 1513 before becoming the Florentine Ruler from 1516 until his death in 1519.
The treatise eventually served another purpose, and that is to immortalize Machiavelli. It has become one of the most popular manuscripts in political science and leadership theories. Furthermore, it has undergone numerous analyses and interpretations, some of which became the basis of Machiavellianism. The treatise also became the foundation of the Machiavellian brand of leadership and even the Machiavellian personality trait.
However, “The Prince” has become a contentious work of literature due to its varied and often conflicting interpretations. Some have read and understood it at face value. There are those who have scrutinized it in consideration of specific contexts. Others have examined it from the perspective of Machiavelli as an ardent republican.
Exploring and Understanding the Different Interpretations of “The Prince”
Political Realism and Practical Teachings for Navigating Through and Surviving Real-World Politics: The End Justifies the Means
The overarching theme of “The Prince” centers on the use of all means regardless if it is moral or immoral to achieve specific ends. These ends or goals and objectives revolve around a ruler surviving in the harsh political realities while attaining and maintaining glory. Machiavelli became controversial because of his departure from the norms.
Numerous analysts considered Machiavelli one of the first political theorists and philosophers to divorce politics from ethics. Political science professor Cary Nederman mentioned that a number of authors from the Middle Ages and Renaissance held the notion that there is a special relationship between moral goodness and legitimate authority.
He explained further that through his political treatise, Machiavelli argued that goodness does not ensure power, and that goodness and righteousness are not enough to succeed in gaining power and maintaining this position. The Italian political theorist argued further that the legitimacy of law is based on the threat of coercive force or the use of fear.
Chapter 17 of the treatise raised one of its infamous questions: is it better to be loved or feared? Machiavelli explained that most people would want both but combining them would be difficult. He also explained in this same chapter that compassion will only harm the ruler and he must not disregard viciousness if it is the only means to keep his people in line.
Italian literature professor Robert P. Harrison also noted that the political realism demonstrated in “The Prince” is evident from how it departed from discussing ideal republics or imaginary utopias. He added further that this political treatise positioned itself as a practical guide to governance because it mirrored the political realities of its time.
Grigsby and other political scientists also referenced this political treatise in describing a Machiavellian state. A Machiavellian state is organized to maximize its power. Grigsby specifically noted that the manuscript could be read as a text for strong centralized leaders who govern using absolute authority.
Fundamentally, Machiavelli drew the line between political realism and political idealism. He prescribed an unconventional route to attaining and keeping power. This was controversial. Even the Catholic Church banned his political treatise for a time. However, for him, he believed that a ruler should never orient himself or herself to an idealized model of society.
Social and Historical Context, and the Mirrors for Princes Genre: Interpretations Based on the Purported Intention of Machiavelli
Understanding the social and historical context in which a particular work of literature was written is one of the most fundamental techniques for analyzing the intention of its author and the messages his or her written manuscript intends to convey. Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” during the time when Italy was divided into numerous belligerent political factions.
Popes habitually pursued war against city-states in Italy during the Renaissance. These cities and their people often fell under the control of either the Holy Roman Empire, France, or Spain. Alliances among rulers often shifted at an unpredictable phase. Political authority was unstable. Florence was one of these contested Italian city-states.
The Medici family controlled the city since the 15th century but they were later driven out of power after French King Charles VIII invaded northern Italy in 1492 and when the Republic of Florence was restored in 1494. Machiavelli served the republic as a diplomat. He also later spearheaded the formation of the Florentine militia.
However, the Medici family backed by Pope Julius II and Spanish troops sieged the city in 1512. The head of the Republic of Florence resigned and left and the government was dissolved. The political career of Machiavelli ended at this point. Most analysts believe that the situation heavily influenced his thinking and political writings, including “The Prince.”
The most popular interpretation of this political treatise is that it was intended as an instruction guide to new princes or rulers. It also used writing styles that adhere to the broader mirror literature genre and the more specific mirrors for princes genre. Literary pieces under this specific genre instruct rulers on facets of governance and behavior.
Machiavelli included a letter of dedication addressed to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. It seemed as if he wanted to instruct Lorenzo on how to effectively rule over Florence. However, it is also important to note that prior to its writing, the Medici family had him arrested and tortured because of his political involvement with the previous regime.
Several readers have believed that Machiavelli wanted to win the trust of the Medici family. Note that he denied involvement in the conspiracy against the family. He was later released from captivity and retired to his farm estate. Political scientist Ellen Grigsby explained that he dedicated “The Prince” to Lorenzo to appease the Medici-run government.
Written for the Common People as an Exposition of Political Realities: Alternative Interpretations of “The Prince”
Alternative interpretations of “The Prince” have emerged in modern discourse in politics, leadership, and literature. Harrison mentioned that the enduring values of this political treatise are not in its political theories. For him, it simply provides readers with a lens for viewing the world from a strictly demoralized perspective.
Christopher E. Cosans and Christopher S. Reina also examined the leadership ethics of Machiavelli through a close reading of his treatise. They concluded that the Italian diplomat and political theorist provided a realistic portrayal of human behavior as the basis of consequentialist ethics through the examples drawn from history and current affairs.
Furthermore, a closer examination of the treatise suggested that Machiavelli was advancing an ethical system for rulership or leadership that aims to uproot corrupt practices and establish and uphold order or rule of law. Cosans and Reina concluded that “The Prince” contained seeds for theories that are now important in contemporary leadership discourse.
Several readers have reiterated that Machiavelli was an ardent supporter of republicanism. Hence, others have also interpreted his treatise either as an exposition, a mockery of rulers, or a satire. For example, French philosopher Denis Diderot explained that it is possible that it was written not to mock but to expose corruption among rulers of its time.
Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also echoed the same sentiments. To be specific, in his infamous “Social Contract,” Rousseau explained that the hidden aim of Machiavelli was to promote his love of liberty by exposing the oppression in Italy. He exemplified this veiled agenda when he referenced the rulership of Cesare Borgia.
In another interpretation of “The Prince,” political theory professor Mary Dietz argued that this political treatise was not meant to be satirical. Instead, it is a manuscript for advising the common people on how to undo their ruler by exposing their wicked behavior. This argument has been based on the paradoxes between the treatise and Machiavelli himself.
The 20th-century Italian communist Antonio Gramsci also argued that the intended audience of Machiavelli was not the ruling class but the common people. Rulers already knew the methods exposed the treatise. The treatise influenced Gramsci in writing “Passive Revolution,” especially in conceiving a model for understanding revolutionary movements.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Cosans, C. E. and Reina, C. S. 2017. “The Leadership Ethics of Machiavelli’s Prince.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 28(3): 275-300. DOI: 1017/beq.2017.13
- Dietz, M. G. 1986. “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception.” The American Political Science Review. 80(3): 777-799. DOI: 2307/1960538
- Diderot, D. 1765. “Machiavellianism.” In 2004, trans. T. Cleary, The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Michigan Publishing
- Grigsby, E. 2009. “Should States Be Organized to Maximize Their Power or Organize to Restrain This Power.” Analyzing Politics. 4th ed. Wadsworth. ISBN: 978-0-495-50112-1
- Harrison, R. B. 2011. “What Can You Learn From Machiavelli.” Yale Insights. Yale University. Available online
- Landy, M. 2002. “Culture and Politics in the Work of Antonio Gramsci.” In ed. J. Martin, Antonio Gramsci: Intellectuals, Culture, and the Party. Routledge
- Nederman, C. 2019. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Available online