21 Nov 2011

mediaevalist: (Hatshepsut)
Medievalists.net has an article which, to me, is a bit old-hat: Niccolo Machiavelli – the Cunning Critic of Political Reason.

The article is a good one, but it's not exactly what I'd call new, even though it presents a more recent interpretation that isn't widely known:

Now that some of Machiavelli’s most infamous ideas have been presented, various interpretations of them and their underlying motivation can be considered. One unusual interpretation comes from the eighteenth-century historian of philosophy William Enfield, who suggested that The Prince was a satire on the unruly and selfish behaviour of political leaders. Enfield declared that, since Machiavelli was an enemy of despotism in his actual conduct, The Prince was intended to ‘pull off the mask from the face of tyranny’. If it really was meant by Machiavelli as a satire, then it has to be the driest, most bitter and most convincing satire ever written, one that has fooled many commentators and leaders alike for centuries.

But even this article from Cracked (authored by Peter Davis and David A. Vindiola ) acknowledges that "[a]ctually, Machiavelli was totally just trolling." Like the bimbo in one of my English classes who was horrified by Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal for advocating eating children in an obviously sarcastic manner, (as anyone with comprehension skills beyond Kindergarten level can attest) most folks completely missed Machiavelli's bitter, cynical, and even sarcastic tone. Or, as Davis and Vindiola put it:

The context in this case is that the Medici family to whom he dedicated his love letter is the same group who personally broke Machiavelli's arms for being such a staunch advocate for free government. He worked for the Florentine Republic before the Medicis marched in, mowed down the government and mercilessly tortured him, and then he sat down and wrote The Prince from his shack in exile, assumedly with some really bendy handwriting (on account of the arms). When you learn about that, it kind of adds a new layer of meaning to the text -- it suddenly sounds like it's dripping with sarcasm.

The article further explores another interpretation of the circumstances:

Another possibility is that, in writing The Prince, Machiavelli was articulating only what he believed that the then-current rulers wanted to hear, so that he could win back their favour. On this view Machiavelli himself might not have believed everything he wrote in The Prince, but he thought that a cold amoral attitude to politics might impress his superiors, thus leading to his reinstatement in government. If this interpretation is true, then he was being doubly cynical by cynically advocating scheming distrust as a method of government, while not fully believing in it himself. The actual circumstances of the composition of The Prince add weight to this interpretation, in that Machiavelli dedicated it specifically to Lorenzo de Medici. It has also been suggested that he composed it quickly, on deciding to take a break from working on the longer Discourses, this apparently coinciding with a period when a new Pope had recently been installed in Rome and a new leader found for Italy. Did Machiavelli hope through The Prince to influence this new ruler? If so this aim was never actually realised, and Machiavelli died without ever regaining his political position.

However, Davis and Vindiola point out that

For centuries, the consensus on Machiavelli's best-known work has been that he was just trying to brown-nose his way back into the government. But a deeper study of his full body of work reveals that this is a pretty absurd ambition, considering not only did Machiavelli repeatedly say that "popular rule is always better than the rule of princes," but after he wrote The Prince, he went right on back to writing treatises about the awesomeness of republics. Considering also that he was no stranger to the literary art of satire, scholars these days are turning to a more likely scenario -- Machiavelli was the Stephen Colbert of the Renaissance.

Admittedly, there's no real way to know beyond a shadow of a doubt what Machiavelli's true intentions were. But comparing The Prince to all his other work, I have to say I'm not especially convinced he was sucking up. On the other hand, the evidence for The Prince being a scathing satire is pretty convincing.

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