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Dangerous Machiavelli

March 22, 2011

Like this but for Princes?


While reading about the history of printing in the Middle East, I recently came across a significant but little-known fact about Machiavelli.  When the Ottoman Empire established its first printing press, the Ottoman government commissioned the translation of a number of works from European languages into Turkish and Arabic.  Although 17 works were published, more than 17 were translated.  Among those works translated but then not published was Machiavelli’s The Prince.  It seems that The Prince has the distinction of being one of the first, if not the very first, text deemed unsuitable for publication in the Ottoman Empire.


The Papacy, the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburgs… Christian and Muslim regimes, sacred and secular states, all seem to have had little love for The Prince.  Indeed, the book has been denounced, decried and suppressed practically from the moment it came into existence, with an enthusiasm that few other texts have aroused.  Why, then, has this been the case?


To answer that question, one needs to examine two things:  the work itself, and the context in which it was written and read.  Concerning the work, the first question is one that was raised in lecture and discussed in section:  was The Prince written as a how-to guide for those who rule, complete with the dirty tricks they might find useful, or was it the Pentagon Papers of its age, exposing corrupt governmental practices? I am convinced that it was the former.


Although Machiavelli had little cause to love the Medici, the letter he wrote that is included in this class’ text book strongly suggests that he genuinely wanted the Medici to employ him.  Moreover, when Machiavelli wrote his text, he was living within reach of the Medici, in an era when powerful men could and did respond to an insult by sending thugs after the one who gave offense.  In effect, to suppose that The Prince was written as an expose presupposes a lack of self-interest and ambition at odds with Machiavelli’s reputation, combined with a remarkable lack of concern for his own wellbeing.  This suggests that The Prince was intended as what it seems to be at face value: a user’s manual for politicians.


Now consider the content of the text.  Its message can be summed up as:  when you decide to do something (and you should aim to do what is right, or at least correct) you should do it as efficiently as possible.  Along the way, one might utilize some useful dirty tricks to make it easier.  Machiavelli does not endorse evil as a goal.  Rather, he endorses any practices (even evil ones) used in pursuit of positive goals.


Why was Machiavelli’s work seen as so dangerous and undesirable?  In a perfect world, Machiavelli would be wrong: good people would never need to use distasteful methods, and political theory would never have discussed the problem of dirty hands.  But we live in an imperfect world, and as long as governments have existed, those who have governed have made difficult and sometimes distasteful decisions.  So to those who banned his works, Machiavelli’s central point about underhanded methods was nothing strange.  Why then did they show such enthusiasm to suppress his work?  This post already brought up the idea that Machiavelli wrote The Prince as an expose on the underhanded behavior of those in power, and the evidence suggests that that was not his intention.  However, simply because it was not his intention to write an expose does not mean that it could not be read as one.  The governments of Machiavelli’s age were willing to dirty their hands with precisely the sorts of tricks that Machiavelli described, so that he unnerved them when he wrote of such techniques.  Metaphorically, he was pulling off their gloves and exposing their dirty-handed hypocrisy.  It is no wonder that both the Ottoman Empire and the Papal States were vigorous in condemning The Prince.  Their legitimacy was based on religions which disapproved of dirty-handed dealing.


In short The Prince, whatever Machiavelli’s intentions with it were, took on a life of its own when it left his desk.  It became precisely the sort of expose that this class discussed and that I argued Machiavelli did not intend to create.  This brings me to a point about how we should read The Prince.  A political theory text must be considered as more than just what its author intended it to be, it must be considered in the context of how it was interpreted and what actions it inspired.  Therefore, to understand the impact of The Prince, one needs to examine it from both of the discussed perspectives… even if only one of them was what Machiavelli intended.


In a way, it is ironic – Machiavelli was denounced and The Prince suppressed with such fervor precisely because the princes who did so were good Machiavellians, who neither wanted their legitimacy undermined… nor their trade secrets publicized.




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