In finishing the last chapters of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, we will tie up loose ends and come to an understanding of what Machiavelli was saying in his work and what Machiavelli was not saying in his work. To review, up to this point Machiavelli’s Prince is about “practical advice” on new princes who have risen to power and how they should maintain their power. The questions of sovereignty and power are the main themes that Machiavelli is exploring, in which power leads to sovereignty and sovereignty is the aim of princely politics.
Chapter 20: Fortresses Fail
Chapter 20 is an interesting interlude into the politics and military usefulness of fortresses. Strong defensives structures have a long and storied tradition in politics and warfare, but Machiavelli notes that the use and reliance upon fortresses often fail. They fail, in part, because a fortress represents a decay of primal will and resoluteness. There is also the issue of losing hope when a fortress falls and in that fortress falling the prince slides himself into despair and a mentality of defeat. (He spent so much time and effort into the fortress as his salvation and in its loss, he doesn’t know what else to do now.)
By relying on fortresses, one is relying on something outside of themselves for the maintenance of their rule and power. Again, based on the previous themes and chapters, one should always rely on themselves in order to secure and maintain power and sovereignty. While fortresses can have benefits, as Machiavelli notes, they are not to be seen as permanent substitutes for the necessity of the resoluteness and reliance on oneself to maintain. As Machiavelli says toward the end of the chapter, “the best fortress you can have, is in not being hated by your subjects. If they hate you no fortress will save you.”
Again, that theme of Machiavelli being something a national populist is once again on display here. (Yes, I realize that this is an anachronistic term, but Machiavelli regularly advises the prince to be on the side of the people. The “aristocrats” or “elites” are less dangerous than the angry mob. While you should try to balance the interests, Machiavelli always decides that the prince ought to side with the people when push comes to shove.)
Chapter 21: Reputation Matters
Chapter 21 shifts gears and discusses the importance of reputation in politics. In other words, reputation matters. If a prince has a reputation of being trustworthy this is to his benefit. If a prince has a reputation of being untrustworthy this will be harmful to him. (And on this note, Machiavelli might as well be offering practical advice to the rest of us about life in general.) As he writes, “A Prince is likewise esteemed who is a staunch friend and a thorough foe, that is to say, who without reserve openly declares for one against another, this being always a more advantageous course than to stand neutral. For supposing two of your powerful neighbors come to blows, it must either be that you have, or have not, reason to fear the one who comes off victorious.”
What Machiavelli begins to start outlining in Chapter 21 is a return to Chapters 6-8: opportunity and action. Neutrality is the weakest course of action one should take when action is demanded, and so is advising potential allies (or enemies) that they should remain neutral when you should probably be doing everything to win them to your side. One should always take decisive action. Decisive action in favor of friends leads to that reliable and trustworthy reputation. Decisive action, even against foes, leads to a certain fear and respect for the prince among his enemies in which they will always think twice before their action. To illustrate an example from ancient history Machiavelli cites the Roman-Seleucid War in which the Seleucid King Antiochus advised neutrality among the Aetolians while the Romans advised taking up arms in their favor. Antiochus erred in thinking the Aetolians would side with the force offering them nothing. Decisive action is always the best course of action. From this Rome also learned that the Seleucids were weak and unwilling to do whatever was necessary to defeat them (i.e. by offering benefits to the Aetolians as a short-term interest).
Furthermore, Machiavelli notes that one should not ally with stronger powers. This is because in doing so you are effectively subjugating yourself to the stronger power. Again, one of the themes that runs throughout the Prince is sovereignty and power. In allying with a stronger nation, you are effectively losing your sovereignty and power as you become dependent on the stronger power.
However, having many friends can be beneficial. You are counted as being trustworthy and reliable. Victory only cements this further among the perceived reputation of your friends. Even in defeat, though unfortunate, you gain a strong reputation among those friends whom you fought to the bitter end with.
But Machiavelli also advises prudence. Citing the ruin of Venice in their alliance with France, a single mistake can ruin a state or dynasty. The prince must always be prudent. Examining his options before him. He must take into account his best interests. But after examining and taking into consideration the interests at play, Machiavelli then advocates decisive action. No waffling. Hesitation comes off as a sign of weakness. Others will pounce if they sense weakness.
Chapters 22-23: The Court and Secretaries, or Why Having Trustworthy and Truth-Telling Advisors Matters
Concerning the management of political affairs Machiavelli. The purpose of secretaries is that they serve you and have the best interests of the state, or the prince’s interest, at heart. Secretaries that are “out for themselves” undermine your rule.
Thus, there is a dialectical game at work. The prince needs to surround himself with ministers. Ministers are also self-interested people. Ministers will fear their overlord if they consider him to be intelligent and work to serve him and the common good of the state. Ministers who consider the prince to be weak and unintelligent will engage in their own activities which lead to the subversion of princely authority and are not people whom you can trust.
Machiavelli then turns to the issue of political sycophants. This is perhaps a lesson that Hillary Clinton should have learned from Machiavelli during her 2016 election campaign if the stories about her being surrounded by flatterers and sycophants are true. Truth is an important virtue in politics in the sense that the prince must hear the truth if he is to be properly informed of what is besetting him and his rule. Those who ignore the truth and rather engage in pure flattery do the prince a disservice. They also do the nation a disservice. The “hard truth” matters to the prince. The hard truth matters to the state.
Machiavelli believes that having advisors, secretaries, and other such people in the prince’s court who tell the truth – even if it is the hard and harsh truth – is to the benefit of the prince. Machiavelli shows a certain appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy here insofar that one should make decisive decisions with as much truthful information as possible. To make a decision based on lies (flatteries) could bring about the prince’s ruination. And since Machiavelli’s work is all about the maintenance of power and sovereignty, that means flattery runs counter to what the aim of politics is about. To maintain power, and to make good decisions, sometimes we need to have the harsh truth told to us. Even if we don’t necessarily want to hear it. Only in this harsh truth always being told can we come to a fuller understanding of problems and predicaments at hand and act accordingly.
Chapters 24-25: The Role of Fortuna (Fortune) in Political Affairs
Besides power and sovereignty, fortune and prudence are the other paired themes that run throughout the Prince. Going back to Chapters 6-8, fortune is one of the prerequisites for merit according to Machiavelli. There must be fortunate opportunities before the prince if the prince is to ‘seize the moment’ and rise to the top. But Machiavelli is clear that fortune is only half of the equation. “I think it may be the case that Fortune is the mistress of one half of our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little less, to ourselves.”
Going back to Chapter 6 wherein the prince of merit was commented on, you should recall that such figures had found themselves situated in circumstantial moments that cried for action. The prince of merit is the one who understood the opportunities that fortune had placed before them and they acted to seize that moment accordingly. It is that ability to understand fortune that represents a prince’s merit. Likewise, a prince must always be on guard against fortune which may sway against him at any time. One must take actions against fortune changing direction in other words.
When discussing the princes of Italy who blame fortune for their porous state they now found themselves in, Machiavelli rather blames them. “Let those princes of ours, therefore, who, after hold them for a length of years, have lost their dominions, blame not Fortune but their own inertness.” This returns us to that theme of decisive action. In politics there is always the necessity of action. Fortune comes and goes, reveals herself, and it is now the task of the prince to act decisively and accordingly. According to Machiavelli the weeping princes and princesses of Italy who have lost their power and dominion and blame “bad luck” for their circumstances are truly the worst of princes and rulers. It was their lack of action, their improper action, or both, that caused the circumstances that they find themselves existing in. Referring back to Chapter 7, “This, I believe, comes chiefly from a cause already dwelt upon, namely that a prince who rests wholly on Fortune is ruined when she changes.”
Machiavelli advises the prince to understand that not everything is under his control. Luck, or Fortune, is very much part of the world. In other words, the irrational exists in the world. The irrational is part of politics. We cannot know everything. We cannot control everything. We must understand this and always be on guard. Prudence against Fortune is always a hallmark of a good prince (or politician). “For if to one who conducts himself with caution and patience, time and circumstances, are propitious, so that his method of acting is good, he goes on prospering; but if these change he is ruined, because he does not change his method of acting.” We must always be aware of when Fortune, or opportunity, comes knocking.
Fortune always brings opportunity is what Machiavelli is saying. The prince must be aware of this. The “moment” is “upon us” is an apt idea that is rooted in a certain Machiavellian philosophy. The conclusion to draw from what Machiavelli is saying by linking opportunity with Fortune is that Fortune can be controlled! Fortune (or Fate) is not something outside of human control.
Chapter 26: The Fortunate Moment of the Medici (if They Seize the Moment)
The closing chapter of the Prince is a sudden change of tone. But Machiavelli was wittily and slyly already changing tone to reach this point in his text. Now addressing the Medici princes directly, he exhorts them to liberate Italy from the invading barbarians who are destroying Italy (the Germans and Spanish and French who are embroiled in the Italian Wars). Like Moses or Romulus or Cyrus beforehand, there is a moment of opportunity before the Medici if they strike at the opportunity: to unite Italy and be considered fathers of a united nation. This would also, in Machiavelli’s eyes, all but guarantee their maintenance of power and increase of sovereignty. Fortune has set so much in motion but now it is time for human action.
The final paragraphs discussing the weaknesses of the French, Spanish, Swiss, and German armies is also something pretty important in the long legacy of Machiavellian philosophy. Know thy enemy. Knowing thy enemy is one of the responsibilities of the prince. The good prince, the prudent prince, the wise prince, knows his enemies and therefore knows the best way to defeat them when that opportunity arises. Machiavelli, a student of the reports of the various battles, writes of the various weaknesses of the forces that have beset Italy. If only a prince aware of these weaknesses trained accordingly, he would be able to overthrow the enemies.
Within the broader picture, the reason why the Medici are so aptly situated to be unifiers of Italy is because not only have they returned to power in Florence, but Florence is now one of the strongest city-states in Italy seeing that Milan and Venice have fallen. Furthermore, a Medici sits in Rome as the head of the Catholic Church and controls the Papal States. The center of Italy is firmly under Medici control. The north is in a state of chaos. The opportunity is there for the Medici if only they take action. Of course, we know the Medici didn’t. But Machiavelli’s political theory of power and sovereignty, fortune and prudence, cold practicality and opportunism has long lived beyond the Medici who failed to heed to Machiavelli’s call.
Having examined this short and influential treatise chapter by chapter, we can ask ourselves the question of how Machiavellian was Machiavelli? We can also ask ourselves what is Machiavelli really saying in the Prince?
Machiavelli is writing to princes who have just recently attained power. He is therefore advising them how to maintain the power they have just acquired and how to appear like the other stable princely dynasties across Europe and across history. Therefore, Machiavelli understands politics as primarily being about power.
Additionally, Machiavelli is living in a time of great transformation. Modern political philosophy is generally considered to be about theories of the state. Earlier political philosophy was primarily concerned with ideal questions: What is the best political type or form, why is virtue important to politics, what is justice and why is justice important, etc. Machiavelli is living in an age when the emergences of modern states is coming to the fore. As such, Machiavelli is well aware of this world historical moment of transformation and advising the prince on how to consolidate state power. The theme that emerges in this subtheme of the book is sovereignty. How do you best maintain sovereignty? Machiavelli answers by arguing that the only way to maintain sovereignty is to increase your political power, in principle, the power of the state. (In the case of principalities, the power of the state is invested in the prince.)
Within broader strokes is Machiavelli’s crypto-nationalism. He is seemingly a strong supporter of some form of Italian nationalism and unification against those foreign forces that are running rampant through the country. Machiavelli’s crypto-nationalism borders on a certain nationalist populism insofar that he regularly advises the prince to recognize that the true power is in the hands of the people rather than the elites. While the ideal is to balance both sides, when push comes to shove it is always better to have the people behind you then the nobles, aristocrats, clergy, or other “notables” and “elites” of late Renaissance society.
At the same time Machiavelli tells us that we must recognize the irrational forces at play in our world and throughout history. That irrational actor in the world is what Machiavelli calls Fortuna, or Fortune. Things never go “according to plan.” However, Fortune always comes knocking which brings opportunity to those who can seize the moment. When it does we must have the prudence and intelligence, and will, to recognize it and act decisively. One never knows when Fortune will come knocking again. Taking advantage of opportunities is one of the hallmarks of the good prince. It is necessary if one is to maintain their power and sovereignty too. In some sense, Machiavelli is subtly telling us, Fortune can be controlled if a prince recognizes his moment to act.
Lastly, Machiavelli is a consequentialist. It is not that he throws away the importance of honesty, virtue, ethics, justice, mercy, and so forth. Rather, he subjects these ancient views to a new standard: Will it advance the cause of power and the sovereignty of the state? If the answer is yes then by all means be honest, virtuous, ethical, just, and merciful. If the answer is no then you must be willing to be cruel, unjust, and lie so that good may come. This demands prudence and fortitude among princes and states. They must assess the situations and circumstances before them and address them accordingly. Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian? Yes. Was he as Machiavellian as some say or as popular outlets sometimes portray him? No. In fact, a reading of the Prince and Discourses on Livy will probably lead one to conclude that the essence of Machiavellianism is more about state power, the limits of state power (what is the most the political expedience of the state can achieve), and national sovereignty, and within this, what type of government best embodies the necessities of modern state theory.
The Prince should be read as a primer for princes, but also as a compendium to Machiavelli’s longer but equally important (but less well known) Discourses on Livy. Though Machiavelli’s political outlook in the Discourses are more sharply republican (since he is not writing a “primer for princes”), what unites the Discourses and the Prince is Machiavelli’s theory of the state. In his theory of the state, which begins to be seen in the Prince, one can recognize the importance of sovereign power in Machiavelli. Machiavelli is a sovereignist theorist. Sovereignty demands power. Sovereignty also needs a strong public will. The Discourses reveal that Machiavelli felt republicanism to be the best political form to marry with the demands of sovereign power; The Prince, then, is the primer for sovereign power.
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, March 1, 2018.