Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince, (transl. George Bull, ed. Anthony Grafton), (Penguin Classics: London, 2003). e-book ISBN: 9780141912004 (£2.99)
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Niccolò Machiavelli … the name has a seductive musicality, like all the Devil’s best tunes, and in Italian, ‘Il Principe’ uncoils like a snake, before hissing and then biting. This, his most famous work, has insinuated its way into our psyche until ‘Machiavellian’ has become part of a sinister cabal of authorial-adjectives including ‘Orwellian‘, ‘Lovecraftian’ and ‘Kafkaesque‘. Yet how many people appreciate its true meaning, having read ‘The Prince’? Is its reputation merited? Is it a useful, topical read, or a dusty, centuries-old curiosity?
The book was written in the early 16th century by an exiled career politician who evidently hoped it (and it’s fulsome dedication to ‘the Magnificent Lorenzo dé Medici’) might prompt his return to court. It takes the form of a series of mini-essays on the nature of power, how to achieve it and perhaps more importantly, how to retain it. Although it didn’t achieve Machiavelli’s aim, Anthony Grafton’s interesting and useful Introduction to this edition tells us that Machiavelli quickly became the ‘political teacher of Europe’; we know Henry VIII and his court were ‘students’.
Despite royal patronage, it was highly controversial. Boris Ford writes that:
‘For most Elizabethans, Machiavelli was simply a monster, an advocate of murder and treachery […] but the storm of abuse against him in the last quarter of the century indicates uneasiness […] while Machiavelli was abused in public, he was studied in private for his effectual truth.’ [a]
Much of the controversy might stem from Machiavelli’s style. Contemporary readers used to highly moralistic writing will have been shocked and simultaneously attracted by his objective, detached descriptions of the wiping out of opponents’ families, and the advantages of devastating territories once conquered. Machiavelli offers no moral judgements, just speaks about what is necessary, writing in a highly aphoristic, quotable style. His statements are supported, in the rhetorical conventions of the day, by references to classical history as well as more recent Italian politics. Some of the latter can, in truth, be skimmed unless the reader is specifically interested in that area. The real value, for most readers, will be in the advice given in startlingly plain language. Here’s an example:
‘… men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for grievous ones.’
What perhaps shocks most is the verbalisation of the notion that a universally good leader will probably not be a successful, lasting one. It’s easy to see how the work was condemned by the Church as well as governments. Machiavelli speaks of the need for flexibility in terms of ‘virtue’, and diminishes the role of fate or divinity in the face of self-reliance.
This edition was worth a small premium: Anthony Grafton’s ‘Introduction’ and George Bull’s robust translation are supported by a useful biographical timeline. I believe Il Principe ought to be part of everyone’s ‘cultural capital’. For students of Shakespeare and Marlowe, it’s required reading to understand and analyse the motives and methods of any leader and/or antagonist they create. ****/*
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[a] Boris Ford (ed.), A Guide to English Literature: Volume 2, The Age of Shakespeare (Penguin: London, 1955), p.21