Machiavelli’s Intention: The Prince

"Machiavelli's Intention: The Prince," American Political Science Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 (March 1957).  Reprinted in Thoughts on Machiavelli (Ch. 2).


Let us follow this movement somewhat more closely. At first sight The Prince belongs to the traditional genre of Mirrors of Princes, which are primarily addressed to legitimate princes; and the most familiar case of the legitimate prince is the undisputed heir. Machiavelli almost opens The Prince by following custom in calling the hereditary prince the “natural prince.” He suggests that the natural is identical with the established or customary, the ordinary or the reasonable; or that it is the opposite of the violent. In the first two chapters he uses only contemporary or almost contemporary Italian examples: we do not leave the dimension of the familiar. We cannot help noting here that in The Discourses which open with his declaration that he will communicate therein new modes and orders, the first two chapters are devoted to the remote beginnings of cities and states: we transcend immediately the dimension of the familiar. In the third chapter of The Prince, he continues to speak of “the natural and ordinary” and “the ordinary and reasonable” but he now makes it clear that the natural endangers the established, favors its disestablishment, or, more generally stated, that the natural and ordinary stands in a certain tension to the customary: since the desire for acquisition is “natural and ordinary,” the destruction of “natural princes,” “the extinction of ancient blood,” by an extraordinary conqueror is perhaps more natural than the peaceful and smooth transition from one ordinary heir to another.6 In accordance with this step forward, foreign and ancient examples come to the fore: the Turks and above all the Romans appear to be superior to the Italians and even to the French. Provoked by the remark of a French Cardinal that the Italians know nothing of war, Machiavelli felt justified in retorting, as he tells us here, that the French know nothing of politics: the Romans, whose modes of action are discussed in the center of the chapter, understood both war and politics. Furthermore he transcends the Here and Now also by referring to a doctrine of the physicians (for medicine is an achievement of the ancients),7 and by opposing the wise practice of the Romans to “what is every- day in the mouth of the sages of our times.” But he is not yet prepared to take issue with the opinion, held by more than one contemporary, that faith must be kept. In chapters 4 through 6, ancient examples preponderate for the first time. Chapter 6 is devoted to the most glorious type of wholly new princes in wholly new states, i.e., to what is least ordinary and most ancient. The heroic founders discussed therein acquired their position by virtue, and not by chance, and their greatness revealed itself by their success in introducing wholly new modes and orders which differed profoundly from the established, familiar and ancient. They stand at the opposite pole from the customary and old established for two opposite reasons: they were ancient innovators, ancient enemies of the ancient. Chapter 6 is the only chapter of The Prince in which Machiavelli speaks of prophets, i.e., of men to whom God speaks. In the rest of the first part marks a descent. The hero of chapter 7 is Cesare Borgia who acquired his principality by means of chance. He is presented to begin with as simply a model for new princes. But, to say nothing of the fact that he failed because of a grave mistake which he had committed, he was not a wholly new prince in a wholly new state: he is a model for those new princes who tried to make changes in ancient orders by means of new modes, rather than for the new princes who, like the heroes of chapter 6, tried to introduce wholly new modes and orders. Accordingly, the emphasis shifts from here on to modern examples.8 As for chapters 8 through 11, it suffices to note that even their chapter headings no longer contain references to new princes; the princes discussed therein were at most new princes in old states. The last two chapters of the first part, like the first two chapters, contain only modern examples, although the last two include examples other than modern Italian.

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