The value of Machiavelli’s The Prince can be construed in a number of ways – prominently, in the practical application of its advice, its historical significance as the founding work of political science and its philosophical illumination of the phenomenon of power. This essay will be discussing the first and third of these themes, examining The Prince in its practical application to contemporary politics and, briefly, in its importance to the examination of power.
Machiavelli has become synonymous with unethical politics and brutality. While The Prince boasts a repertoire of unsavoury leaders as fans, it is clear through his other works that Machiavelli was not supportive of the methods that he wrote down as the domain of princes (Barnett, 2006). While this essay focuses upon The Prince and its advice for leaders, it is important to note that his genuine views differed, and that this may infect the validity of his guidance.
With that in mind, this essay will be discussing the practical applicability of Machiavelli’s notion of warfare and of peaceful politics, as written in The Prince but informed by Machiavelli’s other works and Machiavellian scholars. Subsequently, this essay will be discussing a contending view that The Prince was written to harm the prospective prince, rather than aid him. Finally, this essay will briefly discuss the theoretical importance of Machiavelli’s notion of power.
Ultimately, this essay will find that, while many aspects of The Prince can be adapted to remain relevant to contemporary politics, the true value of the work is in its theoretical tradition of revealing the true nature of power.
War is often said to be the failure of politics. Machiavelli would disagree. To him, it is its epitome. Of course, this is as a result of his context, living in war-torn and tumultuous Italy. In the context, and perhaps even today, war was the prime method of attaining and holding power. Much of The Prince deals with the subject-matter of Machiavelli’s other work – the Art of War. In discussing the contemporary relevance of Machiavelli’s lessons, we need to examine if war is as important now as it was then, and if his advice is still relevant to modern warfare.
Machiavelli declared: “A prince should…have no aim or thought…but war and its organisation and discipline” (Machiavelli, 2008: 60). But is this true? In the violent society of disunited Italy, probably very much so, but we do not reside in this chaotic period or setting. D’Amato (1972) argued that, while some aspects of Machiavelli remain relevant, much of his advice has become outdated, such as the forms of military technology in popular use (D’Amato, 1972: 209). Further, he argues, that in applying Machiavelli to modern politics and warfare, we have to understand modern politics independently, making study of Machiavelli for this reason redundant (D’Amato, 1972: 209). Nuclear warfare has changed the face of warfare, he argues, and led to a relatively stable geopolitical state (D’Amato, 1972: 210). But despite this, there are still wars. At the time of writing, the Middle East is embroiled in a geopolitical conflict containing the mutually Machiavellian aspects of occupation and violence. Machiavelli argued that the importance of history was to predict the future (D’Amato, 1972: 212), as human nature is, for the most part, predictable. But is his advice pertaining to war still sound? D’Amato says no. Traditional warfare, he argues, is obsolete, as evidenced by the failure of US involvement in Vietnam (D’Amato, 1972: 211). But that doesn’t mean his lessons are not adaptable.
Machiavelli discusses methods of occupation and why some occupations fail. To illustrate his example, he compares feudal France to imperial Turkey (Machiavelli, 2008: 18-19). The former, due to the decentralised nature of its authority, is easy to conquer, while the latter is difficult, due to its centralised authority. The problem is that France would be hard to maintain control over due to the people’s loyalty to their local barons, while Turkey would be easier to control as the state is much less personal in their daily lives. Of course, today we do not have baronies or emperors (for the most part) but this concept can be applied to the modern concept of nationalism. Feudal France would have seen peasants fighting under barons, due to a loyalty to the baron. Nationalism is similar, but instead of loyalty to a barony (which is effectively a small state), citizens hold loyalty to the idea of a state. Due to this, many modern territories have been hard to control. For instance, the Kurdish ethnicity have posed a huge problem to the authorities of quite a few states in their rampant desire for political independence. They do not own land or have legitimate political authority, but the idea of their nationhood drives them to oppose occupation.
In occupying a previously independent territory, Machiavelli discusses the dangers in keeping the local populace alive, as they may seek revenge. His remedy for this is either mass slaughter of the populace or personally occupying the territory (Machiavelli, 2008: 21-22). He is correct in his argument that keeping the local populace alive is foolhardy, with modern evidence of Iraqi insurgents and Palestinian resistance posing a problem to American and Israeli occupiers alike. But modern contexts have changed. International law aside, a local population within a democracy would be extremely reluctant to allow their government to slaughter the civilians of a foreign country. This is evidenced by mass anti-war sentiments during the Vietnam War and more recent conflicts. With regards to the other option, personal occupation, this may be what modern leaders in fact do but, of course, by proxy. The reason to occupy a territory as a prince is so one can deal with decisions first-hand and prevent the seizure of power by traitors. With modern communication technology, physical attendance is no longer required. Generals and leaders can overlook their military endeavours and occupations from across oceans with satellite, internet and phone. While not physically being there, Machiavelli probably would agree that this does solve the problem – while also mitigating the risk of local insurgents attacking the leader.
Where Machiavelli’s advice may be deemed common sense is his prescription that one must defend ones territory through arms and the popular will of the people (Machiavelli, 2008: 44). D’Amato takes the advice word-for-word (D’Amato, 1972: 209), ignoring that defence does not necessarily mean castles and fortresses. Rather, Machiavelli’s advice can easily be translatable to modern defences, such as anti-air installations and a well-trained national guard. This is all in an effort to deter would-be attackers through the perceived sheer difficulty of taking your territory (Machiavelli, 2008: 45).
Machiavelli also stresses the need for an army under control of the prince (or modern state) (Machiavelli, 2008: 52). He decries mercenaries and condemns the use of auxiliaries (Machiavelli, 2008: 50). The reason is that when one is trying to secure power, it is not in the interest of either mercenaries or auxiliaries to secure that power. Mercenaries only care about money and will not sacrifice themselves and, at worst, will secure your gains as their own. Auxiliaries owe their loyalty to another power and, while useful in some scenarios (such as attacking a mutual enemy or wreaking havoc), they are useless when trying to expand one’s own power (Machiavelli, 2008: 56-57). In a modern context, mercenaries are used very often in disrupting enemies. The same goes for auxiliaries. Many modern states don’t want to commit their citizens to war, so would rather use mercenaries or foreign forces. This is due, primarily, to the changed nature of warfare. War, unlike in Machiavelli’s era, is no longer about overt annexation, but more about securing influence in global politics, attaining resources or disrupting rivals. Where this is different may be in the recent case of Russia and the Crimea, where Russia committed their own troops to secure territory. In this way, Machiavelli’s advice may be sound, as mercenaries and auxiliaries cannot reasonably be expected to hold the necessary loyalty to the state.
Machiavelli can also be adapted and used in discussing peaceful politics. Deception, cunning and brutality are just as relevant to matters of state than matters between states, but the translation from a monarchy to a republic may be difficult. There are, however, commonalities that this essay will discuss now.
In discussing civic principalities and the general method of holding power, Machiavelli discusses the need to retain popular favour (Machiavelli, 2008: 42). This has not changed. An authority needs general acceptance of the people to maintain power. So, while the favour may be due to love or fear (Machiavelli, 2008: 69), it is important that there is a general acceptance of one’s rule. This is common sense. This acceptance is earned and maintained through making one’s rule indispensable (Machiavelli, 2008: 43). If the government is always needed, then the people will not risk opposing it (in theory). This is primarily common sense, but wasn’t so during Machiavelli’s life, where authority was thought to be divinely wrought. To add to this, both in a contemporary and older context, force isn’t enough to maintain authority. A real life example would be Vietnam. US troops, undoubtedly, had superior firepower, but the lack of general favour among the local population proved to be disastrous to their supply lines and their ability to wage war and win. One cannot fight a war against everyone and, even if they can, they still have to maintain favour among their soldiers. Dictators, while giving little reason to be loved, create favour with the military to spread propaganda and fear, to maintain the favour of the populace.
Machiavelli gives an example of a tactic that is common among politicians throughout the ages – scapegoats. A minister was hired by Cesare Borgia to administrate a conquered and unruly territory. The minister was ordered to maliciously bring order to the territory. After he was done, Borgia slew him and displayed his mutilated remains for the public to see (Machiavelli, 2008: 31). This solved two things – it endeared him to the populace that hated the minister, while also instilling fear. In a modern context, we are less likely to see a President behead one of his ministers, but we are very likely to see fall-guys and scapegoats. Officials are often put in place as figureheads to distract the populace from the true source of authority, or to redirect one’s wrath. While not as bloody, this is an equivalent tactic to the one that Machiavelli suggests.
Machiavelli argues that good arms are needed to enforce the law (Machiavelli, 2008: 50). Enforcement, is of course, needed in commanding the actions of the populace. Positivists argue that laws are only followed due to the possible punishment or reward from a greater sovereign (D’Amato, 1972: 218). In The Prince, laws only exist as creations by the prince to guarantee his or her power. This would make Machiavelli seem like a Positivist, but research into Machiavelli’s other works would reveal something more akin to contemporary constitutional law (D’Amato, 1972: 220). Machiavelli does argue that law arises from man (typically the sovereign) but posits that it becomes independent once declared (D’Amato, 1972: 221). The prince, to maintain stability and the people’s favour, must obey their own laws (D’Amato, 1972: 222), making themselves subject to their own creation. Fundamentally, this is because the law is in the interest of the sovereign and, thus, he needs to lead by example to maintain the adherence to the law (D’Amato, 1972: 222). This is very much how we treat contemporary governance. Governments make the laws, but are also beholden to them. Theoretically, they could oppose them, but by doing so they would destroy the very system that maintains their authority.
There are many readings of The Prince, many of which state that its true intention was ulterior to helping nobles maintain their power. His intent is fundamentally unclear (O’Rourke, 2013), but many scholars have ideas of what his true motives were. Rousseau, for one, believed the work to be a handbook to incite revolution and reveal the mind-set of the sovereign (Dietz, 1986: 779; O’Rourke, 2013). Dietz (1986) provides a reading which more accurately links to Machiavelli’s character as a republican and as a fan of deception. She argues that The Prince, rather than being an honest guidebook for nobility, was rather a subtle platform for bad advice to hasten the overthrow of Lorenzo de Medici, whom he hated (Dietz, 1986: 777). Her reasons for this argument are due to deception as a crucial theme to Machiavelli (Dietz, 1986: 778), his presumed hatred of Lorenzo and his desire to return Florence to a Republic (Dietz, 1986: 782). To Dietz, The Prince is not merely about the politics of deception, it is deception in itself (Dietz, 1986: 781). The idea is that Machiavelli filled the book with good advice, based on historical analysis, but that he inserted some disastrous advice to hopefully entrap Medici. Examples of such bad advice can be found in finding inconsistencies between his advice within The Prince and his advice outside of it. A prominent example of this is his advice that a prince should occupy a previously free city personally. While I have explained why the modern version of this is not ill-founded and that the older context may also find this necessary, the advice does clash with his statement that a once-free people will always be embittered to the conqueror (Dietz, 1986: 783). It does not make sense to even expend the effort of trying to endear a populace through personal involvement if Machiavelli truly believes the once-free people will never forgive the conqueror. This trap is expounded through Machiavelli’s prescription that the people of a newly acquired state should not be disarmed. His arguments for this are not properly backed up by his usual citation from history (Dietz, 1986: 785). Rather, he just tells the reader that there are plenty examples of this tactic working, but withholds any examples (very unlike him). In contemporary and historical contexts, dictators and occupiers almost always disarm the populace. As Machiavelli argues, it does breed resentment, but the general action of occupation and tyranny breeds resentment to begin with. If Dietz is correct, then this is very likely meant to make sure that the Florentines are kept armed so that they can eventually overthrow the Medici. This is very probable, as Dietz contends, as Machiavelli argued in other texts that Florence had a deep-seated tradition of liberty and defiance against foreign occupation (Dietz, 1986: 786).
Not so obvious bad advice, but advice that does raise suspicions due to inconsistency within all his works, is that a prince should rely on the people for his power rather than the nobility (Machiavelli, 2008: 40). When giving advice to Pope Leo X, Machiavelli said the opposite and advised against relying on the populace and rather on the aristocracy to maintain power (Dietz, 1986: 784).
Dietz makes a convincing argument, that raises the question if The Prince should be taken seriously as a guidebook. Even with Dietz’s argument, it still maintains some validity, as the good advice is meant to camouflage the trap. In this manner, one should read carefully but still take The Prince seriously.
Regardless of the merits of Machiavelli’s advice, there is no doubt that his discussion on the theme of power was revolutionary. Atrocities happened long before Machiavelli put quill to paper and have happened long since, regardless of his writings. Where Machiavelli was truly enlightening was in his illumination that power could not be innocent. Machiavelli wanted people to be good, he just didn’t think that power worked that way (Barnett, 2006). Politics is the domain of the brute, the cunning and those willing to hurt and deceive to get what they want. In a way, The Prince could be the handbook of the sociopathic leader or the nihilist who believes primarily in will to power, but this is not how the normal academic should approach Machiavelli. Rather, we should examine his dealings with power as an honest portrayal of a concept that inherently requires coercion and manipulation. In dispelling the Christian idealisation of power, Machiavelli did more for the peasant than the aristocrat. He revealed that the king does not rule by God’s will with a benevolent hand, but rather that he rules with his foot on the backs of the serfs. In revealing the true nature of power, Machiavelli allowed us to distrust it.
This essay has outlined a collection of comparisons between Machiavelli’s The Prince and contemporary examples and approaches to politics. War was identified as a prime theme for Machiavelli as a staging ground for politics. Military tactics and strategies can be contemporised to allow Machiavelli’s advice to still stand, but D’Amato was accurate in arguing that nuclear warfare and the state of geopolitics has made much of Machiavelli’s advice less valuable. In relation to peaceful politics, Machiavelli identified the very nature of states as inherently resting on popular approval, among other things, he is still very much relevant in this arena. Plenty of other examples and comparisons can be made, but as D’Amato implied, we can make these adjustments ourselves. This essay subsequently approached a view by Dietz that The Prince was meant as deception in itself. While it cannot be proven, her arguments do make sense, calling the validity of some but not all of Machiavelli’s advice into question. Finally, the most important value of The Prince was found in its revealing the nature of politics. It fundamentally illuminated that power is the domain of liars and thugs. In a modern era of propaganda and secrecy, where we often take the state’s care for us for granted, this may be the most important lesson of all. Machiavelli’s prime purpose is to remind us to be ever watchful of the prince, whatever his or her title, lest we become serfs with mere ballot boxes.
Barnett, V. 2006. Niccolo Machiavelli – the Cunning Critic of Political Reason. [Online] Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/vincent-barnett/niccolo-machiavelli-%E2%80%93-cunning-critic-political-reason [Accessed 10 August 2016].
D’Amato, A. 1972. The Relevance of Machiavelli to Contemporary World Politics. In A. Parel, ed. The Political Calculus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 209-224.
Dietz, M.G. 1986. Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception. The American Political Science Review, 80(3), 777-799.
Machiavelli, N. 2008. The Prince. Translated by L. Ricci. New York: Signet Classics.
O’Rourke, J. 2013. Machiavelli’s The Prince: Still Relevant after All These Years. [Online] Available at: https://www.bu.edu/today/2013/machiavelli-the-prince-still-relevant-after-all-these-years/ [Accessed 10 August 2016].
 As will be dealt with in a later section, there is a theory that Machiavelli stipulated this to set a trap for the prince.