Machiavelli’s The Prince

How to summarize The Prince? It begins by parsing all the different kinds of possible principalities: hereditary, won by force, one by popular elections, etc. His main concern is how Princes can attain and maintain new principalities, the making, unmaking, and maintenance of power. Perhaps this emphasis is what leads some to see in the Prince either a revolutionary manual or an authoritarian blueprint?

I don’t think Machiavelli would much like either characterization since what he really seems to be trying to do is figure out the actual, objective mechanics of power over people and space. His detailed attention to the particulars of each individual situation is paralleled by his counsel to Princes that good princes are those with virtù. The text must also be read with a strong understanding of his desire to regain a position of power, as an advisor or something, to the Medici, who were ultimately responsible for firing him from such a role in the first place. Machiavelli’s ultimate aim, made more strongly in The Discourses, is the unification of Italy, but this point does remain a plea to the Medici.

Machiavelli’s main concern is power: how to attain it, how to expand it, how to maintain it. Power is the material of all politics for him. And Machiavelli sees the theatricality of power as one of the prime ways that power is exercised: the world of politics is the world of appearances. It is through appearances that power is organized and orchestrated. His method involves drawing from his own empirical experience as well as the history books, particularly in terms of classical antiquity. In the Discourses, Imperial Rome is his ideal-type republic.

Machiavelli is very clear about the role of violence in power dynamics. Although it might seem that Machiavelli is offering a blueprint of sorts, what’s striking is the way that he understands his analysis as needing to be totally accorded with contingent configurations of conjuncture and conditions. This comes out strongly in his treatments of Fortuna and Virtù. The Prince must set foundations—in discussing these, he describes earthworks, moats, foundations (like Gramsci)—it is such aspects of virtù that a good Prince uses to guard against the vicissitudes of fortuna. (Virtù/fortuna is highly gendered and the natural also works in this metaphor.) He gives the example of dikes (virtù, foundations) as lessening the impact of a flood (fortuna).

I have a lot more to say about this, especially in terms of how he conceptualizes fortuna and virtù. Fortuna has very similar aspects to Gramsci’s “conjuncture” and they are really reminiscent with conjunctures and relations of force analyses. I’m going to go back and read Gramsci’s “The Modern Prince” in which he uses Machiavelli to chart the path of the Communist Party of Italy.

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