"si guarda al fine."
Literally, this Italian phrase (which appears in Chapter 18 of The Prince, "Concerning The Way In Which Princes Should Keep Faith") means something like "one should think of the final result". But it has often been translated into something a little more sinister, a phrase which has been said to sum up the theme of The Prince.
"The end justifies the means."
But does it? And is this what Machiavelli means when he says we should consider the final result?
First, let's look at what drove Machiavelli to write The Prince in the first place.
The Historical Context
Machiavelli came to prominence during a particularly tumultuous time for both the Republic of Florence in particular, and the Italian peninsula in general. During this period, the various Italian city-states warred against each other for power and prestige, using mercenary armies, or condottieri ("contractors") who often proved treacherous and easy to bribe. Pope Alexander VI used his office to enrich both himself and the immediate (and illegitimate) members of his family, the Borgias, trying to add temporal power to his spiritual power as head of the Catholic Church. France had invaded Italy in 1494 on the pretext of Charles VIII's claim to the throne of Naples after the death of the previous king, Ferdinand I, which was encouraged by Ludovico Sforza, who was looking for an ally against the Venetian Republic as well as to restore his position as Duke of Milan, starting over half a century of conflict between most of the major Western European states, using Italy as the battlefield.
In Florence itself, the French had demanded passage through the Republic, which Piero de' Medici, part of a family who had been the de facto rulers of the Republic since 1434, had conceded to. This proved to be his undoing; he was branded a traitor, subject to furious preaching by the radical Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who saw the weakening of the Medici family as proof that the Last Days were coming. The Medici family's grip on Florence was destroyed, as Piero and his family had to flee the city.
Florence Without The Medici
In the power vacuum that followed, Savonarola rose to become the leader of the Republic. He proclaimed it a "Christian and religious Republic", and seemed to be creating a kind of theocracy; homosexuality, previously subject to a fine, was now punishable by death and art considered to be morally lax was burned in the "Bonfire of the Vanities".
But Savonarola's "Christian and religious Republic" was short lived. His disapproval of the trading which made Florence such a rich city hurt the Republic economically. An attempt to capture Pisa, long considered by the Florentines to be a part of the Republic, failed miserably, and food shortages and plague were commonplace. Alexander VI, furious at Savonarola's criticism of the papacy, excommunicated the friar in 1497, and called for his arrest and execution. In 1498, Savonarola and his supporters were attacked by a crowd in the Convent of San Marco; he surrendered, and was tortured, then burned at the stake.
In the wake of this religious fanaticism came the moderate rule of Piero Soderini, elected Gonfaloniere for life, the Florentines wanting stability after the collapse of the Medici and Savonarola. In the elections for government positions only a few days after Savonarola's execution, a middle-class 29 year old son of a lawyer became the head of the Second Chancery: Niccolò Machiavelli. He was involved in a number of diplomatic missions to many of the major Western European powers, as well as organising a citizen militia as opposed to relying on the condottieri, whom Machiavelli always distrusted. This was a policy that seemed at the least a modest success when Florence finally managed to recapture Pisa in 1509.
But the citizen militia was not enough to defend the fledgling Republic, when in 1512 Papal troops led by Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici (later Pope Leo X) captured the Republic and exiled Soderini, returning the Republic to Medici hands.
Torture and Political Exile
As a supporter of Soderini and a member of his administration, Machiavelli was an obvious target for political reprisal by the new Medici regime. Purged from office, Machiavelli's fall from power was compounded by being placed on a list of potential anti-Medici conspirators, for which he was arrested and tortured. He was never to hold political office again, and retired to his estate on Sant'Andrea in Percussina, where he was to write plays, history, and his Discourses on Livy, as well as a short work dedicated first to Giuliano de' Medici, then Lorenzo de' Medici: The Prince.
It may seem odd for Machiavelli to dedicate his work to members of the family who destroyed his political career and had him tortured, but si guarda al fini; we must consider the (intended) result. Machiavelli felt that he still had more that he was able to do in the service of the Republic of Florence, and as such seemed to be prepared to work for anyone, even the Medici. Whether he did this because of a sense of duty towards his beloved Republic or simply out of opportunism is a matter for some debate. But despite his offering of advice to the Medici, no call came, no office proffered. Machiavelli's association with Soderini left him looking on impotently on the sidelines as the Medicis schemed and plotted, and Italy continued to descend into political chaos, only able to comment on political life rather than actively participate in it.
The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side
As commentary, though, The Prince is strange, for the times. It seems to fit into a genre that is broadly known as "Mirrors for princes"; that is, advice and guidance for the ruler and statesman. Works such as Thomas Occleve's "De Regimine Principum" or Erasmus' "Education of a Christian Prince" are typical of the genre, filled with homilies entreating the prince to be good, wise, decent. These are moral books, coming from a moral perspective; a good prince is a prince that is good.
This is not exactly the perspective that Machiavelli takes in The Prince.
In The Prince, a good prince is a prince that is successful; that is, the prince who maintains his state and does not allow it to come to ruin. (We can see exactly why Machiavelli is often considered the father of realist politics.) For Machiavelli, the stability of the state is a necessity, and it can only be secured by force of arms, as noted in Chapter 12:
"since there cannot exist good laws where there are no good armies, and where there are good armies there must be good laws."
Machiavelli believed that conflict was a key part of politics, both externally in terms of warfare and internally between social classes (which is what marks him out from classical writers like Aristotle, who had nothing but disdain for social conflict and believed it to be a perversion of true politics, which always considered the good of the whole). One has to remain strong in order to be independent, and those who neglect defence will only allow their state to come to ruin. This, along with Machiavelli's entreaties for the prince to sometimes endorse brutality when it is the only policy that the prince considers will achieve his goals, and his discussion of conspiracies, assassinations, and executions to make statements about who is in charge, makes it sound like Machiavelli is very much in favour of absolutism; the strong rising to the top, and ruling over the weak.
But wait. Remember what Machiavelli seems to consider the "good army"? Not the untrustworthy, devious condottieri, but the stalwart citizen-soldier fighting in defence of his state, as suggested in Chapter 13. This suggests, indeed, an army with a stake in the state, an army which is a bulwark against tyranny, an army that has some form of republican liberty. Is Machiavelli subtly weaving republicanism in this supposed advice for the absolute ruler?
The idea that Machiavelli is writing a satire rather than straightforward advice is one which has debated for centuries; Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and Rousseau were very much of that belief, as we can see from this passage from Rousseau's The Social Contract:
Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country's oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim; and the contradiction between the teaching of the Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers. The Court of Rome sternly prohibited his book. I can well believe it; for it is that Court it most clearly portrays.
Rousseau makes a good point. The Discourses is a strongly republican work, and seems to indicate that Machiavelli's sympathies lie with a republic, rather than a principality. Machiavelli notes in Chapter 9 that the prince:
"must have the friendship of the common people; otherwise he will have no support in times of adversity"
Machiavelli continually notes in The Prince that even in the principality, the prince must be able to make sure that at the very least, he is not hated; that the passive consent of the populace to his rule matters. This is quite a thing to say when kings' right to rule is still being justified by divine sanction.
But can we really think of The Prince as a satire, remembering Machiavelli's wish to continue participating in Florentine politics? It is tempting to think of him as a subversive telling the common people about the follies and evils of their corrupt princes, but it was not published until after his death, nor does it appear that it was ever meant to be. Simply because there is a republican undertone to much of what Machiavelli says does not necessarily mean that he is mocking the princes.
And in the last chapter, "An Exhortation To Liberate Italy From The Barbarians", it appears what is motivating Machiavelli is less political subversion than nationalist fervour. Perhaps it all comes back to that little phrase, si guarda al fini; although republican in sympathies, Machiavelli is looking at his countrymen driven to ruin by outside intervention, by the collapse of city-states all over Italy, and is looking for someone with the necessary virtù - that is, the ability to perform great deeds and glorious victories - to drive out the French and the Spanish. If a prince is what it takes, then he will support the prince. And only then can there be the necessary stability, the strength, to create the republic. As always, Machiavelli's worries about the need for a strong state in order to secure independence may have triumphed over his wishes for a republican constitution.