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"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.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 10:53 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I tried not to go into too much detail (19+ / 0-)

    In case that prevents discussion (for instance, I haven't mentioned anything about Fortuna, which is a key component of Machiavelli's analysis). But I hope this is a reasonable starting point.

    All comments are welcome; analytical or impressionistic, critical, favourable, or philosophical. Let's get a good discussion going!

  •  Astonishing To Consider (13+ / 0-)

    how jail time has led to so many literary political contributions to the world.

    MLK's "Letters from Birmingham Jail";
    Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" was stimulated after a night spent in the Concord jail;
    Hitler's "Mein Kampf" (the first part);
    and probably "The Qualities of a Prince" which was published in 1513.  Machiavelli had been imprisoned by the Medici princes upon their return to power in 1512.

    In Machiaveli's case, I have always held that he wrote his tract as a device to get him out of prison and secure a job with the Prince who imprisoned him, having been "rehabilitated" by his time spent behind bars.  Who knows? -- the story-within-a-story possibilities are endless.

  •  asdf (5+ / 0-)
    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.

    Well, he states in the Prince, I believe, though it may be in the Discourses, that principalities are better for bringing about change, and republics are better for maintaining stability.  He likely thought that only a prince could unite Italy, not a republic.  Once Italy was united, only then could it become a republic.  He wrote the Prince as a guidebook for how to unite Italy.

    "Intolerance is something which belongs to the religions we have rejected." - J.J. Rousseau

    by James Allen on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 11:28:37 AM PST

    •  I believe (7+ / 0-)

      that's in the Discourses. Which deserve to be as well known as the Prince, I think, since they give a fuller picture of Machiavelli's thought.

      I remember vividly how he talks in the Discourses about how "gentlemen" ruin republics by being able to garner followers and sycophants and supplicants, which undermine the independence of the citizenry. He's the first political philosopher to talk about social conflict as a natural process, rather than a perversion of the polis, as the Greeks and the Romans were wont to do.

      •  What's the endgame in social conflict process? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        palantir

        If a pol can't draw sycophants and supplicants, how can he ever maintain power in a democracy?

        In 2004, Bush won reelection b/c so many on the Right would walk over red hot coals for him, door to door.  And in 2008, so many of President's Obama's supporters would do the same (which may be a problem for him in 2012).

        Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project. http://www1.hamiltonproject.org/es/hamilton/hamilton_hp.htm

        by PatriciaVa on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 12:32:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  sycophants and supplicants (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Limelite, palantir, pvmuse

          were paid; or were held in bondage, or owed some kind of debt, as opposed to the choice to support candidates that a free citizenry would make. That was the issue.

          •  What about the 25% or so that supported Nixon... (0+ / 0-)

            ...through Watergate.  Would those be characterized as "sycohpants"?  And if so, what would they be owed?

            And what about the service union employees in so many states going to state capitols, yelling, "raise my taxes, raise my taxes".  What are they owed?

            Freshly Squeezed Cynic, I do believe that in a democracy, to be successful, a leader needs sycophants and supplicants.

            Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project. http://www1.hamiltonproject.org/es/hamilton/hamilton_hp.htm

            by PatriciaVa on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 01:15:17 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  the supplicant owes debt to the gentleman; (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Limelite, PatriciaVa, pvmuse

              not the other way around; that is why Machiavelli considers that relationship inimical to the free republic, where people interact on a fairly equal footing, because these ties can often be ties of ownership and control, and when a gentleman can direct other people in such a way, they are not able to act like citizens. Your Watergate 25% and service union employee suggestions do not seem to me to apply.

              You believe what you believe. When it gets to that point, though, I think the democracy is not successful. At least at being a democracy.

    •  And, perhaps, he also wrote it to bring (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roger Fox

      about the Republic. Once unified, and proud of being so, the country might well not tolerate the kind of autocratic and abusive behavior he recommends to his Prince.  This is what I have thought to be the core of the subversive nature of the book.

      The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. --- Thomas Jefferson

      by Alice Olson on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 02:12:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've never bought that it was (0+ / 0-)

        subversive or satirical at all.

        "Intolerance is something which belongs to the religions we have rejected." - J.J. Rousseau

        by James Allen on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 06:23:02 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I've never thought it to be satirical, (0+ / 0-)

          but I see the possibility of subversive.  I can imagine him ingratiating himself with the Prince while planting seeds that might ultimately be sown in rebellion.

          The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. --- Thomas Jefferson

          by Alice Olson on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 08:06:18 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I want to follow your group... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite

    but the name should be changed to a name that defines a genre of non-fiction typified by this book.   Words change, so what had been philosophy becomes split into "history,literature, political science....and many more.

    The key is that they have value in allowing us to bring more to the events of the day.  This could be a refuge for those who want to take a step back from being on the barricades against the evil right wing.   I'm currently reading "The German Genius" by Peter Watson, an encyclopedic work of Philosophy, science and industry that is now hidden to educated people by the curtain of the Nazi era.  This was not Germany, but only a thread of a rich culture that metastaticized out of control.

    I would love to share some of my thoughts on it with like minded people.  

  •  What would Machiavelli do about the Middle East? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, inHI, Mariken

    And therein lies the US dilemma.

    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.

    Does the US support freedom fighters brandishing arms against the Saudi royal family, or the current government in SA?

    What about Libya.  Does the US support the insurgents, or the current government?

    Decisions, decisions...

    Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project. http://www1.hamiltonproject.org/es/hamilton/hamilton_hp.htm

    by PatriciaVa on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 11:56:55 AM PST

  •  Excellent beginning for what drives the corporate (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, inHI, kpbuick, melpomene1

    international world.  It was required reading for those "choosen" to participate in Management Development Programs, in my day.  

    Nothing changes without the voices of those willing to expose the lewd and selfish voices of greed.

  •  Been years since I read it (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, PatriciaVa, kpbuick, melpomene1

    The part that sticks in my mind is how he matter-of-factly advises the prince to slaughter not only his rivals but their families as well.

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 12:45:49 PM PST

    •  In the Middle East, how many..... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      melpomene1

      ....young boys decide to wage war against another entity b/c they learn that their father was felled by that country?

      Just asking...

      Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project. http://www1.hamiltonproject.org/es/hamilton/hamilton_hp.htm

      by PatriciaVa on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 12:51:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  "It is Beter to Be Feared than Loved" (0+ / 0-)
      •  The full quote: (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Limelite, esquimaux
        Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

        Machiavelli goes on to say that while it is safer (not necessarily better) to be feared than loved, the prince must take great pains to make sure he is not hated.

    •  A time for slaughter (0+ / 0-)

      TO remove the stain. Other times require other actions.

      When on dangerous ground maneuver, on deadly ground fight.

      Recognizing that you are on deadly ground means you fight. And that means:

      slaughter not only his rivals but their families as well

      FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 03:20:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting, thank you!!! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, palantir

    Great diary!

    Join us at Bookflurries: Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 01:50:08 PM PST

  •  Thank you for an edifying diary. (4+ / 0-)

    I did not know much about the historical background of The Prince.  I'm going to re-read the book - it's been years.  Just downloaded a copy to my Kindle.

  •  Realpolitik (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Roger Fox

    was anticipated by Macheavelli.  Of course, it's likely everyone was DOING a lot of these things, but Niccolo wrote them all down.

    It's not satire and it's not morality, it's a how to guide.

    And we get confused because "good" has multiple meanings.

    if we say someone is (e.g.) a good baseball player, we don't mean he's moral, we mean that he plays baseball well.

    •  I don't think it's satire (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plf515

      But at the same time, it's not exactly a how-to guide. Machiavelli writes about the "free peoples" a bit too often, even in The Prince, which is practically a job application to the Medici, to disregard his republican leanings.

      There's certainly a note of irony in some of the things that he is saying, but he has been called the first "political scientist", in that he was trying to describe how things worked, rather than necessarily making a moral judgement on them, rather than how they should work, although obviously he has his own political preferences.

  •  Section XXVII of John Adams's (0+ / 0-)

    "A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America" is devoted to Machiavelli, though he writes this as "Machiavel."

    Adams also quotes and paraphrases Machiavelli freely and without using quotes for either.

    As Adams had written the Massachusetts Constitution and, herein, recommended the three part government and the dual legislature and dozens of Madison-directing details, we must pay this man attention to equal to his value in 1787.

    These truths go marching on....

    Financial capitalism's criminals + Angry White Males + KKK wannabes + Personality Disorder delusionals + George Will =EQ= The GOPer Base

    by vets74 on Sat Mar 05, 2011 at 04:36:47 PM PST

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