top of page

The Prince: Satire or Realpolitik?

Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli

Written in the tumultuous 16th century, Machiavelli’s landmark book, The Prince, constitutes the foundation of modern political science. In it, he details through what methods a monarch should obtain and maintain power. Machiavelli himself, however, spent most of his life as a stout republican, and generally held fairly revolutionary political views for his period. His earlier book, Discourse, is the only pro-republican text that holds its own with later political texts written by later scholars in the Enlightenment. In it, he extols the values of a Roman-style republic. He hailed from a long-standing pro-republican family, and had ancestors who died, suffered torture, and became impoverished defending it. During the Florentine Republic, he served the state and left countless records praising it, and after it, he suffered torture at the hands of the Medici himself. Due to Machiavelli’s republican bents, some have argued that The Prince represented a well-veiled satire of the principality as a system of government, or simply that he wrote it only to gain favor from the ruling Medici regime.

These different rulings on The Prince leave us at an impasse. If we take Machiavelli at face

value, we are forced to ignore his later works, which also praise the virtues of a republic. On a more personal level, we must accept that this outspoken proponent of republicanism has completely lost faith in his preferred system of government. In fact, we must believe that he now feels forced to accept authoritarian rule by those that once sent him to the rack as the only system that can save Italy from rule by those he refers to as “the barbarians” (86). If we believe that he wrote it only to curry favor, we must ignore the fact that some of his advice is echoed in his republican texts, such as the advocacy of militias over mercenaries or his opposition to the Church’s control over Italian politics through the Holy League (43). Finally, to believe that The Prince is completely satirical, we must first assume the Medici, most of whom were scholars and humanists in their own right, were unable to recognize they were being made fun of, and that some of Machiavelli’s advice is sound and repeated in his republican texts. I propose something of a compromise between two differing views of The Prince: that Machiavelli truly believed that the advice he gave in The Prince worked, and because of that it is satire.

Cesare Borgia

Throughout the book, Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, is held up as an almost perfect example of a prince. Through his example, Machiavelli argues that the prince is safer when his subjects fear him, not love him (Machiavelli). Machiavelli truly believes this statement, since nothing in The Prince or any of his other works suggest this is unsound advice for those running principalities. However, it is exactly because of this that The Prince must be, at least in part, satire. Cesare, despite Machiavelli’s supposed praise, was known throughout the Italian nobility as, “a foreigner, a Spaniard, a bastard, convicted, in the court of public opinion anyway, of fratricide, incest, and a long role of abominable crimes...hated in Tuscany treachery and extortion and for the gross misconduct of his troops on neutral Florentine soil.” He addresses the book, primarily, to princes who have recently acquired their realms, owing their success neither to inheritance or the people’s choice. The ugly word for this particular form of ruler is “tyrant.” Though many argued in favor of the monarchy in the 16th century, tyrants were always viewed negatively. The Medici prince to whom the book is dedicated returned to rule not through inheritance or his people’s choice, but rather at the behest of the Spanish monarchy, who put him in place and supported him with their military. The exact definition of a tyrant.

Throughout his book, Machiavelli argues that a prince must be deceitful and cruel. He must be liberal when attempting to gain power, but conservative when in power (55). Through this method, he can make great promises, but then never have to spend the money of his people when taking office. Concerning faith, he must always present himself as religious, but never follow the codes of his religion (60). He must command fear in his subjects rather than love, since the prince can control fear, rather than the subjects controlling their own love for him (57). He declares, “and to the prince who goes off with his army, supporting it with pillage, sack, and extortion, handling that which belongs to others, this liberality is necessary, otherwise he would not be followed by soldiers...of that which is not yours nor yours subjects’ you can be a ready giver...because it does not take away from your reputation if you squander that of others, but adds to it” (56). Through plunder and theft, Machiavelli argues, the prince can increase his own renown. At the beginning and end of The Prince, Machiavelli dedicates the book to Guiliano de Medici, the current ruler of Florence, lauding his family as one of perfect princes. However, if they fit his definition of a good prince as described in the previous pages, he certainly cannot think very highly of them.

The Ciompi Revolt

Finally, if we look outside of The Prince, there is even more evidence for its satirical nature. It parodies a popular genre of the time, in which humanist scholars compiled handbooks of advice for princes. Throughout his book, he distorts this genre into a slight mockery of itself. Whereas others argue for virtuous rule, Machiavelli instead asks what the point of all that is, when the nature of authoritarianism lends itself to oppression and mistreatment of the people. In one of his other works, titled Florentine Histories, Machiavelli depicts the Ciompi Uprising, an event in which artisans, mostly working in textile mills, rose up against the Florentine government and established a revolutionary government that lasted six weeks. Though most historians simply decried the revolution as the action of criminals, or even divine punishment, Machiavelli saw it in a different light. He includes a subversive speech from a wool worker, which he undoubtedly invented himself, which cements the rebellion as a singularly political movement, not an excuse to riot and loot. In this, he advocates for a form of political thought that most simply did not possess until Marx. Finally, historians and archaeologists never found the copy of The Prince actually presented to the Medici, and it cannot be found in the Laurentian library. In fact, there is no evidence it was ever there, and in fact, none that it ever existed at all. Perhaps Machiavelli simply believed flaunting the Medici so deliberately was too dangerous, or that it was not worth the cost required it send it to them.

Why does all this matter? People will continue to read The Prince in their political science and business courses, taking its advice and applying it to their own concepts of realpolitik. Knowing that Machiavelli’s tongue sat firmly in his cheek while writing many of the scathing lines of his landmark political treatise will not stop the politicians of the future from using it as their guide to power, whether they rule over autocracies or democracies. It matters because, ever since the 19th century, some have used The Prince to support their concept of autocracy. They claim Machiavelli as objective, or that he was a realist, claiming him to be a scientist, watching that which unfolded around him with detachment and reporting his findings. Rather, when we read The Prince as satire, we claim it back as the great anti-authoritarian tract Machiavelli surely meant it as. We can take it away from those who wish to use it to take our freedom away from us, and snicker along with Machiavelli and his republican friends when they try to use against us.

bottom of page