Misreading The Prince

A Florentine bureaucrat of the late 15th and early 16th century has continued to fascinate politicians, scholars, and the public alike. Although he witnessed at close hand the deeds of both hapless and ruthless European rulers of the Renaissance that resulted in devastating wars for the Italian peninsula, it is not the life but rather the words of Niccolò Machiavelli that have earned him fame—and infamy. Both types of notoriety derive from his most well-known work, his small treatise The Prince. After this notorious work circulated widely (it was published posthumously), the duplicitous and sometimes bloody deeds that had always existed in political life became commonly referred to as Machiavellian. Politicians both worthy and unworthy of that appellation deny, of course, such a charge. Indeed, clever rulers such as Frederick the Great, for example, have studied his works assiduously and denounced them vehemently. Therefore, Machiavelli remains at once ubiquitous and anathema to this day.

Machiavelli dedicates The Prince to Lorenzo de’ Medici who was briefly ruler of Florence when his powerful family had recently returned to power in the city after the downfall of the republic that Machiavelli had served. Newly unemployed, he writes to Lorenzo that he endeavors by this treatise to gain his favor by virtue of the lessons in rule that he offers, but later in the work he also states quite clearly that the work is not meant exclusively for Lorenzo; he declares that he writes instead for “whoever understands” the work. Thus, even more than five hundred years later, he writes for us, if we can properly grasp his meaning, which he here implies may not be as manifest as it at first appears.

In that same chapter, Machiavelli offers another revelation when he declares that he “depart[s] from the orders of others” and then proceeds to condemn all prior thinking on politics: “And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation,” he complains. He prefaces this declaration with the wish that he not to be thought “presumptuous,” but it is a wish that could not possibly be fulfilled when readers recognize that he has just impugned such venerable works as Plato’s Republic and Augustine’s City of God, which offer the type of aspirational politics that he asserts have led generations astray. Indeed, Machiavelli’s assertion is tantamount to suggesting that the classical tradition, which the Renaissance is so famous for reviving, as well as the Christian tradition lead to political disaster. Machiavelli declares that he offers instead “the effectual truth of the matter”—that is, not the truth that will elevate one’s soul or save it in the life to come but rather the truth that gets results in this world.

Patrick Boucheron, an accomplished French historian, offers Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, an extremely accessible guide to Machiavelli’s biography and writings. Its accessibility derives in large part from its unusual format. It consists of 30 brief chapters, each approximately two to three pages separated by photographs as well as reproductions of paintings, drawings, frescos, and book and magazine covers. These brief chapters owe their origin to the fact that the author first presented them as daily talks on French public radio in 2016. These talks were then collected as chapters of the book published in French under the title Un été avec Machiavel. Boucheron’s chapters range not only over The Prince, but also Machiavelli’s other writings such as the long work devoted primarily to the history of the Roman republic, Discourses on Livy, his comic play Mandragola, and his last work Florentine Histories, which represents the fulfillment late in his life of his wish to gain the patronage of the Medici. Although Boucheron feeds his readers with morsels of chapters cum radio talks, he conveys true learning in them, but he reserves his references to his extensive reading of and debts to the previous scholarship on Machiavelli for an afterward entitled “Reading Machiavelli.”

The English edition suffers from a translation that at least in a key respect fails to be sufficiently attuned to the importance of Machiavelli’s use of language as well as of Boucheron’s commentary on it. For example, in his introduction Boucheron quotes in the Italian Machiavelli’s declaration that he intends to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing (“andare drieto alla verità effetuale della cosa”) and thus emphasizes his attentiveness to Machiavelli’s precise formulation. But later, when Boucheron returns to this intention of Machiavelli, calling it “‘revolutionary,’” the key adjective “effectual” is completely absent from the English translation of his French. At another place that adjective is rendered as “actual” rather than “effectual.” That this is an error of the translator and not of the author is shown by the fact that the Boucheron’s French version contains the cognate “effective” in both instances. The English edition therefore deprives the reader of full access to Machiavelli’s revolutionary assertion that what works in the real world, what solves our problems—in short, that the “effectual truth”—should be our guide without the undermining worry of pursing the goods of the soul taught by the partisans of the ancient teachings or the adherents of Christianity.

There is another important and much more evident difference between the French and English versions, namely the framing device of fear that Boucheron prominently displays in the book’s subtitle, which also furnishes the title of the new introduction, penned in the pre-pandemic days of June 2019. He writes that we live in stormy times by which he means primarily the upheaval caused by the Trump presidency. His introduction begins with the epigraph of Bob Woodward’s book, Trump in the White House: “‘Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.’” Although these words, Boucheron notes, could have been penned by Machiavelli, they were in fact spoken by candidate Trump. Indeed, the first image in the book is a reproduction of the cover of Time magazine which features an illustration of the newly inaugurated Trump at his presidential desk, a strong wind sweeping his papers, his tie, and his combover from left to right with the caption “Nothing to See Here.”

Our stormy times—what Boucheron repeatedly terms a “Machiavellian moment”—demand a return to Machiavelli’s insights about human beings and politics. What do we learn from them about Trump and our situation? Does Trump use Machiavelli’s methods to keep a populace in thrall or does Machiavelli teach us to fear Trump? Boucheron offers no definite response, declaring coyly: “this little book tries to stay in the uncomfortable zone of thought that sees its own indeterminacy as the very locus of politics.” The Florentine has much to say about fear and love. For example, Machiavelli asserts in The Prince that it is safer for a ruler to be feared rather than loved, and in the Discourses he explains that putting “terror” in the citizens at regular intervals can so reinvigorate a state that it might “never” become “corrupt.” Boucheron’s English version, like the French version before it, makes only passing reference to this aspect of Machiavelli’s thought, however.  

It is common and understandable for an author, particularly in dealing with an academic topic directed at a general audience, to frame the topic to highlight its relevance. But Boucheron’s provocative appeals to the fearful and portentous obscure much more than they enlighten. Indeed, in emphasizing that Machiavelli’s thought is particularly relevant in evident times of crisis, Boucheron neglects to highlight one of Machiavelli’s most enduring lessons that remains relevant in all realms of life: Machiavelli instructs in The Prince that the failure of rulers throughout history derives from neglecting to prepare adequately during times of calm for the inundations that are sure to follow. All times, then, are times for the preparation for the tempest according to the guidance the Florentine himself gives.  

Boucheron uses fear to justify his turn to Machiavelli in the English version of his book, but his superficial reading of his works tells him not to fear what he does, in fact, fear—a conspiracy, a revolution in institutions and norms.

In again pointing to Machiavelli’s current relevance, Boucheron cites with approval the statement of Raymond Aron, a sociologist of the mid-twentieth century: “‘the quarrel of Machiavellianism is rekindled every time a Caesar subjects Europe anew to servitude and war.’” Aron is pointing to a tyrant who subjects a large swath of humanity to his rule. In commenting on the statement, Boucheron concedes that we have “at least not yet” “reached that point.” Nevertheless, ours is a “Machiavellian moment,” because we must be vigilant to tyranny’s looming threat, and hence to the fundamental overturning of our institutions and conventions, in Boucheron’s view. And for that reason, we need to follow the French author’s lead and turn to Machiavelli.  

Given this imperative, it is quite perplexing that Boucheron misses the many ways in which Machiavelli instructs on the coming of tyranny through revolutions in regimes or, to use a very prominent term of Machiavelli, conspiracies against them. For example, in the Discourses he explores extensively and at a very deep level the means by which Caesar overthrew the Roman republic and the long-enduring ramifications for the Romans as well as for the peoples in its vast conquests. Machiavelli declares that Caesar was Rome’s first tyrant and that as a result that city was never free. In coming to power, Caesar built on the methods and parties of prior popularists, the Gracchi brothers and Marius, Machiavelli explains.

But Boucheron does not explore these lessons; instead he takes the palliating claim that Machiavelli makes at the outset of his chapter explicitly devoted to the subject of conspiracies as the definitive encapsulation of its content: “Machiavelli goes on to demonstrate that conspiracies generally fail, that they are most dangerous to those who foment them, and that they are an unavailing form of political struggle.” On its face it would be rather perplexing that Machiavelli would devote by far the longest chapter in the book to so “unavailing a form of struggle.” But the chapter, while certainly highlighting many failed, and partly failed, conspiracies, in fact, also adduces many successful ones. For Boucheron to say otherwise is to reveal that he has allowed the crafty Machiavelli to mislead him by way of his initial mollifying declaration that ruling authorities are perpetually invulnerable to overthrow—a hardly credible claim on Machiavelli’s part given the content of his many writings. Indeed, it is in this very chapter that Machiavelli highlights the successful and momentous conspiracy of Caesar against his homeland and explains that his command of armies was decisive in its success and that his reign was solidified by the fact that he had made the people of Rome his friend. How Boucheron misses these specific lessons, especially when he points to the threat of a new Caesar as the crucial motivation to read Machiavelli, is particularly perplexing.

Further, in this very chapter, which Boucheron understands as conveying Machiavelli’s instruction that conspiracies are unavailing, the Florentine mentions that two students of Plato, in attempting a conspiracy against two tyrants of Athens, managed to kill only one of them. Admittedly, if conspiracies against a single ruler are difficult, one against two is even more challenging. But later in the same paragraph, Machiavelli furnishes an example of a conspiracy against ten tyrants that was successful. Here Machiavelli points to the ineffectualness of Plato’s teachings for real-world politics. Boucheron himself points to Machiavelli as a revolutionary in the realm of thought. Clearly, Machiavelli must have thought that some extremely difficult conspiracies have a possibility of success, or he would not have been so presumptuous as to convey the “effectual truth of the thing.”

Boucheron uses fear to justify his turn to Machiavelli in the English version of his book, but his superficial reading of his works tells him not to fear what he does, in fact, fear—a conspiracy, a revolution in institutions and norms. To be fair, perhaps Machiavelli’s thought cannot be conveyed adequately in the transcripts of brief radio talks. Nevertheless, this book does provide a quick and diverting overview to Machiavelli’s intellectual biography.