Did Machiavelli Pull the Ultimate Machiavellian Trick? The Prince as a Subversive Document.

Returning to Machiavelli, I want to bring in a modern author who completely changed the way I think about The Prince and what it might mean. Roger D. Masters, in his Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power advances the idea that The Prince may be a subversive document, designed to trip up those who would be autocrats. That would be the ultimate Machiavellian move, and I love the idea of it.

In chapter two of his book, Masters looks at The Prince in historical context and takes a look at the text in a critical way designed to determine whether there is more than one way to read this book. He is careful to say that regarding a work as an act of deception is a dicey proposition at best, but he gives us some evidence from Rousseau’s The Social Contract (which is included in the Britannica set), and a set of criteria for evaluating potentially subversive works.

“In general, one should reserve the attribution of a ‘hidden intention’ to works that satisfy three criteria:
• The historical and intellectual context should justify the practice of writing in a devious or insincere manner.
• There should be hints, in the public writings being considered, of contradictions or confusions that direct a careful reader to the possibility of a hidden meaning.
• Correspondence or other information about the author’s private life should indicate an awareness of deceptive writing and, if possible, the intention to practice it.”

Masters finds evidence of all three criteria. While I don’t want to reproduce his whole chapter here, and I think it is worth reading in its own context, I will point out some of the evidence he brings forward.

First, Machiavelli is writing for the Medicis at a time when there is political unrest and he has fallen out of favor with the powers that be. He was tortured and placed under house arrest.

Second, Masters points out that in The Prince, Machiavelli write in a way that could be construed as dropping hints to the reader that this book is not to be taken at face value, noting that Machiavelli writes that “my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it.”

Third, Masters brings out evidence that Machiavelli wrote to a friends that “if indeed sometimes I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find.”

The other thing worth noting, Master writes, is that Machiavelli’s work on being an autocrat is extremely short compared to his work on how to run a Republic, which is The Discourses on Titus Livy. Why would Machiavelli devote so much effort and space to one subject and so little to another?

Masters says this reading of The Prince as a subversive document is a hypothesis, and I think it is fair to treat it in that light. While it may not be the definitive word, it is impossible to look at the work in the same way again. That is certainly a worthy addition to The Great Conversation.


One thought on “Did Machiavelli Pull the Ultimate Machiavellian Trick? The Prince as a Subversive Document.

  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve wondered whether Machievelli had some secondary plans in mind when he wrote the Prince. One way I think it has served a devious and more pro-republican role is in painting the autocrat as scheming and “Machiavellian.” In the guise of offering advice, perhaps he aimed to caution the world.

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