The Prodigal Prince

The Prodigal Prince

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Summary by Lewis Miller

After a long summer and a collection of special episodes, Nicholas and I have finally returned with the Prince’s Podcast. This week we talk about a particularly important chapter in The Prince, which is Chapter 15.

This chapter’s main function is to introduce Machiavelli’s most famous discourse on the qualities and values a Prince must adhere to so that they can rule effectively. As you read through it, you can see that the chapter is unusual for two reasons.

Firstly, the chapter is unusual in not relating to historical examples. Instead, Machiavelli discusses how his approach to analysing politics will differ from standard texts of the age over the coming chapters. Rather than being a particular guidance necessarily on the art of governance, what Machiavelli does here is tells us how he understands politics in relation to other scholars, without necessarily naming those scholars.

The second reason it is unusual, is not because of how it compares to other chapters, but how it compares to other texts. As we discuss next week, Machiavelli has written this treatise in a deliberately unusual manner, which he outlines here. There are three key elements to this differentiation:

Firstly, Machiavelli tells us he is not dealing with an idealised world, but the world which we actually exist in. So in analytical terms, we are dealing with a ‘realistic’ view of the world, as opposed to an ‘idealistic’ one. As he says, “many have framed imaginary commonwealths and governments to themselves which never were seen not had any real existence. For the present manner of living is so different from the way that ought to be taken, that he who neglects what is done to follow what ought to be done, will sooner learn how to ruin than how to preserve himself.”

Other Scholars in their advice to Princes, such as Giles of Rome in his De Regimine Principum (On the Rule of Princes), wrote of government without any reference to rulers or practical case studies. In Giles’ text, reference was generally made solely to biblical examples. Likewise, in the commonly studied texts of Plato, reference was frequently made to an imaginary world which ‘ought’ to be, rather than through analysing the lives of Princes in manner Machiavelli does in the Prince, but also in his Discourses and in his biography of Castruccio Castracani.

Secondly, Machiavelli takes a realistic view of human nature. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his work De Civitate (the City) that a good ruler is happy when they ‘prefer to govern wicked desires than any nation whatsoever.’ Machiavelli, meanwhile, merely says that of all those virtues we general admire, all “can neither be entirely possessed nor observed” and so we should “be so well instructed as to know how to avoid the scandal of those vices which may deprive him of his state, and be very cautious of the rest.” Put simply, humans are imperfect and so simply should be careful that their vices should not land them in scandal, rather than try and live honourable lives.

Thirdly, Machiavelli’s advice is not the act justly in all circumstances, but rather “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” Whereas Cicero argues in his book De Officiis, that honourable actions are also practical, Machiavelli differs in arguing that “we shall find in some things in appearance are virtuous, and yet, if pursued, would bring certain destruction; and others… that are seemingly bad and which, if followed by a price, procure his peace and security.”

In the next episode we will discuss some of those texts I’ve mentioned in this summary, and what it is this chapter is generally differing from.

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