Misinterpretations of Machiavelli: An Abstract Summary
Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince is a centuries-old work that has been interpreted and reinterpreted from various viewpoints since it was originally written and published in Italy. There are a few different schools of thought that have been dominant throughout the years; these will be presented in this examination of The Prince in order to demonstrate the lack of understanding and misinterpretation often attributed to Machiavelli’s work.
Erica Benner, a fellow in Political Philosophy at Yale, believes that Machiavelli can be interpreted correctly only through an understanding of the author’s use of irony and rhetoric. In her article “Machiavelli’s Ironies: The Language of Praise and Blame in The Prince” she notes that the text was originally considered ironic, and was not considered a formula for political success. Additionally, Benner comments on Machiavelli’s intention that state leaders cannot be as open with the public as they are in private governance, indicating the difference between public actions and private actions. Benner’s recently published book Machiavelli’s Prince: A New Reading takes an entirely different tack on textual interpretation, establishing code words that Machiavelli uses in order to veil the true meaning of his words. While this tactic has been employed throughout the history of political writings, Benner presents no proof that her point is truly valid in the case of Machiavelli.
Safwan Shabab refuses to approach The Prince from an ironic or hidden meaning point of view, bucking the current trends in political and philosophical thought. Instead, Shabab interprets Machiavelli’s writing as indicative of the political climate between the Italian city-states at the time, and the requirement of cruelty as a necessary tool in governance. Marie Gaille-Nikodimov, a French translator and author of Seeking Real Truths: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Machiavelli, interprets his works from various historical and literary perspectives, reinforcing the political instability of the times and their effects on Machiavelli’s work. Corrado Vivanti’s position on Machiavelli’s life is much closer to the truth, and his book Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography, strikes a chord while it attempts to reconstruct the political climate in Florence and of the Medici ruling party (Vivanti).
James O. Ward came even closer to the truth in his article for the journal California Italian Studies, affording it no quarter in political theory. Ward feels that it is simply a critique of the leaders of the warring Italian city-states of the time, indicating its veiled wording and inferences. Since the text has been considered ironic since the time it was written, none of these interpretations add much to our modern-day interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and without speaking directly to him we must draw upon other disciplines in order to interpret his text. However, Machiavelli’s life speaks to the reader more clearly than his writings, in many cases and, although also open to interpretation, actions often speak louder than words. Such is the case with Machiavelli.
Despite these subjective interpretations of Machiavelli’s work, there is a sort of confusion that surrounds The Prince, and this is indicative of Machiavelli’s failed career as a diplomat. His efforts were always below par, and indeed, his superiors eventually placed him in a position of mere commentary instead of a position of action. His diplomatic skills were untrained, unsure, and unsteady, a disguise that capable (though cruel) leaders were able to discern easily. While The Prince can be interpreted as an insider’s view of the politics of the 14th and 15th centuries, its blueprint for today’s political endeavors is not very useful. Machiavelli’s work could almost be considered a memoir of sorts, seen through the lens of a participant in the political system of the time. Ironies and code words aside, Machiavelli’s The Prince is only a story of his experiences and life. With that said, Nicolo Machiavelli did not know how to reconcile his life as a scholar with his previous life as a diplomat, resulting in the muddy misconceptions of his life’s works. Machiavelli’s thoughts, unclear to himself, are clear when interpreted in the light of ruler and ruled: he did not believe in the political system that dominated and dictated his life, causing constant upheaval and reevaluation of his moral beliefs.