Redeeming “The Prince”: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece
by maurizio viroli
?princeton, 208 pages, $26.95
In Redeeming the Prince, Maurizio Viroli, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University and now at the University of Texas, adopts a bold strategy: He dares to take Machiavelli at his word.
Viroli says that the most important chapter in The Prince is the last, “Exhortation to Seize Italy and to Free Her From the Barbarians.” Here, Machiavelli calls for a leader to rise up against foreign oppressors to create an Italy whole and free. This is the project of the Prince, Viroli argues, and it is a project so beautiful that any means are appropriate to secure it.
This is an audacious claim because the Exhortation is usually regarded as the worst and least interesting chapter in the book. For those who love Machiavelli for his cynicism, the fervor, patriotism, and piety in the Exhortation is puzzling. Was Machiavelli forced to include it? Was he merely shilling for a job? Is this some kind of trick? Is somebody being esoteric?
Viroli says no. When a book is as spare and carefully constructed as The Prince, it is unwise to dismiss any of it as superfluous. It’s especially unwise to dismiss its final chapter as meaningless, because, of course, this is the book where Machiavelli advises all men to “look to the end” for ultimate guidance.
“Looking to the end” is the literal translation of what has become the bumper-sticker version of Machiavelli, the assertion that “the ends justify the means.” Looking to the end is not permission to do anything: It demands consideration of the worthiness of the goal. The worthiness of Machiavelli’s goalItalian liberationis what redeems the prince, in Viroli’s view, and so he argues that The Prince is not a guidebook for evildoers.
Machiavelli is indeed a great admirer of liberators, and he doesn’t promote slaughter for slaughter’s sake. Nevertheless, a prince must “know how to enter into evil” when necessary. But Viroli does not do that. He mostly skips the darker inner workings of Machiavelli’s book.
But here the wickedness in The Prince is all the more conspicuous for its absence. If you want to make the argument that the book is primarily good and not objectionable, you must address what is objectionable in it, forcefully. You would need to reach down, wrestle with its most fetid parts, and rip them out for all to see. Because it declines to do this, Redeeming the Prince fails to live up to its task.
Viroli emphasizes that Machiavelli’s ideal is not the tyrant but the liberatorsuch men as Moses, Cyrus, and Theseus. Of course these men are the ideal, just as Machiavelli says it is ideal “to be both loved and feared.” But you can’t always have everything.
Redeeming the Prince is a worthy history of Machiavellian criticism, and Viroli rightly insists that Machiavelli’s passionate desire for a liberated Italy animates the entire text. But The Prince is a captivating book because of its ugliness. To sanitize the barbarity within it robs it of its power. It contains what tyrants know and the rest of the world ignores at its peril: the undeniable efficacy of unopposed evil.
Kate Havard is a research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of First Things.