IT must infuriate the shade of Machiavelli to see that he is still remembered mainly as the author of The Prince. It was his first serious work, and his shortest. It was not published in his lifetime and it is possible that it was not even properly finished. He went on to write a shelf-full of other works: on war, on politics; poems and plays; a history of Florence. The political book — the Discourses on Livy — was discussed as he wrote it by a circle of distinguished friends and literati. The Art of War was seen carefully through the press by its author. The plays were performed with great public success. The history was formally presented to its patron. But because The Prince was so brief, so brilliantly written, so extreme in its views, and because it broke up into quotations almost as readily as Hamlet, Machiavelli was doomed to be best known by his most impulsive, least publicised work.
The Prince has been the subject of mountainous commentary. Yet its precise nature has not proved easy to define. It contains too much that is exhortatory to be called simply a treatise on princedoms. It contains too much pure analysis of different kinds of state for it to be called simply a book on how to rule. It is instinct with a tone of I-know-best and is prefaced by a direct request for employment, yet it is too generalised, and too abstract to be a straightforward self-recommendation. As far as its tone is concerned, it has been taken on the one hand as a confession of faith, and on the other it has been interpreted, and recently, as a satire. For more than three centuries men have asked 'What is The Prince?' without finding a satisfactory answer. It might be useful to ask instead 'Why did Machiavelli write it?'
We know when the bulk of it was written, and in what circumstances. We know because he wrote about it in a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, probably the most famous letter ever written by an Italian. In 1512 there had been a change of government in Florence. Machiavelli was dismissed from an office which had placed him at the heart of the administration of the state's diplomatic and military affairs, and he was forbidden for a year to leave Florentine territory, in case he should try to intrigue with his exiled chief, Piero Soderini. Worse still, he had, quite innocently, become involved in a plot to murder the new lords of Florence, and had been imprisoned and tortured. After his release in March 1513 he retired to his small farm at Sant' Andrea in Percussina, a few miles south of Florence.
He wrote the letter about The Prince on December 10 of that year. He began by describing how he rose with the sun and walked about his small property with a book under his arm, chatting to the workmen he was employing. Then he portrayed himself at the local inn, playing cards and dice for small stakes with the local rustics. Then the mood changes:
'When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off the muddy, sweaty clothes of everyday, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world. And as Dante says that there can be no understanding without the memory retaining what it has heard, I have written down what I have gained from their conversation, and composed a small work DE PRINCIPATIBUS, where I dive as deep as I can into ideas about this subject, discussing the nature of princely rule, what forms it takes, how these are acquired, how they are maintained, why they are lost.'
This famous and beautiful letter, the prop and stay of every writer on The Prince, cannot, alas, be taken too literally. Machiavelli was not only a political thinker. He was a man of letters, playful, fanciful, and stylist enough to make his fancy sound real. Some years before, in answer to a correspondent's description of a successful love affair, Machiavelli had described a ludicrous and horrifically squalid one of his own. Was that distorting echo based on an actual event, or was it purely fictitious? We do not know. In 1514, as echo to an account by Vettori of another love affair, he once more described an infatuation of his own. 'I must, as you did me', he wrote, 'tell you how this love began', and he went on to describe feelings and circumstances which may have been true or not, or partly true; there is no way of telling.
In the same way, this letter of December 1513 is an echo. It echoes one in which Vettori had described a typical day in his life as Florentine ambassador in Rome. He rose late, in the capital — and Machiavelli rose at dawn, in the country; he went off to the Vatican and talked to officials and diplomats and the Pope himself — and Machiavelli went off to a spinney and talked to the woodcutters; he spent the middle of the day with the Cardinal de' Medici — and Machiavelli with the butcher and baker. Only at night did their lives run parallel. Vettori settled down to read from his library of ancient historians, and so did Machiavelli. So how far is this letter true, and how far is it a wry device for pointing out how much the paths of the two men had diverged since they represented Florence together at the court of the Emperor Maximilian?
We do not know. Certainly, a glance at The Prince shows that he was exaggerating the role played by his conversations with the ancients, for while there are plenty of classical ideas and references in the book, its vital lessons are taken from the contemporary world. But however inaccurate in its details, the letter strikingly suggests his boredom with an involuntary seclusion in the country, boredom and envy of Vettori's metropolitan life, his contact with affairs and with the men who manipulate them.
Before his dismissal Machiavelli had led an enthrallingly busy life. He had been sent on diplomatic missions to the king of France, the Pope, the Emperor; he had spent months in the company of Cesare Borgia. He had been entrusted with raising a militia force for Florence, and he had played an important part in the long-drawn-out attempt of Florence to take the rebel port of Pisa. When Pisa fell at last it was said — at least his friends said it — that the victory was largely due to Machiavelli.
He found this official life extremely stimulating. He was a man of great nervous energy. He was ambitious, he enjoyed responsibility and power. He also had a strong streak of the academic in his nature, and he looked on politics not only as an activity but as a subject. During the day-to-day business of negotiation and correspondence he was always looking for the general principles that underlay political behaviour. As he became more experienced so he became more confident, and when dismissal came at the age of forty-three, he was at the height of his conviction that he was of real value to the state. He tried to stay in office. On the eve of his fall he wrote letters of advice to the Medici. He sued [wrote?] to them from prison; he lived for the next two years in the constant hope that they would employ him. It is true they stood for a different sort of state, more autocratic, less independent than the one he had served before, but this was unimportant in the light of his impatience to have his advice listened to, and his value recognised.
Without a job he was comparatively poor, and he had a large family on his hands. Restless and de-pressed, he could see no other way of returning to active life save through the patronage of the Medici. He wrote Vettori letters about the current political scene in the hope that the ambassador would bring them to the attention of the Medici pope, Leo X. But it was soon clear that Vettori was merely embarrassed by this responsibility and that Machiavelli would have to call attention to himself directly. The only way he could do this was through a book. The independence of the states of Italy was threatened by France, Germany, the Swiss and Spain. In the hour of crisis, what was needed was a leader who, by ruthless negotiation and backed by a well-trained and loyal army, would present a front too strong to be attacked. A book describing such a man, written by an author who had pioneered such an army — surely this might tempt the Medici, the natural leaders in Italy, to recognise his quality and bring him back into government service?
The letter of December 10 plays down this purpose of The Prince, implying that it only occurred to him after the book had been written that it might be useful as a testimonial. But he was perhaps shy of continuing to expose the nakedness of his longing for employment to Vettori and, besides, we have seen that this letter cannot be accepted too literally. Though Machiavelli wrote primarily to demonstrate his familiarity with the origin and nature of rule by princes and the values and policies needed at that particular time, the book in fact reflected the whole complex of his interests. It reflected, for instance, his passionate belief in the power of history to teach. His dispatches and reports had shown him to be a treatise-writer in posse, and The Prince is an extension of this vein. To this donnish mood, which led him to analyse, to categorise, to compare, was joined a not wholly responsible love of effect, a desire to tease, to surprise and shock.
As far as subject-matter is concerned, his first passionate love was for Florence, and he believed that its constitution should be as broadly republican as possible. But his official work had kept him in touch with war and foreign policy, and he wrote in the fear that Italians would no longer retain enough independence to let them settle their own destinies; he was more concerned for a strong control in Italy than for a free constitution in Florence. Finally, it shows him imagining himself as, if not a prince, at least the confidant of princes, going out of his way to point out that he understood very well that they could not afford to be bound by the cautious morality of private life.
On several occasions Machiavelli said that he was taking up his pen in order to work off a feeling of oppression and despair. He was feeling oppressed and frustrated in 1513, and, moreover, his sense of mission, his vanity, and his sheer need called for employment. That is why he wrote The Prince. And that is why, in subject-matter and in mood, it was complicated by a conflict between his fascination with the subject for its own sake and his desire to sell himself. And that is why The Prince, the only one of his books written to satisfy an urgent need, is — if we ask, not what? but why? — the most movingly auto-biographical of his works.