Sarah Bower's first novel, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill's Novel of the Year in 2007. Her second, The Book of Love, is published by Snowbooks this month. Sarah lives in Suffolk and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She spends her spare time watching cricket. In this post she discusses Machiavelli's The Prince.
Sarah Bower on The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
During a summer holiday in Cornwall, when I was about fourteen, I bought a novel called Light on Lucrezia, by Jean Plaidy, from a second-hand bookshop in Saint Mawes. I read historical fiction ravenously as a girl, and Plaidy was one of my favourites. It seemed to me that fiction could access the 'real truth' about historical figures in a way which was beyond the powers of the authors of dry tomes about Corn Laws and Reform Acts. Surely the fact that Anne Boleyn led the fashion for chokers to hide a mole on her neck was far more important than her role as a champion of English Protestantism. Surely it was romance (well, all right then, sex) that made the world go round, not foreign policy or economic trends. So I dozed through history lessons, then raced away to the library to dream among the Anya Setons and Georgette Heyers and wish I had a 17-inch waist like Scarlett O'Hara. For every history lesson there was a novel to flesh out the dry facts.
Lucrezia Borgia, however, was not on the curriculum, so I had never heard of her when I bought Jean Plaidy's novel. I liked the cover, the California-style glamour girl overflowing her corsetry, the brooding hero, a castle, a shadowy image of a man being strangled. I liked the blurb which spoke of tortuous webs of passion, brutal murders, etc, etc. I liked the story even more, and found myself sufficiently intrigued by the mysteries and contradictions in Plaidy's account of Lucrezia's life to want to reverse my normal process and find out the history behind the novel.
The making - and recording - of history being at that time predominantly male pursuits, my researches led me inevitably towards the lives of Lucrezia's father, Pope Alexander VI, and her brother, Cesare. Cesare Borgia's name is, of course, synonymous with Machiavelli's The Prince, which has been a mixed blessing for the reputations of both men over the years. I began my investigations with The Prince because my school library happened to possess several copies, and because it's very short. I skim-read it that first time, looking for the passages that made direct reference to the activities of the Borgias, passing over the examples Machiavelli takes from classical history and from the careers of other contemporary princes. Yet something other than the author's professed admiration for Cesare Borgia (which I shared, though for rather different reasons) must have stayed with me because I have re-read it many times since - as a student of history, as a manager in business and in charity administration, and most recently while researching my own novel about the Borgias.
With each reading I am more shocked, more filled with admiration for the author's lucidity and economy of style, more heartbroken by his doomed and passionate love for his country and more entertained by his irony. I warmed to his cynicism immediately - there is little more cynical than an over-educated teenager - though nowadays it reads more like sound common sense, and I wonder what that says about me.
By the time The Prince was first translated into English in 1640, Niccolo Machiavelli had already become synonymous with Old Nick, even though that name for Satan was in existence in England long before the 'odious' (Macaulay's description) author was being read here. There are contextual reasons for this, founded in Protestant England's suspicion of this perceived handbook for Catholic princes, but there are other factors at work, other aspects of Machiavelli's little masterpiece that make you feel as though you have caught sight of yourself in a mirror which is uncomfortably truthful. As Machiavelli himself says, he is 'leaving aside imaginary things, and referring only to those which truly exist'. He is not advising the rulers of Utopia, nor does his model prince have an ideal demos to govern. This is realpolitik. This is the human world with all its shortcomings.
Machiavelli is, in fact, a profoundly humane writer. His advice is designed to enable a ruler to make the best of things. He sets out practical, attainable goals. A prince should not aspire to be loved or allow himself to be hated. It is most practical for him, in this least-worst of all possible worlds, to make himself feared and respected. Given that he is going to have to discipline people, to lie and cheat from time to time, let him choose loyal ministers who will do his bidding without demur and enable the prince himself to keep his distance from the less salubrious aspects of government. The best way to preserve the peace is to be thoroughly prepared for war.
It would be easy merely to dismiss Machiavelli as an irredeemable cynic, but he is a far more complex character than that. He is funny and passionate, he has a sharp wit and an enjoyment of society which made him a popular man in his home city of Florence and beyond, he can be gullible - as his self-mocking comedy of sexual manners, Mandragola, and his adulation of Cesare Borgia show. The character of the author is part of what makes the book great; ironically, what has kept The Prince in print for almost 500 years is firmly grounded in the contemporary context. It cannot be read in detachment from the personal and political tragedy which formed the backdrop to its creation.
The Prince was written some time after 1512, when the return to power of the Medici in Florence led to the downfall of Machiavelli, who had held a diplomatic post under the republic. He spent some time in prison, and suffered torture, and was subsequently exiled from Florence and compelled to watch from the sidelines as Italy fell apart, torn between the kingdoms of Spain and France, and the Papacy, split into small republics and principalities with largely inept and powerless governments. The Prince is, far from being merely a cynical exercise in realpolitik, an impassioned plea to Italy's leaders to stand up to factionalism and foreign invaders. Although himself a committed republican, he dedicates his book to the descendants of Lorenzo de' Medici, Il Magnifico, whose diplomatic skill had helped to keep France and Spain at bay until his death in 1492. And he sets up Cesare Borgia as the model prince because, as the instrument of his father, Pope Alexander VI, he was able to continue this policy and to begin to forge something almost recognizable as an Italian state. (Cesare later became a somewhat improbable hero of the Risorgimento.)
It is widely held that the book which sets out Machiavelli's own political views most clearly is his Discourses on Livy, which covers much of the same ground as The Prince, but from a republican viewpoint. The two books were probably written simultaneously. The change of perspective may be partly explained by Machiavelli's desire - positively Machiavellian in its pragmatism - to obtain office under the Medici because he was broke. Yet to what extent does the leopard change his spots? It is perfectly possible to read The Prince as an ironic comment on the state of contemporary Italian politics, and what better way to do this than to cite, as Machiavelli does in chapter V, examples from the Romans and the Spartans of cities they conquered and were then obliged to destroy in order to hold them. 'There is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation,' he solemnly informs us, and somehow you can see that half smile, which we know from his portraits, playing about his lips as he puts quill to parchment. It is also worth remembering that Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli's 'ideal' prince, had lost his state and died in exile, just five years before Machiavelli was writing, aged only 31.
The Prince has been misunderstood, misquoted and otherwise abused since its first appearance. It failed to get its author a job and it never made him any money, and he would probably be disappointed to find it has become the book for which he is best remembered. It is, however, one of the great works of Western thought because of its psychological acuity, its prophetic quality and its adaptability to the boardroom as much as the council chamber, the occupying forces in Iraq as much as the Renaissance tyrant in his castle. It is also a very great work of literature, written in hard-hitting, lucid prose, which makes its controversial message deceptively easy to swallow. To quote Harry Lime: 'In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance...' I'd like to add The Prince to that list. It beats hell out of the cuckoo clock.