It’s weird to read Machiavelli. Especially the Discourses on Livy, where he’s blatantly a democrat, constantly praising the transparent, free institutions and citizens of Republican Rome.
Niccolò Machiavelli has a reputation as an absolute bastard, a villain’s villain. But that reputation is based on one book, The Prince. For centuries, that book was taken literally by its readers and in its reputation.
Yet when you look at Machiavelli the man, you see someone who worked for the government of a free city for most of his working life. He lost his diplomatic job when the Medici-controlled Papacy returned dictatorship to Florence. Someone who devoted to evil would have been a faithful servant of the Medicis instead of a determined opponent.
I say determined. After the Medici family overthrew Florence’s republican government, they arrested Machiavelli as a political prisoner and tortured him.
The popular reception of Machiavelli is as the writer of a handbook for tyrants. Yet his most famous and intelligent readers – Spinoza, Rousseau, and Diderot, as well as Louis Althusser and Antonio Negri – knew better.
Democrats give the ruthless advice only with irony. The Prince isn’t a sincere work to attempt to get back into the good graces of the Medici family. You should read it as an early, sustained, and frankly brilliant work of philosophy and trolling.
Of course such ruthless behaviour is fit for a Medici. The Prince is a demonstration that such ruthless figures as monarchs and dictators are unfit to rule at all.
He’s a practical writer because he really is dispensing advice. ‘If you want to rule as a tyrant, do these sorts of things in these kinds of contexts. . . . If you want to rule as a democrat, do these sorts of things in these kinds of contexts.’
He’s a philosophical writer because he examines the fundamental political and social causes of why his advice is so effective. He examines the social processes and moral concepts for why one kind of ruler and government gains his people’s love through one path, but a different kind of ruler needs another method.
Machiavelli unites all the different levels and processes of how to achieve some political end, and such a comprehensive how itself becomes a why. It’s a model for practical philosophy.
The tyrant lies to his people and holds them in fear, but always has to guard against his people with personal militaries and police precisely because they fear him. A democratic government is capable of being sincerely loved, as long as their rule continues to enable people to live freely and happily.
The choice is clear, but you’re still free to make a bad decision.