The Reading Room
“Don’t be such a Machiavel.” Actually, do.
When I told a friend I had been charged with writing an article on Machiavelli for “banned books” week, he retorted: “Machiavelli? Are we banning Machiavelli now?” I was actually rather surprised he was surprised by a ban on Machiavelli, considering the Italian political philosopher has been the big bad wolf of so much of history, crossing epochs and national borders. Indeed, his ostracization was well under way during his own lifetime.
Machiavelli penned The Prince while exiled from Italy, as a way to get into the Medici family’s good graces. This did not work as planned and his political instruction manual was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death. Much to the Catholic and Protestant Churches’ displeasure, however, barring its printing did not stop people from reading The Prince. The text was quickly copied out and circulated in manuscript form in Italy, with translated manuscript copies soon making their way to England in droves. The fact that at least 30 English translation manuscripts survive today is a testament to the text’s purchase in early modern culture.
Machiavelli’s pragmatic approach to politics, as he privileged state stability over strict morality and adherence to Christian values, placed his political advice to rulers at odds with Christian doctrine. Though the text’s threat to morality may have been the Church’s official message, The Prince also threatened the Church’s political control. By instructing princes in Italy and abroad how to rule their country to maximize their perceived (and real) power, Machiavelli placed the prince in direct competition with the Church for political control. At a time when there was no separation between Church and State, a strong state threatened to dethrone the Church. The answer? Ban the book.
Banning books, however – and this is something today’s politicians might heed - does not mean that people do not read them: the works are merely encountered in a different form, on a different platform, or through a different medium. Machiavelli’s political writings were far too compelling for the market to pass up. His dynamic prince was quickly taken up and fictionalized, birthing the great stage Machiavel of the renaissance stage. Christopher Marlowe was the first dramatist to vivify the stage machiavel on the English stage in his The Jew of Malta. The play begins with a prologue spoken by the play’s most blatantly Machiavellian figure, Machevil. Machevil tells the audience of his many evil deeds, claiming to “count Religion but a childish Toy” and pleading “Let me be envied and not pitied!” In the prologue, Marlowe presents an interesting crossover between politics and business, conflating political greed with economic robbery. When introducing the play’s titular Jew of Malta and central antagonist, Barabas, Machevil claims that Barabas “smiles to see how full his bags are crammed / Which money was not got without my means.” This creates a fruitful murkiness: politics seeps into economics, as the prince helps the merchant stuff his bags with gold.
The conflation of politics and economics conjures the specter of another author too commonly straw-manned: Adam Smith. In many ways, Machiavelli deserves more credit as the father of economics than Smith, with the Italian’s The Prince and Discourses being equal parts love letter to the homo oeconomicus and instruction manual for the pragmatic politician. Ironically, one of the main reasons Machiavelli has been so tragically misunderstood – why he might find himself on the list of banned books, for instance – is because of the instructional aspect of his The Prince, intended to educate Italy’s political leaders on the very real challenges of running a state and how to avoid political pitfalls. A few familiar highlights from Machiavelli’s tip book: keep your friends close and your enemies closer; the ends justify the means; if men “will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them” – a kind of perversion of the golden rule: treat others how others will treat you.
Instead of intellectualizing politics and “correct[ing], Machiavelli exhorts and adumbrates, oversimplifying, distorting even, to dramatize his points” (Raab 4). When further flattened, Machiavelli’s already simplified political advice made for easy theatrical fodder, generating two-dimensional villains who share more with Hollywood’s cold-hearted capitalists – the Gordon Geckos and Jordan Belforts, aka the Wolf of Wall Street – than Machiavelli’s actual teachings. In fact, while many renaissance “readers, whether revolutionaries or reactionaries, could simply read, appreciate, analyse and translate” it was conservative readers who “would show a real fear of Machiavelli’s writings, since these might offer a justification for the interruption of the status quo” (Areinzo and Petrina 27). Here political efficiency butts heads with political competition: while Machiavelli favors the political efficiency of a stable state, those who stood to lose power or influence, did not.
This is where Machiavellian pragmatism and economics’ understanding of self-interest begin to clash. While Machiavelli’s prince and the rationally self-interested actor, or homo oeconomicus, overlap in their reasoned approach to utility maximization, Machiavellian statecraft is not the same as self-interest. At least it ought not be the same. Rather than acting for himself, a good prince acts in the interests of his state. In theory, when the prince acts to benefit the state, he indirectly benefits himself, as the crown’s and country’s interests should ostensibly be one and the same. Much like a shareholder and his company, the state’s success should be inseparable from its prince’s. A prince’s Machiavellian pragmatism, then, is a positive force that maintains political stability: by protecting his own political and personal interests, he strengthens the state. The problem is that the state is made up of individuals and in all cost-benefit analyses and in every political decision, there are winners and losers. Who was the biggest loser in Machiavelli’s day? The Catholic Church. If we assume political capital is a scarce good, a strong prince meant a weaker pope. The Pope’s response was to exile from readers’ shelves a text by the man already exiled from their country. If this isn’t proof of the power of the pen, I’m not sure what is.
So, why ban Machiavelli today in a country where there is separation of Church and state and Christianity has loosed its grip on political culture? The chilling answer is that it hasn’t. Instead, with the banning of books like The Prince, we find ourselves right back in the sixteenth century. Unlike the early moderns, we don’t need to resort to manuscripts to read The Prince, but local government’s banning of Machiavelli is as bad a case of government overreach as the Catholic Church’s. Instead of increasing Machiavelli’s allure by banning him, governments then and now should think about exposing his heresy. If Machiavelli is such a villain, give us the “ocular proof,” as Othello would say. By restricting access, governments increase public interest. If they are correct in labelling Machiavelli harmful (as they believe themselves to be), surely they wouldn’t mind educating the masses as to where the harm lies.
Arienzo, Alessandro, and Alessandra Petrina, editors. Machiavellian Encounters in Tudor and Stuart England: Literary and Political Influences from the Reformation to the Restoration. Routledge, 2016.
Raab, Felix. The English Face of Machiavelli: Studies in Political History. Routledge & K. Paul, 1964.