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What Was Machiavelli Up To?

In response to:

What Should You Learn from Machiavelli? from the June 5, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Quentin Skinner rejects my proposal that The Prince and the Discourses should be read as one great constitutional treatise on the subject of the state [“What Should You Learn from Machiavelli?,” NYR, June 5]. “The two books differ not only in genre and scale, but were composed at different times for different audiences, and contain some strongly contrasting arguments.” But this retort simply presumes an answer to my investigations. For I show that the two books are not different in genre—like the Discourses, The Prince is fundamentally a constitutional treatise, not simply a “mirror book” of advice; I offer evidence that they were composed at about the same time; and I demonstrate that when read together the two works are not at all contradictory.

Skinner has taught us all that The Prince can be richly (and amusingly) read by contrasting its claims with Cicero’s advice in his mirror book, De officiis. But it would be a mistake to infer that because an immensely erudite scholar like Skinner can relate the observations of The Prince to a genre of mirror books with which he is intimately familiar, Niccolò Machiavelli had them in mind when he wrote The Prince. As Maurizio Viroli shows in his just-published Redeeming the Prince, Machiavelli did not know the texts that formed this genre and, had he read them, would not have been interested in the slightest in discussing them.

What is at stake here is of some importance. Neglecting the constitutional dimension not only blinds us to Machiavelli’s geostrategic purposes, it distorts the nature of his masterpiece. Giovanni Sartori once called attention to “the term that symbolized more than any other [a] vertical focus [of power]…that term is ‘Prince.’ It was no accident that Il Principe (1513) was the title chosen by Machiavelli.” Except that it wasn’t. The Prince was published posthumously in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death. In 1513, and throughout his lifetime, Machiavelli entitled the work De principatibus (On principalities), and not The Prince.

Machiavelli began the Discourses as a defense of the republican form of government, the Florentine Republic of which he had been a senior official having just collapsed. With the fortuitous advent of Giovanni de’ Medici’s elevation to the papacy, and his brother Giuliano’s political hegemony in Florence, however, Machiavelli saw the opportunity to unite the Papal States and the vicarages of the Romagna with Florence and its possessions, thereby creating in the center of Italy a state capable of resisting the invasions by Spain, France, and the Empire. He therefore stopped working on the Discourses—the evidence for which is his statement in The Prince that he will not deal with republics in that book, having already written on the subject—and began a treatise not on princes but, as he tells us, on principalities. If we remain in doubt about my proposed reconciliation, we have only to turn to the two constitutions drafted by Machiavelli for the governance of Florence, both submitted at the request of Medici popes, that daringly insist that the Medici must turn over power to a republic.

Behind the review there may lie the controversies over the wars on terror. “For Bobbitt,” Skinner writes, “Machiavelli is there to remind us that, with very few exceptions, ‘we’ must be prepared to do anything necessary to maintain and strengthen the state.” This, Skinner says, explains my interest in Machiavelli, but in fact I do not hold this view. I certainly do not believe that the state is excused from committing crimes if officials believe that by doing so they are acting to benefit the state.

For a fuller account of my views, please go to www.philipbobbitt.com/skinner.

Philip Bobbitt
Columbia Law School
New York City

Quentin Skinner replies:

I am grateful to Professor Bobbitt for his courteous comments, and I must apologize for not responding at comparable length. But he mainly confines himself to repeating a number of claims that I have already criticized in my review. If I were to reply to them again, I’m afraid that I too would merely repeat myself.