On the traumatic origins of Machiavelli’s The Prince

I have been watching Medici: Masters of Florence and The Borgias over the last fortnight, and remembering some of my knowledge of Renaissance history, which I have never formally studied. Both series take some liberties with history, but nonetheless present a fresh account of these remarkable times.

Of all the figures of Italian Renaissance history the most intriguing for me is Niccolo Machiavelli, who has appeared on occasions on this blog. Machiavelli makes an appearance in series one of the Borgias as the wily and worldly wise secretary to the rulers of Florence. It is something of a steretype, however well acted.

The image of Machiavelli and his reality are much different. His period as a notable bureaucrat and diplomat was relatively brief – from the 1490s to 1513. In 1513 the republic of Florence, guided by Piero Soderino and and his notary, Machiavelli, collapsed under the pressures of rival city states, nations and the besieging forces of the Medici family. The Medici did not only restore their dynastic rule in Florence. A few months after their reconquest of their city-state, Cardinal Giovanni de Medici became the Pope, as Leo X. As Machiavelli said, in his History of Florence, “This was in fact a ladder by means of which his house was enabled to mount to heaven itself.”

The new rulers of Florence took their revenge on those who had exiled them from their ancestral home. Many of the notable officials of the old regime were executed. Machiavelli was more fortunate. He was jailed, and tortured, subjected to the strappado, for two months, and then dismissed from all office and sent to home detention in his country estate.  He would never truly return to serve the state, despite many entreaties to the new despots of Italy and the Church to reinstate him.

Disgraced and traumatised, his world turned upside down, Machiavelli turned to writing to vocalise his trauma, and, in the inconsistent way of all great writing, to beg for favours from his torturers. Out of this morass of pain and self-pity was born that enigmatic celebration of autocracy and devious politics, The Prince.

If you know the traumatic origins of The Prince, then you will not easily fall victim to the illusion that Machiavelli was the master politician, the great wily fox of the Renaissance city-state. You will not, like so many of the professionalised political advisers of the last thirty years, imagine yourself writing some The New Prince, to celebrate the bastardisation of governing by modern marketing techniques. You will not engage in the fatuous conceit of writing cyncial acts of mastery to mediocre aspiring leaders under the heading of “what would Machiavelli say.”

You will know that after its submission to the scions of the Medici family, Machiavelli’s work of that summer of 1513, was never published in his lifetime, as with all but one or two of his writings. It was the work of one who had to make do with reflecting on politics, since his dismissal from the Florentine state was never reversed. You will know too that the more authentic, sometimes fatalistic voice of Machiavelli emerges in his Discourses on the History of Livy.

“a city which owing to its pervading corruption has once begun to decline, if it is to recover at all, must be saved not by the excellence of the people collectively, but of some one man then living among them, on whose death it at once relapses into its former plight; as happened with Thebes, in which the virtue of Epaminondas made it possible while he lived to preserve the form of a free Government, but which fell again on his death into its old disorders; the reason being that hardly any ruler lives so long as to have time to accustom to right methods a city which has long been accustomed to wrong.” Machiavelli Discourses on the History of Livy

And the voice of The Prince is far from being the authoritative voice of the successful political master; rather it is marked by trauma, failure and dissociation.

Under the sign of trauma, this individual [the Renaissance man] emerges neither as a coherent “classical” subject nor as a Burckhardtian configuration of the Nietzschean “superman”. Rather we glimpse a restless and fragmented aubject, compulsively seeking unity (but never finding it) in flights of abjection and aggression.” Alison K. Frasier “Machiavelli, Trauma and the Scandal of The Prince

It is this restless and fragmented voice, prowling the cells of his imagination in search of the ordinary virtues of governing well, that I admire in Machiavelli.



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