Every time I read The Prince I become more convinced that it is a work of sarcasm. Not conscious sarcasm perhaps, but sarcasm nonetheless.
It is the product of bitter disappointment and disillusion. This man, Machiavelli, had been a fierce Florentine patriot, a republican, a defender of the revolutionary city after the popular ousting of the plutocratic Medici psuedo-kings. He lost the game and, having been tortured and exiled, he sat and wrote what is supposed to be a job application to the triumphant Medici… and it turns into the first open admission (in modern European letters) that ethics and politics are separate and often irreconcilable.
It is coded, deliberately or not, to imply that the failure of Republican hopes in the face of the Medici stemmed from a failure to be sufficiently ruthless against them, to be as utterly cynical as the Medici themselves. In the process, Machiavelli praises Cesare Borgia as the perfect Prince. The Medici had regained their status in Florence partly owing to an alliance with the bellicose Pope Julius II, who had been one of the Borgia’s most implacable enemies.
Gramsci famously argued that the book was aimed at the common man, because the leaders to whom it was supposedly addressed already knew everything Machiavelli was saying. They just didn’t talk about it. In this reading, The Prince might become the whistleblowing of ruling-class secrets. If you convert much of the advice into mordant irony, you find a book that laments a world in which people like the Medici can prosper precisely through a secretive, two-faced instrumentalism based on the most pessimistic view of mankind possible. Of course, for the Prince himself, the most pessimistic view of mankind is actually the most optimistic, because it posits humanity as a weak and easily-exploited mass of flesh-puppets.
The essentially double-edged nature of the rise of modernity (i.e. bourgeois social relations) is expressed in the book’s implicit recognition of this. Part of the promise of modernity, of its greater openness and ductility and possibility, is an inextricable co-habitee: opportunistic political tyranny based on the utilisation of people as counters, bargaining chips. Money. To be banked, exchanged, invested, harvested. The market is the basis of Medici power. They make society a market in which people are the tokens.
Machiavelli may have come to accept this view in the counter-revolutionary period after the fall of the Florentine Republic he championed, but I don’t think his disillusion equates to an easy reconciliation with the kind of ‘realpolitik’ people often take from the book. On the contrary, the book seems more like Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel – a work of melancholy recognition of the failure of the liberatory promise of the renaissance, destined to be perpetually overlooked by the ceiling upon which the optimism is forever frozen.