3.26. Machiavelli's Discorsi 3.26. Machiavellis Discorsi

Ernest Cassirer on Machiavelli's Discourses and The Prince

Machiavellis Fursten - startsida

Machiavelli's Prince and the Discourses

Hans Baron
Ernst Cassirer




It remains, however, one of the great puzzles in the history of human civilization how a man like Machiavelli, a great and noble mind, could become the advocate of "splendid wickedness." And this puzzle becomes the more bewildering if we compare The Prince with Machiavelli's other writings. There are many things in these other writings that seem to be in flagrant contradiction with the views exposed in The Prince. In his Discourses Machiavelli speaks as a resolute republican. In the struggles between the Roman aristocracy and the plebeians his sympathy is clearly on the side of the people. He defends the people against the reproach of inconstancy and fickleness; he declares that the guardianship of public freedom is safer in the hands of the commons than in those of the patricians ... Taking everything into consideration, declares Machiavelli, the people are wiser and more constant than a prince.

In The Prince we hear very little of these convictions. Here the fascination of Cesare Borgia is so strong that it seems completely to eclipse all republican ideals. The methods of Cesare Borgia become the hidden center of Machiavelli's political reflections ... If Machiavelli reprehends anything in Cesare it is not his character; it is not his ruthlessness, his cruelty, his treachery and rapacity. For all this he has no word of blame. What he blames in him is the only grave error in his political career: the fact that he allowed Julius II, his sworn enemy, to be elected Pope after the death of Alexander VI. (145-46)


That a republican could make the Duca Valentino [i.e. Cesare Borgia] his hero and model seems to be very strange: for what would have become of the Italian Republics and all their free institutions under a ruler like Cesare Borgia? There are however two reasons that account for this seeming discrepancy in Machiavelli's thought: a general and a particular one. Machiavelli was convinced that all his political thoughts were entirely realistic. Yet when studying his republicanism we find very little of this political realism. His republicanism is much more "academic" than practical; more contemplative than active ... His was not a stern unyielding and uncompromising republicanism ... In Italian life of the fifteenth century Machiavelli saw nothing to encourage his republican ideals ... (146-47)


Yet if The Prince is anything but a moral or pedagogical treatise, it does not follow that, for this reason, it is an immoral book. Both judgments are equally wrong. The Prince is neither a moral nor an immoral book: it is simply a technical book. In a technical book we do not seek for rules of ethical conduct, of good and evil. It is enough if we are told what is useful or useless. Every word in The Prince must be read and interpreted in this way. The book contains no moral prescripts for the ruler nor does it invite him to commit crimes and villainies. It is especially concerned with and destined for the "new principalities." It tries to give them all the advice necessary for protecting themselves from all danger. Those dangers are obviously much greater than those which threaten the ordinary states - the ecclesiastic principalities or the hereditary monarchies. In order to avoid them the ruler must take recourse to extraordinary means. (153)


His judgment was that of a scientist and a technician of political life. If we read The Prince otherwise, if we regard it as the work of a political propagandist, we lose the gist of the whole matter. (156)

Ernst Cassirer: The Myth of the State (London, 1946), pp. 145-56.



"[Quentin Skinner] takes it for granted that The Prince and Discourses should be studied in separation from one another. His reason for doing so is that he is combatting the methodological viewpoint, represented most ably by Ernst Cassirer, which postulates a vital center from which all the individual works of a given thinker radiate as do the spokes from the center of a wheel ... As a corrective to Cassirer, Skinner's point is well-taken. It is to Skinner's apparent reversal of an priori assumption of unity into an a priori assumption of disunity that we must object."

Mark Hulliung: Citizen Machiavelli, p. 230.

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