3.26. Machiavelli's Discorsi 3.26. Machiavellis Discorsi

Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov on Machiavelli's Discourses and The Prince

Machiavellis Fursten - startsida

Machiavelli's Prince and the Discourses




While Quentin Skinner's critique of Leo Strauss's attempt to reconciled the teachings of Machiavelli's Discourses and The Prince has been widely influential, other scholars have developed readings based on Strauss's findings, arguing that the differences between Machiavelli's two chief works are more apparent than real. An example of this latter approach is found in the introduction to Harvey C. Mansfield's and Nathan Tarcov's translation of Machiavelli's Discourses.

When we begin to examine Machiavelli's remedies for modern weakness, we come upon an obvious difficulty that has been much discussed. Machiavelli is most famous today as the author of The Prince, a witty and attractive, proudly original, short and apparently easy, but wicked and dangerous book that advises princes on how to "seize absolute authority" (P 9) and to learn how not to be good to their subjects and friends - in short, to be criminally wicked tyrants. But Machiavelli has also been famous among devotees of republics as the author of the Discourses, which by contrast is a long, forbidding, apparently nostalgic, obviously difficult, but decent and useful book that advises citizens, leaders, reformers, and founders of republics on how to order them to preserve their liberty and avoid corruption. The relation between the two books is notoriously obscure. How could two such books be written by the same man, apparently at more or less the same time? (xx)


The Prince is not simply about princes or tyrants, and it does not endorse principalities or tyrannies over republics in the way that the Discourses recommends republics over principalities or tyrannies. Indeed, republican political philosophers such as Spinoza and Rousseau understood The Prince to be a secretly republican book. What basis is there for such a judgment? Although Machiavelli says early in The Prince that he will not discuss republics, he soon puts forward, and later confirms, the Roman republic as the model for wise princes (P 2-5). Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, is cited among the most excellent and glorious of new princes (P 6), but although a king, he is praised in the Discourses for laws establishing a free and civil way of life - for being the founder of a republic or protorepublic (D I.9.2, I 8.5, 49.1; II 2.1; III 1.2). Moreover, since the new prince will want to maintain his state and his glory for a long life and even after his death, he will find that founding a republic is the best way to do so. He might first think of establishing a hereditary principality, in which he would be succeeded by others of his bloodline. But enemies may eliminate not only him but also his his bloodline, precisely so that they will not be menaced by the memory of his name. Republics do the same thing, and for good measure they also wipe out all hereditary nobility as hostile to the republic. But they revere their own founders. "In republics there is greater life, greater hatred, more desire for revenge; the memory of their ancient liberty does not and cannot let them rest" (P 5). Therefore, to avoid the pitfalls clearly brought into view, The Prince implicitly advises princes to found republics to perpetuate their states and their glory.


Machiavelli's mixture of republicanism and tyranny in the Discourses refutes the decent, republican opinion that the Discourses is a decent, republican book as opposed the wicked, tyrannical Prince. On the contrary, Machiavelli's critique of classical and biblical morality and religion appears in the Discourses as well as in The Prince, and it is meant to liberate not only the rulers of principalities but also republics of their leaders, whom Machiavelli frequently and disconcertingly refers to as princes.

Even Machiavelli's endorsement of republics over principalities in the Discourses reveals the princely or tyrannical elements in his republicanism. While he declares that two virtuous princes in succession are sufficient to acquire the world, he adds that a republic should do more, since it has through election not only two but inifinite virtuous princes who succeed one another (D I 20). The advantage of a republic is not that it takes government out of the hands of princes but precisely that election provides "infinite most virtuous princes." And in the place where Machiavelli says that a republic has greater life and more lasting good fortune than a principality, he claims that this is because republics can accomodate themselves to the times by choosing which of those citizens they employ as princely leaders (D II 9). (xxvi)


In sum, just as The Prince is more republican than it seems, so the Discourses is more princely, and through its mixture of tyranny and republicanism it is also more critical of classical and biblical morality and thereby more original than it seems. (xxvii)

Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov: "Introduction," in Niccolò Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. xx-xxvii.

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