Explain the Claim That It Is the Discourses That Best Represents Machiavelli’s True View of Politics

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Explain the claim that it is the Discourses that best represents Machiavelli’s true view of politics

“Although the Discourses are less well known than The Prince, they nevertheless contain many of Machiavelli’s most original ideas and reflect the author’s republican stance.” (Bondanella and Musa, 1988: 167)

Nicolo Machiavelli’s most well known work of political thought is arguably The Prince. It is the book for which he is best remembered and from which the contemporary adjective ‘Machiavellian’ – a deceitful character – stemmed. However, despite the notoriety of The Prince, it is his later work, the Discourses on Livy, which this essay argues best represents his true view of politics. To arrive at this conclusion, we must first analyse the political ideas put forward in The Prince, then contrast it with Machiavelli’s political position in the Discourses. Finally, an account for the original purpose of The Prince will seek to justify the claim that the ideas held in the Discourses are in fact Machiavelli’s true view of politics.

In order to discount it as his true view of politics, it would first make sense to look at Machiavelli’s original piece of political thought, The Prince, before examining the Discourses. The Prince is often described as a handbook for tyranny, as it depicts the reign of one leader whose main priority is to uphold power. It is essentially the guide to being a perfect ruler, and Machiavelli explains the ways in which this can be perfected. He writes that “it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good”; a prince in Machiavelli’s eyes should not be concerned with the means if they result in the ultimate ends of protecting himself. (Bondanella and Musa, 1988: 167) Thus, almost any action – whether it is good or bad – can be overlooked as long as it leads to the fundamental objective of retaining control.

Machiavelli also advocates fear of the prince over affection, asserting: “it is much safer to be feared than to be loved”. This is because, he explains, fear comes with an awareness of punishment, meaning the people are less likely to pose any danger to his reign. He does note, however, that a prince will face danger if he allows himself to become hated. (Bondanella and Musa, 1988: 131) The most alarming part of The Prince, though, is in Chapter XVIII, where Machiavelli endorses a prince who has the cunning ability to trick his people. (Bondanella and Musa, 1988: 134) He writes that a prince must not keep his promises if they put his control of power at risk – he just needs to appear trustworthy on the surface. In short, The Prince sees Machiavelli promote an autocratic state led by a single individual, which, as his ideas held in the Discourses will show, cannot be taken as his true view of politics.

"The Discorsi serve, to same extent at least, as an antidote to The Prince and make it plain that Machiavelli was a republican who hated tyrants" (L.J. Walker, 1975: 5)

As Walker states, Machiavelli’s Discourses represent a stark divergence from his political writings held in The Prince. The work demonstrates his strong republican stance, which this essay seeks to justify as his true view of politics. But what evidence is there to say that the Discourses better represent Machiavelli’s true view of politics than The Prince? To start with, it is useful to look at the time at which both were written. The Prince was written over a short period of time – only a few months – after his arrest, torture and exile from politics by the Medici family; while the Discourses, on the other hand, were written over many years, an indication of Machiavelli’s dedication to the thought held within it. It is often said that Machiavelli interrupted his writing of the Discourses for The Prince, which further weakens any allegiance to the latter as his true view of politics. However, if we are to prove that the Discourses do reflect his genuine political opinion,...
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