Antonomasia's Reviews > The Prince

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
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it was amazing
bookshelves: history, politics, early-modern-works, italy, ebooks-kobo, bought-or-replaced-2016, 2016

This rating is for Tim Parks' translation & introductions; I wouldn't use a rating for the work as a whole.

This is an excellent, highly readable modern version with contextualising introduction, and the translator's note is quite fascinating for translation geeks.

It almost makes me want to take back a previous opinion, that many of Parks’ media articles are overrated - but rather this is a different type of work. He's evidently a very good translator who pays meticulous attention both to original text and writer, and to understanding his audience. He also has a knack for explaining knotty historical events - namely the dreaded Italian Wars of the late fifteenth and earlier sixteenth century - with a clarity from which many history textbook writers could learn. I hope this edition is now recommended to students, particularly at introductory undergrad or school level. (They could explore older translations if they specialise.) Although references to the likes of Blackadder - a modification of the Machiavel archetype of the C17th English stage - won't seem quite as lively to current young undergrads as to the 35+ brigade, this is altogether a very useful intro, and the text itself will be understandable for many more readers with little or no effort in a way that translations in the usual, more antiquated, style aren't.

The translator's note discusses several dilemmas in detail, and quotes from previous translations by Bull (a commonly-used Penguin Classics version for several decades, still in print) and Marriot (from the early 20th century).
- What to call a "prince" when the commonest contemporary associations are virtually powerless (e.g. Prince Charles), or fluffy fairytale heroes (Prince Charming)? (Parks probably has in mind an audience too young to think readily of Adam Ant.)
- Other words, most importantly, but not limited to, virtù , whose contemporary English cognates are outright misleading, or merely dustily archaic.
- A tricky paragraph about why others are more likely to respect you and treat you well if you take sides rather than staying neutral. (Machiavelli obviously had no way of knowing about WWII neutral countries.)
- A clause, at first glance unnecessary, introducing a discussion of some Roman emperors who might appear to be counterexamples to a point just made, but who, to an extent actually prove it. (Elegantly, this is an opportunity for Parks to highlight Machiavelli's awareness and explanation that the nature of power and political institutions in the Roman Empire was profoundly different from that in a[n]... early sixteenth century state. Machiavelli is read by some today as if he is "for all time"; as with Shakespeare, it seems extremely unlikely he ever intended to be - and besides knew that "all time" means a lot more than 500 years. The Florentine realised that not all of the principles of his own political environment applied to the distant past, and therefore he would undoubtedly understand that not all of them work exactly the same way today.)
- A translation may play up to the book's reputation for wickedness rather than seeking to understand Machiavelli's underlying meaning (effectively a debunking version). Did he say he did not wish to censure notorious psychopath Cesare Borgia? Or that his morals are being ignored here (not elevated, not condemned, just ignored), this being an evaluation of his political shrewdness and effectiveness?
(As with Shakespeare - again - I find that Machiavelli as a personality is so much clearer after more life experience than possessed by most in their late teens or early twenties, the age when most people commonly study these writers. A guy who's fascinated by villains to the point of outright admiration, but himself is so upstanding he doesn't even fiddle expenses in an environment where everyone else does? Yup, know the type - though these ones tend to be fans of movie gangsters and comic book baddies rather than of political dictators.)
- Finally, an approach to Fortune which in older versions was coy about sexual undertones - being translated to sound like domestic violence - is intriguingly transposed such that it sounds more like D/s rough sex.

The glossary isn’t quite such gripping reading as the intro and translator’s note, but it’s a glossary FFS and I read it straight through – that’s not really what it’s for, though the info is decent.

This is a translation which attempts to evoke the spirit of the text and the writer, and especially to get the tone right: Machiavelli has a more spoken, flexible, persuading, sometimes brusque voice, and to get that tone in English, one has to opt for a syntax that is quite different. Nabokov would not approve.

"This book shouldn't be so easy to read. This isn't actually The Prince," part of me feels. But it is. (Away with your semantic hair-splitting about translations as new books. We're being pragmatic here, and what's more, most Italians read it in modernised versions.) Modern translations of old books always feel like a lucky, cheaty shortcut, but there's something particularly surreal (perhaps because this is the first time I've re-read a book in a different translation) and appropriately sneaky and illicit, about this.

It has never ceased to surprise me, though, how specific to the time and place of its writing The Prince is. In popular culture, the book is portrayed as universally applicable, useful in contemporary business and politics, yet rather a lot of it only makes sense for those well-placed in small, warlike states prone to frequent changes of leadership. Every time I've read it (this time was by far the most optional), it seemed first of all like a primary source on the military history of Renaissance Italy; "leadership success manual" would be some way down the list of things I'd perceive the book as, separated from its reputation. Which of course may be a measure of its influence, of how obvious the still-applicable bits now seem - it's the other stuff that stands out. In western democracies or large firms, one can't go around killing those who may be a threat to your position (no matter how much you hate that guy two desks away). I wrote most of this post several days ago, before the referendum, BTW... If a ruler who is supported by his people but not his nobles is in a good position, Jeremy Corbyn should be a lot more secure as Labour leader than he is. Though the appeal of The Prince to gangsters (including gangsta rappers) and politicians in dictatorships is obvious; they, the latter especially, though, tend to disregard advice such as avoiding ongoing cruelty after establishing a power base.

The original context of The Prince is underemphasised in many discussions of the text. Its origin as Machiavelli’s elaborate job application to Giuliano de Medici is responsible for much of its content. (Incidentally, there are rather a lot of instances going around - on the Goodreads book page and elsewhere - of the specious argument that the Medicis couldn’t be seen to employ the man who wrote The Prince, and/or that the book’s advice was limited in its use because it was public: there is no evidence that Giuliano or Lorenzo de Medici ever read it, and it was not printed for general sale until almost 20 years later, after Machiavelli’s death. Others in 1513 wouldn’t have known Machiavelli’s reputation for writing it. He may not have been appointed to a court or diplomatic position, but did gain patronage from the Medici later in the decade for writing histories and other works* now considered minor beside his political treatises.) The Prince contains an awful lot of examples from Italian Renaissance politics, and from humanist faves the Romans, it’s short-termist, concerned with the career of an individual who has just taken over, or has a realistic chance of taking over, a small state – stability is talked of as the ultimate aim, but it’s not long-term regime stability, it’s just about this one ruler maintaining power. Even at the time Machiavelli was writing, the ruling regime of Venice was among the longest-standing and most stable he could have been aware of (and it lasted over two and a half centuries more, until 1797) – but Venice gets short shrift for a few poor decisions about military alliances that occurred during Machiavelli’s lifetime. Machiavelli wrote elsewhere about republics (e.g. in The Discourses) and thought them better than monarchies. The Prince’s very existence and premise is ruthlessly pragmatic and expedient: it is advice on how to strengthen, and a plea to work in, a form of government its author considered suboptimal. It was what was there in front of him, and he figured he had to do his best with it.

It’s also ultimately quite personal to Machiavelli: he fixes on things that, in his estimation, would have made his old job as a diplomat easier (e.g. the citizen army instead of mercenaries, more decisive orders from his employer). He thinks he would have rather worked for Cesare Borgia than for the ineffectual Soderini. The fanboying – last time I read the Prince I'm not sure I knew the word fanboy, certainly wasn't in the habit of using it critically - now seems like one of the sillier aspects of the text, though it’s also rather interesting in showing the shifts in perspective between the views of contemporaries and historians. Cesare Borgia is now significant mostly because of his most famous fan, rather than for his own actions: he was just one more short term player in a turbulent political landscape. Brilliant but short-lived artists are still extolled; but statesmen who didn’t make the impact they might have don’t receive the same kudos from those who weren’t there to witness their actions (I still remember my surprise as a teenage politics geek first hearing about the likes of Hugh Gaitskell or Jeremy Thorpe, people who had once been so important but had been quite unknown to me, unlike their contemporaries who were long familiar from the news: I learned factually of their importance and potential, but never really quite *felt* it like those who knew them whilst they were active. Undoubtedly there are now current undergrads for whom John Smith – Labour leader at the time I first heard of Gaitskell and Thorpe - is also quite obscure in the same way.) The other contemporary prince Machiavelli praises most, Ferdinand of Aragon, has, due to the length of his reign, considerably more weight with current historians. It’s notable that Machiavelli’s opinion of him still chimes with modern attitudes: Ferdinand was highly effective (though he’s not presented here as part of a partnership with Isabella, as is common now, undoubtedly because of changed attitudes towards women) but, as one would not necessarily expect from a sixteenth century writer, he considers Ferdinand’s expulsion of Jews from Spain to have been cruel and unnecessary. Machiavelli’s relative lack of religiosity is an interesting undercurrent in his work: perhaps it meant he was more inclined to see Jews as being like people of any other sort than would the more staunchly devout Christians of his day. And the implication that a ruler was a self-sacrificing being (as, perhaps were those carrying out orders) one who should be prepared to take actions that meant he may go to hell, and put the security of the state over his personal salvation, is rather fascinating. (It aligns curiously with the old Golden Bough idea of the sacrificial king.) Did Machiavelli really feel that, or did it stem from a suspicion that hell wasn’t real? At any rate, alongside further darkening the principle of 'the end justifies the means' it evokes those occasions when Elizabeth I betrayed distress after executions she had ordered – most strongly that of Mary Queen of Scots, also that she reportedly shed tears on reading a work by poet and Jesuit priest Robert Southwell**.

For all that Machiavelli admires Cesare Borgia, it’s highly unlikely he didn’t contemplate the idea that he could have had a stickier, bloodier end if he’d been in Borgia’s pay than in Soderini’s – whether at the hands of the man himself or from enemies wanting to match his brutality - he was too sharp not to have thought of that. His focus on Medici as his audience means that’s not mooted here, but The Prince is also a work of therapeutic reimagining, of implied personal alternate history, and a vision of a possible better future for himself and his country, by a man who was recovering from torture and who was deeply frustrated in the cloistered lifestyle the world had thrust upon him, in which he felt his talents were wasted. (Instinctively, the examples cited in The Prince now feel cherrypicked to suit the argument, as would happen in such personal imaginings, though I’m not about to embark on research to find counterexamples, and it’s very possible that sense is produced by my existing 500 years later.) Machiavelli’s writing meant he posthumously reached far more people than he ever would have as a diplomat and courtier who’d now be a name only in academic textbooks – instead he is better known than any Renaissance prince. Like so many works from its era, its mere production seems brave: it sometimes amazes me that anyone wrote anything at all, considering the risks (or that their works were not all explicitly ruled by fear in the manner of Thomas Hobbes’); almost anyone cultivated knew people who had been tortured and/or executed for their views – some had been imprisoned themselves - but still they wrote.

21-25 June 2016

* The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli
** TV documentary series of In Search Of Shakespeare, which I watched last week
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Reading Progress

June 21, 2016 – Started Reading
June 21, 2016 – Shelved
June 23, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Antonomasia Can't blame anyone for not wanting to read this at the moment, but may as well try once more.


Bertrand "A guy who's fascinated by villains to the point of outright admiration, but himself is so upstanding he doesn't even fiddle expenses in an environment where everyone else does?"
This reminds me of a recent Zizek interview in France titled with his quote “Je suis comme tous les gauchistes, défenseur du peuple, mais fasciné par les stars”; Celebrity-status has always been a potent force in mobilising for radical change, and might well be (I sure hope it's not) the last one afforded to us in the age of neoliberalism...
I'd be interested to hear more of Park's translation of the famous "rape of fortuna" passage which you refer to.


Antonomasia Bertrand wrote: I'd be interested to hear more of Park's translation of the famous "rape of fortuna" passage which you refer to.

Finally, one can’t help noticing a certain Victorian bashfulness in previous translations. Machiavelli was a notorious womanizer and in writing The Prince he believed he was addressing an audience of men who had no worries about political correctness. When he says ‘la fortuna è donna, et è necessario, volendola tenere sotto, batterla et urtarla’ – literally: ‘fortune is woman and it is necessary wanting to keep her underneath to beat her and shove her’ – there is an obvious sexual reference. The phrase comes in the last paragraph of The Prince proper (the closing exhortation is very much a piece apart) and Machiavelli wants to go out on a strong but, as he no doubt saw it, witty note.

Here is Marriot’s version of the whole last paragraph:
"I conclude, therefore, that fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her."

And Bull’s:
"I conclude, therefore, that as fortune is changeable whereas men are obstinate in their ways, men prosper so long as fortune and policy are in accord, and where there is a clash they fail. I hold strongly to this: that it is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her. Experience shows that she is more often subdued by men who do this than by those who act coldly. Always, being a woman, she favours young men, because they are less circumspect and more ardent, and because they command her with greater audacity."

I hope I am getting closer to the spirit of the thing and, for better or worse, the kind of man Machiavelli was, offering this:
"To conclude then: fortune varies but men go on regardless. When their approach suits the times they’re successful, and when it doesn’t they’re not. My opinion on the matter is this: it’s better to be impulsive than cautious; fortune is female and if you want to stay on top of her you have to slap and thrust. You’ll see she’s more likely to yield that way than to men who go about her coldly. And being a woman she likes her men young, because they’re not so cagey, they’re wilder and more daring when they master her."



Bertrand Very interesting!


message 5: by Warwick (new)

Warwick I love a snappy modern translation, and the comparison you quote in your comment above endears me to Parks very much. Reminds me somewhat of reading James Michie's translation of the Ars Amatoria.


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