Posted: July 16, 2014
A review of The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. and The Comedies of Machiavelli, edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson
achiavelli is the author of three comedies: Andria, Mandragola (considered by many to be the greatest play in Italian literature), and Clizia.
The comedies are wholly political; as James B. Atkinson astutely observes, "one cannot derive pleasure from Machiavelli's plays without also having one's political values shaken" (Comedies of Machiavelli [CM], p. 2). In Andria, a son deceives his father, a servant his master, and a gentleman his friend; in Mandragola the trust between husband and wife, mother and daughter, priest and confessor, doctor and patient, and master and servant, is violated; and in Clizia an amorous rivalry between father and son leads father and son, mother and son, husband and wife, guardian and ward, and master and servant, to conspire against one another. In each of his plays, and to the delight of his audience, everyone prospers from the defeat morality suffers.
Deceit, conspiracy, and the unpunished violation of prevailing notions of justice, shame, and morality are the pillars of Machiavellian comedy. Comedies, Machiavelli tells us in the Prologue to his Clizia, "were invented to be of use and of delight to their audiences. It is indeed quite useful for any man, and particularly for young ones, to learn about the avarice of an old man, the frenzy of a lover, the deceit of a servant, the greed of a parasite, the indigence of the poor, the ambition of the rich, the wiles of a whore, and the bad faith of all men" (CM, p. 283).
But to what purpose does Machiavelli offer instruction in "the bad faith of all men" (emphasis added)? To reaffirm the preeminence of morality and the limits it decrees? Or to demonstrate the necessity and desirability of learning how "not to be good" (Prince, c. 15)? Consider, for example, the Mandragola where virtue, and not wickedness, is the principal obstacle to the happiness and ambition of each of the characters. Callimaco's passion for Madonna Lucrezia, Friar Timoteo's intemperate pursuit of alms, Lucrezia's desire to become a mother, her belated discovery of the superiority of the kisses of a younger lover and the aspirations her discovery engenders, would remain unsatisfied were it not for the wickedness of one and all. And let us not forget Messer Nicia who finally gets the son he so desperately desires (CM) p. 315). If Messer Nicia is indeed sterile, as everyone else in the play assumes, then it is through adultery and adultery alone that he is able to become a "father." The road to happiness, it seems, depends upon a prudent disregard for moral virtue.
As the audience laughs-and Machiavelli's conceits are so clever one cannot help but laugh-their moral corruption is advanced. Atkinson is wrong when he suggests "our laughter at [Nicia] or at any character who falls short of the ideal is not tantamount to our winking at the evil in the world of the play" (CM, p. 19). Were Machiavelli's purpose to arouse our moral indignation, he would not be so careful to say indecent things in "such a way as to let the ladies listen to it without blushing" (CM, p. 285). Just as Callimaco's conspiracy depends upon finding a way around the law forbidding adultery, so Machiavelli's depends upon getting around our sense of shame. In the Mandragola he goes so far as to express "the wish that [the audience] might be tricked as [Lucrezia] was"-a passage David Sices mistranslates (cf. CM, p. 159).
Comedy, at least as Machiavelli describes it, is inherently disrespectful, "for speeches which evoke laughter are either foolish, or insulting, or amorous" (CM, p. 283). In Andria, Mandragola, and Clizia, center stage is occupied by amorous young men overcome by sexual desire who are prudent enough to profess in public their respect for the nomos which stands in their way, and yet clever enough to satisfy their immoral longings surreptitiously. While the effects of the plays are political, the objects of the conspiracies their heroes devise are wholly private. Could love or erotic desire be the true paradigm for the political? Could public spiritedness, what the Greeks called thumos, be an illusion?
The man who said that lovers are like soldiers certainly was speaking the truth. The captain wants the soldiers to be young, women want their lovers not to be old. . . . Courage, faith, and secrecy are equally necessary in the military and in love: the perils are equal and the end is most often the same. (CM, p. 299)
Lest Cleandro's remarks in the Clizia, cited above, be dismissed too hastily-after all, Machiavelli need not agree with everything his characters say-one should observe the twenty-fifth chapter of The Prince where Machiavelli, speaking, in his own name, describes Fortune as a woman who "lets herself be won more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly. And so, also like a woman, she is the friend of the young . . ." (Mansfield [M], p. 101). As Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. notes in a fine introductory essay, Machiavelli "makes the politics of the new prince appear in the image of rape" (M, xxiii).
In the comedies, love is politicized. Private desires are satisfied, but only through the reconstitution of a political convention-marriage, or in the case of the Mandragola, through the public perpetuation of the marriage of Messer Nicia to Madonna Lucrezia. Everyone's happiness depends upon the necessity that governs Callimaco's and Messer Nicia's behavior, forcing the former to become a public friend and private husband, and the latter a public husband and father. This development is reflected in The Prince where politics is reinvigorated, not through the resurrection of thumos, but rather by transforming politics into an erotic (or private) endeavor. It is no accident that conspiracy, the private activitypar excellence, should be the subject of the work's longest chapter (Prince, c. 19; cf. Discourses III.6).
In his introductory essay to The Prince, Mansfield forces us to reconsider the nature of the political and its relation to "natural justice" or "natural law" (M, p. xii). The fact that Machiavelli never employs either of these phrases in The Princeor the Discourses only underscores the importance of the matter at hand: the status of morality.
The Prince, Mansfield tells us, is "the most famous book on politics ever written," at least "when politics is thought to be carried on for its own sake unlimited by anything above it" (M, p. vii). Indeed it need not and "should not accept rules of any kind or from any source where the object is not to win or prevail over others" (M, p. vii). It is then no accident that the most famous book on politics should also be the least respectful. It respects neither age nor authority, and its hero-the new prince in a new state-is a destroyer as much as a creator. Only by waging war against the ancestral, and by casting aside the familial and political ties which bind him to his family and friends, can the new prince found political life anew. Just how dubious the status of Machiavelli's Italian patriotism really is, is apparent by his "advising a French king in Chapter 3 how he might better invade Italy the next time" (M, p. ix). Machiavelli, it seems, is everyone's friend, and no one's ally (M, p. xxiv).
In The Prince the accent is on what we acquire for ourselves, not what we inherit from others (M, p. xv). And since no one can afford to forego the necessity to acquire, public behavior must ultimately be understood in the light of private necessity. When politics is paramount, as it is in Machiavelli's political science, when its subordination to philosophy or theology and the morality they decree is denied, the political is reduced to the subpolitical, the public to the private, or to put it bluntly, politics is apt to disappear. The political community is reduced to an abstraction, and its impersonality forces us to cast our eye upon the behavior of private men who are determined to manipulate the state for the sake of their own private advantage.
Machiavelli's political science then first appears as a resurrection of spiritedness, an attempt to awaken mankind from its lethargy, and impel each of us to march as individuals (not as citizens) into the political arena. But since the impulse to do so is inherently private or erotic, Machiavelli's "political" science is strangely philosophic. This is the foundation for the universality of Machiavelli's political science, for Machiavelli can appeal to the erotic as well as the spirited. The dichotomy between philosophy and the city, which so preoccupied classical political philosophy, is eliminated.
David Sices and James B. Atkinson are to be commended for their bilingual edition of the comedies of Machiavelli. Atkinson's extensive discussion in the introduction of the changes Machiavelli wrought in Terence's script (Andria is a translation of a play by Terence) is particularly helpful. The interpretation he offers of the plays themselves, however, is less persuasive. He credits Machiavelli with more moral fervor than I believe he should. Atkinson's translation of Andria is reasonably literal, and superior to Sices' translations of the Mandragola and the Clizia. Not only is Machiavelli's wish that the audience be deceived as Lucrezia was mistranslated, but durezza (hardness), onestissima (very honest), and savia(wise) are translated as "virtue," "completely virtuous," and "most virtuous" (CM, pp. 167, 231, and 249). Those who desire a more literal translation of the Mandragola will prefer the one by Mera J. Flaumenhaft.
Mansfield's translation of The Prince is particularly welcome. It is literal and more readable than the one by Leo Paul de Alvarez; the notes are not only conveniently located at the bottom of the page, but the cross references to the Discourses enhance our understanding of Machiavelli's text. Students and scholars will find the introductory essay provocative and enlightening.