[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on September 14, 2008 ]
The current issue (Sept. 15, 2008) of The New Yorker has an interesting review of a new translation of the major works of Machiavelli. The reviewer presents salient biographical facts about the notorious political theorist and also points to the significant differences among translations, especially the often-quoted chapter 17 of Machiavelli's best-known work The Prince.
Reading this chapter again and comparing translations forces one to think again about what Machiavelli really advocated as an answer to the question of whether a prince should seek to be feared or to be loved. The prince, Machiavelli advises, should seek to be feared if only because of the deficiencies of human nature. People being what they are, they will not appreciate a ruler who has the reputation of being easygoing and permissive (to employ contemporary terms not appearing in any of the three translations at hand).
The reviewer closes The New Yorker article by indicating the wide range of reactions to Machiavelli. Not everyone saw in him a villain. The reviewer cites Leo Strauss as a defender of Machiavelli. I must doubt this, after having read Strauss's Thoughts on Machiavelli. In that work, Strauss argues effectively that it was Machiavelli who overthrew the tradition of classical political philosophy, that he was the founder of evil modernism in political thought.
Of all the books that have been written on Machiavelli, one well worth reading again is James Burnham's The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, especially in its original edition of 1943. There, Burnham demonstrates that Machiavelli was the founder of a scientific approach to the study of political phenomena. The idealist Dante, on the contrary, is derided by Burnham as a scheming hypocrite.
Burnham maintains that Machiavelli and the theorists of elitism who followed him, such as Pareto, Mosca, and Michels, are defenders of freedom because they warn one and all against the evil lurking within even those princes who may claim to be benign idealists.
I find Burnham's reading of Machiavelli to be convincing because it provides the best answer to another of his stupid questions; i.e. for what readership was Machiavelli's The Prince intended? Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo di Medici, a prince, of course, and expected that other princes would read it. It was, however, published as a book in the language of the common folk, Italian, not Latin. Certainly, it was intended by Machiavelli to have a readership far beyond the ranks of princes. Assuming a print run of only a thousand copies, the book would obviously circulate far beyond the ranks of all the princes of Italy. Had he intended a more cosmopolitan readership, Machiavelli would have written in Latin, a language known to all the educated people of Europe. Obviously, the book would come into the hands of a goodly number of common folk, a fact that Machiavelli must have realized. Was Machiavelli, in fact, writing a warning against the tyranny of princes, as Burnham maintains?