1.This short text is published as a kind of appendix to the Philological Museum edition of the 1626 Apologia Basilica by the seventeenth century Scottish intellectual and poet David Hume of Godscroft. This lengthy and involved work pretends to be an unfriendly dissection of Machiavelli’s Il Principe, but is in fact a treatise intended to instruct the newly-crowned Charles I in the nature of virtuous statecraft, with an unspoken subtext that he should avoid comporting himself like his Machiavellian father James VI/I. His stated aim is to demonstrate that Machiavelli was scarcely the political genius that his admirers imagined, but rather a muddled and confused thinker, and his strategy was to point out the many self-contradictions with which he believed Il Principe to be riddled. Many of his claims involve tedious and not uniformly convincing nitpicking over details, but in one in particular he was dead on: in some passages Machiavelli teaches that, in order gain and maintain power, a successful prince should strive to earn the affection of his subjects, and that in others that he needs to safeguard himself by inspiring fear in them. Whatever good or bad things can be said about either policy, it is clear that these two formulae for government are utterly incompatible with each other. Most conspicuously in this case, Hume succeeds in his aim of pricking Machiavelli’s balloon and stripping him of his cultural prestige. But then, as the very last paragraph of his lengthy treatise, Hume gives us a couple of surprises:
Multa his similia sunt, quae ego quum aliquando expenderem, tam sibi pugnantia et (quae mala sunt) tam inepta, tam absurda. Sic mecum: “Non sentit iste quae scribit, sed scribit quae fiunt, nec ut faciant, sed ut fugiant mala homines. Probantis personam induit, ut paribus ingeniis se insinuet, inde securius scelera efferat plana et nuda, ut tam turpi ac monstrosa eorum facie terreat ac pudorem iniiciat.” Sed pauca huius rei aut nulla vestigia video. Mutem sententiam et tam sceleratum esse quam prae se fert credam, credant idem omnes, modo et tam ineptum credant. Sin sit qui aliter adhuc sentiat et primam illam sententiam retineat, non pugnem. Nec enim cum homine mihi lis est, sed cum rebus, aut si cum homine, propter res. Illae, ingenii specie, blandiunter et otruduntur, detegendum ingenium erat ut detegerentur. Itaque concludere sic fas sit. Si sentire haec quae scribit Machiavellum quis putet, ingenio eum nullo fuisse agnoscat. Si non sentire credat, explicet et homines erroribus et tam certo periculo liberet ac RECTO SUUM IUS, DEO OMNEM UBIQUE GLORIAM CEDITO.
[“There is much similar stuff, which, when I was pondering them, struck me as so self-contradictory, incompetent and absurd that I said to myself “this man does not believe what he writes, but he writes to describe things as they are done, not that men might do the same, but so that they might shun these evils. He acts the part of a man who approves of them so that he might insinuate his way into similar minds, and with greater security publicize crimes, plain and unvarnished, to that with their base and monstrous appearance he might terrify them and instill a sense of shame.” But I perceive few if any traces of this intention. I must alter my opinion and believe that he is as criminal has he pretends to be, and all men should believe this as long as they also believe he is such a fool. If any man persists in thinking otherwise and adheres to the former view, I shall not contest him. For my quarrel is not with the man but with his teachings, or if it is with the man, this is because of his teachings. Men flatter these teachings and thrust them upon us, but his genius should have been kept concealed, as so should they. So let me be allowed to end with this. If a man should think that Machiavelli believed what he wrote, let him realize it was written without any genius. If he thinks he did not believe it, then let him explain himself and free men from their errors and such certain danger, and GIVE THE RIGHT ITS DUE, AND ALL GLORY TO GOD.”]
2. The first surprise is that this present statement of intention is quite different from the one he provides in his initial address Ad Lectorem (to show that Machiavelli was no genius after all): now he says his purpose was to discredit the ideas espoused by Machiavelli, not the man himself, which is by no means the same thing. The second is that for the first time he acknowledges his awareness of an alternative reading of Il Principe, according to which Machiavelli’s aim was not to offer his prince instruction on how to succeed in politics by exercising his talents for craft, guile, fraud, cruelty and cynical realpolitik, but rather that this was his tactic for exposing the malfeasances of contemporary princes of the Cesare Borgia variety, teaching his readers how to penetrate their subterfuges and sniff out their true intentions, thus exciting popular dislike of princes of that sort. As one modern writer pithily put it, according to this revisionist view “Machiavelli wanted to teach people how to see through deceptively good appearances in politics, not how to generate them.” NOTE 2 This is an interpretation that over the centuries has resurfaced in observations by writers as various as Spinoza, Rousseau and Diderot, and its origin can be pinpointed in some remarks by the Oxford legalist Alberico Gentili, offered in his 1585 De Legationibus Libri tres (III.9).
3. Modern Machiavelli scholarship does not always take Gentili’s revisionist understanding of Il Principe seriously (in his magisterial Machiavelli -- The First Century NOTE 1 Sidney Anglo manages to brush it aside in a single dismissive paragraph consisting of only two sentences). Nevertheless one might venture to assert that there are a couple of reasons why his reading deserves to be read with the respect due to one of the outstanding intellects of his generation and given serious consideration. The first is biographical. For the facts of Machiavelli’s life show that he himself did not live according to the doctrines advocated in Il Principe: he was not unduly devoted to ambition and self-aggrandizement and compiled no history of unprincipled behavior. He devoted his public life to diligently functioning as a diplomat and public official on behalf of his native republic of Florence. It is often claimed that his beau ideal of a successful prince was Cesare Borgia. From October 1502 to January 1503 he was at Borgia’s court, where he had plenty of opportunity to jump ship and enter Borgia’s service, but did nothing of the kind. Or, if he had the prescience to realize that when his father Pope Alexander VI died (as he did later in 1503), Borgia would be in approximately the same condition as a marionette with cut strings, he could have identified some promising newcomer whom he could groom by his counsel and accompany up the ladder of success. Again, he conspicuously failed to heed his own advice. Had he truly believed in the philosophy of Il Principe, the only thing that might have given him pause would have been a sense of Florentine patriotism. In the course of that treatise he does not discuss patriotic sentiment, but surely he would have handled it just as he did piety: as a necessity for a prince to pretend patriotism, but useless and possibly even harmful for him to take it seriously. So why not apply this philosophy to himself? All of this is what Gentili seems to have had in mind when he observed that “Machiavelli was a most energetic champion and advocate of democracy, born, raised, and honored in that kind of commonwealth.”
4. The other issue was brought to light by Hume. His first seven chapters were largely devoted to winkling out the real or at least supposed self-contradictions in Il Principe. In the first two sections of his eighth and final chapter, Hume ranged further afield and pointed out the contradictions between the doctrine set forth in Il Principe and certain crucially important things said by Machiavelli in his Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio. In the Discorsi Machiavelli adheres to the same method employed in Il Principe, the empirical examination of history both ancient and modern in the hope of deducing general principles operating behind the surface play of events (this is why Gentili endorses Machiavelli for having pioneered a new “philosophical” approach to historical studies). Hume focuses on two of its sections, III.5 and I.20, in which he detects statements contrary to those in Il Principe, but appears to make the mistake of considering them to be of the same order as the self-contradictions he has detected within that work. He evidently failed to appreciate that these differences run far deeper. In III.5 Machiavelli returns to a question that greatly preoccupied him in Il Principe: having gained power, how does a prince maintain his position? But here his solution is very different from the methods he had recommended there: a prince remains in power by keeping his subjects happy enough that they desire no change, and the way to achieve this is for him to obey the laws of his nation, respect its customs and institutions, agree to share power rather than concentrating it all in his own person, and provide good government. He instances Tarquin the Proud as an example of a ruler who fell from power by failing to adhere to these principles, the Rape of Lucretia only providing his disgruntled subjects with a handy pretext for bringing him down (Hume rightly pointed out that the devices by which Tarquin had comes to power in Livy’s account are precisely the sorts of dodges and misrepresentations recommended so enthusiastically in Il Principe, but here Machiavelli shows no signs of approving him or his methods). Here we see Machiavelli embracing a philosophy of government which is the diametrical opposite of that in Il Principe: it is quite devoid of cynicism and upholds rather than disdains the standards of conventional morality. The cardinal points of conventional morality are likewise praised in I.10 and favorably contrasted with their opposing vices, and “good” Roman emperors such as Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius are compared with “bad” ones like Caligula, Nero and Vitellius, as is the happy conditions of the Roman empire under the former with the miserable one endured under the latter.
5. Looming up behind these differences is a third and more basic one that Hume failed to appreciate. If one obtains an electronic text of the Discorsi (such as this one) and scans it for the words “tyrant” and “tyranny,” as well as similar associated words, he will quickly see that in this work Machiavelli is deeply concerned with this subject and the problems it poses, to the point that he is regularly described as an enemy of tyranny. Performing a similar word search on a text if Il Principe (like the one here), he will see that these words scarcely appear and tyranny is a subject with which Machiavelli seems to be entirely unconcerned. Il Principe is of course an instruction manual, intended seriously or satirically, on how to make oneself a tyrant and then survive in power as one. It takes its beginning in a set of unspoken assumptions: 1.) that it is normal and natural to want to become a tyrant, 2.) that being a tyrant is a Good Thing and a worthy aspiration, and 3.) that there is no problematik associated with tyranny, and that its ill effects on society are not a matter of concern.. And in this work Machiavelli never explicitly identifies any man in power, ancient or contemporary, as a tyrant, no matter how badly he comports himself (typically limiting himself to the ethically neutral word “prince.”) The deep concern with the subject of tyranny in the Discorsi forms a remarkable contrast with Il Principe’s studiously po-faced pretense of indifference.
6. Unless someone can come up with a plausible way of resolving the seemingly irreconcilable differences of political philosophies embodied in these two treatises, we seem to be confronted with two choices: either to think that in the interim between their dates of writing (whatever these may have been) NOTE 3 their author underwent a massive change of heart, or that Gentili was right and that in writing Il Principe his intention was essentially the subversive one of a committed republican determined to strip bare the hypocrisies of tyrannical regimes such as the ones that beset Italy during his lifetime. Even though Hume ultimately rejects this revisionist reading, he clearly remains intrigued by it and concludes his book with the admission that he at least half-wishes somebody could show him how he is wrong. And indeed in the course of his review of Il Principe’s doctrines Hume makes a repeated statement that hints that something else may have been in the back of his mind: he sometimes adds a remark to the effect that “Machiavelli must be joking.” It would be easy and perhaps over-facile to dismiss these exclamations as a mere rhetorical device, for something more interesting may be at stake. Machiavelli was a prolific writer who worked in various genres, including three comedies (Andria, Mandragola, and Citizia, and a humorous novel, Belfagor Arcidiavolo, which go to show that there was a well-developed humorous side to his mentality. Did Hume nourish some klind of hunch, that he did not quite dare to express openly, that Il Principe was in truth written as a work of political satire? And, if this is true, is there any possibility that he was right? Certainly this understanding would be one way of reconciling the extraordinarily different political philosophies of Il Principe and the Discorsi.
7. It should be added that a complete edition of De Legationibus Libri Tres with an English translation by Gordon L. Laing was published by the Oxford University Press in 1924.
NOTE 1 (Oxford, 2005) p. 368.
NOTE 2 Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics (Princeton, 2009) 2.
NOTE 3 The relation of the Il Principe and the Discorsi will always be a matter of debate, since both were only published posthumously. There is documentary evidence for a Latin version of Il Principe in circulation as early as 1513, so the Discorsi appears to be the later work: cf. most recently the discussion of dates in the course of Cecil H. Clough’s introduction to Father Leslie J. Walker’s translation (repr. Abingdon, 2013), unpaginated.