Questions for Study and Discussion

Machiavelli - Discourses

1) In the Preface to Book I of the Discourses, Machiavelli writes the following, ". . . I have resolved to set out on a road no one has travelled before me.  My journey may be tiresome and difficult, but I can hope it will prove rewarding,. . ." (p. 82).  What is this new road on which Machiavelli is traveling?  To what extent does Machiavelli fulfill his promise to open a new route?

2) Machiavelli has been described in a number of ways: as an advocate of immorality, a teacher of evil, an apologist for absolutism, the first modern political philosopher, a political realist, a political empiricist, a political theorist, the founder of liberalism, the father of nationalism, an advocate of a humanism of action, etc.  Based on your readings of The Prince and the Discourses, how would you interpret Machiavelli?  Would you place him in one of the above categories or would you suggest an alternative category?

3) What is the relationship between Virtý and Fortuna in The Prince and the Discourses?  Do you think these notions are gendered in Machiavelli (masculine strength and virility v. feminine craftiness and wiliness)?  How does Machiavelli depict "lady luck"?  What role does she play in the fortune of republics or principalities?


Machiavelli - Prince

I. Politics

1) Describe the new conception of politics put forward by Machiavelli in the The Prince.  What is the aim of politics?  What should rulers do?  How does Machiavelli's conception compare with the classical notion of politics, as elaborated by Plato and Aristotle?

2) Machiavelli's notion of a sovereign power (Chapters VI-VII)

a) Machiavelli discusses the ideal prince in Chapter VI of The Prince.  His examples are Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus.  What relevant characteristics are shared by these four leaders?

b) In Chapter VII, Machiavelli picks out Cesare Borgia as his contemporaneous model.  In what ways does Borgia satisfy the conditions set forth in Chapter VI and in what ways does he fall short of them?

c) In Chapter VIII, Machiavelli distinguishes between despotic power and princely power through his discussion of Agathocles, King of Syracuse.  In what ways does Agathocles not meet the criteria of a good prince set forth in Chapter VI?

Based on your reading of the three chapters above, do you think Machiavelli presents a coherent notion of a sovereign power?  If so, what is it?  If not, what are the flaws in his conception?

3) How does Machiavelli's ideal prince compare with the characterization of the tyrant in Book VIII of Plato's Republic and Book V of Aristotle's Politics?

II. Ethics 

1) What does Machiavelli mean by virtue?  Does he think it's possible for a person in power to act in a moral way?  Give reasons and examples.

2) Machiavelli explains in some detail the kind of character an effective "prince" would have.  Summarize his views and explain how they relate to his views about "the people."  Do you agree with his claim that morally upright characters tend to make poor political leaders?  Why or why not?

3) It has been argued that Machiavelli is not suggesting that we abandon morality together, but rather that he is presenting a new view about the authority of morality.  Is this a true account of Machiavelli's ethical stance?  If not, how would you characterize Machiavelli's ethics?

Consider the following quotes in your response:

"The Prince is neither a moral nor an immoral book: it is simply a technical book.  In a technical book we do not seek for rules of ethical conduct, of good and evil.  It is enough if we are told what is useful and useless.  Every word in The Prince must be read and interpreted in this way.  The book contains no moral prescripts for the ruler nor does it invite him to commit crimes and villanies.  It is especially concerned with and destined for the 'new principalities.'  It tries to give them all the advice necessary for protecting themselves from all danger" (Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State, p. 153).

"Certain chapters of the The Prince contain the essence of Machiavelli's thought in the sense that they exhibit most strongly his view that political action cannot be kept within the limits of morality.  Although he indicated that a-moral action might frequently be the most effective measure which can be taken in any situation, he never showed a preference for amoral actions over moral actions.  He was not a conscious advocate of evil; he did not want to upset all moral values.  But it is equally misleading to maintain the opposite: that Machiavelli wanted to replace Christian morality by another morality and that he encouraged politicians to disregard customary morality because their motives for acting ought to be the good of the political society which represented the highest ethical value" (Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, pp. 195-96).

"The conflict between [Machiavelli's] scale of values and that of conventional morality clearly did not [...] seem to worry Machiavelli himself.  It upset only those who came after him, and were not prepared, on the one hand, to abandon their own moral values (Christian or humanist) together with the entire way of thought and action of which these were a part; nor, on the other hand, to deny the validity of at any rate, much of Machiavelli's analysis of the political facts, and the (largely pagan) values and outlook that went with it, embodied in the social structures which he painted so brilliantly and convincingly" (Isaiah Berlin, "The Originality of Machiavelli," in M. Gilmore, ed., Studies on Machiavelli, p. 196).