The Originality of Machiavelli

The Originality of Machiavelli

By Isaiah Berlin

Against the current: essays in the history of ideas (London, 1997)


Introduction: There is something surprising about the sheer number of interpretations of Machiavelli’s political 0pinions. There exist, even now, over a score of leading theories of how to interpret The Prince and The Discourses – apart from a cloud of subsidiary views and glosses. The bibliography of this is vast and growing faster than ever. While there may exist no more than the normal extent of disagreement about the meaning of particular terms or theses contained in these works, there is a startling degree of divergence about the central view, the basic political attitude of Machiavelli.

This phenomenon is easier to understand in the case of other thinkers whose opinions have continued to puzzle or agitate mankind – Plato, for example, or Rousseau, or Hegel, or Marx. But then it might be said that Plato wrote in a world and in a language that we cannot be sure we understand; that Rousseau, Hegel, Marx were prolific theorists, whose works are scarcely models of clarity or consistency.

But The Prince is a short book : its style is usually described as being singularly lucid, succinct and pungent – a model of clear Renaissance prose. The Discourses is not, as treatises on politics go, of undue length, and it is equally clear and definite. Yet there is no consensus about the significance of either; they have not been absorbed into the texture of traditional political theory; they continue to arouse passionate feelings; The Prince has evidently excited the interest and admiration of some of the most formidable men of action of the last four centuries, especially of our own, men not normally addicted to reading classical texts.

There is evidently something peculiarly disturbing about what Machiavelli said or implied, something that has caused profound and lasting uneasiness. Modern scholars have pointed out certain real or apparent inconsistencies between the (for the most part) republican sentiment of The Discourses (and The Histories) and the advice to absolute rulers in The Prince; indeed there is a difference of tone between the two treatises, as well as chronological puzzles : this raises problems about Machiavelli’s character, motives and convictions which for three hundred years and more have formed a rich field of investigation and speculation for literary and linguistic scholars, psychologists and historians

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