Machiavelli’s Strange Prince

Long before the Founding Fathers or Ataturk, Machiavelli realized the potential of the father-figure.

We live in a patriarchal world. Even today, the most powerful country in the world speaks of its founding fathers. Every shade of political opinion in the US must pay homage to Washington and co. Numerous other countries, like Turkey, give a mythical status to their founders. Perhaps it has always been thus. Images of the loving head of a family and his children are analogous to the national hero(es) and the dutiful subjects or citizens.

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The Grand-Duke of modern politics, Niccolo Machiavelli, was fully aware of this sociological fact. His most famous work, The Prince, was permeated with examples of how great men could acquire and hold onto power. Even more importantly than the mere holding of power, these leaders were ‘founders.’ They not only had to cement their power using the military means at their disposal, but they also had to socially engineer their new subjects or citizens. This, more than Machiavelli’s ‘dark arts,’ was his main innovation as regards political science. For example, see chapter VI of the Prince.

Above all, the new socially engineered subjects or citizens had to be instilled with virtu. This was not what we think of virtue, but a Machiavellian term denoting a kind of spirited heroism. If the founder elicited enough awe, then lack of virtu wouldn’t be a problem. Long after he had departed, the members of the political order would be in thrall to the founder’s memory. The founder would also be transcendent to his flock. All these factors are well described by Pitkin when she says

he [Machiavelli] pictures the Founder as working on living men, yet somehow singular and distinct from them. The Founder is the essence of authority in the root Roman sense of that term, an auctor who initiates and induces the free actions of others, so that his project becomes what they willingly carry out, without his enforcing presence. [1]

And in the long run, Machiavelli figured that the children of the nation would carry their political fathers spirit onwards and conquer. In Niccolo’s case, he wanted a new Roman republic … with a fatherly prince its eternal symbol.

Currently, I am researching a book on Carl Schmitt. Any comments or suggested corrections to this post are welcome. I have already authored one book Mysteries of State in the Renaissance. My Amazon page is here.

References

Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli Hannah Pitkin p. 54.

See also Mysteries of State … p. 104-107

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