Discussion Questions

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Discussion Questions for The Prince http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince00.htm

  1. Discuss the uses of history in Machiavelli's The Prince.

  2. Describe the characteristics of a Machiavellian ruler. What would a state be like under a such a Machiavellian ruler?

  3. Can you defend Machiavelli's book from the condemnation that it espouses evil in politics is preferable to good?

  4. Can you separate politics and morality?  Is Machiavelli's The Prince immoral, amoral, or moral - but in its own domain of politics?

  5. How does Machiavelli view Fortune? Why is it important in human affairs?  What can people, and especially princes, do to work with fortune? Providence? The Church?

  6. What are the recurring themes in The Prince?

  7. Examine the purpose, and use, of metaphor and simile in The Prince. In particular, the metaphor of the lion and the fox.

  8. What is man's true nature, according to Machiavelli?

  9. 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?

  10. Is Machiavelli a humanist?  Why or why not?

  11. Machiavelli say that it is better for a prince "to be both loved and feared." Is it possible for a prince to be both?

  12. Why did he write this book? What advice does he give Lorenzo de Medici?

  13. According to Machiavelli, the Prince must adapt to fortune. What are some contemporary examples of politicians who have , and who have not, successfully adapted to fortune over the long run?  What about free will?  Doesn't that have a place in Machiavelli's ideas about man?

  14. Should Chapter 26, the exhortation to free Italy, change your understanding of M's viewpoint? Does this chapter fit the tone of the rest of the book? Why was it written? Might it be used to manipulate Lorenzo and the Medici to create a republic?

  15. If a country is really being torn apart internally and externally, does M's advice become more defensible? M says, "the greatest good one can do, and the none most gratifying to God, is that which one does for one's country."

  16. What is persuasive about M's view of morality and politics? What should be criticized?

  17. 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, how would you interpret Machiavelli? Would you place him in one of the above categories or would you suggest an alternative category?

  18.  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?

  19. Does class matter in Machiavelli's world of politics?  How about religion?  Why would Christianity, in particular, not be featured more in his ideas of successful government?

  20. Was Machiavelli too smart for his own good?  Can you call him a patriot?

Consider the following quotes.  Read them and comment:

"Machiavelli sought to distinguish the realm of what ought to be and the realm of what is. He rejected the first for the second. But there is a third realm: the realm of what can be. It is in that realm that what one might call a humanist realism can lie. The measure of man is his ability to extend this sphere of the socially possible. We can start with our democratic values, and we can start also with Machiavelli's realism about tough minded methods. To be realistic about methods in the politics of a democracy at home does not mean that you throw away all scruples, or accept the superior force of "reason of state", or embrace the plice-state-crushing of constitutional liberties." (Max Lerner; Introduction to The Prince, 1940)

"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).

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