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Belief and Opinion in Machiavelli's Prince

  • Nathan Tarcov

Abstract

This article examines the roles of belief and opinion in Machiavelli's Prince. Political success and failure are effected not only by force and arms but by religious belief in particular, and more generally by the beliefs and opinions of peoples. Princes can also be the beneficiaries or the victims of their own beliefs and opinions. Machiavelli occasionally explicitly states a view as his own belief or opinion such as his belief in cruelty well used or his opinions that a prince should found himself on the people and avoid their hatred. His beliefs and opinions both contrast with common beliefs and opinions and are modified in response to them.

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1 Citations to The Prince are by chapter numbers and for the longer chapters page numbers in Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. Mansfield, Harvey C., 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Translations follow Manfield's with modifications of my own using the text of Machiavelli, Niccolò, Il Principe, ed. Inglese, Giorgio (Turin: Einaudi, 1995).

2 Cf. Discourses on Livy 1.15 and 2.2 on pagan rites, and Prince 6 and Discourses 3.30.1 on Mosaic law. Citations to the Discourses are by book, chapter, and paragraph numbers from Machiavelli, Niccolò, Discourses on Livy, trans. Mansfield, Harvey C. and Tarcov, Nathan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

3 See Inglese's note at Il Principe, 80n6.

4 Ezra 1:1–3. Although in the Discourses on Livy Machiavelli secularizes Romulus as one for whom “the authority of God was not necessary” (1.11.2), Livy (1.10, 12, 16) portrays Romulus as a temple builder who reported divine commands to the Romans, ascended to heaven as a god, and descended to prophesy Rome's world empire (though Livy indicates this story may instead have been a cover-up for Romulus's having been torn to pieces by the hostile senate). Plutarch reports that Theseus was reputed to be the son of Poseidon and commanded by Apollo to take Aphrodite as his guide (Theseus 6.1, 18).

5 God is not mentioned again in the chapter, as if it were not necessary since the arguments about the government of worldly things by fortune apply as well to their government by God, that is, divine providence.

6 Inglese's text omits the negative from this last phrase.

7 Eight of the twenty-eight uses in The Prince of words related to belief (credere, credito, [in]credulità, credenza, [in]credulo, discredente) are in chapter 6; no more than three occur in any other chapter.

8 The terms for faith (fede) and trust (confidare and fidarsi) are of the same family so that “trust” could also be rendered “put one's faith in.”

9 Discourses on Livy 2.24.1–2.

10 I focus on Machiavelli's explicit mentions of princes’ beliefs and opinions, though one could argue that every recommendation of a course of action that he makes also implies that princes should hold the belief or opinion that such a course would be prudent.

11 “Men avenge themselves for slight offenses” (3.10).

12 Inglese (Principe, 109n) glosses grave as “lento, cauto,” slow or cautious, glosses credere as referring to accusations, or to the gravity of the dangers, and therefore glosses muoversi as to punish or repress.

13 Confidenza and diffidenza are related to fede, faith or trust.

14 See Mansfield, Harvey C., “The Cuckold in Machiavelli's Mandragola,” in The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works, ed. Sullivan, Vickie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 20.

15 I am following Inglese's emendation (Principe, 122n) manifestandoti (exposing you) rather than manifestandosi (revealing himself), or manifestamente (manifestly).

16 On Machiavelli's use of “I believe” in the Discourses, see Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 96, 117, 126, 178, 321n105 (I am grateful to Christopher Lynch for most of these references).

17 The example Machiavelli is content to give from among “infinite examples” he might choose, that of the conspiracy of the Canneschi against Annibale Bentivoglio, the prince of Bologna, does not exactly support this conclusion. They killed him and all his family except for his infant son, with the result that someone in Florence “considered until then the son of a blacksmith” governed Bologna as one of the Bentivogli. This could support the conclusion that a prince with popular good will should take little account of conspiracies if he does not care about being killed along with most of his family and being succeeded by someone previously considered the son of a blacksmith. Cf. Machiavelli, Florentine Histories 6.9–10, 6.26.

18 Machiavelli does not explicitly say that Severus was hated by the people, merely that he was “feared and revered by everyone, and by the army not hated” and that his reputation “defended him always from that hatred that the people were able [avevano potuto] to conceive because of his robberies” (Kevin Kennedy pointed out to me the ambiguity of the latter).

19 Cf. 7.27, the example of Cesare Borgia's actions as a teaching for a new prince, and 18.69, the teaching that a prince should not keep faith when it would turn against him.

20 Cf. Discourses on Livy 3.31.3.

21 Cf. Machiavelli, Niccolò, Florentine Histories, trans. Banfield, Laura and Mansfield, Harvey C. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 1.15 on “the seed of the Guelf and Ghibelline humors” and the importance of the “spiritual wounds” popes inflicted on princes, and 2.12 on the difference between the Guelf and Ghibelline parties and the humors “that are naturally wont to exist in all cities between the powerful and the people.”

22 This is in sharp contrast to his stance toward “the wise of our times” (3.13) and even the Florentine “ancients and those who were esteemed wise” (20). Cf. Discourses 2.23.3, 2.24.1, and 3.27.2.

23 Prince, 3.12, 9.42, 13.55, 14.60, 17.68, 19.74, 21.90.

24 See Machiavelli's famous letter to Francesco Vettori of December 10, 1513, for his beautiful account of his conversation with the ancients (The Prince, ed. Mansfield, 109–10). Machiavelli's account of Philopoemen elaborates on those in Livy 35.28 and Plutarch's Life of Philopoemen 4–5. Plutarch reports there that Philopoemen also listened to the speeches and read the writings of philosophers that seemed beneficial to virtue.

I am grateful for the comments of Ralph Lerner, Christopher Lynch, and Susan Tarcov.

Belief and Opinion in Machiavelli's Prince

  • Nathan Tarcov

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