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Strauss on The Prince

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2013


Here is a study of what Leo Strauss in his marvelous book, Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), tells us about Machiavelli's The Prince, and how he tells it. The “how” is quite remarkable: his book is unlike any other book that has ever been written on Machiavelli. For the first time Machiavelli's esotericism is not only alluded to or introduced but explained at length. In explaining, Strauss shows how he arrived at his discoveries in Machiavelli's texts, teaching his readers the proper mixture of innocence and savvy. With his book Strauss gives a wholly new picture of an author who set store by being “wholly new.” All scholarly studies on Machiavelli can now be divided into those written before Strauss and those written after him, and the latter between those that take account of him in some fashion and those that willfully, or blithely, ignore him.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2013 

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1 Of studies that take account of him, one may distinguish those who take his path and those who disagree but reply, and of the latter the most notable is Lefort, Claude, Le travail de l'oeuvre Machiavel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972)Google Scholar, Les formes de l'histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1978)Google Scholar, Ecrire à l'épreuve du politique (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1992)Google Scholar. See also Germino, Dante, “Second Thoughts on Leo Strauss' Machiavelli,Journal of Politics 28 (1966): 794817CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Parel, Anthony J., The Machiavellian Cosmos (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Pitkin, Hanna F., Fortune Is a Woman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Benner, Erica, Machiavelli's Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)Google Scholar; McCormick, John P., Machiavellian Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. One grateful scholar, difficult to classify, praises Strauss for offering “the model,” but unfortunately of what one must not do to “penetrate Machiavelli”: Guillemain, Bernard, Machiavel: L'anthropologie politique (Geneva: Droz, 1977), 4Google Scholar.

2 As Lefort remarks, Ecrire à l'épreuve du politique, 159, 262.

3 Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 339n145Google Scholar (hereafter TOM). Citations to this work are to page followed by paragraph number in the chapter.

4 “To many things reason does not bring you, necessity brings you” (Discourses on Livy 1.6.4); “It is necessary to a prince … to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity” (The Prince 15.61). Translations of Machiavelli used are The Prince, ed. Mansfield, Harvey C., 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Discourses on Livy, trans. Mansfield, Harvey C. and Tarcov, Nathan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Florentine Histories, trans. Banfield, Laura F. and Mansfield, Harvey C. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

5 The nine shocking examples of doing evil that Strauss lists in the opening paragraph of TOM are certainly not deeds one would want to avow.

6 The scholarly interpreters of Machiavelli, according to Strauss, fall into two camps: those who believe he was a patriot, so that his good end justifies evil means, and those who believe he was a scientist, so that he was not obliged to judge whether his advice was evil or not. Both camps agree that good comes out of evil, but both cover up the fact to themselves. They do not see Machiavelli clearly because, Strauss remarks, they “have been corrupted by Machiavelli” (TOM 7.12).

7 Strauss notes that with this “I” “the individual Machiavelli steps forth” (TOM 24.11).

8 Nor does Machiavelli forget to say “we.” See Strauss's comments on the many referents of his “we” at TOM 48.33, 69.13.

9 Quoting this phrase in his book Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 177Google Scholar, Strauss says, “This is almost the definition of a philosopher.” In this quotation, as opposed to that in Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss inserts periods indicating an omission (“I … hold”).

10 Occurrences in the text are: 26.13, 43.31, 45.32, 50.35, 90.7, 127.30, 133.32. In the notes: 303n33, 309n49 (2×), 312n21 (3×), 311n14, 316n40, 320n.80, 325n165. There are no occurrences in chapter 4.

11 See e.g. TOM 301n9; cf. 337n118.

12 Strauss, Leo, What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959), 40Google Scholar.

13 TOM 59.6, in reference to P 15. On Machiavelli and the philosophic tradition, see also 23–24.11, Machiavelli continues and challenges the tradition of political philosophy; 56.3, The Prince traditional and antitraditional; 68.12, “the most exalted traditions, both philosophic and religious”; 81.23, liberation from a bad tradition; 120–21.26, Machiavelli's break with the Great Tradition although by no means its unworthy heir; 127.29, the birth of modern philosophy, greatest of all youth movements; 127.30, the classical tradition; 142.38, Machiavelli's “complete break with the Biblical tradition”; 167.55, “the fundamental error of The Great Tradition”; 173.59, “Machiavelli breaks with the Great Tradition and initiates the Enlightenment”; 232–33.45, Machiavelli challenges the religious teaching and the “whole philosophic tradition” or “classical political philosophy” or “traditional political philosophy,” his “revolt against classical political philosophy”; 241.50, the tradition Machiavelli attacks; 242.51, Machiavelli “challenges the whole religious and philosophical tradition”; 290.82, Machiavelli opposed to classical political philosophy or the “Socratic tradition”; 293.83, Machiavelli breaking with the Socratic tradition; 295.85, a “stupendous contraction” appears to Machiavelli as a “wondrous enlargement.”

14 See de Grazia, Sebastian, Machiavelli in Hell (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), chap. 3Google Scholar; Viroli, Maurizio, Machiavelli's God, trans. Shugaar, Antony (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), chap. 1Google Scholar.

15 In Machiavelli's magnificent letter of 10 December 1513, he contrasts the “vermin” nonphilosophers with whom he spends his day to the philosophers' books (“the ancient courts of ancient men”) with which he spends the evening: “I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for.” Here is a natural distinction given lively emphasis. But note that Machiavelli spends a good part of the day with the vermin.

16 D 3.35.1. Strauss quotes and discusses the statement three times: TOM 19.6, 28.15, 105.16.

17 So too is Machiavelli, and the view of Machiavelli backward from our time, which Strauss criticizes (“One cannot see the true character of Machiavelli's thought unless one frees himself from Machiavelli's influence”), is justified by Machiavelli's thought (TOM 12.8).

18 Yet in that letter Machiavelli, as against Socrates, speaks of “the food that alone is mine.” He is not the only philosopher but he is alone among philosophers. Cf. Plato, Apology 30c–31a. On the relation between Machiavelli and the ancients, see D 2.33 and on that, TOM 106–7.17 and Mansfield, Harvey C., Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 293–96Google Scholar.

19 In the 33rd paragraph of chap. 3 in TOM, 134–35, Strauss lists 11 distortions by Machiavelli of Rome's ruling class that made them more Machiavellian than Livy reported them to be. The central distortion in the list cites the Roman senate's mistreatment of “women” by leaving them as prey to the Gauls (i.e., the “French”). By contrast, Strauss “tells it like it is,” and does not distort a person like Machiavelli in order to erase the distinction between the ancients and the moderns. In chap. 4, however, he improves Machiavelli's arguments so as to provide a challenge to his readers.

20 Cf. Machiavelli's reference to King Ferdinand first as one “whom it is not well to name” (P 17) and then readily named as “the present king of Spain” (P 21), and Strauss's treatment at TOM 186–87.12. Also note Strauss's odd reference on the next page to a “liberal theologian” who conceives God to be “a very wise and very powerful king” (TOM 50.35).

21 Machiavelli refers to Xenophon in his chapter on the art of war, P 14.

22 Machiavelli describes the Christian Crusade as a “generous enterprise” in which all the glory and honor gained at first were lost at the end, owing to the virtue of Saladin and the discords of the Christians (Florentine Histories 1.17).

23 See also TOM 102.14, 171.58–173.59, 181.8.

24 The three inseparable parts are called “the fundamental triad” by Strauss (TOM 314n36). The central part, artillery, is the 77th chapter in the Discourses, illustrating again the meaning attached to the numbers 11 and 7. For an interpretation, see Mansfield, Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders, 232–47.

25 The longest paragraph in chap. 2 of TOM, which is on The Prince and has as many paragraphs as The Prince has chapters, is the nineteenth (TOM 74–77.19) and concerns Machiavelli's conspiracy. If Machiavelli and Strauss are to be considered in parallel, should one conclude that Strauss is carrying on a conspiracy? But Strauss has no enterprise aiming at conquering the world (D 1.20); rather, he has in his book “no other purpose than to contribute towards the recovery of the permanent problems” (TOM 14.12). Strauss flicks away the danger of his enterprise—nothing but “harmless ridicule”—but he knows that his exposure and praise of Machiavelli's fraud will be almost as little welcome as Machiavelli's recommendation of fraud to princes.

26 TOM 307n23; the statement is an addition to a footnote supplying references on another topic. See P 2, beg., for the “weaving” that Strauss gives clues for and calls attention to (TOM 69.13).

27 In P 20 Machiavelli, discussing the use of fortresses by princes, brings his argument to the issue of relying on the people versus fearing them and thus relying on fortresses for security against them. “Fortress”—a “mode … used since antiquity”—is his exoteric expression for esoteric writing on the part of a philosopher.

28 Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 44.

29 Cesare Borgia was the son of Alexander VI, related among Machiavelli's significant names to Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, and both of them princes of the highest type. On the numerology of the latter two, see Mansfield, Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders, 32n12. In reading of individuals with proper names in Machiavelli, one must bear in mind his notion of the “effectual truth,” which reduces ideas to their outcomes. Cesare also has the name of Caesar that Machiavelli warns against as never in its heirs and agents conforming to the “name of freedom” (D 1.52.3; thanks to Nathan Tarcov). One should also not overlook M. Furius Camillus, “the most prudent of all the Roman captains” (D 12.3), as another representation in the Christian republic; see Strauss, Leo, “Niccolò Machiavelli,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Strauss, Leo and Cropsey, Joseph, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 315CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 P 26, chap. heading. Are the kings of France and Spain such barbarians, or is the problem rather that the relation between virtue and chance needs to be rethought from its classic formulation by the Greeks?

31 God is a teacher (precettore) to Moses in P 6, and Machiavelli gives precepts (precetti) to a new prince in P 7.

32 Cf. Strauss, Natural Right and History, 161–62, where he traces this difference between Aristotle and Machiavelli to the presence or absence of natural right, as he does not in TOM.

33 Note especially its absence in P 22. See TOM 79–80.22 and 309n53.

34 Thanks to Gladden Pappin on this point.

35 See Mansfield, Machiavelli's Virtue, 16–22.

36 Machiavelli claims that God does not want to take away free will and “that part of the glory that falls to us” (P 26.103).

37 On Machiavelli's imitation of Socrates, who brought philosophy down from the heavens into the cities of men, see TOM 13.8 (the quotation from Christopher Marlowe) and 19.6 (political or human things are the key to the understanding of all things).

38 The “King of France” in Machiavelli's writings is an important example of a kind of spiritual prince. Note Machiavelli's occasional use of “France” (as well as “the King of France”) to refer to the person of the king; in P 4.18 one sees on the same page “the state of France,” referring to the state of the king, and “France” as a “kingdom.”

39 Note that the bad tradition, the Great Tradition, comes not from the barbarians but from the Greeks. To carry on the Great Tradition, Machiavelli must liberate the Italian elite from its influence.

40 Lorenzo as described or advised by Machiavelli appears in Florentine Histories 8.36 as the “almost impossible conjunction” of two different persons, an ideal of Machiavellian flexibility (see TOM 241.50).

41 See the list of 11 mistakes of Machiavelli's at TOM 295.85. The second is that he does not see that moral virtue is “a requirement of philosophy.”

42 Note the weight accorded by Strauss to “the immediate pleasure which we experience when we observe signs of human nobility” (What Is Political Philosophy?, 122).