top of page

On "The Prince: Machiavelli's Enigma"

Utku Özmakas

Translation: Tibet Yılmazer

We can call your book a philosophical investigation of Machiavellian politics that traces certain key concepts and looks at the historical details. In addition to touching upon many other works and texts of Machiavelli, this book is essentially a guide to reading The Prince. What motivated you to write a book on Machiavelli?

I think it was a sort of ‘disappointment’. It’s usually said that philosophy starts with curiosity but I prefer to follow the path of Simon Critchley, who searched for the origin of philosophy in disappointment rather than curiosity, since when, after following every crumb left beforehand and reading mainstream analyses, your attempt at understanding hits the wall, there remains no other way but opening a new path like Benjamin’s barbarian. To be fair, my adventure with Machiavelli and especially The Prince started like this.

The moment I came across this book, which doesn’t look very complicated at first sight, a feeling of ‘not being able to conquer’ and ‘internalize’, it occupied my mind and stayed there for some more time. Some may know, that such a feeling makes one want to wash his hands and stop and think. A strange hardship was preventing me from penetrating the core of The Prince and understanding the universe it created. It was as if I could discover that secret place hidden between lines, the key to this enigma would be mine. In the end, I read other texts written on The Prince and my disappointment was reduced a bit. Hence, thinking that there could be more readers who went through the earthquake that the book created in my mind but didn’t give up on striving to uncover the enigma, I grabbed my pen so that we could at least uncover a part of it together. My aim was to bring into open nearly every sentence of The Prince, uncovering their relation to other texts while not solely depending on the texts themselves and instead taking into account their historical links and thus lifting that damned curtain on the philosopher.

How should one read The Prince? Which presumption and habits must one avoid?

First of all, one must avoid that big dogma: ‘Machiavelli was a Machiavellian’. After all, if an adjective is made out of your name of course it is possible to look around and find some sentences that would justify it. Both in The Prince and The Mandrake… Yet, even though they are inevitable, they are not enough of the history of philosophy. Mostly for pedagogical reasons, they simplify complex and ever-evolving ideas, presenting them as if they represent the entirety. Furthermore, every generalization is haunted by an unavoidable negation. Because of that, one can find as many clues contradicting the dogma of ‘Machiavelli was a Machiavellian’ as sentences affirming it in the texts of the philosophers. Even sentences presented as affirming the said proposition could contradict it. In short, instead of persisting on a view of the preconditions one’s mind before a real encounter, adopting an approach that focuses on what’s going on in the common areas for different views and asymmetrical places while recognizing there is no such thing as an ‘order’, might provide more delicate assistance.

In order to do that, I started the book by pointing to the parts that I found accurate and deficient in Raymond A. Belliotti’s nine comments on The Prince. Afterwards, taking into account clues left by various intellectual historians, I started to read The Prince line by line, at times agreeing and disagreeing with the interpreters but essentially thinking together with them, and tried to build a ‘new’ interpretation of Machiavelli.

Can you briefly explain what you mean by ‘The dance of Machiavelli’? Can you talk about qualities you describe as getting moving and seeing, an openness that allows for creativity and the ability to think spatially?

Sometimes, the flexibility of Machiavelli’s thought can be caught in metaphors rather than concepts. Indeed, as I said in the last chapter, I wrote based upon John Cage’s piece ‘4′33’ which I think plays in the background of ‘The Dance of Machiavelli’, one must not forget the possibility of profundity in the philosopher occasionally trusting more in metaphors than concepts. Perhaps, Machiavelli thought that metaphors were more fitting to the semantic ambiguity of the world. As such in the course of understanding him, I thought that paying attention to metaphors as much as concepts and even approaching him with a metaphor would be more enlightening. Since such a metaphor allows you to gather different philosophical moves you mentioned in your question under a single roof, hence allows for clarity of mentioning and thinking to be reached.

While separating ways with classical political philosophy, Machiavelli performs a set of complicated philosophical moves. On the one hand, he leaves the circle of ethics but on the other hand, he tries to render the habits that can be brought from the past in the autonomous circle of politics, useless. For example, he rules out politics as an effort to reach ‘happiness’ but doesn’t stay there. He tries to redeem what he can from concepts that can be habitually easily denounced such as ‘cruelty’. Phrases such as ‘well or wrongfully spent cruelty’ or ‘devout or inhuman cruelty’. This philosophical dance meets with spatial thought about how the next move should be made and creates a sea of possibilities. Yet Machiavelli never says which move is to be made without understanding the historical singularity. Here, the case is a calculation that opens to creativity.

Likewise, one of the most interesting figures of this dance is seen in the moment when the philosopher departs ways with the traditional ethical approach and recognises that in politics what was good yesterday can be bad today. The question is simple: If he has no constant staples how can the prince map out his road? Yet the answer is intricate: To form a perspective that simultaneously wants to conquer the future but retreats from ideals and seeks the concrete reality, many vectors have to be taken into account. And this requires both to know the examples well and to be a virtuoso in the dance of fortuna and virtu.

In this dance, there is no place for the classical ‘wait and see’ approach. Machiavelli thinks that in the field of politics, the advantageous position that allows for the maximum number of moves is to be the one who deals with the cards rather than the one who waits for the cards to be dealt. Thus, in situations where the prince needs to act swiftly, as in 'even if you are not generous, appear as such,' the prince's ability to discern his partner's intentions and make his next move is enhanced.

Was there anything you learned and grasped that surprised you and perhaps changed the course or your own approach?

I think that when I began to trace certain concepts, individuals and events in other texts of the philosopher, mainly The Discoursesand Letters, and started to compare and wrestle with these, there was a moment when disappointment turned into wonder, and finally wonder into relief. It was as if I had overcome steep rocks in the texts, got away from the ironies and finally passed through narrow passages to reach an ‘open terrain’. In other ways, when I started to understand that there was another text in The Prince, another book that only became readable when looked at the right angle, after some time the disappointment and wonder gave way to joy. In an example worthy of being a summary: When you start to wonder why Nabis who is referred to as the prince in The Princeis named the tyrant in The Discourses, a new interoperation that tears apart the cliches appears in front of you. In the end, I walked together with many very important interpreters from Leo Strauss to Isiah Berlin and knocked on their doors one by one. I learned how instructive it is to be surprised and disappointed from time to time upon seeing what’s behind the doors, and how joyful it is to learn.

What’s the main difference between this book and available essential books in the international market?

Machiavelli is a thinker who has been written about for more than five centuries. It’s not easy to say something new about him. As Harvey Mansfield said about Leo Strauss’s famous text, when talking about Machiavelli, one thinks that they disembarked on a new continent, and discovered a new piece of land, but it doesn’t take a while for one to facepalm in despair and realize someone else set foot there before you. Despite this, the magnetic effect of the book keeps the urge to talk and think about it alive.

For example, the books of Benner and Alvarez are both attempts at analysing The Prince line by line, following the same path as me before, but they rarely argue with other interpreters and Alvarez in particular tries to deal with the book in a closed cycle. Whereases, the aim of my book is to place The Prince somewhere in the general history of philosophy and Machiavelli’s individual history by looking at letters and verifying them, while arguing with the most essential and important texts written about it. Let me try to give an example of that: I conveyed to the reader Dante Germino’s solid objections to Leo Strauss’s comments, which were influential to me in clarifying the path to Machiavelli, and went on to think with the two interpreters and try to find a new way out. Elsewhere, I was looking after why Mansfield left out two paragraphs about ‘Machiavelli’s courage’ from his 1975 article in the Political Theoryjournal when republished the same article in his 1996 book and what this reduction could be saying to us.

Of course, here I didn’t remain limited to compiling the tension and conflict between the interpreters. For example, I tried to present a view that is completely outside of secondary literature's approach to the concept of virtù. Many interpreters try to encircle this concept by questioning whether this concept is used consistently, how many parts the concept be divided into and the frequency of the word. However, by reading between the lines of the book I became convinced that what we need to do is not such an encirclement but giving the concept a ‘breathing space’. This is why I referred virtù as a ‘cloud concept’ in the book.

While doing all this my desire was to contribute at least a bit to the sea of Machiavelli and provide the reader who felt lost in this sea a guide. I hope I’ve at least managed a smidgen of that.


bottom of page