Essay: Analyzing Machiavelli's Argument in the Prince

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In chapter twenty of the Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli attempts to answer what appears to be a fairly straightforward question, namely, whether or not building a fortress is a worthwhile endeavor. While the question calls out for a straightforward yes-or-no answer, Machiavelli instead uses the chapter to recall some of his previous arguments while proposing a more radical understanding of fortress construction. Instead of arguing for or against fortresses, Machiavelli instead addresses the circumstances that might lead one to build a fortress, and comes to the conclusion that needing a fortress might itself be a symptom of poor leadership. His argument, then, is really an argument about politics and political image, albeit wrapped up in a discussion about fortresses. By giving his argument this particular structure and emphasis, Machiavelli is able to sidestep certain subjective, tactical questions in order to arrive at a more universally-applicable standard, even if getting to this point requires certain rhetorical and methodological liberties.

That Machiavelli's goal is to speak objectively and universally about fortresses and what they represent is made clear at the beginning of the chapter, when Machiavelli writes "and although one cannot pronounce a definite judgment as to these things without going into the particulars of the state to which such a deliberation is to be applied, still I will speak in such a broad way as the matter will permit of" (83). The interesting part about this line is the fact that Machiavelli does not actually stick to the plan outlined here, because he ends up speaking about the particulars of Italy quite a lot, and seems to value individual cases only as much as they can serve as demonstrations of his broader point. This is not to say that Machiavelli is incorrect in his historical citations, but simply to point out that he begins this chapter with a bit of argumentative misdirection that disguises his argumentative strategy.

While this passage suggests that Machiavelli will respect the limits of his own knowledge and thus refrain from making broad statements for which he cannot present evidence, he does not actually seem to have any problem with making broad statements regarding the evidence he could potentially present. For example, when talking about whether a new prince should arm the people in a recently-acquired dominion, Machiavelli asserts "but, as I have said, a new prince in a new dominion always has his subjects armed. History of full of such examples" (84). Here, instead of mentioning any of these examples, Machiavelli simply continues on with his argument as if this point had been sufficiently demonstrated. Again, it matters little in this case whether there actually are historical examples of Machiavelli's claim, because the success of Machiavelli's argument is depending on rhetoric in this instance, rather than evidence. Machiavelli is essentially presenting a claim (that there are historical examples of his point) as evidence for another claim (that new princes in new dominions always arms his subjects), because the introduction of historical data as a concept is enough to carry the reader along, so long as he or she does not stop to ask too many questions.

Machiavelli repeats this tactic later, when he says "but of this we cannot speak at large, as it varies according to the subject, just before speaking about the issue at large and providing a universal standard (85). However, the move works because it introduces Machiavelli's voice as that of a humble observer even as he makes lengthy and detailed pronouncements. Immediately after saying that he cannot speak about the subject generally due to subjectivity of specific cases, Machiavelli goes on in a kind of faux-humble fashion ("I will merely say that [...]" before laying out a detailed, universal declaration concerning who is more trustworthy among old supporters and recent enemies-turned-subjects (85-86). Later, he repeats the tactic of mentioning historical data without actually providing it when he says "and on well examining the cause of this in the examples drawn from ancient and modern times it will be seen that [...]" (86).

It is worthwhile to point out that there is no connection between the logic of Machiavelli's pronouncements and the connective language he uses to introduce them. While he uses misdirection and the idea of evidence instead of evidence to justify his pronouncements, the internal logic of those pronouncements is frequently reasonable, or at least reasonably sounding. For example, in regards to the question of who is more trustworthy, Machiavelli argues that:

These men who at the beginning of a new government were enemies, if they are of a kind to need support to maintain their position, can be very easily gained by the prince, and they are the more compelled to serve him faithfully as they know they must by their deeds cancel the bad opinion previously held of them, and thus the prince will always derive greater help from them than from those who, serving him with greater security, neglect his interests. (85-86)

The internal logic of this statement is generally acceptable, because Machiavelli is pointing out how the self-interest of the subject might bind them to a prince even if former political disagreements might suggest some conflict of interest.

However, it is not the internal logic, but rather the universalizing language, that reveals Machiavelli's rhetorical move, because he does not simply suggest that this is a generally accurate description of the situation. Instead, he goes so far as to say that "the prince will always derive greater help [emphasis added]," and with that "always" comes a need for more evidence, because a claim that large requires a larger reservoir of evidence. However, Machiavelli has essentially attempted to immunize his argument from this requirement by prefacing it with the claim that he will not speak "at large" about the subject (even though he does just that), and by ending it with another appeal to historical data without actually including that data.

To understand the actual course of Machiavelli's argument, it more useful to look at the meaningful statements he makes about politics and strategy instead of the connective language, because although Machiavelli is slippery when it comes to laying out his argument for the reader (as evidenced by the above passages), he does ultimatley make his point clear. In other words, one need not look at the it is more useful to look at what Machiavelli actually does than what he says he will do, because it is the former where his argument becomes clear. Thus, in returning to the opening paragraph one can find a structural outline of the rest of the chapter, even if that outline's statement regarding the universality of Machiavelli's conclusion is not entirely consistent with the rest of his behavior in the chapter.

The chapter opens with three statements regarding seemingly unconnected phenomena:

Some princes, in order to securely hold their possessions, have disarmed their subjects, some other have kept their subject lands divided into parts, other have fomented enmities against themselves, others have endeavored to win over those whom they suspected at the commencement of their rule: some have constructed fortresses, others have ruined and destroyed them. (83)

The construction of this sentence gives some hints as to Machiavelli's point, because he seems to be using sets of binaries in order to draw a connection between disarming one's subjects, fomenting disruption against oneself, and building fortresses. Furthermore, because the last statement is introduced with a colon, one may read it as a kind of summation of the other two. This is important because as will be seen, for this chapter the idea of a fortress is as much metaphorical as literal.

The order in which Machiavelli introduces these binary pairs will be the order he discusses them in, with the argument ultimately culminating in two distinct but related pronouncements. Firstly, Machiavelli suggest that "a prince who fears his own people more than foreigners ought to build fortresses, but he who has greater fear of foreigners than of his own people ought to do without them," and then later he concludes the chapter by stating that "having considered these things I would therefore praise the one who erects fortresses and the one who does not, and would blame any one who, trusting in them, thinks little of being hated by his people" (86-87). These two pronouncements reveal the actual course of Machiavelli's argument, because they demonstrate the way in which Machiavelli obviates the original question in favor of a new statement regarding domestic politics instead of military strategy.

Machiavelli introduces the three binaries at the beginning of the chapter, and suggests to the reader that determining which of these binary terms is best will be the focus of the chapter. At the same time, he repeatedly says that he cannot speak definitively on the subject even as he does so, but he still never speaks definitively on question first introduced at the beginning: fortress or no fortress? However, in his discussion of the first two binaries, he gradually shifts the question away from… [END OF PREVIEW]

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