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Penguins on Parade: The Prince!

By (April 22, 2013) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics have been a part of the mental landscape for so long that finding a Penguin edition of them seems like a foregone conclusion, and surely high up on the list of such books would be Il Principe, the slim, explosive manual Niccolo Machiavelli wrote around 1513 as a dutiful, hopeful submission to Lorenzo de Medici, whose family junta had recently regained power in Florence, driven Machiavelli from his government job, tortured him, and rusticated him to his family farm about seven miles from the city.

It was most likely while recuperating at that farm and enduring the more or less pleasant boredom of that small village life that Machiavelli composed The Prince, his quick, businesslike dissertation on the mechanics of princely rule. It’s not given to many books that you can truthfully say about their appearance “and the world was never the same again,” but The Prince is one of those books: it has been parsed, mangled, and misinterpreted more often and more vigorously than virtually any other document this side of the New Testament.

old penguin princeNaturally, it’s also been reprinted countless times (indeed, long before it was printed at all it was circulating in copied manuscripts everywhere by 1516 – even minor pensioners at the court of Henry VIII could readily get their hands on an untranslated copy) – and Penguin chose to join that long tradition with what they euphemistically refer to as the “clear, unambiguous” 1961 translation by George Bull (in an earlier paperback, the cover was a painting of Machiavelli himself, looking merry and ratlike; in a later paperback, the beak-nosed bookworm has been supplanted by the epicene toff in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man).

What this really means is that Bull’s translation is dull but serviceable, and it’s a bit surprising that no newer version has bumped it from its status as a standby version. The more recent paperbacks feature an Introduction by a slightly off-his-game Anthony Grafton, who makes the excellent point that a big part of what Machivelli was doing in The Prince was in fact nothing new, except that he was one of the first people to think of writing it down as is:

Long before The Prince could reach the book-stands of Renaissance princes who might scan its pages eagerly for the secrets of effective political action, the patricians of Florence had discussed politics in a fully realistic way, appreciating that the diverse interests of states and individuals, rather than the ideas they cited, drove their actions.

This was realpolitik centuries before Bismarck, and it was hard-learned by Machiavelli in a busy career of diplomatic missions. He was hoping it would be of interest to Florence’s new master – he says so right at the outset, declaring that he has no swords or horses to offer a new prince but only the practical knowledge he’s assembled over the years. Machiavelli had been an active champion of Florence’s old Republic, and as such he had suffered the strappado and dismissal. But he craved employment, and he was clearly hoping the Magnificent Lorenzo would prize that hard-won wisdom so highly he’d be willing to overlook its source. This gambit on Machiavelli’s part was desperate and sordid, but it was hardly the mystery bronzino princeGrafton makes it out to be:

Anyone who wishes to deal with the full development of Machiavelli’s thought must, above all, explain what this loyal servant of the Republic meant by his praise of tyranny.

(Besides, Machiavelli doesn’t praise tyranny – he simply doesn’t outright condemn it; it’s the landscape around him, and he was enough of a realist to see that … as the quote goes in The Lion in Winter, “There’s no use wondering if the air’s any good when there’s nothing else to breathe”)

The book is just the same a revelation, almost an entreaty to be misunderstood and mis-applied. Our author makes it his point not to recite the bland pieties of earlier statecraft manuals but rather to talk about things as they really are, even if he must therefore time and again rank evil over good:

Everyone knows how praiseworthy it is or a prince to honour his word and be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; none the less contemporary evidence shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.

Readers coming new to the Penguin Classic The Prince will see even by a quick glance at the above excerpt that the Bull translation is fairly heavy sledding. Unfortunately, it’s that way throughout – lumbering where Machiavelli is light, ponderous where he’s pithy. This is a shame, since Il Principe is, among many other things, a delight to read (Lorenzo the Magnificent may very well have been the only person since the book’s appearance who didn’t make it all the way through). Those who buy this old Penguin (a newer, more energetic translation has since replaced Bull’s), perhaps to complete a collection, won’t see much of that delight – but if they’re attentive, they’ll certainly see what all the fuss was about.