Some hold Machiavelli to be the founder of modern political philosophy. It is understandable that they should make this claim. In The Prince, Machiavelli attempts to reshape the world through transforming our understanding of what it means to be human. In apparent opposition both to Greek antiquity and Christianity, he champions what he deems to be the “effectual” or “useful truth” regarding human affairs. His work has come to be described by commentators as constituting “realism,” “realpolitik,” and, for some, amorality, if not immorality. For this last group, the very term Machiavellianism signifies both the teaching and the practice of evil.
To the extent that it is true that Machiavelli is the, or at least, a founder of modern thought, he is in some measure responsible for how we today view our humanity and, therewith, what we judge to be the theoretical and practical constituents of the good life and the good political order. Therefore, our effort to understand him promises also to enhance our understanding of ourselves. To this end, the course will consist of close reading and discussion of The Prince. Close, careful examination of the text is indispensable to capturing the fullness of Machiavelli’s project, for, as we shall see, he was an exceptionally careful writer, whose deepest intentions always will elude a merely casual reading. The close-reading method practiced in this course hopes to make possible a genuine conversation between the students and Machiavelli. Such a conversation with a great mind can help to liberate us from unthinking bondage to the tenets of our own epoch. In so doing, it looks to fulfill the highest purpose of liberal education, as pointed to by Socrates’ declaration that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
Our close-reading approach will allow us to read only the one text during the term. There is a plethora of translations of The Prince. Two excellent renditions are by Leo Paul S. De Alvarez (available here) and Harvey C. Mansfield (available here).Either of these translations is acceptable for the course.