SparkNotes Blog

Satirical, Heretical Machiavelli

I love The Prince, which I consider a sturdy and useful set of instructions for anyone in charge of managing other people (and not a ruthless and weaselly set of instructions on how to be evil). This Sparkler seems to like the book, too:

I’m a first-year university student starting a paper on Machiavelli. My question was simply “is Machiavelli’s work ‘The Prince’ heretical?” I was just wondering if you could help me out with the definition of “heretical?” Does the word necessitate religion? Because although he says in Chapter 18 that religion—and Christianity in particular—may not be necessary for a prince, I don’t think he ever fully negates Christ’s existence or denies religion, does he?

I want to argue that ‘The Prince’ is meant to be read as a satire; that is, Machiavelli wants Lorenzo Medici to read it literally, follow all of his deceitful “advice” to a tee and thus bring about his own demise. I’m not sure if that could constitute the word “heretical” though, unless it could mean to go against ideas that are held in common?

“Heretical” is usually used in reference to religion—though note that a heretical person isn’t necessarily one who dismisses an entire religion or denies the very existence of God. Disbelieving one aspect of a religion is enough to get you labeled a heretic. If you’re Catholic, for example, you would be committing heresy if you said the Virgin Mary didn’t ascend wasn’t assumed [thanks, Inland_Murmur!] into heaven. The belief that Mary ascended was assumed into heaven is just one small part of the many beliefs that comprise the Catholic faith, but to disbelieve even a small tenet [thanks, Il_D!] is to be, at least technically, heretical.

The word “heretical” is sometimes in non-religious contexts—for example, an article might mention “the music critic’s heretical dismissal of the Beatles as second-rate hacks.” And I think if you’re going to make your thesis work, you’ll need to make it clear that you’re relying on that second, less common usage of the word. You could explain the assumption that manuals are meant to help, not to do harm, and then say Machiavelli’s project is heretical in its contradiction of this assumption. It’s a bit tortured, but you might be able to make it work.

One final note: I like your thesis a lot, but the word “satire” gives me pause. Are you going to argue that Machiavelli wants for Medici to read the text as earnest advice, and for us non-princes to read it as a satire? That’s a pretty complex argument, and it’s a pretty complicated goal on Machiavelli’s part—a goal he’d only set if he assumed the prince was a total dimwit.

Sparklers, have you read The Prince? Are you fans?