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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.1 (2004) 1-19

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Machiavelli's The Prince as Memoir

Charles D. Tarlton

My postulate is that all literature, in the end, is autobiographical. Everything is poetic that confesses, that gives us a glimpse of a destiny.
—Borges 1


A major tendency among recent interpretations of The Prince has been to raise serious doubts about whether the text adequately established (even in Machiavelli's own considered judgment) what, in Thomas M. Greene's question, was "a calculus capable of scientific coherence." The view that The Prince was simply an exercise in practical political wisdom rooted in an historical theory of imitable examples can no longer be treated as indisputable. Greene's answer to his own question can stand for what has come increasingly to be the contemporary view of Machiavelli's exemplary reckoning. "The determination," he writes, "proves to be negative: analysis leading to precept is progressively abandoned . . . scientific pretensions are quietly withdrawn as the semblance of conclusive law fades from the text." There emerges, in Greene's reading of Machiavelli's text, "a disturbing gap between example and precept." 2

From each of several quite different points of view, recent students of Machiavelli's use of examples have all concluded that the connection between the historical materials that Machiavelli narrates and the maxims he announces is not at all the close one he so frequently indicates. "The best Machiavelli can do," John D. Lyons concludes, expressing the general view common to these critics, "is to write a hypothetical history of Italy." 3 The text seems to be presenting "itself as a meditation on history, that seems to be drawing examples from history and analyzing them inductively from specific case to general principle," in Barbara Spackman's words. That, however, is a premature judgment, she goes on to insist, because "Machiavelli is not arguing from example, inducing from particular case to particular case in order to arrive at generalizable truths." Machiavelli's actual procedure remains so far from the ideal rhetorical model of exemplarity that "it is as though, when events fall short of [End Page 1] adherence to the directions given by the maxim, the fault is in reality, in history itself." 4 "The narrative fragments seem to function as examples," Nancy Struever writes, "eventful instantiations of generally accepted rules, but the narrative scaffolding economically embodies an armature of counterintuitive conclusions." 5 In the end, Machiavelli makes "simplistically direct imitation of exemplary actions" impossible: "His strategies of characterization and emplotment leave nothing to imitate; he enjoins naïve imitation of the tortuous, inimitable." 6 And Timothy Hampton, in his compelling study of exemplarity in Renaissance literature, Writing from History, argues that "Machiavelli's insistence on the contingency of all action undercuts the pragmatic value of this type of exemplarity," that is, the type in which one seeks to isolate "what is necessary for a specific situation from the actions of various predecessors." 7 Agreeing with nearly everyone who has lately reexamined Machiavelli's strategy of examples and maxims, Hampton observes that, "in Machiavelli's model of history, difference undoes repetition, the similitude linking exemplar and imitator is rendered at the very least useless and at the most a dangerous illusion." 8

A second critical tendency in contemporary Machiavelli criticism argues that the text of The Prince somehow reveals Machiavelli's "state of mind" in reaction to his sudden change of political and personal status in 1512 and 1513. Musing on its origins, Machiavelli's biographer, Roberto Ridolfi, had no doubt that The Prince had issued from misfortune: "He owed the Prince, the Discourses, and many other of his immortal pages to the Medici, who drove him out of office, interned him, and left him for a long time in poverty and neglect." 9 More recently, Wayne A. Rebhorn has traced the connection between Machiavelli's experience and his ideas in what he sees as a "vicarious participation in politics," where the author of The Prince sought directly to re-enter the active political world "through his intellect and imagination...


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