Student Question

Why might people interpret Machiavelli's ideas in The Prince as supporting dictatorships or modern corporations?

Expert Answers

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In answering this, I would begin by admitting that it's difficult to agree that The Prince makes an argument that can be used in favor of modern corporations.

Machiavelli makes the point in The Prince that he is talking about a specific form of government (the princedom) as opposed to alternative forms such as republics, which he deals with in his Discorsi. So by design, his approach is limited. It's interesting to speculate that if Machiavelli had lived into the industrial age he would have thought to analogize an autocratic ruler of a state with a corporate CEO, but a Renaissance-era prince has more in common with a present-day owner of a private company. The situation of corporate leadership in which there is an accountability to shareholders is of a different nature entirely.

On the other hand, it is also not sustainable that the prescriptions for rulers in The Prince are relevant to "dictatorships" in the modern sense. What occurred in the twentieth century under Stalin and Hitler (namely state-run genocides like the Holocaust) was arguably far worse than anything the Renaissance kings, however ruthless and amoral they were, attempted. It's also debatable to what extent Machiavelli approved of, say, the actions of Ferdinand the Catholic or whether he was merely stating as an observation that these were the kinds of things successful rulers have needed to do to hold power, whether right or wrong.

Machiavelli's ideas in The Prince are specialized even within the context of his own time, and it's a stretch to relate them to modern institutions.

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