As part of my study of political philosophy while at William & Mary, we read a few of the works of Niccolo Machiavelli. Although The Prince is his best-known treatise, you should know that Machiavelli was a man of many talents; he was also a poet and a playwright. Sunday evening, I reread his play Mandragola. Much like his philosophical work, Mandragola is infused with deeper meanings and revelations about mankind.
Unfortunately Mandragola is a depressing tale. None of the characters in his play are moral; each is scheming for some personal gain at the expense of his or her neighbors or relatives. For example, the main character, Callimaco lusts after the wife of an older man of Florence. In order to achieve his goal, he devises an elaborate scheme to trick Nicia, the old fellow, into willingly opening his bedchamber to Callimaco’s interloping. Nicia, who desires offspring more than anything else, assumes he is sacrificing the life of an innocent bystander in order to gain a child. Timoteo, a priest of the city, goes along with any devious plan if at the end of it he will make financial gains. Lucrezia, Nicia’s wife, while originally seeming virtuous, secretly breaks her marriage vows for the sake of her new lover. Although each character puts forth a seemingly honorable face with the best of intentions toward those they are trying to deceive, we, as the audience who have heard their inner thoughts, know their true wickedness.
As I believe was the case with The Prince, Machiavelli weaves this tale not to say this is necessarily how people should act, but rather, when left to their own devices, this is how people will act. Another common thread with The Prince is the underlying theme that fortune favors the bold. Consider again the character Callimaco. Rather than sit around moping about the love that can never be his, he instead acts quickly and decisively to acquire the object of his affection. Thus, those who are daring are far more likely to achieve their objectives than those who act timidly. Obviously, as a social conservative, I cannot condone his actions, but they do serve some practical value mostly as a warning. One should never simply assume that humans would always act in the spirit of charity, honesty, and virtue. To blindly assume nobility of your comrades and associates is a recipe for your own disaster.
Although all areas of human interaction can fall prey to this callous dishonesty, they are typically most frequent and recognizable in the areas of politics and religion, which I believe Machiavelli knew all too well. This work plumbs the dark recesses of the human soul. Personally, I have witnessed many cases of one person crushing another beneath his or her feet in order to achieve wealth, status, power, or the attentions of another. The temptation is always present, always gnawing at the corners of your soul. I wonder how many folks, while in midstep, look down and recoil in horror at the act which they have willing committed, the person on whom they have trampled in the quest for personal glory. I suppose each step that one takes makes the following one that much easier.
Mandragola can be viewed in many differing lights. It can be a grim caution against deception, a manual on how to succeed no matter the cost, or a woeful tale of the greed and corruption of society and the church. Read the play and decide for yourself. Although compared to the works of Shakespeare, it is exceedingly brief, but a careful reader can draw much from its pages. No doubt that The Prince is a far more valuable work in terms of political philosophy; nevertheless, for all of the reasons stated above, once you have exhausted that text, I encourage you to take the hour or so needed to explore Machiavelli’s Mandragola.