Timo Laine’s Journal

Taking life philosophically.

The happy prince

22 November 2011

Is Barack Obama happy? Was Julius Caesar happy? It is not a common question to ask about the happiness of a political leader. It is more common to ask whether he is unjust or corrupt or power-hungry or evil (or even weird). Although everyone is expected to participate in the pursuit of happiness both individually and collectively, our leaders remain reduced to instruments of other people’s happiness. It does not matter if the leaders are happy because their only function is to enable other people’s happiness. When the fail to perform that function either by choice or by inability, they are removed from their position.

If happiness is not generally thought to be among the many advantages associated with leadership, Niccolò Machiavelli as a teacher of hardnosed political realism seems not to give much importance to the happiness of his ideal prince either. However, Wayne Rebhorn notes something that nicely aligns with my interpretation of certain difficult passages in Machiavelli: the idea of happiness, a personal a subjective goal behind all the political maneuvers of The Prince.

Machiavelli uses the word felice, happy, in different forms in the notoriously problematic 25th chapter of the book, and Rebhorn’s interpretation1 of this concentration of words seems to me plausible: “Although editors and translators want to turn felice into ‘prosperous’ and felicitare into something like ‘to prosper’ or ‘to succeed,’ the words have these senses only metaphorically.” Instead, Machiavelli simply means authentic happiness. The goal of the prince of The Prince is not to be a slave to the endless pursuit of success or power, but to pursue his own happiness (while hopefully working for the common good as well).

The standard interpretation is that fortune for Machiavelli in general means the capricious nature of the events of the world and the goddess Fortuna as the cause and the personification of these events. However, I believe that in the specific sense that fortune means fate it is not related only to the external world but also to the internal world, or the psychology, of the agent. Therefore Rebhorn’s “psychological” interpretation of felice and felicitare is another reason to believe my thesis is correct.

With the metaphor of fortune as (a) woman in chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli seems to hint that a virtuous man seems capable of dominating the feminine fortune. Although Machiavelli often says that we cannot oppose fortune, many people have thought that with the woman metaphor he ultimately rejects the idea of all-powerful fortune and instead believes that given the right tools and knowledge, we can largely control the events of the external world.

However, I think that when Machiavelli writes that there is no way we can oppose fortune, he really means it. But fortune’s power does not extend to all things, and more specifically it (or she) does not determine whether the prince (or anyone else for that matter) will be happy or not. While fortune as fate controls the events of the external world, it has no power over the way we decide to live through those events. We can take them with Stoic tranquillity, and our happiness depends on how good and how persistent we are at this.

Notes

  1. Wayne A. Rebhorn, “Machiavelli’s Prince in the epic tradition.” In The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, edited by John M. Najemy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 80-95, p. 93.

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The journal of Timo Laine (contact information). Cultural commentary from the perspective of a philosophy student in Helsinki.

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