In Chapter XXIII of The Prince titled “How to Avoid Flatterers”, Machiavelli discusses how flatterers must be shunned by the prince to avoid being misled. He accepts the fact that it is natural for powerful men to become self-absorbed. Flatterers prove to be a hurdle in the way of their wisdom and rational thought because their flattery could cause him to avoid wise counsel in favor of rash action. He says that the best way to defend oneself against such people is to convince them that he is not offended by the truth and encourage them to put forward their honest opinions without fear of causing personal offense to the prince. However, truth, as we know, is never ultimate. It is always objective and changes with perspective. So, if everyone is enabled to criticize or oppose the decision of the prince or present differing opinions to that of the prince without any fear, then the prince will eventually lose respect.
Machiavelli’s proposed solution to this was that the prince should allow only wise advisers to speak with him, and only when he specifically requests their advice. This way, the prince will be able to demonstrate his willingness to listen to men who do not flatter him, and at the same time be in no danger of losing the respect of the rest of his people. A prince should not listen to anyone else and should be firm in his decisions. Vacillation in terms of sticking to decisions will again lead to a loss of respect. Machiavelli gives a negative example in Emperor Maximilian I, who was secretive, never consulted others, but once he ordered his plans and met dissent, he immediately changed them.
However, according to Machiavelli, avoiding all advice, flattery or otherwise, was equally bad. A prince must seek advice on a frequent basis. But he must seek it only when he wants it, not when others thrust it upon him. A prince must also be skeptical about the advice he receives, constantly questioning and probing into the logic behind each decision. If he ever discovers that someone is concealing the truth from him, he must punish that person severely. In the end, no matter how intelligent a prince’s advisers might be, a prince is doomed if he lacks intelligence of his own. He should have enough foresight and wisdom to discern good advice from bad. Wise princes should be honored for good actions proceeding from good advice.
Having discussed the specified chapter, it is very interesting to note how Machiavelli contradicts himself regarding flattery in his dedication of The Prince. Machiavelli’s dedication of The Prince, with the heading “Niccolò Machiavelli to the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici”, is a letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici, who became duke of Urbino in1516. Machiavelli offers his book with customary humility, commenting that it is stylistically simple and unworthy of his audience. Machiavelli describes his book as a summary of his “understanding of the deeds of great men,” intended to help Lorenzo de’ Medici achieve eminence as a prince. He reminds the young prince that greatness awaits him because he is endowed with both fortune and admirable qualities. He declares that courtiers who wish to earn a prince’s favor do so by presenting the prince with valuables like gold, jewels, horses, etc. Machiavelli tells Lorenzo that, after racking his brain for an appropriately valuable gift, he decided that what he felt was most precious was his knowledge of great men, knowledge gained from history books, as well as from current events. Machiavelli claims to worry a bit about whether Lorenzo will be pleased with such a gift, but then reminds himself that any prince would be glad to receive, in short handbook form, knowledge which the author has taken years to acquire. Machiavelli promises that his will be a “small volume,” written in the language of common men which was the Italian vernacular (popularized by Dante’s Divine Comedy), as opposed to the pretentious academic style of writing in Latin. He then excuses himself for having presumed to write about princes at all, since he is simply an ordinary man. However, Machiavelli actually suggests that being a commoner is actually an advantage to one who wishes to write about princes, since the distance of rank gives the commoner a perspective that princes themselves lack. Machiavelli, then, is an outsider looking in. He is offering deliberately common-sense explanations for how particular men are able to become and remain great.
Though The Prince was clearly intended as a gift to earn Lorenzo’s favor, this preface concludes with a specific, pointed request. Machiavelli gently suggests that if his noble recipient likes the gift of this book then he might show his appreciation by helping the author return to court from his current position of exile and disgrace. Rather than considering this simply a work of political theory written for its own sake, it should be realized that Machiavelli had some very practical reasons for writing this book and dedicating it to Lorenzo in a very flattering way. It is known from his personal correspondence that it was written during 1513, the year after the Medici took control of Florence, and a few months after Machiavelli's arrest, torture, and banishment by the in-coming Medici regime. It is also interesting to note that the book was originally intended to be dedicated to Lorenzo’s uncle Giuliano di Lorenzo de' Medici, young Lorenzo's uncle, who however died in 1516 before the book was finished.
Machiavelli clearly contradicts himself in two major ways.
First, as mentioned in Chapter XXIII, a prince should only listen to a selected group of advisers. Machiavelli was definitely not among the chosen group of Lorenzo’s advisers that he should consider following or benefitting from any of the instructions and advices given by Machiavelli in The Prince. Furthermore, according to Machiavelli, a prince should also seek advice only when he requires it, and there have been no documented proof about Lorenzo seeking Machiavelli’s advice regarding running a principality.
Second, and most importantly, in Chapter III, Machiavelli talks about decimating any opposing resident threat after acquiring a new principality. Now, between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia, including the city’s defense. He preferred a politically invested citizen-militia, a philosophy that bore fruit and which also made him a potential threat to any invader, even after defeat, as he had the local populace in his favour. His command of Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509. But in 1512, the Medicis, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines. The Florentine city-state and the Republic were dissolved. Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512 by the Medicis, arrested and imprisoned. According to Machiavelli’s philosophy, the Medicis should ideally decimate Machiavelli and his family to ensure that he never leads a rebellion later on by gaining back the support of the local populace. Hence a clear contradiction can be noted here.
This argument is strengthened by the fact that many authors, including Rousseau, have argued that the book was first and foremost, a satire ridiculing the very notion of tyrannical rule. Johnston, for example, says that the “satire” had a firm moral purpose of exposing tyranny and promoting a republican government. In his The Social Contract, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau says that the choice of the detestable Caesar Borgia as one of the exemplary figures clearly shows Machiavelli’s hidden intentions. He also points out the contradictions between the teaching of The Prince and that of The Discourses on Livy and The History of Florence and states that the text hence had so far been only interpreted superficially. The Prince can be read as deliberately emphasizing the benefits of free republics as opposed to monarchies by the depersonalized way it is written. Differences of opinion amongst critics revolve around whether this sub-text was intended to be understood, let alone understood as deliberately satirical or comic but inspite of that, it is clear that Machiavelli contradicts his idea of shunning flattery by writing a very flattering dedication to a prince about whom he had practically very meager knowledge of as an administrator. It goes on to show how Machiavelli puts his manipulative and objective rhetoric power to practice. Machiavelli himself states that “The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised not blamed; but when they cannot do so, yet wish to do so by any means, then there is folly and blame.” The fact that The Prince in reality did not succeed in receiving Lorenzo’s patronage makes this contradiction regarding his views on flattery in the treatise a folly and hence subject to blame.