I don’t fully agree with whatever Machiavelli (appears to) suggest in his treatises, but I’ve always found them (or others’ interpretations of his writings) provocative/insightful:
It’s as if Machiavelli’s treatise is saying, almost against its own doctrine, that this vision of the world, this sort of radical political realism, where any means are justified if they serve the securement and consolidation of power, is doomed never really to flourish. It’s like Cornwall. Some fatality of fortune will always win out over the shrewd, efficacious strategies of this sort of virtù.
What I’m putting forward as my own interpretation of The Prince is that the treatise was doomed from the beginning to the same sorry failure as Borgia’s political career. By that I mean that it’s not by chance that the unredeemed realism of The Prince has not had any direct, concrete effect on political history. If its ambition was to be a handbook by which rulers could advance their own agendas, if its ambition was to instruct a prince who could one day unify Italy and throw out the foreigners, if its ambition was to found a school of political theory or promote some kind of trans-formation in the history of nation states, or even if its ambition was much more modest, namely to ingratiate its author with the Medici rulers of Florence, then we have no choice but to conclude that as a political treatise The Prince was an abortion. It failed to achieve its ends.
The abortive fate of The Prince makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world.
You cannot get reality to bend to your will, you can only seduce it into transfiguration. And the fact remains that reality cannot be seduced by realism, only by trans-realism, if I may use a word that denotes more than fantasy, utopianism, intuitionism, or religious supernaturalism. Trans-realism refers to something that neither resists nor escapes reality but calls on reality to transcend itself, and to turn its prose into poetry.
What I’m trying to suggest is that realism itself is doomed to a kind of fecklessness in the world of reality, while the real power—the real virtuous power—seems to be aligned with the faculty which Machiavelli held most in contempt, namely the imagination. It’s the human imagination that in the long run proves itself the truly efficacious and revolutionary force.