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Interview with John T. Scott, author of The Routledge Guidebook to Machiavelli's The Prince

"This is an excellent introduction to the political theory of Machiavelli, informed by the best scholarship on The Prince, which introduces the novice to the work while providing fresh insights for those know it well." - Damian Grace, University of Sydney, Australia

The Routledge Guidebook to Machiavelli's The Prince is the latest book in the Routledge Guides to the Great Books series. In this interview, author John T. Scott gives us an insight into his new book.

1. Could you tell us a little about your background?

I received my BA from Dartmouth College (1985) and PhD from the University of Chicago (1992). I am currently Professor and Chair in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Davis, having arrived here in 2000. Prior to coming to Davis, I was a faculty member at the University of Houston with a dual appointment in Political Science and the Honors College. My scholarly work is mostly in the history of political thought, focusing on the early modern period of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The two persistent interests I have pursued over the past 25 years have been the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Machiavelli, although I have also published studies of Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Adam Smith.

2. How did you develop an interest in Machiavelli?

I first read Machiavelli’s “Prince” in high school, then read it in college as well as graduate school several times. I only became acquainted with his larger body of work toward the end of graduate school because one of my best friends was doing her dissertation on his “Discourses on Livy.” We ended up co-authored article on Machiavelli’s “Prince” in 1994, and I have taught Machiavelli at the undergraduate and graduate levels most years since then. It is largely my interest in teaching his works that has led me to publish studies of him, including especially the Routledge Guidebook.

3. Why do you think The Prince has been so influential?

The Prince” has been so influential for the past 500 years for two reasons, I think. First, Machiavelli’s work marks a turning point in the history of political thought and intellectual history more generally as thinkers in the Renaissance began to critically evaluate preceding classical and Christian thought, and so “The Prince” is an important work in that turning point and in many respects looks forward to a number of later intellectual developments in modern thought generally. Second, because the meaning and intention of “The Prince” is so elusive, and because the work has therefore received very different responses and interpretations over the centuries, its very enigmatic character attracts continued attention.

4. The Prince has been described by some as a book of advice, by others as a work of satire. What do you see as Machiavelli’s aim in writing The Prince?

In the “Guidebook” I have tried to remain largely neutral among different major interpretations, giving each their due where I can. I would personally say, however, that I do not think the work can be a satire in any simple way. One simple reason is that some of the very advice he gives in “The Prince” that has been viewed as satirical, or more generally as a book that offers a cautionary tale by revealing the nature of princes rather than giving princes advice, is found in his other political writings, which have not been viewed as satirical.I make this point in the last chapter of the “Guidebook.”

5. How do you see this book being used on courses?

I wrote the book as a guidebook, that is, offering myself as a companion or guide to a student (or anyone else) reading the book. I try to raise questions rather than necessarily to provide answers, so I hope that the student would read my guidebook after initially reading “The Prince” itself and coming to his or her own provisional questions and answers.In short, I hope the book creates a dialogue between me as the author of the “Guidebook” and the student(s) or reader(s), and of course a dialogue with Machiavelli himself.

6. What makes this guidebook different to others on the market?

There is not really an exact competitor as a guidebook to “The Prince” on the market. There are two other recent works that do something similar (Benner and Vatter), but each of them (esp. Benner) is advancing a specific interpretation of “The Prince,” and so is more appropriate for scholars than students. (And I learned things from each of them in this light.) This guidebook does not exactly advance a specific interpretation, as mentioned, and is targeted more at students and other non-scholarly readers, although I believe it will be useful to scholars as well.