While Machiavelli wrote many different works, ranging from plays and biographies to histories, and was deeply involved in Florentine politics, he is certainly best known for his greatest work, The Prince. In fact, it is from this work and this author that we get the term "Machiavelli and," which describes a person or situation that is cunning, deceitful and (most of all) expedient. This essay will examine the relationship between the concepts expressed in The Prince and the character of Tony Soprano in television's The Sopranos. It will be demonstrated below that on some occasions Tony Soprano (as a mob boss) seems to practice Machiavelli's advice, while on others he fails to do so (to his detriment).
The Italy of Machiavelli was a divided region made up of various city states that were fragmented by frequent wars, assassinations, and coups (Barzun 271). In Machiavelli's own lifetime he saw his city's government overthrown three times. At the same time, Machiavelli's Italy would seem quite familiar to Tony. Once you remove the Renaissance culture with its scenery and great art, you find a political and criminal situation not too dissimilar to present day Jersey. Just as Florence was under threat by a number of external enemies, including the Pope in Rome, the Spanish and the French (as well as by internal divisions), Tony Soprano faces confrontations with other members of the New York Mafia, the Russian mob, the FBI. He also has to deal with malcontents and out and out traitors.
Interestingly, some of the characters around Tony Soprano seem to have actually studied The Prince, since they feel it will help them understand how to hold onto power. While Tony doesn't seem to have done so himself, some of his decisions are in keeping with Machiavellian thinking. Several situations occurring during the series point to this association with Machiavelli.
One of the first challenges Tony faced in season one was a significant challenge for control from one of his uncles, Junior Soprano. When Junior wants to carry out a mob hit on the premises of a restaurant owned by a friend of Tony, Tony is concerned that might have a negative impact on the business and asks Junior to carry out the hits somewhere else. Junior rejects this request, and in response Tony decides to burn the restaurant down to solve the problem. On the one hand this will prevent Junior from going forward with the hits, and will also allow his friend rebuild his restaurant using the insurance money. However, things began to spiral out of control after this. Some of Tony's men hijacked trucks under Junior's protection, and Junior's response is to kill one of them and to perform a mock execution of the other (who happened to be Tony's nephew).
While in Tony's view, things are deteriorating because of a lack of control with the family, Tony gets advice from a doctor (on a separate matter involving his mother) suggesting that one of the best ways to control someone is to give them the feeling that they are at least partially in control. Tony immediately applies this advice to the situation with Junior, convincing the various captains under him to let it appear that Junior is in charge when in fact Tony himself would still be running things. The situation is perfect, since Junior is now easier to work with, the control the family has been established by Tony and the family now has a figurehead who can be blamed if anything goes wrong.
While the advice provided by this doctor to Tony does not itself come directly from Machiavelli, it is clearly very similar to his writings. In Machiavelli's view, a prince must be as wily as a fox, since “those who have known best how to imitate the fox have come off the best” (Machiavelli 79). Specifically, while a prince must sometimes appear to others as someone who is faithful, direct and loyal, “his disposition should be such that, should he need to be the opposite, he knows how” (Machiavelli 71). Thus, Tony pretends that he and others are following Junior's commands, while in fact he is the one surreptitiously running things.
An even more obvious similarity between the advice of Machiavelli and Tony Sopranos actions in The Sopranos can be seen in Tony's efforts to convince Junior he should be a little less tightfisted and greedy. Many of the underlings and the organization don't like the fact that Junior doesn't share the wealth. In an episode entitled Pax Soprano, Tony uses the analogy of the Roman Peace (the Pax Romana) to suggest that Augustus Caesar's generosity to his followers was what held the empire together. Machiavelli certainly would've agreed with this, since he wrote “The prince gives away what is his own or his subjects’, or else what belongs to others. In the first case he should be frugal; in the second, he should indulge in generosity to the full. The prince who campaigns with his armies, who lives by pillaging, sacking, and extortion, disposes of what belongs to aliens; and he must be open-handed, otherwise his soldiers would refuse to follow him” (Machiavelli 65).
At the beginning of season two, Junior's in prison and Tony is running things. However, a new adversary soon appears in the person of Richie Aprile, who is the brother of someone killed by Tony's family and who has just gotten out of prison after 10 years. Obviously, the relationship between Tony and Richie is bad from the beginning, and only gets worse over time. When Tony returns Richie's loansharking business to him, he disobeys Tony's orders not to force money out of Beansie (who owns a nearby pizza place). Worse, he causes Beansie to end up paralyzed. Richie later not only refuses to build a wheelchair ramp for the now crippled Beansie, Richie later attacks someone at a card game Tony is holding. He also refuses to obey Tony's order to stop selling cocaine along the garbage routes they control, which causes him to be cut out of the entire garbage bid deal. As a result he tries to organize a plan to overthrow Tony.
This was a case in which Tony did not handle things the way Machiavelli would have suggested. In a chapter of The Prince entitled "Cruelty and Compassion," Machiavelli suggests that it is much better to be feared by others than to be loved by them. He felt this was particularly important for new leaders, since a "new prince, of all rulers, finds it impossible to avoid a reputation for cruelty because of the abundant dangers inherent in a newly won state" (Machiavelli 66).
If Tony (on this occasion) ignores Machiavelli's advice on the merits of carefully applied cruelty, he fully embraces another point made by Machiavelli. Machiavelli does not suggest that a prince should be "good" or moral, but Machiavelli does believe that a leader should be great. By this he means that such an individual should dominate others with his personality in ways that frighten them and inspire them. As Machiavelli puts it, "a prince should . . . strive to demonstrate in his actions grandeur, courage, sobriety, strength. When settling disputes, he should ensure that his judgment is irrevocable; and he should be so regarded that no one ever dreams of trying to deceive or trick him" (Machiavelli 73). In this way, a prince or leader who is highly esteemed by others is less likely to face a successful conspiracy. In fact, the fact that Tony's peers and underlings recognize that he has these Machiavellian characteristics with regard to leadership is the primary reason that Richie's attempted coup ultimately fails.
Machiavelli devotes one for chapter of the Prince to one of his most important topics, which is the concept of Fortune. By "Fortune," Machiavelli is not referring to wealth. He's talking about chance, fate or luck. While Machiavelli recognizes that humans can have an effect on their destinies, he also asserts that "Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions” (Machiavelli 101). In keeping with this, it has to be acknowledged that Tony benefited significantly from good fortune. For instance, a car that was double parked prevented one assassination attempt, while a second one missed its mark by mere inches. Also, Janice's assassination of Richie was also a bit of good fortune for her brother. Clearly, Tony has had his fair share of good luck over the course of the series.
When speaking about the concept of fortune, Machiavelli chooses to compare it to a flooded river that destroys everything around it. In such circumstances, near human beings are helpless. At the same time, Machiavelli points out that when a river is slow moving and calm human beings can take precautions to protect themselves against future problems. Machiavelli felt that princes could do the same thing in their political maneuverings (Tillyris 65). This begs the question of whether Tony has taken sufficient precautions to protect himself against future upheavals. There is good evidence to support the idea that he has not.
For instance, in season four there is a major economic downturn that badly affects Tony's operations and profits. In a previous season, Junior had speculated that Tony's success was largely due to the fact that the economy was doing so well and everyone was betting. But as soon as economic conditions changed, fortune seemed to turned against Tony. Had Tony known of and heeded Machiavelli's advice, he might have been better prepared for such a change and experienced fewer problems in the future.
Another piece of advice that Machiavelli provided regarding fortune is that it is "better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her. Experience shows that she is more often subdued by men who do this than by those who act coldly” (Machiavelli 104). Ignoring for a moment the abusive and misogynistic nature of this statement, it implies that fortune favors the bold. Machiavelli urges that leaders be prepared to take bold action when necessary (Stacy 194). However, this does not necessarily contradict his previous advice regarding prior planning and preparation.
In conclusion, the above demonstrates that the philosophy of Machiavelli is very relevant to The Sopranos, and particularly to Tony Soprano. While those around Tony sometimes mention Machiavelli, Tony does not seem to have greatly studied Machiavelli himself. Nevertheless, some of the things he says and does in several of the episodes are quite representative of the leadership advice expressed by Machiavelli in The Prince. Moreover, on those occasions when Tony takes actions or makes decisions that run contrary to the advice that Machiavelli would have probably given, things turned out badly for Tony, his family and his organization.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Machiavelli. The Prince, translated by George Bull (New York: Penguin, 1961).
“Pax Soprano.” The Sopranos.
Stacey, Peter. "Definition, Division, And Difference In Machiavelli's Political Philosophy." Journal Of The History Of Ideas 75.2 (2014): 189-212
Tillyris, Demetris. "'Learning How Not To Be Good': Machiavelli And The Standard Dirty Hands Thesis." Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 18.1 (2015): 61-74.