The Prince vs The Song of Roland: Compare & Contrast
Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince is a representative discourse on the power structures that surround the political facet of principalities, with a special focus on Italy. For the same reason, it has gained a reputation for being a treatise on autocratic, national, and imperial endeavors. The Song of Roland, believed to be the product of the twelfth century France, deals with the amorous deeds of kings and soldiers in a mighty struggle for power and authority. It is possible to trace significant elements of authority in these two works in relation to the historical evolution of human communities in Europe and to link it to the present times.
It is possible to read The Prince and The Song of Roland with reference to the concept of authority depicted in them in varying degrees. Ideologies related to religion, morality, power, and terror are attendant to any discourse on authority. The French and Italian responses to these issues, which can be traced in the theoretical works of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci can be seen as corresponding to the depiction of authority in the two works. I propose to read the books under the common theme of authority in them and trace the power structures that constitute their narrative and distributive aspects of them. My contention is that the aspects of authority as depicted in both the works gain a universal significance as they open up different possibilities of perceiving authority. I propose to read the works with reference to the theories of power which are intricately related to authority in the contemporary post-colonial world.
Though The Prince is restricted to the authorial voice, it is not strictly a monologic discourse as it transcends the spheres of subjective responses to authority and speaks in a distanced manner on the moral and ethical aspects of the same. The Song of Roland, on the other hand, has epic dimensions, bringing in the voices of different characters. This makes it easier to see both sides of the story through the exhortative and romantic aspects focused on one side of it make it a subjective reflection. The Italian and French national cultures are foregrounded in the works. It is also possible to relate them to the renaissance and humanist ideals of the nations and how they are embedded in the concept of authority.
Many political thinkers and philosophers have referred to the Machiavellian concepts of power, drawing examples from The Prince. The pragmatic arguments dissect the diabolic nature of authority at all times. His famous statement that “all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed” (26) draws upon the necessity to think on the need to resort to force to gain and maintain power. It discounts the democratic aspects of power which evolved later, in which the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci speaks of the necessity to gain ‘consent’ from the subjects whenever possible before resorting to institutional ‘coercion’ (Gramsci). In Machiavelli’s words,
…let it here be noted that men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Therefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals (9).
The amoral, totalitarian view that is represented in these lines could be what molded an image of diabolic essence to Machiavelli. However, the universal relevance of the theme of power is what made Prince an indispensable work from the moment it was published. Though it restricts the scope of its analyses to the European principalities and caters to the specific needs of the ruling Medici family of Florence, it has survived the boundaries of time and space to become a sourcebook on power relations in the contemporary corporate world. According to Orville Prescott, “Machiavelli was a tough-minded observer of politics and power, a man who could take considerable relish in the brutal methods and artful schemes of the ruling princes” (Prescott). Even if the relevance of power and sovereignty as depicted in The Prince fall outside the concerns of democratic governments, many political leaders make use of this treatise on different issues related to the acquisition, maintenance, and perpetuation authority.
The Song of Roland reveals the ways in which authority is used and misused in the struggles of varied ideologies, reminding one of the theories depicted in The Prince. The element of religion is brought to the forefront in this medieval long verse that comprises 4000 lines. The strategic aspects related to the attempts of capsizing the foreign ruler Charlemagne in Spain. The deceptive move by Marsile, the Saracen King of Saragossa of a fake conversion to Christianity to pacify Charlemagne and to oust him later sets the tone of the work. The vivid description of the intrigue, betrayals, and classic dimensions of war relate to the inevitable elements of authority in principalities as described the Machiavelli. Conceived as a song to be sung aloud, the verse reaches the depths of human relationships amidst the struggles of power. There are instances where the artifact takes over the theme and presents the same scene various times, providing different perspectives on the same incident. This makes the work a polyphonic one which calls for many reinterpretations of authority in the European context. It presents a cross-section of European life, exhibiting the varying ideas and thought processes of people from both sides of the struggle. Moreover, the theory of divine rights and the moral issues related to it are explored in detail in the work: “The Franks arise and stand upon their feet,/ They’re well absolved, and from their sins made clean,/ And the Archbishop has signed them with God’s seal (lines 1139-1141).
However, Charlemagne is depicted as an emperor who experiences the never-ending angst that is part of his position as the ruler. When informed of the situation at Imphe where Christians need his succor to get rid of the pagans, his reaction is as follows: “God!” said the King: “My life is hard indeed!”/ Tears filled his eyes, he tore his snowy beard.” (lines 4000-4001)
The significant representations of both the works selected for analysis lie in their vast scope for many possible interpretations. The contemporary analyses of European discourses based on a post-colonial outlook is applicable to these two works as well since they deal with the power structures and resistances related to cultural domination. Reclaiming the voices of the people who are represented in the two works can be a challenge since the narration is focused on specific characters. However, it is possible to fill in the gaps in the central characters’ perspectives, with the help of other historical documents. Moreover, the interest in re-reading these texts with reference to the ideologies of authority makes it a significant contribution to human understanding. Edward Said, in his introduction to Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient refers to his analysis which employs close textual readings “whose goal is to reveal the dialectic between individual text or writer and the complex collective formation of which his work is a contribution” (24). In a similar way, this study purports to be a survey of the spirit of the times in which the works were written, thereby tracing the concepts of authority that existed in the European civilization of the time.
An attempt will be made to analyze the significance of the concept of authority in the two works with a special emphasis on the ongoing discourses on authority in a world where the fight for authority is camouflaged under the term democracy. The emerging ideologies of terror in response to state-regulated power and the ways in which the democratic governments deal with them betray the existence of the raw amoral authority that Machiavelli speaks of in The Prince. The struggles between the different fractions of people and even the ideological tensions between the concepts of secularism and fundamentalism remind one of the depictions of authority in both the works selected for the study. The rationale for reading them against the grain, and incorporating the historical aspects of authority is to connect the findings of the study to the contemporary world’s views on authority and hopefully to lead to proactive research on similar lines. The study purports to draw on textual references and remain analytical descriptive in nature.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From The Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. London: Pocket Books, 2004.
Said, Edward, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin, 2001.