Publication Date

April 2017


Gabrielle Ponce-Hegenauer


College of Letters


English (United States)


The mirror for princes genre, commonly understood as advice tracts intended for young princes, was the dominant medium for disseminating political theory in Europe during the medieval and Renaissance periods. Contrary to their stated functions as mirrors for princes to reflect upon themselves, the texts actually reflected, in large part, the particular agendas and hopes of their authors, and were constructed in such a way as to induce the princely reader to conform to the mold presented in the literature. The mirror genre then needs to be understood as operating on three levels, not simply one. First and most obviously, a mirror for the prince was a medium which humanized the state through the allegory of the body and the head, in order to describe the meaning and responsibilities of the prince's office. Secondly, the mirror for princes infused monarchical absolute power structures with a certain degree of pseudo-democratic or republican ideals. Thirdly, it operated as a didactic labyrinth wherein the author guided the prince through a maze of arguments and inducements to ensure that he reached a particular set of conceptual conclusions, in this way operating as a trick mirror, in truth reflecting the image of the advisor, even while purporting to show the prince his own reflection. Seneca’s De Clementia and Machiavelli’s The Prince are exceptional examples of princely mirrors written at the moment of a major political paradigm shift which altered the princely molds of their times. Each author developed his own vision of the prince that reflected his ambitions in the new order. In each of these cases, the author wrote during a moment of transition from republic to a principality, a time of political mutability, when the new structures of power had not yet fully crystallized but rather were still malleable. De Clementia and The Prince are for this reason particularly fruitful texts through which to investigate the tripartite function of the mirror genre, because, through analyzing them, they allow us to see certain republican tendencies being imported to the conception of monarchy. Additionally, they represent productive texts through which to understand how a definitive mirror for princes, written at a time of flux, had the potential to stipulate the new theoretical logic and political imagination of an era.



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