As discussed by Johnston (1958) many authors have historically argued that "the book is, first and foremost, a satire, so that many of the things we find in it which are morally absurd, specious, and contradictory, are there quite deliberately in order to ridicule ... the very notion of tyrannical rule". Hence, Johnston says, "the satire has a firm moral purpose – to expose tyranny and promote republican government."
This position was the standard one in Europe during the 18th century, amongst the Enlightenment philosophes. Diderot thought it was a satire. And in his The Social Contract, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said:
Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country's oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim; and the contradiction between the teaching of the Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers. The Court of Rome sternly prohibited his book. I can well believe it; for it is that Court it most clearly portrays.
— Social Contract, Book 3, n. 23
Whether or not the word "satire" is the best choice, there is more general agreement that despite seeming to be written for someone wanting to be a monarch, and not the leader of a republic, the Prince can be read as deliberately emphasizing the benefits of free republics as opposed to monarchies.
Differences of opinion amongst commentators revolve around whether this sub-text was intended to be understood, let alone understood as deliberately satirical or comic.
One such commentator, Mary Dietz, writes that Machiavelli's agenda was not to be satirical, as Rousseau had argued, but instead was "offering carefully crafted advice (such as arming the people) designed to undo the ruler if taken seriously and followed." By this account, the aim was to reestablish the republic in Florence. She focuses on three categories in which Machiavelli gives paradoxical advice:
- He discourages liberality and favors deceit to guarantee support from the people. Yet Machiavelli is keenly aware of the fact that an earlier pro-republican coup had been thwarted by the people's inaction that itself stemmed from the prince's liberality.
- He supports arming the people despite the fact that he knows the Florentines are decidedly pro-democratic and would oppose the prince
- He encourages the prince to live in the city he conquers. This opposes the Medicis' habitual policy of living outside the city. It also makes it easier for rebels or a civilian militia to attack and overthrow the prince.
According to Dietz the trap never succeeded because Lorenzo did not read the work and did not trust Machiavelli, a consistently staunch republican.
Antonio Gramsci argued that Machiavelli's audience for this work was not even the ruling class but the common people because the rulers already knew these methods through their education.
Hans Baron is one of the few major commentators who argues that Machiavelli must have changed his mind dramatically in favour of free republics, after having written the Prince.