Niccoló Machiavelli

A rather recent view of the central part (the old city) of Florence. The Duomo, aka the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, is the main cathedral of the city of Florence, and it is the tall structure in the center of the photo. Photo credit Julia Smith.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527 CE) wrote The Prince (Il Principe) in 1513--the treatise was not published in his lifetime--one of the most important books of political theory ever published in the western world. It is also one of those books that everyone quotes, but few read, which means that most of the people who talk about or cite Machiavelli have no idea what they are talking about.

Machiavelli was born in Florence where he received a brilliant humanistic education (perhaps partly at the University of Florence). At the age of twenty five, Machiavelli entered the service of the city's republican government as an administrator and also as a diplomat, which allowed him to travel widely in Italy and Europe. When the city's republic collapsed in 1512 as a result of the Medici family's use of a Spanish army, Machiavelli was jailed, tortured and exiled.

In forced retirement, Machiavelli embarked on a writing career and wrote widely--most of that does not concern us in our history course. Much of his writing focused on politics and political power, and he was especially interested in republican forms of government. Remember that at this point in history (1510) the most common form of government was monarchy. In fact, there were not many examples in history of successful republics.

The most important, and probably most controversial, essay that Machiavelli wrote was The Prince, which he presented to the Medici family as a guide to assist political leaders in the acquisition and maintenance of political power, more specifically a guide for the unification of Italy. (Aside: Lorenzo probably never read the book) The book remains classic of western political theory with its realistic view of politics; the book also remains the subject of widely divergent interpretations. There is much in the book, and my view is that the book's importance lies in its removal of "good" as a criteria for judging the "success" of political leaders. Actually, what is of paramount importance for Machiavelli is the survival and prosperity of the "state" itself. In other words, he sort of identifies a "state" as an inanimate object with a life and an existence of its own. Real success is political leaders becoming one with the state. You will see that as you read The Prince.

Blue Bar

Some recommended online lectures and websites:

  • The very long wikipedia entry on Machiavelli is a good starting point for research. Couple that with the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you have about all that you need to know as background information for this assignment. Still, feel free to check out these other resources. Note: There is a separate wiki entry for The Prince.
  • The Prince (*.pdf version); some of his works on Project Gutenberg; who would have thought that there are Machiavelli works on; some works in Italian (after all, he was Italian); here is the Italian version of The Prince.
  • Machiavelli: The Official Site
  • Why Machiavelli Still Matters by John T. Scott and Robert Zaretsky
  • For extra credit please suggest to your instructor a relevant website for this unit of the course.  Send the title of the site, the URL and a brief explanation why you find the information interesting and applicable to the material being studied in this unit.

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