For good or ill, it was The Prince that, as Count Carlo Sforza said, “made Machiavelli famous and infamous.” Although it is unfair to say that Machiavelli was a preacher of treachery and evil, there is some truth in these perceptions of Machiavellian ethics. Moreover, there is an inheritance from Machiavelli’s ideas that has deeply influenced political thinking into the modern era. Because of this influence of The Prince, it must be the focus of any discussion of Machiavellian ethics.
Machiavelli was a citizen of the city of Florence in Re-naissance Italy and a diplomat in the Florentine Republic from 1498 to 1512. In 1512, the Republic fell to the dynastic family of the Medici. Machiavelli was tried for treason and exiled to San Casciano. In exile, he devoted his life to writing, yet he sought a return to public life. Around 1513, Machiavelli wrote The Prince and dedicated it to Lorenzo di Medici. Although they had been enemies in the past, Machiavelli hoped that Lorenzo would be impressed by the work and employ his skilled advice. Machiavelli’s work went unnoticed in his lifetime, but the succinct power of The Prince, a condensation of Machiavelli’s thought regarding rulership, outlasted both its purpose and the Medici.
If it has been unfair to say that The Prince and its interpretations accurately portray the depth of Machiavelli’s thinking, it is equally fair to say that he meant every word of what he wrote. In The Prince, Machiavelli states that he will not speak of republics, for here he has a single purpose. The Prince discusses how principalities are won, held, and lost. It is a primer that tells how a single ruler may gain and maintain power. Machiavelli emphasized how power is garnered in a corrupt and dangerous political environment such as the one that existed in Renaissance Italy. In such treacherous times, a prince required special skills to control the state. This, the purpose of The Prince, accounts for the work’s narrow focus and tone.