Historical Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Critics who are clearly aware of the amoral aspects of Machiavelli’s political recommendations sometimes attempt to gain him a sympathetic hearing in unfriendly quarters. They do so by placing The Prince in its limited historical setting and relating its contents to certain biographical facts about the author. They tell how Machiavelli longed for one ultimate goal: the eventual political unification of Italy as an independent state under one secular ruler, strong enough to rebuff the growing might of powerful neighbors like Spain and France. The armies and policies of these neighboring countries had already seriously influenced internal affairs even in Machiavelli’s beloved Florence. Critics often suggest that Machiavelli’s subordination of religion to the temporal aims of princes followed from his hatred of the political machinations of the Roman Catholic Church, which, by maintaining a series of temporal states, helped to keep Italy divided. The state of affairs created by the Church also invited foreign intrigues and corrupted the spiritual life of the Italians. In this context, another peculiarity of The Prince deserves mention: its total unconcern for forms of government other than monarchical ones. This unconcern might suggest that Machiavelli favored the monarchical form over the republican form. However, such a view would be false. In Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, 1636), Machiavelli openly expressed preference for republics whenever the special conditions for their existence could be obtained. He tells his readers in The Prince that he has discussed republics elsewhere.

Such historical insights help to gain for The Prince a more understanding reading by those who reject its sharp separation of politics from morals. Yet the fact is clear that, whatever its author’s motives, The Prince does ignore all moral ends of organized life and instead emphasizes the need to maintain sovereignty at all costs. Coldly, calculatingly, Machiavelli tries to show princes the means they must use in seeking power as an end in itself. He does not discuss moral rules. Discouraging to unsympathetic critics is the extent to which actual political life often seems to fit Machiavelli’s somewhat cynical model.

The Prince Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Great political thinkers often write about specific historical situations and yet succeed in making recommendations that apply to times other than their own. Niccolò Machiavelli must be numbered among such thinkers. An Italian patriot deeply involved in the diverse political maneuvers of sixteenth century Italy, he addresses advice to Lorenzo de’ Medici which, first written in 1513 and later published as The Prince five years after his death, marks him as one of the most controversial, enduring, and realistic political theorists of the modern world.

In this short book, Machiavelli undertakes to treat politics scientifically, judging people by an estimate of how in fact they do behave as political animals rather than by ideal standards concerned with how they ought to act. The hardheadedly consistent refusal of the author to submit political behavior to moral tests has earned the named “Machiavellian” for amoral instances of power relations among nation-states and other organized groups. The power divisions of Machiavelli’s Italy are now seen to have been prophetic of the massive national rivalries that followed in the Western world. The problems encountered by Renaissance princes endured long after the princes themselves fell before more powerful enemies. Machiavelli understood how success is always a minimal condition of political greatness. In The Prince, he presents a manual of advice on the winning and retention of power in a world containing extensive political factionalism and lust for dominion.

The Prince The Monarch’s Rise to Power

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Machiavelli classifies possible governments as either republics or monarchies. In The Prince, he confines his analytic attention to the latter. Any monarch with a legitimate inheritance of power and traditions is most favored. The reason is that, unlike newly risen rulers, he need offend the people less. Established rulers reap the benefits from forgotten past abuses that led to the established system. People who rise to power by virtue of conquest or favorable circumstances must confront incipient rebellions. They must also make more promises than the established ruler, thus falling under various obligations. Machiavelli believed newly created rulers must perform their cruelties quickly and ruthlessly. They must never extend cruelties over a long period of time.

Machiavelli insists that if a prince must cause injuries, he should cause great injuries, for small injuries do not keep a person from revenge. In any case, what the prince does must fit the circumstances and the nature of his particular dominion. Not all princes should attempt to use the same methods. All princes must act, however. For example, they should never postpone war simply to avoid it. In political conflicts, time is neutral regarding the participants; it produces “indifferently either good or evil.”

Newly created monarchs often find themselves involved with members of a mixed state. Extreme difficulties confront a ruler in such situations. Mixed monarchies often require rule over possessions whose citizens do not share the monarch’s language. A common language and nationality help make ruling easier for the monarch, especially if his subjects’ experience of freedom has been a limited one. There are two general ways in which to treat subjects who lack the monarch’s nationality and language. One is that the monarch can take residence among the subjects. To do so permits a ready response to contingent problems and allows the subjects to identify themselves with the person of the ruler. The other is for the ruler to establish select colonies at key positions in the subjects’ territory. Such colonies cost little. Their injured parties are also often scattered, thus proving easier to handle. If he maintains such colonies, the monarch should use diplomatic maneuvers aimed at weakening the stronger neighbors and protecting the less powerful ones. Machiavelli uses historical examples here, as he does elsewhere in The Prince. For example, he admires the manner in which the Romans anticipated contingencies in governing their colonies and acted promptly, if sometimes brutally, to meet them. On the other hand, Machiavelli asserts that Louis XII of France made basic blunders in a similar situation.

The Prince Ruling Foreign Subjects

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

There will be times when the ruler must govern subjects accustomed to living under laws of their own. Machiavelli coldly suggests three methods of ruling these. First, the ruler can totally despoil them, as the Romans did to certain rebellious cities. Second, he can make his residence among the subjects, hoping to keep down future rebellions. If he chooses neither of these alternatives, the ruler must permit the subjects to live under laws of their own. In this event, he must exact tribute from them. If possible, he should also put control of the laws in the hands of a few citizens upon whose loyalty he can count. It is dangerous to ignore the activities of people accustomed to living in freedom if they are part of one’s sovereign state. The reason is that “in republics there is greater life, greater hatred, and more desire for revenge; they do not and cannot cast aside the memory of their ancient liberty, so that the surest way is either to lay them waste or reside in them.”

The Prince Acquiring Power

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Machiavelli shows great interest in how people acquire their rule over possessions. Methods of ruling must be made adaptable to differences in manner of acquisition. For example, rulers may obtain their power as a result of someone else’s abilities, or they may win power by their own abilities. Machiavelli judges the do-it-yourself method as the surest; there is no substitute for princely merit. Also, the prince should command his own military forces without depending too heavily on aid from allied troops. The wise prince will imitate great personal models, because life is primarily a matter of imitative behavior. The prudential prince must show careful regard to the right circumstances for seizing power. Once in power, he can use force if he possesses soldiers loyal to himself. Machiavelli warns princes to beware the flattery of their subjects. They should especially show suspicion of the flattery of their ministers, who are supposed to advise them. Machiavelli’s model of the state seems to be the Renaissance city-state: small in population and territorial extent. As an example of a ruler who arises by virtue of talent, he mentions Francesco Sforza of Milan. Cesare Borgia is used to illustrate the nature of successful ruling by a prince whose power initially results from conditions created by others.

In all, there are four ways in which a prince can attain political power: by his own abilities, by the use of fortunate circumstances (wealth or political inheritance), by wicked conduct and outright crime, and by the choice of his fellow citizens. Machiavelli does not condemn the ruler who succeeds by using criminal techniques. Thus, Agathocles, the ancient Sicilian, used such methods in rising from a military rank to kill off the rich men and senators of Syracuse. Yet Agathocles used such excessive cruelty that Machiavelli warns scholars not to include him “among men of real excellence.” Instances of power criminally seized and successfully held lead Machiavelli to suggest that cruelty is intrinsically neither good nor bad. Cruelty must be said to have been used well “when all cruel deeds are committed at once in order to make sure of the state and thereafter discontinued to make way for the consideration of the welfare of the subjects.”

Nonetheless, Machiavelli never asserts that cruelty is the best means of attaining power. His judgment here as elsewhere is a hypothetical one: If the situation requires cruelty for the realization of power, then the prince must do what is necessary. Thus, although Machiavelli prefers methods that do not involve cruelty, he refuses to condemn the prince who uses cruelty.

The conditional nature of Machiavelli’s recommendations about seizing power becomes evident when he discusses the case of the prince who rises by the consent of his fellow citizens. This situation is the most promising for a prince. However, it rarely happens. Thus, this case cannot serve as a universal model. Chosen in such a manner, a prince need not fear that people will dare to oppose or to disobey him: “The worst a prince can fear from the people is that they will desert him.” On the other hand, if his power stems from the nobility, the prince must fear both their possible desertion and their possible rebellion. In order to prepare for a rebellion, the people obviously require trained leaders. Thus, a prudent ruler supported by the people must attempt to retain their favor. A prince initially supported by the nobles can win over the people by making himself their protector. If he succeeds, he may end up stronger than the prince originally chosen by the people, for the people will appreciate the benefactor who guards them against internal oppression.

The Prince Maintaining Power

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Machiavelli is never so cynical as to argue that a wise prince can endlessly ignore the needs of his own people, yet he justifies a concern for the people solely in terms of its value toward guaranteeing a continuing rule. Realistically, Machiavelli insists that the prince must lead an army. This is true even of churchmen who manage ecclesiastical states. Force or the threat of force serves as the basis of the state. Times of peace should never be permitted to divert the ruler’s mind “from the study of warfare.” In peaceful times, the prudent ruler estimates future events. By thought and preparation, he gets ready to meet such events.

A morbid sense of the contingency of human events runs through the book. Any ruler must show concern for changes of fortune and circumstance. The prince should show caution in delegating any of his own powers. Machiavelli hardly ever discusses economic or ideological problems. Normally, the prince of whom he writes is a single man bent on political self-preservation and the quest for methods by which to coerce his enemies into submission or inaction. The picture is one of a ruler feverishly studying the histories and actions of great people to be ready for the possible day when relatively stable conditions may alter for the worse. The reader concludes that, in Machiavelli’s view, stability in politics is extremely rare. Yet Machiavelli understands that no prince can stand completely alone. Some powers must be delegated. Some people must be favored over others. How the prince treats his friends and subjects will always influence future political events. The prince should work to create a character able to make sudden adjustments in terms of his own self-interest. The most successful ruler must “be prudent enough to escape the infamy of such views as would result in the loss of his state.” He must never cultivate those private virtues which, in a public man, can prove politically suicidal. He should develop vices if these will help to perpetuate his rule.

Generosity is a value in a prince only if it produces some benefit and no harm. A wise ruler will tax his subjects without becoming miserly. Yet he should prefer the name “miser” to a reputation for generosity that may prevent him from raising monies needed to maintain security. Generosity can more easily lead to the subjects’ hatred and contempt than can miserliness. The prince can even show mercy if it is not interpreted as mere permissiveness. The cursedly cruel Borgia proved more merciful than the Florentine rulers who lost the city to foreigners. As long as he keeps his subjects loyal and united, the ruler may sometimes act strenuously against them. Especially is this necessary in newly created monarchies. Machiavelli advises the prince to be both loved and feared but choose being feared over being loved. The subjects obey a prince who can punish them.

In maintaining order, the prince has some rules of thumb to follow. He should keep his word unless deceit is specifically called for. He should use admired private virtues if they do not interfere with the play of political power. A conception of human nature operates here. Machiavelli thinks the plain man is capable of some loyalty to a ruler. However, such a man is easily led. “Men are so simple,” Machiavelli writes, “and so ready to follow the needs of the moment that the deceiver will always find someone to deceive.” A prince must know how and when to mingle the fox’s cunning (the ability to avoid traps) with the lion’s strength (capacity to fight the wolves). He should often conceal his real motives. Internally, he must avoid conspiracies. Externally, he should keep enemies fearful of attacking. Against conspirators, the prince always has an advantage. Conspirators cannot work in isolation; thus they fear the existing laws and the threat of detection. Only when the population shows some open hostility need the prince genuinely fear conspirators.

Machiavelli realizes that people seldom get to choose the circumstances most favorable to their political hopes. They must settle for what is possible rather than for the ideal. Princes must avoid the lures of utopian political constructions, “for how we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.” Machiavelli regards people as weak, fickle, and subject to changing loyalties. These psychological traits are the bedrock on which a wise prince must build his policies.

Nonetheless, the author of The Prince understands that success in politics, however rationally pursued, is beyond the complete control of any person. The Renaissance worry about Chance and Fortune (qualities so important as to be personified in the imagination as well as the literature of the time) haunts the final pages of Machiavelli’s book. Large-order events in the world often seem to drive people onward, much like “the fury of the flood.” Yet not all events happen fortuitously. People are half free to shape their political lives within the broader forces of the universe. That prince rules best, therefore, whose character and conduct “fit the times.” It will be better for the ruler to be bold rather than cautious. Fortune is like a woman, “well disposed to young men, for they are less circumspect and more violent and more bold to command her.” Thus Machiavelli argues for a partial freedom of will and action within a world largely made up of determined forces.

The Prince Modern Import

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The Prince stands as a classic example of realistic advice to rulers seeking unity and preservation of states. Its picture of human nature is somewhat cynical, viewing humanity as vacillating and in need of strong political direction. Yet the work is not modern in one sense; namely, it fails to discuss ideological aspects of large-scale political organization. Machiavelli’s prince is one who must learn from experience. His conclusion is that ruling is more like an art than like a science. What is somewhat modern is the realistic emphasis on tailoring political advice to the realization of national ends whose moral value is not judged. The Prince is therefore a fascinating if sometimes shocking justification of the view that moral rules are not binding in the activities of political rulers.

The Prince Additional Reading

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Bondanella, Peter E. Machiavelli and the Art of Renaissance History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. This astute study constitutes a chronological survey of Machiavelli’s development as a literary stylist. Focuses on the compositional techniques that he employed in depicting the character and conduct of heroic personages. Lacks a formal bibliography, but there are copious endnotes for each chapter.

Burnham, James. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. New York: John Day, 1943. Presents the theories of power advocated by Machiavelli in The Prince. Gives a positive critique of those theories. Summarizes the principles of all Machiavellian writers and their effect on succeeding centuries.

Garver, Eugene. “The Prince: A Neglected Rhetorical Classic.” In Machiavelli and the History of Prudence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. Asserts that The Prince should be studied as a work of rhetoric as well as from nonliterary standpoints. Reveals rhetorical principles found in The Prince and shows how they contribute to Renaissance rhetoric.

Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Flor-ence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Presents Machiavelli as a victim of late fifteenth century Florentine politics and shows the relationship between those events and the writing of The Prince. Good bibliographic essay on Machiavelli.

Grant, Ruth Weissbourd. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This work challenges the usual standards for political ethics and sheds light on Machiavelli’s argument for the necessity of hypocrisy. Grant interprets the writings of Machiavelli as pro-hypocrite and the writings of Rousseau as anti-hypocrite and balances them in a conceptual framework encompassing the moral limits of compromise, and integrity in political behavior.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. Translated by James B. Atkinson, edited by David Sices. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Arranged chronologically and with an introduction and historical annotations by the translator, these 257 letters written to Machiavelli, and 84 written by him, offer a broad view of the life, people, places, and crucial events of Renaissance Italy. Covering thirty years in Machiavelli’s adult life (from 1497 to his death in 1527), this annotated personal correspondence provides insight into the man considered to be the first modern political theorist and his associates, some the most influential thinkers of Italian Renaissance.

Parel, Anthony. “The Prince.” In The Machiavellian Cosmos. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Emphasizes Machiavelli’s combination of virtue and fortune in relationship to principalities. Discusses how The Prince used that relationship to explain past and present principalities with logical consequences of power and glory.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. This pioneering study of gender as a factor in political theory depicts Machiavelli as a misogynistic authoritarian. It is particularly useful in clarifying the manner in which Machiavelli employs the concepts of fortuna and virtù. The text is extensively annotated and supplemented by a highly detailed index and a useful bibliography of works cited.

Rudowski, Victor. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. Puts The Prince in historical context. Defines terms and identifies individuals in The Prince. Presents the impact of the book on European monarchs for several centuries. Includes the initial critical reception of Machiavelli’s masterpiece.

Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Drawing on Machiavelli’s writings from The Florentine History, The Prince, and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, the author provides a unique and important study of Machiavelli’s political thought. She offers a new understanding of Machiavelli’s religious views, maintaining that he uses both pagan and Christian elements in his political philosophy.

Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò Machiavelli: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000. A brief general-interest biography of Machiavelli focusing primarily on his career as a diplomat, secretary in the Republic of Florence, and writer.

Victor Anthony Rudowski Lisa A. Wroble

The Prince Historical Context

Among the accomplishments of Machiavelli's era were the explorations of Columbus, Magellan, and Vespucci, portrayed in this map of the Americas dated 1590. Published by Gale Cengage

The Medici Family
Lorenzo di Medici was a member of a family who ruled Florence for almost three centuries...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

The Prince Literary Style

Point of View
Most of The Prince is written from the first-person point of view. In other words, the speaker of...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

The Prince Compare and Contrast

1500s: Renaissance thinkers, like Machiavelli, emphasize logic and rational pragmatism...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

The Prince Topics for Further Study

Choose a candidate from a recent United States presidential election. Analyze this candidate from a Machiavellian perspective. Does this...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

The Prince Media Adaptations

The Prince is available in a four-audiocassette version from Penguin Audiobooks, read by Fritz Weaver.

An examination of...

(The entire section is 38 words.)

The Prince What Do I Read Next?

A seminal philosophical work on the nature of politics, Politics was written by the Greek philosopher

(The entire section is 150 words.)

The Prince Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Sidney Anglo, Machiavelli: A Dissertation, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969.

Lord Macaulay...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

The Prince Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bondanella, Peter E. Machiavelli and the Art of Renaissance History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. This astute study constitutes a chronological survey of Machiavelli’s development as a literary stylist. Focuses on the compositional techniques that he employed in depicting the character and conduct of heroic personages. Lacks a formal bibliography, but there are copious endnotes for each chapter.

Burnham, James. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. New York: John Day, 1943. Presents the theories of power advocated by Machiavelli in The Prince. Gives a positive critique of those theories. Summarizes the principles of all Machiavellian writers and their effect on succeeding centuries.

Garver, Eugene. “The Prince: A Neglected Rhetorical Classic.” In Machiavelli and the History of Prudence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. Asserts that The Prince should be studied as a work of rhetoric as well as from nonliterary standpoints. Reveals rhetorical principles found in The Prince and shows how they contribute to Renaissance rhetoric.

Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Flor-ence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Presents Machiavelli as a victim of late fifteenth century Florentine politics and shows the relationship between those events and the writing of The Prince. Good bibliographic essay on Machiavelli.

Grant, Ruth Weissbourd. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This work challenges the usual standards for political ethics and sheds light on Machiavelli’s argument for the necessity of hypocrisy. Grant interprets the writings of Machiavelli as pro-hypocrite and the writings of Rousseau as anti-hypocrite and balances them in a conceptual framework encompassing the moral limits of compromise, and integrity in political behavior.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. Translated by James B. Atkinson, edited by David Sices. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Arranged chronologically and with an introduction and historical annotations by the translator, these 257 letters written to Machiavelli, and 84 written by him, offer a broad view of the life, people, places, and crucial events of Renaissance Italy. Covering thirty years in Machiavelli’s adult life (from 1497 to his death in 1527), this annotated personal correspondence provides insight into the man considered to be the first modern political theorist and his associates, some the most influential thinkers of Italian Renaissance.

Parel, Anthony. “The Prince.” In The Machiavellian Cosmos. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Emphasizes Machiavelli’s combination of virtue and fortune in relationship to principalities. Discusses how The Prince used that relationship to explain past and present principalities with logical consequences of power and glory.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. This pioneering study of gender as a factor in political theory depicts Machiavelli as a misogynistic authoritarian. It is particularly useful in clarifying the manner in which Machiavelli employs the concepts of fortuna and virtù. The text is extensively annotated and supplemented by a highly detailed index and a useful bibliography of works cited.

Rudowski, Victor. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. Puts The Prince in historical context. Defines terms and identifies individuals in The Prince. Presents the impact of the book on European monarchs for several centuries. Includes the initial critical reception of Machiavelli’s masterpiece.

Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Drawing on Machiavelli’s writings from The Florentine History, The Prince, and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, the author provides a unique and important study of Machiavelli’s political thought. She offers a new understanding of Machiavelli’s religious views, maintaining that he uses both pagan and Christian elements in his political philosophy.

Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò Machiavelli: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000. A brief general-interest biography of Machiavelli focusing primarily on his career as a diplomat, secretary in the Republic of Florence, and writer.