It is difficult if not impossible to consider Niccolò Machiavelli’s writings by contemporary standards, as this important philosophical figure was alive and writing during a period that preceded the modern international system of nation-states. During Machiavelli’s life, Italy in particular was but a vast collection of independent fiefdoms, the modern state of Italy still centuries away from unification. As such, the Catholic Church was, to Machiavelli, simply one more claimant to power—a rival and ally to the disparate centers of political power that dominated Europe.
Machiavelli did not “create power.” He observed its attainment and exercise by a variety of monarchs, generals, and, of course, popes. The Prince, his most widely read book, has been analyzed endlessly for hints into the author’s motivations, but it is fair to suggest that this particular treatise is a handbook for how to maintain power in the face of the enormously complex international politics of which he was a fascinated observer. As such, the role of the church during the period Machiavelli observed was, as noted, similar in many ways to that of the other centers of power, such as Louis XII of France, Cesare Borgia, and Maximillian I. Having attended Pope Julius II’s military sojourns and the expansion of papal power, Machiavelli had a front row seat into the attainment of power and the challenges associated with keeping it, especially as the frontiers of empire expanded to encompass more and more territory.
Pope Julius II was a seminal figure in Machiavelli’s life. The pope was a model for The Prince, as Julius II’s predecessor, Pope Alexander, spent an inordinate amount of time engaged in rivalries with cardinals over whom he was ostensibly positioned. In fact, fratricidal conflict among cardinals served as a model for Machiavelli in how to monitor and manipulate potential rivals for power. Julius II, upon his ascension to the papacy, masterfully maneuvered against his main challengers, such as the Borgias, while negotiating among other Roman figures and clans in order to prevent the emergence of a unified threat to his dominance.
As suggested, The Prince can be considered a handbook for hanging on to power. At the close of chapter III, Machiavelli draws the seminal lesson at the core of his study. Note in the following passage Machiavelli’s concern with the art of statecraft as it pertains to the preservation of one’s position:
Thus King Louis lost Lombardy by not having followed any of the conditions observed by those who have taken possession of countries and wished to retain them. Nor is there any miracle in this, but much that is reasonable and quite natural. And on these matters I spoke at Nantes with Rouen, when Valentino, as Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander, was usually called, occupied the Romagna, and on Cardinal Rouen observing to me that the Italians did not understand war, I replied to him that the French did not understand statecraft, meaning that otherwise they would not have allowed the Church to reach such greatness. And in fact it has been seen that the greatness of the Church and of Spain in Italy has been caused by France, and her ruin may be attributed to them. From this a general rule is drawn which never or rarely fails: that he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.
Machiavelli did not create power per se; rather, he exercised it for the benefit of others, mainly as a diplomat in the service of his home city-state of Florence. It was the church under Julius II and through the person of the Medici that brought about Machiavelli’s defeat. It was also, as noted above, the church’s exercise of power and the pope’s skill at statecraft that served as a model for how to attain, wield, and preserve power.