Niccolò Machiavelli World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715

In a letter to Francesco Vettori dated December 10, 1513, Machiavelli describes his days in exile as time spent overseeing his estate and talking with local peasants. He indicates that he takes time for reading great Italian poets, such as Dante or Petrarch. His evenings are dedicated to study, however. He says that “when evening comes, I return home and go into my study.” In that place he enters “the antique courts of the ancients where, being welcomed by them, I taste the food that alone is mine.” He describes himself as being in conversation with the ancients and that he has “written down what [he has] gained from their conversation.” The work he has written down eventually became The Prince.

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One important aspect of The Prince is Machiavelli’s use of particular words. He uses the Italian word virtu not in a traditional sense of virtue but primarily as a synonym for “exercise of power.” Machiavelli also uses the Italian words lo stato to mean “Where one has dominion.” In this sense, lo stato is similar to the modern term “political state.”

In The Prince and the play The Mandrake, Machiavelli presents a world in which individuals can gain what they desire through guile and power. In The Prince, he describes the means by which princes can gain and maintain power. Most significantly, political leaders should prepare for war at all times in order to ward off foreign threats and to unite the people. Political leaders must not practice traditional morality because that would likely undermine their political positions.

The Mandrake, while not about political power per se, portrays a protagonist with a great desire who uses guile to obtain what he wants and does so with immunity. This character overturns traditional morality through his actions.

The Prince

First published: Il principe, 1532 (English translation, 1640)

Type of work: Political treatise

In this classic political treatise, Machiavelli advises how princes should acquire and maintain political power and analyzes the operations of Italian Renaissance principalities.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince within two years after he was driven from office. A surviving letter indicates that the first title for it was “On Principalities.” The work was not published until 1532.

The first eleven chapters of The Prince examine types of principalities, or principates, with examples from both ancient and contemporary history, and strategies for governing these principates. These are not lengthy chapters; some of them are only a few paragraphs long.

Machiavelli asserts that hereditary principates can only be conquered when one who wishes to conquer lives in that principate or establishes a colony there. In the second chapter, Machiavelli speaks of adding territory to an existing principality, advising that one must do so with force and “extinguish the line of the prince” in that territory; by doing so, a conqueror will prevent a counterinsurgency. He cites the Romans as best exemplifying this strategy of conquest. Machiavelli does not criticize the desire to acquire new territories through conquest; instead, he calls it a “very natural and ordinary desire.”

Machiavelli particularly praises Alexander the Great and those leaders who followed him for their success in governing the territories they conquered. He makes a distinction between governing subjects who had previously been ruled despotically and subjects who had some practice of self-government. Those who had previously been ruled with absolute power will be harder to take over, but once they have been conquered, they will be easy to govern. Those who have been used to some degree of self-government will be harder to govern; a conqueror must “ruin” such a city, because if he “does not destroy it, he waits to be destroyed by it.”

In chapter 6, Machiavelli provides a list of great conquerors, who did so by their virtue, including Cyrus the Great of Persia, Romulus of Rome, Theseus of Greece, and Moses of Israel. Machiavelli presents them as gaining a political territory through their own skill and cunning; they win not because of divine assistance, but because they are armed. Here Machiavelli tells his readers that “all armed prophets conquer and unarmed ones are ruined.” In chapter 8, Machiavelli praises King Agothocles of Sicily, who is said to have “virtue,” even though he attained a position of rule through treachery and violence.

Machiavelli criticizes rulers who are the opposite of great conquerors. One who inherits a position of political authority will often lose that political power; the same is true for one who gains power through others’ military assistance. These rulers may gain power easily, but this authority is also lost easily.

Chapter 11 focuses on “ecclesiastical principates,” Machiavelli’s term for the authority exercised by the Catholic Church. Machiavelli treats the Church as a temporal power, like all other political orders. He says the Church has “subjects which they do not govern.”

Chapters 12 through 14 discuss how a political leader should deal with enemies. Enemies must be treated with military power; nothing else is effective. If a political leader has a strong military, there will be no need to concern oneself with laws. Machiavelli makes the distinction between the different types of arms (or military forces) available to a leader. Some arms are the prince’s own, some are mercenary, and some belong to others. Mercenary arms are the worst because “those arms are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; valorous among friends, cowardly among enemies.” When one uses mercenary arms, one depends upon the strength of others.

Using the arms of another political leader can also be harmful. Machiavelli cites Cesare Borgia, who briefly used mercenary and auxiliary arms but then stopped using them and depended on his own arms. Machiavelli also cites examples of ancient political leaders, including King David in the Old Testament, who depended on their own power. In chapter 14, the central chapter of the work, Machiavelli emphatically states that “a prince, then, ought to have no other object . . . nor take anything else for his art, but war,” and that “he ought . . . never to lift his thoughts from the exercise of war.”

Chapters 15 through 23 examine how a prince should treat his subjects. Machiavelli states that it might be useful for a prince to have the appearance of some traditional virtues, but it is not necessarily useful to truly exemplify those virtues. For example, Machiavelli asserts that it might be useful to have a reputation for generosity, but it certainly is not necessary to have that reputation. Being truly generous might lead one to deplete one’s resources. However, one can be generous with the things one takes from others. He cites Cyrus, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great as military leaders who rewarded citizens with possessions taken from others.

This section includes the famous passage in which Machiavelli states that if the prince must choose between being loved and being feared, the prince should choose to be feared. Importantly, the prince should be feared in such a way that he will avoid being hated. According to Machiavelli, “being feared and not hated can go very well together.” One cannot depend on being loved, but Machiavelli believes subjects will be loyal to their leaders. Machiavelli also suggests the use of “pious cruelty,” a term for the use of religion to gain political support. He cautions political leaders about those who are close to them; a leader needs a few people close to him who will speak the truth to him, but flatterers should be avoided.

Machiavelli treats fortune in chapters 24 and 25. He does not sympathize with political leaders who lose power because of fortune. Instead, he maintains that leaders should be prepared for what might happen and should seek to overcome the results of fortune through impetuous action. In another famous line from The Prince, he states that, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and if one wishes to keep her down, it is necessary to beat her and knock her down.”

The final chapter is different than the other chapters in the book. It is a patriotic appeal to Italians to expel foreign armies from the region.

The Mandrake

First produced: La mandragola, 1520, first published, c. 1519 (English translation, 1911)

Type of work: Play

This play presents several individuals who are able to forgo traditional morality in order to obtain the objects of their desires.

Machiavelli wrote several plays, including The Mandrake, which biographer Maurizio Rivoli called Machiavelli’s “finest theatrical piece.” The play begins with a song that succinctly presents the theme of the play: “Let us follow our desires . . . because whoever deprives himself of pleasure . . . doesn’t know the tricks of the world.” The prologue then presents the outline of the play and introduces the characters. The play consists of five acts, and the action takes place within a single day.

The Mandrake tells the story of Callimaco, who had lived in Paris but is now in Florence. He has learned of a woman there, Lucrezia, who is of extraordinary beauty. Callimaco desires to be with this woman, but he must devise a ruse in order to do so because she is married to a Florentine judge and has a reputation for her moral purity. Callimaco conspires with Ligurio to trick Master Nicia, Lucrezia’s husband.

Callimaco poses as a doctor who tells the childless Nicia that he can administer a potion made of mandrake root that will enable Lucrezia to become pregnant. However, the first man who has sexual relations with Lucrezia after she has taken the potion will die. Callimaco then convinces Nicia to bribe a local friar, Frate Timoteo, so the friar will convince Lucrezia to take the potion and sleep with a stranger because the greater good of having a child will be gained.

Lucrezia agrees to the plan, and in the evening Callimaco, who is in disguise, is brought to see her. Callimaco and Lucrezia spend the night together. In the morning, he reveals himself to Lucrezia, and she accepts Callimaco as her lover. Callimaco is then invited to be a part of the household.

All the characters engage in some form of deception in order to obtain something they desire. Nicia wants a son, Callimaco wants sexual pleasure, and Frate Timateo wants financial reward. In the end, Nicia, who appears to be a respected citizen, is the most deceived and has enabled the adulterous partner of his wife.

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