Niccolò Machiavelli World Literature Analysis - Essay

Niccolò Machiavelli World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)