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.