Machiavelli Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Machiavelli’ The Prince presented a radical political theory, arguing that a ruler’s primary responsibility was to stay in power and that morality could play no part in the ruler’s attempts to achieve that aim.

Summary of Event

In 1512, the Medici family returned to power in Florence after an exile of several years, during which the old republican form of government had been restored in the city. The Medici purged those who had been disloyal, and among those who went into exile was a forty-three-year-old diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, who had occupied a subordinate government post under the republic. Prince, The (Machiavelli) Machiavelli, Niccolò Medici, Lorenzo de’ Borgia, Cesare Machiavelli, Niccolò Medici family Borgia, Cesare Machiavelli, Niccolò

Machiavelli withdrew to his villa outside the city and began a major political work, the Discourses. In the summer of 1513, however, he turned his attention abruptly to a shorter and somewhat different kind of work, which he probably completed before the end of the year. This shorter work laid down the requisite principles and ethics necessary for the unification of Italy by force. To do so would require a strong man, a description which Machiavelli presumably meant to suggest members of the Medici family. This new work, Il principe (pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640), had little immediate impact in Italy, although it soon became legendary throughout Europe, and its major ideas have become familiar even to people who have never read the book.

Machiavelli dedicated his treatise to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the grandson of Lorenzo il Magnifico, in the hope of regaining favor. Lorenzo is said to have read the work in manuscript and to have dismissed it contemptuously as too theoretical. Later, Machiavelli was given minor diplomatic assignments by the Medici and was commissioned to write a history of Florence. He died in 1527, and The Prince was published posthumously in 1532.

During the later twentieth century, some interpreters attempted to rescue Machiavelli from charges of ruthlessness and amorality. Those who have read The Prince through the centuries have been impressed, or shocked, by its calm and uncompromising analysis of techniques and methods that the successful ruler must use to gain power and keep it. It is written in the form of advice to the ruler. Machiavelli tells the prince where his best interests lie and how to attain them; he warns him against mistakes, especially against being too lenient.

According to Machiavelli, the prince is a ruler who conquers hostile territory or who comes to power by force or revolution, the normal means of obtaining power among the numerous small city-states of Renaissance Italy. In this situation, Machiavelli counsels the prince to imitate both the lion and the fox: He must appear to be bold and fearless, but he must also use cunning and deception to gain his ends.

Machiavelli believes that events are controlled half by fortune and half by human will, as exemplified by virtue, but he describes fortune as “a woman who will yield herself to force, especially to someone who is young and bold.” Machiavelli then concludes that virtue is a bulwark against the whims of fortune. It is the essential quality of a prince, combining courage, talent, strength of character and will, and above all, intelligence. Intelligence is required to take advantage of any opportunity that comes along.

Machiavelli goes on to state that private morality has no place in politics; even if a man deserves praise in private, if he hesitates to act for the good of the state, he must be condemned as a wicked and inept ruler. Furthermore, the reverse must also be true: Even if a man is unworthy of praise privately, if he has acted for the welfare of the state, any actions are justifiable and to be applauded.

Most critics believe that the prince whom Machiavelli praised most unstintingly in The Prince was Cesare Borgia, duke of Valentinois and son of Pope Alexander VI. Borgia had recently led military campaigns through central Italy to carve out a new state for himself. On his father’s death, he had lost his territories, but Machiavelli regarded him with great admiration as the quintessential prince whose methods and determination were ideally suited to his political ambitions.

Machiavelli contends that, by studying history and exploiting the knowledge gained, one is able to predict future political developments. This view has garnered the criticism that Machiavelli is dogmatic in his thinking and unwilling to acknowledge the uniqueness and complexities of changing political situations. The aspect of Machiavelli’s thought that has been most widely condemned, though, is his dictum that in pursuing political aims the ends justify the means. He advises the prince that only one consideration should govern his decisions: the effectiveness of a particular course of action, irrespective of its ethical character. Nothing is superior to the state, and no other factors need be considered.

As a general rule, Machiavelli asserts that the prince should seek to be both feared and loved. If both are not possible, however, it is better to be feared than loved, for people are fickle, and their love can be quickly dissipated. Above all, the prince should not be hated, because hatred may drive men to blind fury and rebellion.

Machiavelli falls short of advocating total ruthlessness and duplicity, because they are ultimately self-defeating. The prince should ordinarily refrain from seizing property or misusing women, since such actions create lasting enmity, but he should deal with rebels without mercy as examples to others. He should avoid lying whenever possible so that his words will be generally believed, but he should not hesitate to lie or break a given treaty as reason dictates. Cruelty may be necessary to conquer a state, but afterward it should be lessened to give the appearance of being merciful and just. Whenever practical, the people of a conquered state should be allowed to keep their old laws and institutions, because these can be effective instruments of the prince’s control. Above all, he must weaken newly conquered territory by creating dissension among the people, winning over hostile subjects, and never reducing any subjects to submission by means of fortresses.

Machiavelli states that the prince should refuse the cloak of neutrality; rather, he should boldly declare himself either friend or foe. Through such strong positions in foreign policy, the prince may gain esteem from his peers, just as a strong domestic policy may win the favor of his subjects.

The view of human nature expressed in The Prince is negative and pessimistic. Machiavelli claims that self-interest is the dominant motive for human conduct; the prince can feel justified in breaking a treaty, for example, because the other parties to the treaty should also be expected to break it when expedient. Human selfishness is, however, so short-sighted that men are usually taken in by appearances, and the prince must therefore strive to appear mighty, just, and honorable, whatever his real character may be.

The prince must not allow any person or group in the state to maintain power or influence independent of his own. Religion, for example, should be encouraged to inculcate morality and docility in the people, but the prince himself cannot afford to be truly religious; he must require priests to become his spokespeople and the Church an arm of his government.

Machiavelli counseled that the prince’s sole area of formal study should be the art of war. Military power is the foundation and the strength of the state. A strong native military implies a solid foundation in the principality of good laws. The most tragic mistake a prince can make is to rely on the services of foreign mercenary soldiers, who can be bribed to desert their employer and who have no incentive to fight boldly or risk their lives. A secure state reposes on the services of a citizens’ militia, whose members are devoted to the state and are willing to fight to defend their homes.

Significance

The Prince is a work of immense and lasting intellectual significance, because it is the first treatise to affirm a new science of statesmanship, the “autonomy of politics.” This science defines a new political system, which has its own laws and methods, and which is unable to exist in a subordinate role to ethics or religion. Scholars have disagreed for centuries over the relationship between The Prince and Machiavelli’s own beliefs and values. Was it an expression of his actual beliefs, or was it simply an attempt to tell the Medici what they wanted to hear in the hope that they would end Machiavelli’s exile? Whatever the truth may be, the term “Machiavellian” has come to signify utter ruthlessness and amorality in public life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butterfield, Herbert. The Statecraft of Machiavelli. New York: Macmillan, 1956. Reprint. New York: Collier Books, 1962. Highly critical of Machiavelli’s purposes and goals, but excellent for providing insights into the subtlety of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Alvarez, Leo Paul S. The Machiavellian Enterprise. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999. Extended reading of The Prince by one of its modern translators. Argues that the book puts forward a unified, coherent argument in favor of creating a secular, egalitarian civil state. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, De Lamar, ed. Machiavelli: Cynic, Patriot, or Political Scientist? Boston: D. C. Heath, 1960. Reflects a spectrum of interpretations in a collection of interpretive essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Victoria A. Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Criticism and interpretations of Machiavelli’s social and political contributions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kocis, Robert A. Machiavelli Redeemed: Retrieving His Humanist Perspectives on Equality, Power, and Glory. Bethelhem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1998. An attempt to reposition Machiavelli as a Humanist to rescue him from his pervasive portrayal as an amoral advocate of anti-Humanist political practices. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parel, Anthony. The Machiavellian Cosmos. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Examines Machiavelli’s influence upon modern political science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Classic study of Machiavelli’s conception of a republic and its need to preserve itself, followed by an extended discussion of Machiavelli’s influence upon English republicanism and the American Revolution. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Summary of Machiavelli’s life and of his thought as revealed in The Prince, the Discourses, and the History of Florence. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Subtleties, Federico. Machiavelli and the Renaissance. Translated by David Moore. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Collection of four essays regarding Machiavelli written during over a period of thirty years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A wide-ranging survey and reexamination of Machiavelli’s philosophy, covering his political and social theories and his thoughts on love, women, religion, humanity, and the good life. Includes bibliographic references and index.

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1462: Founding of the Platonic Academy

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

Apr. 26, 1478: Pazzi Conspiracy

1486-1487: Pico della Mirandola Writes Oration on the Dignity of Man

1490’s: Aldus Manutius Founds the Aldine Press

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

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