Machiavelli and the context in which he wrote The Prince
In the sixteenth century, when Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Italy was not a unified country.
was a collection of city-states, each with its own court and ruler, each attempting to gain power over the others.
In addition to being a place of domestic intrigue, Italy was also a battleground for the power-hungry French, the
Spanish, the Germans, and the forces of the Catholic Church under the Popes (who were, in essence, as powerful
as secular kings at this time).
One of the major Italian city-states, the republic of Florence, had long maintained
an alliance with the French, and when Pope Julius II defeated the French in 1512,
Florence was defeated too.
Pope Julius declared that he would not agree make peace unless Florence ceased to be a republic and accepted
the Medici family as their rulers.
These political developments had a serious impact on the life and career of Machiavelli.
Hardly a dyed-in-the-
wool supporter of princes, Machiavelli had actually served for the past thirteen years as a counselor and diplomat
for the former rulers of Florence, the anti-Medici republicans (his first book, The Discourses, presents a theory
of republican government).
When Florence fell into the hands of his princely enemies, Machiavelli narrowly escaped execution and found
himself exiled instead.
Formerly a man who lived in the center of political power, Machiavelli was now
unemployed and disgraced (not to mention bored!) in the countryside outside Florence.
He began to write a
series of letters, begging the new Medici rulers in Florence to allow him to return to his beloved city.
continued this unsuccessful effort for fourteen years, until his death in 1527.
We must read The Prince, written in 1513, as one of the first of the documents that Machiavelli wrote in order
ingratiate himself with the new Florentine prince, Lorenzo de Medici.
Is Machiavelli insincere?
Is he a
After all, his first book declared that a republic was the ideal form of government, not a state
governed by the authority of a prince.
And yet, we must note that Machiavelli never says anywhere in The
Prince that he likes the notion of government by princes.
He merely states that if a country is going to be
governed by a prince, particularly a new prince, he has some advice as to how that prince should rule if he
wishes to be great and powerful.
In other words,
Machiavelli’s book is absolutely practical and not at all idealistic.
Leaving aside what government is “best” in
an ideal world, The Prince takes for granted the presence of an authoritarian ruler, and tries to imagine how such
a ruler might achieve success.
It is, of course, also entirely topical as well:
Machiavelli offers Lorenzo an expert
handbook that deals with precisely the situation of Florence at the time.
He seems genuinely interested in using
his political experience, as well as his wide reading in history and philosophy, to help Lorenzo be the best prince