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The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince has been a controversial guide to ruling since its original publication in 1532. Scholars have debated as to whether Machiavelli's political treatise was intended as a guide for monarchs to adhere to, or a cleverly masked satire attempting to show the habits and tendencies a ruler should avoid.

Regardless of Machiavelli's true intentions, The Prince was extremely influential, having a profound effect across Italy and neighboring regions during the Renaissance. The text is often credited for founding the field of political science, a discipline that both analyzes and influences public policy to this day.

1. The Medici family, for whom The Prince was written, fell from power twice.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince for Lorenzo de' Medici, whose family was first driven out of Florence and replaced with a republican form of government in 1494. The Medici family then resumed power from 1512–27 before being deposed once more. Machiavelli fell out of favor with the Medicis and was tortured, then exiled before writing The Prince in 1513.

2. Dictators love The Prince.

The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was noted for drawing influence from Machiavelli's work. Many scholars believe he used the militaristic attitudes prescribed in The Prince as a justification for a fascist Italian government. Joseph Stalin purportedly kept a copy of The Prince on his bedside table and annotated it heavily. In addition, Napoleon Bonaparte is noted to have said: "The Prince is the only book worth reading." He also paraphrased Machiavelli's famous line, "... the Prince must be a fox then so as to recognize the traps and a lion so as to frighten the wolves."

3. Early American leaders were also influenced by The Prince.

The list of ruthless dictators that openly praised or critiqued The Prince is unsettling. However, the notion that people must safeguard their own freedom and liberty influenced many great minds, including America's Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.

4. The Prince wasn't published until five years after Machiavelli's death.

Although Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, it wasn't published until 1532. Machiavelli died in June 1527, five years before his treatise would appear in print.

5. The Papacy condemned The Prince.

Viewing The Prince as an immoral guide to ruling through taunts, threats, and deception, Pope Clement VIII condemned the text. The Pope felt this despicable sentiment was made clearest in Machiavelli's musing that, "Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

6. Machiavelli was blamed for starting a massacre.

French lawyer and politician Innocent Gentillet blamed Macchiavelli's work for starting the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Night in 1572. This massacre of French Huguenot Protestants resulted in the deaths of about 70,000 people in France during the religion wars.

7. Shakespeare is thought to model the character Iago in Othello on Machiavelli.

Finding the ideologies of The Prince to be morally and politically reprehensible, many scholars believe Shakespeare crafted Othello's antagonist, Iago, based on the principles outlined in the treatise. Iago's self-serving politics leads to the downfall of Othello and Desdemona, the play's protagonists.

8. A famous French philosopher thought The Prince was satire.

At a time when many rulers looked to the treatise as a serious guide, the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote that The Prince was Machiavelli's writing to fellow citizens, not to rulers, and should be viewed as a cautionary exploration of how a tyrant thinks and rises to power.

9. Mobsters have loved The Prince.

Among the infamous historical figures who pay homage to Machiavelli's treatise, New York Mafia boss John Gotti of the Gambino crime family publicly credited The Prince for influencing his ruthless business practices and penchant for discreet killings. Other members of the Gambino family, such as Roy DeMeo, have made similar statements and quoted the text frequently.

10. Some historians believe Machiavelli was an atheist.

At a time when the Church held tremendous power and Christianity was essentially mandatory in Europe, Machiavelli's tendency to ignore the matter of final judgement for mortal sins in his writings causes some scholars to question if he may have secretly been an atheist. In a later text, Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli directly criticizes Christianity, both in institutional and spiritual terms.

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