Machiavelli's The Prince

Machiavelli, Niccolò

Niccolò Machiavelli (nēk-kōlô´ mäkyävĕl´lē), 1469–1527, Italian author and statesman, one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance, b. Florence.

Life

A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the Florentine republic and rose rapidly in importance. As defense secretary he substituted (1506) a citizens' militia for the mercenary system then prevailing in Italy. This reform sprang from his conviction, set forth in his major works, that the employment of mercenaries had largely contributed to the political weakness of Italy. Machiavelli became acquainted with power politics through his important diplomatic missions. He met Cesare Borgia twice and was sent by way of Florence to Louis XII of France (1504, 1510), to Pope Julius II (1506), and to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1507).

The Medicis' return (1512) to Florence caused his dismissal; in 1513 he was briefly imprisoned and was tortured for his alleged complicity in a plot against the Medici. Machiavelli retired to his country estate, where he wrote his chief works. He humiliated himself before the Medici in a vain attempt to recover office. When, in 1527, the republic was briefly reestablished, Machiavelli was distrusted by many of the republicans, and he died thoroughly disappointed and embittered.

Principal Writings

Machiavelli's best-known work, Il principe [the prince] (1532), describes the means by which a prince may gain and maintain his power. His "ideal" prince (seemingly modeled on Cesare Borgia) is a supremely adaptable, amoral, and calculating tyrant who would be able to establish a unified Italian state. The last chapter of the work pleads for the eventual liberation of Italy from foreign rule. Interpretations of The Prince vary: it has been viewed as sincere advice, as a plea for political office, as a detached analysis of Italian politics, as evidence of early Italian nationalism, and as political satire on Medici rule. However, the adjective Machiavellian has come to be a synonym for amoral cunning and for justification by power.

Less widely read but more indicative of Machiavelli's politics is his scholarly Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio [discourses on the first 10 books of Livy] (1531). In it Machiavelli expounds a general theory of politics and government that stresses the importance of an uncorrupted political culture and a vigorous political morality. Vaster in conception than The Prince, the Discourses shows clearly Machiavelli's republican ideals and principles, which are also reflected in his Istorie Fiorentine [history of Florence] (1532), a historical and literary masterpiece, entirely modern in concept.

Other works include Dell'arte della guerra [on the art of war] (1521), which viewed military problems in relation to politics, and numerous reports and brief works. He also wrote many poems and plays, notably the lively, satiric, and ribald comedy Mandragola [the mandrake], an extremely popular work first performed in 1520. His correspondence has been preserved and is of great interest. The chief works of Machiavelli are available in several popular English editions.

Bibliography

See P. Constantine, ed., The Essential Writings of Machiavelli (2007); biographies by P. Villari (2 vol., tr. 1878), R. Ridolfi (1954, tr. 1963), and M. Vitoli (2000); H. Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (1956); S. Anglo, Machiavelli (1970); E. Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (1987); P. S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (1989); R. King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (2007); C. Vivanti, Niccolò Michiavelli: An Intellectual Biography (2013); P. Bobbitt, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2013); A. Ryan, On Machiavelli: The Search for Glory (2013); M. Viroli, Redeeming The Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli's Masterpiece (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli; Peter Bondanella; Peter Bondanella; Mark Musa.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction
Quentin Skinner.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Adviser to Princes"
Machiavelli & the Renaissance
Federico Chabod; David Moore.
Harvard University Press, 1958
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "An Introduction to The Prince" and Chap. 2 "The Prince: Myth and Reality"
Machiavelli
Maurizio Viroli.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: The Prince is discussed throughout
The Machiavellian Chiron: Appearance and Reality in 'The Prince.'
Arieti, James A.
CLIO, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 1995
History of Political Philosophy
Leo Strauss; Joseph Cropsey.
Rand McNally, 1963
Librarian’s tip: "Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527" begins on p. 247
A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century
J. W. Allen.
Methuen, 1951 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Il Principe" begins on p. 464
Machiavelli's Ethics
Erica Benner.
Princeton University Press, 2009
Librarian’s tip: "Corrupt Judgments: Means and Ends in The Prince" begins on p. 360; "Persuasion in The Prince: On Maintaining One's Own Arms" begins on p. 437
Machiavelli Revisited
Joseph V. Femia.
University of Wales Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Especially Chap. 1 "The Many Faces of Machiavelli"
"The Deeds of Great Men": Thoughts on the Literary Motives and Imaginary Actions of Machiavelli's New Prince
Tarlton, Charles D.
CLIO, Vol. 29, No. 4, Summer 2000
Machiavelli's Realism
Schaub, Diana.
The National Interest, No. 53, Fall 1998
Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy
J. R. Hale.
English Universities Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Setting of The Prince: 1513-1514"
Machiavelli: Cynic, Patriot, or Political Scientist?
De Lamar Jensen.
D. C. Heath, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Especially "The Nationalism of Machiavelli," which begins on p. 35, and "Science and Political Theory," which begins on p. 61
Reappraising Political Theory: Revisionist Studies in the History of Political Thought
Terence Ball.
Clarendon Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Machiavelli and Moral Change"
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