“I would rather be in hell and converse with great minds than live in paradise with that dull rabble.” In his life’s writings, Niccolo Machiavelli, sought out the strength of the human character, and wrote according to his own rules; trying to better the political philosophy of his time. Machiavelli, a fiercely independent Renaissance man, advocated the prosperity of Italian politics, and wanted Italy to rise above the rest of the world.
Machiavelli’s writings dealt with many issues that had not been attacked in his time, and utilized his distinct brand of political philosophy to try and change the politics and government that shaped his era. The Prince, regarded as his most controversial and successful work, spelled out a method of amelioration; whether positive or negative, virtuous or severe, a prince was to uphold the strength of a nation and a government. The next few pages will take a closer look at the life that has followed Niccolo Machiavelli, the use of historical allusions and the explicitness used in The Prince.
His Life and Death
Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy on May 3rd of 1469. Many changes were taking place faster at this time than the masses could follow. The Renaissance was changing the world. Machiavelli had been born during time of change and subsequently shaped who he was and what he was going to do. Although Italy was the center of the Renaissance, characterized by rebirth of learning and culture, it didn’t have a central government.
Italy was divided up into 4 large city-states that were unfortunately not in control of themselves. They were under the constant mercy of the other more politically stable European governments, which had a central government that unified the nation and solidified the masses in times of war. Florence was controlled by the Medici family, who had been in power for around 50 years (Ridolfi, Roberto, p.5). Piero de’ Medici died the same year that Machiavelli was born and his son Lorenzo took over where his father left off (Ridolfi, Roberto p.6).
The next years of Machiavelli’s life included many dramatic experiences that altered the way that he viewed government. The Medici family was overthrown, and the power of the government changed hands when the French, lead by Louis XII invaded Italy (The Prince p. viii). Through decisions made by the Church and Pope Julius II, the Medici family came back to restore order and take up where they left off. It was through these actions that Machiavelli was viewed as unfit for any type of political position and was forced into exile. The Prince, written in 1513, was started during this time of expulsion in order to once again become in the good graces of the Medici family. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t happen and he wouldn’t return to Florence until 1526, only to die a year later in 1527.
Throughout Machiavelli’s career, he was exposed to a variety of politics; politics of the church, of the Medici family, and politics to stay alive. He had to leave Florence and retire to his country home in San Casciano in order to save his life for his conspiring with the Boscoli-Capponi anti Medicean plot, and recognizing that military (Ruffo-Fiore, Silvia p.v). Machiavelli’s intentions were always in favor of uniting Italy, but his ideas and actions weren’t always seen in that light. He was tortured for conspiracy from this act (Ruffo-Fiore, Silvia, p.v).
In the spirit of his controversial life, Machiavelli’s death engaged marked hostility as well. The Prince was published in 1532 and the many people that read it were taken aback by it. They thought Machiavelli advocated, more or less, a tyrant to control the nation; a prince that was heartless, evil, was disinterested in the good of anything, except himself. This lead to the term Machiavellian, which is equivalent to a corrupt government.
“By a quirk of history, Machiavelli’s
name has come to be associated with a
certain kind of political behaviour,
according to which rulers and politicians
de facto act out of expediency,
disregarding moral rules and conscience,
or with a devilish and manipulative
cunning, which is something else again
(Parel, Anthony, p.158).”
In 1997, rapper Tupac Shakur, released the album titled “Makaveli” which came out shortly before he had been killed (www.tupac.com). The connection to Niccolo Machiavelli comes from what his name is associated with, (www.tupacshakur.com) the powerful man that he advocated in The Prince, and also the misunderstanding that he faked his death to gain power. The rumor created by this album and the subculture that has followed, has misinterpreted Machiavelli’s name once again, and misconstrued his political theories. Machiavelli’s intention of a strong and dominant leader has been transformed by this subculture brought on Tupac Shakur’s album “Makaveli,” and the rumor of faking his apparent death; something that Machiavelli never instigated (http://wwww.magna.com.au/~chrisn/death.htm).
The Prince was constructed in 1513 and was dedicated
to Lorenzo de Medici. Machiavelli wrote this not only to be thought of as a civil servant that could be trusted with working with the government, but also as an outline for qualities that a good leader should strive for.
“And although I may consider this work
unworthy of your countenance (to Medici),
nevertheless I trust much to your benignity
that it may be acceptable, seeing that
it is not possible for me to make a
better gift to you the opportunity of
understanding in the shortest time all
that I have learnt in so many years,
and with so many troubles and dangers…
for I have wished either that no honour
should be given it, or else that the truth
of the matter and the weightiness of the
theme shall make it acceptable.” (The Prince p.3)
By some critics, this outline called The Prince, has thought of and described as scientific.
“The Prince is a scientific book because
it conveys a general teaching that is
based on reasoning from experience and
that sets forth that reasoning. That
teaching s partly theoretical (knowledge
practical (knowledge of the rules with
which the prince must comply)”
(Strauss, Leo p. 55).
Machiavelli never meant The Prince to be described as a scientific book. In The Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli, published after his death, he refers to The Prince as a “treatise” (Strauss, Leo p. 55). Due to the principals that Machiavelli set forth of character, a treatise is a good definition of The Prince.
In The Prince, Machiavelli used historical allusions, to make to illustrate his points. “The Romans, in the countries which they annexed, observed closely these measures; they sent colonies and maintained friendly relations with the minor powers…. (The Prince, p. 14)” Without these allusions to historical happenings, the examples that Machiavelli uses in The Prince wouldn’t have any depth, nor would could the reader see the importance of them. Another example of history in The Prince, is the use of looking at past forms of governments to create new ideas for the future. When discussing the example of how to acquire and maintain a new state he starts with the way Alexander the Great took over Asia and then moves on to the more modern take acquisitions of the Turk and the French.
The examples of [these] two governments
in our time are the Turk and the King
Turk is governed by one lord, the others
are his servants…. But the kingdom of
France is placed in the midst of an
ancient body of lords, acknowledged by
their own subjects and beloved by them;
they have their own prerogatives, nor can
(The Prince p.22).
Another case where Machiavelli alludes to a historical event is in Chapter V of The Prince. Through the example of the loss of Roman and the Spartan territory, he spells out how the use of the prince would have better suited their interests. “The Spartans held Athens and Thebes, establishing there an oligarchy, nevertheless they lost them (The Prince, p.25).” He emphasizes the need for a master of the city, not the use of a government system such as an oligarchy.
“…and a prince can gain them to
himself an secure them much more
easily. But in republics there is
more vitality, greater hatred, and
more desire for vengeance, which
will never permit them to allow
the memory of their former liberty
to rest; so that the safest way is
to destroy them…”
(The Prince, p. 26)
The use of this reference sets precedence for the use of a prince in government. Machiavelli sets the stage early in The Prince, through the use of history and how his leader, his prince, can make the government authoritative and resilient.
Another innovation of The Prince is the way that Machiavelli spelled out characteristics that a prince had to uphold to maintain his status, his rule, and the attitudes that a strong prince must have.
“A Prince ought to have no other aim
or thought, nor select anything else
for his study, than war and it’s rules
and discipline; for this is the sole
art that belongs to him who rules, and
it is of such force that it not only
upholds these who are born princes, but
to often enables men to rise from a
private section of rank (The Prince p. 79).”
In Chapter XVII, Machiavelli uses the example of Cesare Borgia to suggest that it is more beneficial to be feared than to be loved. “Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romanga, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty (The Prince, p.91).” Borgia was son to Spanish Pope Alexander VI, who wanted his son to become a man of the church. Cesare instead turned that down to concern his life with the military and politics (Ruffo-Fiore, Silvia p.12).” Borgia is mentioned throughout The Prince, and perhaps Machiavelli viewed him as the ideal prince. Borgia failed to achieve this, but many believe that he was used as the ideal example. “From the perspective of theory, nothing can be more instructive than Machiavelli’s analysis of the politics of Cesare Borgia. Though ultimately Borgia remains a failed prince, he is never the less presented an exemplar for all innovators. (Parel, Anthony p.117).”
In Chapter XVIII Machiavelli urges rulers to take on the characteristics of animals such as the fox and the lion by using cunning force when the situation requires it. “The lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox can’t defend himself against wolves. Therefore it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares, and a lion to terrify the wolves.” This view of men acting as beasts, challenges the humanist view of behavior of man. A humanist such as Erasmus would not accept human beings acting like animals, and since the humanists were such a philosophical force in Machiavelli’s time, it caused even more of an outrage.
Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli gives many orders for a prince to imitate based on personal experience and knowledge gathered from his time spent involved with politics and government. In chapter XIV titled “That Which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of War” Machiavelli explains that the most important aspect of the omnipotent rule that a Prince should posses is war (The Prince, p.79). Machiavelli witnessed the “art of war” and through his dealings, he expresses whole-heartedly the importance of war to a prince.
A Prince ought to have no other aim
thought, nor select anything else for his
study, than war and its rules and discipline;
for this is the sole are that belongs to
him that who rules, and it is such a force
that it not only upholds those who are born
princes, but it often enables men to rise
from a private station to the rank. And
on the contrary, it is seen that when
princes have thought more of ease than
of arms they have lost their states
(The Prince, p79).”
Machiavelli successfully shows the importance of a prince to have the ability to “study the art of war.” In his time, states and governments were lost due to the inadequacies of the rulers that had power. Italy was the perfect example of a government that had these troubles.
Niccolo Machiavelli’s life was full of obstacles and asperity. In his life he dreamed of a unified Italy, and one man, a prince, to achieve his goals. He was a master of politics, and a philosopher that preached towards the empowerment of government. Unfortunately his intentions remain clouded and this fuels the uncertainty that follows his name. Along with his inspiring work on politics and governments, he wrote satirical plays and also wrote poetry. Although, for good or bad, he will always be remembered for the work he accomplished with The Prince. The way that Machiavelli compared and contrasted forms of governments with historical events supplemented The Prince, so that it was so much more then an outline, but a guide of measures to be followed, characteristics to be filled, and the fashion that a strong man, a prince should rule. Machiavelli did not edit or hold back the virtues that a prince should posses. It was explicit, and it gave meaning to the abilities of authority that a prince had to rule with. It justified cruel actions that a prince should be capable of and willing to utilize in the times of need. Machiavelli’s reputation isn’t one of peace, love and goodwill to man. Machiavelli wasn’t worried about this reputation. He worried about great men and the minds and ideas that they could create. Despite the challenges he faced, he “would rather be in hell and converse with great minds than live in paradise with that dull rabble.”
Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Niccolo Machiavelli.
Parel, Anthony. The Machiavellian Cosmos.
Ruffo-Fiore, Silvia. Niccolo Machiavelli.
Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1982
Strauss, Leo. Thoughts on Machiavelli.
Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1958
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince.
Great Britain: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD, 1958
Tupac Web Sites:
#s 6, 56, 57.