Professor Roberto Sabbadini
Social Life in Medieval and Early Modern Italy
Nicolo Macchiavelli and The Prince
At the end of the 14th century, Italy was still politically organized by city-states.Emerging as one of the most influential writers of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelliwas a political analyst,
whose aim was to free italy from foreign rule, as well as to unite and strengthen the Italian city
states.Machiavelli believed Italy could not be united unless its leader was ruthless. In 1513, he wrote his best-known work, The Prince, in which he describes the ways that a prince may gain and
maintain his power. Machiavellie advises his rulers to be kind only of it suited their purposes. Otherwise, he warned, it is better to be feared than loved.
Machiavelli is considered one of the great early modern analyzers of political power. Born in Florence in 1469 and living until 1527, Niccolo Machiavelli experienced what we now consider the height of the Italian Renaissance-a period that produced some of Italy's greatest achievements in the arts and sciences, but that also produced horrible scandals and the establishment of foreign domination over the peninsula (Microsoft Encarta 99). He grew up during the reign of the Medici family, and he learned to read and write in Latin while he studied the classics. Humanistic ideals were popular in Florentine government, and although Machiavelli’s family was neither rich nor aristocratic, they were supporters of the city’s leading humanists. Machiavelli showed a keen interest in the world around him, and from this interest he demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn. By the age of seven he had begun his formal education, and by age twelve he had graduated from primary school and was enrolled in private classes. He was later accepted into the University of Florence where he studied humanities, literature, and sciences.
In 1498, the year that Florence became a republic, Machiavelli was awarded a position in the government as a clerk. He rose quickly through governmental ranks and soon he became head of the second chancery. This position involved him in very important duties dealing with Florence's domestic, foreign, and military affairs. As head of the second chancery, Machiavelli was also soon assigned the further job of secretary to the Ten of War, the committee responsible for Florence's diplomatic relations. This meant that in addition to his routine office duties, Machiavelli sometimes traveled abroad to act as spokesman for the Ten.
During the next fourteen years, Machiavelli was sent on numerous diplomatic missions to France, Switzerland, and Germany. His observations abroad resulted in many of the ideas that form the basis for the major statements found in his political works. While in France, Machiavelli observed the effect of having one prince ruling a united country and in 1512 he wrote his most famous treatise The Prince. Remembering how the French benefitted from having one principality ruled by one prince, Machiavelli intended The Prince to serve as a guide to centralize Italy under one principality, as well as how to gain, maintain political power. Most importantly, The Prince suggests how to rule effectively and what kind of prince is best.
Dedicated to Lorenzo DiMedici, The Prince provides a blueprint for how to take control of other lands and how to maintain power over them. The Prince is different because Machaivelli avoids purely theoretical issues and focues on how things actually are, rather than speculating on how they might be. Drawing examples from his personal experiences and observations rather than from his imagination, Machiavelli aimed to write something useful for Lorenzo.
In many ways Machiavelli’s advice disregards all moral and ethical rules in that he often supports evil over good to obtain and maintain political power. Machiavelli believed that although sometimes people could do admirable things, in general all people are ungrateful, greedy, and only concerned with their own well-being and self-advantages. He wrote,Men are always wicked at bottom unless they are made good by some compulsion.This view was based on observation but it also derived from the medieval Christian tradition that all men were corrupted due to Original Sin. Machiavelli did not suggest that human weaknesses made government impossible, but rather that government must take account of man's real nature and use his real qualities for its purposes. Based on this view of human nature, Machiavelli believed that a prince must gain the trust of his people, and when he considers how a prince should go.