Before I begin this project, I want you to know, that my first introduction to Niccolo Machiavelli came back in high school, and consisted of exactly this: “The end justifies the means” -Niccolo Machiavelli. “Memorize this; it will be on the test.”
That was it. That was all.
And we wonder why today, most of us have little to no understanding of the political landscape and no desire whatsoever to learn. It’s the playing field of the wealthy elite, politicians and strategists, policy-makers that comport themselves with varying degrees of integrity and corruption; from the perspective of many- mostly corruption. This was the case four centuries ago, in Machiavelli’s day, just as much as it is today.
The Prince was not written from the point of view of how politics should be conducted, but on how they actually were conducted; as Machiavelli knew them to be from his own historical context and from what he witnessed first-hand. He didn’t create the rules; he described them in the context of historical events known to his contemporary time period, likely having some experience with what worked versus what did not during his tenure as a Florentine statesman.
Niccolo Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence Italy. He was born a second son, to a father who was a lawyer of some repute, and to parents who were both old Florentine nobility. He was raised during the rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici, II Magnifico, and did not enter office until the downfall of the Medici family in 1494.
During the period in which he served in public office, Florence was a free Republic, from 1494 until 1512, when the Medici’s were reinstated to power. He was dismissed from his office, on November 7 1512, and shortly afterward, was accused of being involved in a conspiracy against the Medici. He was imprisoned, and interrogated under torture before Leo X procured his release. He then retired to San Casciano, where he began his literary career. It was during this time that he wrote The Prince.
He received a commission to write History of Florence by Cardinal de’ Medici in 1520, and finished it in 1525; it was speculated that popularity within the literary circles accounted for this commission. In 1527, the Medici family again was ousted from power in Florence, while Machiavelli was absent from the city. He immediately returned but fell ill and died on June 22 1527.
The value and importance of The Prince, lies primarily with the hard truths involved in the balance and relationship between rulers and those they rule. It is not about what should be, but what was, and what is. Statecraft is less about what is fair or right and more to do with what is realistic, and within the scope of possibility. During Machiavelli’s lifetime, there was no moral compass for the ruling class in the obtaining and keeping of power or provinces.
The development of the idea that leaders should encompass a higher morality and a greater sense of responsibility with sovereignty came much later. It was during those ensuing four centuries that Machiavelli’s infamous reputation was bestowed as a cloak and dagger player whose deeds were far more underhanded than his own contemporaries. In all actuality, he was no more underhanded than anyone else, and a bit less underhanded than those he described.
He certainly recognized that morality in politics could be costly, but he was also quick to note that lack of genuine morality could be fatal. He was brave enough to state this point despite the times in which he lived. This is something that many people today fail to consider when it comes to Niccolo Machiavelli; he lived in extremely dangerous times. Chapter 11 on ecclesiastical provinces likely owes its positive commentary to the active presence of the Inquisition.
Summing up Niccolo Machiavelli and his work with a statement such as “the ends justify the means” especially coming from those who are devoid of any understanding of the historical context of the time period is so deceptive as to be slanderous. It is beyond merely an over-simplification of his work, it’s flat out lazy-minded and ignorant. It is also reckless to neglect teaching both the historical context and content of The Prince even to the ruled.
The link above will take you to an 8 page explanation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s life and times, the true relevance of the man, his works; some of his other titles, and from there the text of The Prince can also be found. It is not difficult to read and I highly recommend each chapter be viewed first-hand. Do not accept someone else’s opinion when you are fully capable of making your own assessment and conclusions when it comes to merit, value, and worth.
The Prince Chapter 1
“HOW MANY KINDS OF PRINCIPALITIES THERE ARE, AND BY WHAT MEANS THEY ARE ACQUIRED.”
Chapter 1 discusses principalities and republics, the two forms of ruling government Machiavelli knew in his lifetime. Today, we would likely add a few more; at least different types of republics and other forms of government.
A principality is in essence, a monarchist form of government, in which the position of ruler is passed on through inheritance.
A republic as defined by Machiavelli in this chapter is a “free state”, and whose population is accustomed to living in freedom.
Machiavelli goes on to define principalities as states in which the populace is accustomed to living under a ruling monarch of some kind, and the ruling line has been present for a long period of time, or entirely new, or through annexation. A ruler is one who has inherited the population, or won it through warfare, or by “fortune or ability.”
What Machiavelli does not mention is theocracy (at least in this chapter or by that term) which is a state ruled by a secular or religious leader. An example of this would be Vatican City, which is ruled by the Pope. He does however devote an entire chapter (Chapter 11) to it ecclesiastical states which is specific to Catholicism.
Thanks for reading! Check back next Monday for Chapter 2.