Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli

Somehow in this political year it seems fitting to write about Machiavelli, famously the author of The Prince.  He was born in Florence, Italy, on May 3, 1469, into one of the prominent merchant families of this city-state.  However, the family was not wealthy, and financial worries would dog Niccolo throughout his life.  He became a civil servant, holding several important positions, and undertook many delicate diplomatic missions.  His awareness of Florentine military failures convinced him mercenary armies could not be trusted, and he attempted to raise a citizen army himself in 1506. Periodically he would publish his ideas.

Machiavelli’s fortunes turned sour in 1512. Florence was caught between the competing ambitions of Pope Julius II and King Louis XII of France, and Machiavelli’s militia was a large part of the force defeated at Prato.  Florence switched sides and Machiavelli was ultimately relieved of his duties and his movement restricted.  He was even imprisoned briefly and tortured in 1513 before he retired to his estate at Sant’ Andrea in Percussina.  But he continued to write; it was then that he began to work on his two most famous publications, The Prince and The Discourses.  Machiavelli wrote most of his literary works between 1515 and 1520.  He still undertook missions for Florence until his death in 1527.  The Prince, first written about 1513, was ultimately published in 1532.

The Prince has become recognized as a milestone work of western civilization).  Yet in spite of its formidable reputation, it is surprisingly short and somewhat simplistic, to the point that actually reading it becomes something of a letdown.  Most of it is based on what we would think of as common sense (“In any new princedom, however, difficulties do arise.”), and is written with a directness normally found in cookbooks.  If this were a contemporary work, I would half expect it to be part of one of those trendy self-help series, probably entitled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ruling a Principality.

Of course Machiavelli was a product of his time.  This work begins with a Dedicatory Letter to Lorenzo de Medici;  he needed a job.  He was in no position to offend anyone in power. Certainly the Medici family was very important to his fortunes.

The Prince is divided into 26 chapters, each with a descriptive title: “The Various Kinds of Princedoms and How They May Be Acquired,” “What A Prince Should Do About Military Affairs,” etc. Machiavelli backs up his direct prose with examples taken both from the ancient world (Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus) and his contemporaries (Louis XII, Cesare Borgia).  He also occasionally resorts to imagery: “…Fortune is the mistress of half of our actions,…”  The final chapter is a patriotic “An Exhortation to Seize Italy and Free Her From the Barbarians.”  Would Machiavelli be happy today?  Certainly he would be gratified to see Italy united.  But there have been bumps in the road.  Benito Mussolini would get a failing grade, and I suspect the country’s post-World War II political instability would leave Niccolo shaking his head.

If this is such a milestone work, why wasn’t it written until 1513?  Surely, for example, the ancient Greek city-states had as much need for such guidance as Renaissance Italy.  Perhaps such a work was written earlier and has been lost to history.  If so, then maybe Machiavelli owes his fame as much to the invention of movable type as to the power of his ideas.  Or it could have been due to the work’s straightforwardness.  Yet that does not mean Machiavelli was ruthless.  His advice is simply grounded in the real world.

Which leads to the question: how applicable is The Prince today?  The world has changed greatly since the sixteenth century; democracy and nuclear weapons are just two examples to test the meddle of any ruler.  But good advice on the practical application of power is appropriate for any age.  Chapter 18, “How Princes Should Keep Their Word,” would not be a bad place to start: “I could give countless modern examples, proving how many peace treaties and promises have been made null and void by the dishonesty of princes…”   So can we!

I would expect The Prince to remain popular for a long time to come.

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