Niccolo Machiavelli

"The Father of Modern Political Science"

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      Though it influenced all of Europe, the principal features of the Renaissance (circa 1300-1600) would find greatest expression in Italy, and, within Italy, achieve highest form in Florence .

Italy was not so much a country (since it lacked a central government) as a collection of regions with a common tongue, governed either by "republics" or Princes and Dukes, often engaged in power struggles and political intrigues with their Italian neighbors, near and far, or foreign nations, particularly France and Spain. As regards other Italian states (Milan, Venice, Naples, and the Papal States being the principal contenders), each city attempted to protect itself by playing the larger powers off against each other. The result was massive political intrigue, blackmail, and violence.

Onto this stage would step Niccolo Machiavelli. He would prove himself an original thinker, comic play writer, historian, political scientist, and humanist scholar, but the reason we know his name is because 1) he was born and raised in Florence at the time the Medici family ruled this portion of Italy, 2) studied thoroughly the nature of governments and politics because of a career involved in it, and 3) wrote a little pamphlet entitled The Prince, as advice to the Medici family on how to rule effectively and survive in power.

Niccolo began his political career in 1498, a period when the Medicis were out of power, the city already beyond its peak of influence. Appointed diplomat for the new Florentine republic, he rose in career rapidly, representing Florence in European courts and other principalities of Italy, including that of the powerful Cesare Borgia ("Che-CZAR-eh") - the notorious Borgia family being a source of fascination for him, and an important influence in the development of his political philosophy.

After some 20 years of this, the Medici family, aided by Spanish troops, overturned the republic (1512) and took back control. Niccolo was imprisoned and then exiled. In exile Niccolo was distraught that the city he loved was at the mercy of foreign governments - particularly France and Spain - and he dreamed of a unified Italy which could defeat such armies. But that would take a strong leader, and he thought back on the character of Cesare Borgia, who was ruthless, efficient, defiant, and dominating. Such a leader was needed by Italy.

In exile, he wrote his most famous work (The Prince -1513) - dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici (already deceased) - in the hope that the Medicis would approve of his declarations, and result in Niccolo's restoration. It would not happen.

The pamphlet was rejected even though that family was quite accomplished in employing the methods which it advised. What made The Prince controversial was that it was based on human nature, and how, throughout history, government and politics really worked, rather than how people thought it should work.

For it was the idealistic mindset of the Medieval period that an effective Prince would govern best if he governed with virtue and morality, and within the framework of religion. The virtuous path was stated to be the most efficient course for the maximum pleasure of any state's citizens. This was accepted wisdom even though there were scarce examples of it working effectively, or, for very long.

Machiavelli believed that a Prince, in order to bring maximum happiness to his people, must use whatever means necessary to maintain a state which was orderly, unified, balanced, strong, and secure, for this is what history revealed kept a population content. Political upheavals, changes in laws by new rulers, and uncertainty in economic continuity, were things to be avoided; political stability at the top was the most important characteristic of a country governed successfully. Important Point: Machiavelli's original idea in all of this was to sever the traditional link between ethics and political policy.

His advice, therefore, was that a Prince should use cunning, cruelty, deception, or force, if nothing moral worked. Notice this: "if nothing moral worked". Therein lay the little portion which would be overlooked in the condemnation of this pamphlet. Noticed was the main theme: all means may be resorted to, for the establishment and preservation of authority, and that the worst and most treacherous acts of the ruler are justified by the wickedness and treachery of rivals or the citizenry. He advised rulers to be kind only of it suited the greater plan. Otherwise, he warned, it is better to be feared than loved.

As one of many analogies, he used this one regarding the use of both cleverness and strength:

"You must know there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force; the first method is of men, the second of beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, one must have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to use the methods of the beast and the man . . . A prince . . . ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against traps and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the traps and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand this."


Many examples given in the pamphlet are those of political failures. At any moment, if the ruler makes ONE miscalculation, all authority he has assiduously cultivated dries up in an instant. But - the social and political world is thoroughly unpredictable, volatile; only a very well trained and resourceful mind can overcome such instability.

"It is good to be true to your word, but you should lie whenever it advances your power or security; Not only that, it is necessary."


In one of the most famous passages from The Prince , Machiavelli elaborates on the necessary response to uncertainty of the world, or Fortune, by comparing Fortune to a lady: "la fortuna donna!" A Lady has become the object of desire, so she is approached, implored, solicited, petitioned. The proper Prince, however, neither entreats nor begs Lady Fortune, says Machiavelli, but rather physically seizes her and has his will with her. Meaning: in the world of politics, a person of atypical strong will can bring order to the chaos of the world and determine the flow of events. Fortune, in admiration of such acts of boldness, becomes pliant, and succumbs.

Machiavelli was a tragic fellow. He admires the Florence of the Medicis from the day that he is born, the son of a wealthy lawyer, in 1469, but by the time he comes of age, the Medicis have been forced out and the city is a republic. That republic hires him. The republic is (after a number of years) overthrown by the Medicis. Machiavelli seeks employment with them, but they don't trust him because of his service to the republic. Eventually he comes to terms with the Medicis, but then they lose Florence to a new republic in 1527. Machiavelli tries to join the new republic, but they don't trust him because of his links with the Medicis. In that year, Machiavelli dies at the age of 58.

To use the word "machiavellian" is to imply deception, despotism, cruelty and corruption, in any person or organization in authority, and yet the writer, Niccolo Machiavelli (now regularly identified as the father of modern political science), did not personally represent these characteristics, but merely identified what was the true nature of the world. He personally favored virtue, but said, ultimately, the end justifies the means. His greater political philosophy is well thought out and described in his larger but relatively unknown work entitled Discourses Upon (the First Ten Books of) Livy, which appeared in 1517, after The Prince was written (and its contents known) but well before it was published.

Question for discussion: "Which American president comes closest to employing the methods contained in The Prince?
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Phrases which remain current from The Prince: "the end justifies the means", "it is better to be feared than loved", "Fortune is a Lady" (we say: Lady Luck)

A nice "squashed" version of The Prince will be found here: Squashed Prince




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