Poet, raconteur, diplomat, historian, military and political theorist, and secretary to the short-lived Republic of Florence (1498–1512), Italian Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) was much more than the author of The Prince, although this work, written in 1512–1513 but published posthumously in 1531, remains the centerpiece of his political legacy. All of his other works, covering Florentine history, poetry, political calculation, drama, military theory, and the primacy of republican values, have their essence concentrated in this slim volume.
The most controversial claim against The Prince is that it is at odds with the admiration for Roman republicanism exemplified in Machiavelli’s Discourse on Livy (1532), but a careful examination reveals that in both works Machiavelli highlights the impossibly corrosive nature of monarchical rule, leaving republicanism as the only alternative. As he explicitly states in his Discourse on Remodeling the Government of Florence (1519–1520), a wise prince should protect his family and friends while he lives, yet provide for a republican government to assume control on his passing, thereby offering him temporal glory and eternal life in the histories of the state. That he offered eternal life to a sitting pope is only one example of Machiavelli’s sly wit. Like his republican sentiments, it is rarely (outside of the Discourses) in plain sight, but the details are never buried so deep that a careful reader could fail to discover their fresh and irreverent bite.
Born in Florence to an established but poor family with no obvious political connections, Machiavelli’s greatest political triumph—how an underage, political nonentity managed to become second secretary to the Republic of Florence— remains concealed from history. His skills as a political observer and diplomat kept him in office, but it was not until his banishment at the hands of the returning Medici family that he became a serious author, producing The Prince and Discourses; several plays, including Mandragola, which is considered a centerpiece of Italian drama; a military discourse favored by Napoleon; and a history of Florence completed in 1525 for the Medici Pope Clement VII that signaled Machiavelli’s return to the favor of Florence’s ruling family. However, by 1527 the Medici were overthrown again, and the new government, suspicious of Machiavelli’s ties to the previous rulers, rejected his offer of service. Machiavelli died with his dream of an independent republic in ruins once again.
Although they are unable to agree on its underlying purpose and generally unwilling to endorse its precepts, nearly every critic agrees The Prince is a masterful composition. Whatever the focus of contemporary critical controversy, the historical fact remains that with it Machiavelli dislocated the stable political morality of the Middle Ages while at the same time exposing the public hypocrisy of the emerging mercantile elite. Political theorists and actors alike would never again be able to pretend that a political realm could exist free from the “dirty hands” of politics.
- Ascoli, Russell Albert, and Victoria Kahn, eds. Machiavelli: and the Discourse of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
- de Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
- Godman, Peter. From Poliziano to Machiavelli: Florentine Humanism in the High Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
- Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Niccolo Machiavelli. Translated by Cecil Grayson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
- Walzer, Michael. “Political Action:The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 160.