‘It is necessary that a prince have a mind ready to turn itself according to the winds of Fortune and the changeability of affairs. He should not stray from the good, but he should know how to enter into evil when necessity commands.’
– Niccolo Machiavelli, 3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527
In the history of political thought there are few people more important than Niccolo Machiavelli. Writing during the Renaissance in the 16th century, Machiavelli produced arguably the most important text ever written on the art of ruling. The Prince, a set of guidelines for princes (rulers) to follow in order to succeed in their craft, was a hurriedly produced book written within a few months in 1513. Composed as an exhibition of knowledge in order to gain political esteem, The Prince was, in simple terms, a job application. Through his life experiences and education, Machiavelli believed that he could write the authentic factors behind successful ruling; thus gaining the attention of the new rulers in Florence, the Medici, and regaining his position in the Florentine court. A well established form of writing, The Prince falls under the genre of “mirrors for princes“. A genre established during the classical period, mirrors had, up until this point, presented the art of successful ruling as resulting from acting in morally correct manners in accordance with religion and other ethical factors.
Diverging from these accepted norms of political writing, Machiavelli challenged the preconceived notions of government and how to rule; arguing that in order to be successful, a ruler must be able to act against those things associated with being a “good” prince. In a world where rulers were supposed to act justly and in accordance with the Bible, his ideas were immediately met with widespread criticism. Recognised as one of the earliest bearings in the development of modern politics, The Prince emphasized realism in its propositions, whereas all of Machiavelli’s contemporaries were more concerned with idealist notions of perfect rulers being perfect Christians.
What actually produced such a revolutionary text? In order to understand this question, The Prince and Machiavelli have to be understood in the context of the Renaissance. Although a text far ahead of its times, the Renaissance and Machiavelli’s experiences with it made possible creation of The Prince.
The Renaissance: A Necessary Factor
“It is much safer to be feared than to be loved…”
Defined by an adoration of perfection in the form of idealism, it may seem as though The Prince was out of place in 16th century Italy. However, through the prominence of humanism in formal education systems, the Renaissance can indeed be seen as a major factor in the creation of The Prince. Humanism or the study of those subjects now understood as the humanities expanded from the 14th century through the ideas of Francesco Petrarca.
Swiftly becoming a pre-condition for being able to hold any position of esteem, humanism was reflective of an entire culture that progressively developed throughout Italy during the Renaissance. Machiavelli, having undergone a humanist education was able to contrast the theories he learnt with his own personal experiences with Renaissance princely governments.
Machiavelli’s Life: The Story Behind The Prince
“Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, in order to keep her down, to beat her and to struggle with her…”
More important than any other contributing factor, it was the life and experiences of Niccolo Machiavelli that resulted in The Prince. Spending fifteen years in the chancery service, Machiavelli was able to meet with some of the most influential and powerful people of the Renaissance during his prolific diplomatic career. Travelling throughout Italy, he witnessed the wide spectrum of ruling styles that had determined the success or failure of numerous princes. Leading to the development of a distinctly unique understanding of the art of ruling, these experiences proved important once the Medici, who viewed Machiavelli as a threat, returned to Florence in 1512.
Under the influence of the Medici, Machiavelli was accused of treason and quickly exiled following a series of torture sessions. Having experienced the highs and lows of the Renaissance political system, Machiavelli attained a new perception of ruling; one with a degree of realism never before imagined. This unique understanding is made clear through various aspects of The Prince but arguably none more than the fact that Machiavelli was still a Christian. This is important as it suggests that either he was no longer concerned with his own fate or, more likely, he had reached a new level of political insight.
The End: Justifies the Means?
“Everyone sees what you seem to be, few perceive what you are…”
Since its publication in 1532 The Prince has led to a number of titles being assigned to Machiavelli; from “devil” to “genius”. However, the most appropriate title given to Niccolo is “the father of modern politics”. Indeed, if it weren’t for The Prince, the development of the modern state may have been completely different. It is in this that the importance of the text lies. Not simply confined to historians and politicians, The Prince is relevant to all people in the current modern context. A controversial figure to this day, the prolificness of Niccolo Machiavelli’s theories ensure that he will continue to pervade modern discussions on politics.