Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince: The Beginning of Modern Politics

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.

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7 comments on “Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince: The Beginning of Modern Politics

  1. chloesmith90 says:

    I thought it was very interesting beginning the article with both a quote and a image! However, this had quite the engaging effect on myself as the audience. This article provides a clear outline of the idea of the ‘beginning of modern politics’, yet also poses the question to the audience as to: “What actually produced such a revolutionary text?”

    I personally found the use of sub-heading of particular use when reading on this subject matter. Each subheading provides insight into the main points of the essay. I particularly enjoyed thee point on humanist education and how this differed with his own personal experiences. Overall a fantastic way to introduce readers to a foreign idea and delve further into modern politics.

  2. Love the topic! I took Nic’s ‘Renaissance’ class this semester and was able to read some Machiavelli – what a distinctive man. I think what I enjoyed the most about what you present here is the reputation which is constributed to him today… which has been influenced by his contemporaries and historians.

    I’m a bit confused as to what you are actually arguing? Is it justifying the importance of Machiavelli in modern political thought? I like that you sought to demonstrate how his writing fit within the environment he was brought up in but at the same time went against the grain of Christian thought of how leaders should rule.

    From those quotes you have I don’t think anyone could read this article and not respond in some way! They were expertly placed and really get us thinking and eager to know more about Machiavelli and the time in which he lived (loved your writing about humanism and the Renaissance!). Really is a great taster for what you wrote about in your essay, would love to read it! Cheers!

  3. davidfinney3 says:

    davidfinney3
    I agree that Machiiavelli was the first writer of a tract which contemplated a form of popular election but the convolutions in his text may well demonstrate his perfidious personality. In the section of ‘Prince’ entitled ‘The constitutional principality’ he states that the prince who is chosen by and appointed by the people has less to fear than one appointed by the nobles, as there will be no challengers. Subsequently he suggests that a prince who gains power through the nobles (and as a result is immediately less popular with the people) but then ingratiates himself with the people becomes more popular with the people than he would have if they had appointed him themselves.
    This could be the perfect product of Machiavellinism offering a faint promise of Modern Politics or is it just expediency?.

  4. jessazar says:

    I took MHIS322 as well and my research question was on Machiavelli so I absolutely loved this post! You’ve done a really great job at placing ‘The Prince’ in its historical context. Humanism is a hugely relevant aspect when addressing Machiavelli and you’ve incorporated that nicely throughout this piece. This post brings together so many of the different aspects of ‘The Prince’ in one nice, neat package. The discussion of Machiavelli’s own Christian religious beliefs was something I found particularly interesting as it was one aspect of his life I did not touch on in my own research. Having read ‘The Prince’ I think the quotations you selected were fantastic! They give the audience a quick overview of some of Machiavelli’s greatest ideas.

    Nicely done 🙂

  5. Jennifer Yeh says:

    I think the combination of issues you’ve chosen to contextualise The Prince has worked really well in your post. By considering humanism, politics and religion, you seem to be referring to broader themes such as idealism, realism, fortune and virtue. (I am another person who did MHIS322; my research question was on Francesco Guicciardini, one of Machiavelli’s contemporaries)

    However, I also agree with Cameron – I’m not entirely clear on what you’re arguing. This is what I think you might be saying: what makes Machiavelli distinctive and ‘modern’ is his sense of realism because he diverged from an idealist norm.

    I enjoyed reading your post – what a fascinating topic!

  6. dominiccutajar says:

    Firstly, just would like to thank all of you for the positive feedback.

    Secondly, in terms of clarification, the overall thesis of the major project was to understand ‘The Prince’ in its own context in order to then understand it in greater terms. The general argument of the paper was that Machiavelli’s own experiences and beliefs, in conjunction with the nature and influence of the Renaissance led to the creation of ‘The Prince’. Through an understanding of this process, larger factors of importance, like the place of Machiavelli in the history of the development of modern political thought among other topics can be reconstructed with greater clarity.

    Hope this deals with any of the general queries held in regards to the post. Thanks.

  7. nicolajblack says:

    I’m yet another student of the MHIS322 – and after that class and other Politics classes, I read The Prince cover to cover and absolutely loved it. I too was a little confused but after reading your clarification it makes complete sense – the whole idea of contextualisation and such. With historical/political textpieces like this, is easy to try and understand the ideology/values within our own contemporary context – we’re human like that.

    Really enjoyed it, fantastic topic, really insightful and concise.

    Nicola Black

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