Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince

By Niccolò Machiavelli

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Niccolò Machiavelli

We know, we know, he has quite a bit of a reputation, doesn't he? You'd probably heard of him before he wrote the book. You probably thought he was some kind of amoral, bloodthirsty psychopath. We won't blame you; his name is synonymous with evil politics. But let's get to know him a little better than that, shall we?

Representin' Florence

This little city-state is a pretty big part of what makes Machiavelli who he is. Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. Why do we care? First, Italy then is not like Italy now. Today, Italy is a unified nation-state, but in Machiavelli's day, it was more of a collection of mini-states that were very close together and constantly fighting.

There were four main states competing with each other near Florence: Milan, Venice, The Papal States, and Naples. Out of all five, Florence was the smallest and the weakest, right in the middle of everyone else. Think of them as the youngest brother, who doesn't get picked on only because the older brothers are too busy fighting to notice him.

The competition between the Italian states was so fierce that everything was basically at a standstill—no one state would let the others get the upper hand. So Florence wasn't ever taken, but the threat of invasion constantly loomed over their heads.

At the same time, France and Spain were in a drag-out fight over who got to control all the Italian city-states. The internal and external stalemate ended (for the first time) in 1494, when France took up Milan's invitation to come and take Naples. Enter King Charles VIII and an invading army. Since everyone used mercenaries, taking over was a piece of cake for Charles.

The Diplomat

Four years later, Machiavelli started his career as a diplomat, specializing in foreign policy and traveling all over Italy. It was obviously not the simplest position to be in. He was representing the weakest of the states in a time when all of Italy was extra unstable because of the Italian Wars.

It's kind of like being a police officer at the end of the world: no one wants that job. Anything could happen, at any time, and Machiavelli's job was basically to make sure that "anything" was not the occupation of Florence by another state.

On top of everything, Machiavelli's job was more difficult because Florence had no army, and had to keep borrowing one from "friends." He kept harping on and on about having a local army, but no one listened until 1503, when he was put in charge of training a Florentine militia. Finally.

But wait—a militia is not an army, and Florence was leaning on France (yes, the country that invaded, because that makes sense…) for protection. Machiavelli was, of course, whining about this, too, but no one listened. And when France left in 1512, Florence was left defenseless and the republic fell.

Unfortunately, Machiavelli was too busy getting fired to say, "I told you so."

The Reader and the Writer

Combine Machiavelli's background as a Florentine, his career as a diplomat, and his extensive education, and it's not difficult to guess where all this stuff in The Prince comes from. This guy is bored, angry, and wants to get his job back. So what does he do? He writes a book. We think you know which one.

We get the idea that The Prince is not only Machiavelli's resume to Lorenzo de' Medici, but his own rules for making sure that the stupid stuff that he saw happening didn't happen ever again. After all the problems Florence had defending itself, it's no wonder Machiavelli was obsessed with never using mercenaries: "The fact is that mercenaries bring only slow, belated, unconvincing victories, then sudden, bewildering defeats" (12.8). He wanted an army. And not just any army—a strong one. If Florence had one of those, he says, it could have defended itself.

Plus, Florence was surrounded. Stronger states were everywhere, so there wasn't very much to do about Florence's situation except hope for the best. Then things got even worse when Milan invited in France (who does that?) with its big, fancy army. We're pretty sure that's why Machiavelli wrote, "In particular, he must take care that no foreign power strong enough to compete with his own gets a chance to penetrate the area" (3.7). Too little too late?

Then, of course, Machiavelli meets Cesare Borgia and realizes what success looks like. He probably never forgot this moment, or washed his hands again.

The Sad Old Man

The list of things that Machiavelli might have been trying to correct through The Prince could go on and on, but we think you get the idea. Bottom line: it's not really fair to think of Machiavelli as a horrible, immoral guy. He's just a dude in exile trying to dream big. Check out this letter he wrote to a friend about writing The Prince:

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them. (xix)

Does that sound like a scary guy to you? More like a guy that needs a hug. And maybe a teddy bear. He was kicked out of the world he loved when he lost his job, and The Prince was his attempt to get back in. But, try as he might, it didn't quite work. Machiavelli would not be directly involved in politics again except for two years when Giulio de' Medici wanted his advice on foreign affairs.

So Shmoopsters, think a little more kindly about Machiavelli next time you read The Prince, huh?

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