The Prince Author/Context
Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy on May 3, 1469. His family owned farm and rental properties and Machiavelli's father, Bernardo, practiced law. Machiavelli received a quality, classical education, characteristic of the humanist traditions of Renaissance Italy. As a young boy, Machiavelli showed great interest in the works of ancient Latin writers, such as Dante, Livy, and Cicero.
In Machiavelli's youth, Florence was ruled by Lorenzo de' Medici, or Lorenzo the Magnificent, the great liberal statesman, patron of the arts, and man of letters. After Lorenzo's death, Florence went through a period of political instability, starting with the French invasion of Charles VIII (1494) and ending with the rise and fall of Savaronola, a Dominican friar, who through his prophetic sermons established a theocratic state until its fall in 1498. At the age of 29, Machiavelli, who never held a governmental position before, became second chancellor of the newly established Republic of Florence. Machiavelli's position gave him access to the major political and military players of Europe. As a diplomat, Machiavelli traveled extensively and met such leaders as Louis XII of France, Cesare Borgia, Emperor Maximilian II, and Pope Julius II. During his diplomatic missions, he took notes of these men, which would prove useful in writing The Prince. Machiavelli was considered a tireless worker and eventually became a trusted advisor to the gonfaloniere, or chief magistrate, Piero Soderini. But in 1512, the Republic of Florence fell to the Spanish army of the Holy League. The Medici family regained control of Florence and Machiavelli was dismissed from his position. A year later, he was accused of taking part in a conspiracy against the Medici rulers. Imprisoned and tortured, he was eventually cleared of the charges and released.
Over a decade of living and breathing politics came to an abrupt end and Machiavelli had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. He was forced to withdraw to a small farm in San Casciano near Florence. In a letter to his friend, Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli describes how he ends his uneventful days. Changed into his courtly robes, he writes, "I enter the ancient courts of bygone men where, having received a friendly welcome, I feed on the food that is mine alone and that I was born for." Even the malice of fortune could not extinguish Machiavelli's passion for politics. In 1514, he finished The Prince. Originally intended for Giuliano de' Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent's son, Machiavelli, rededicated the work to Lorenzo the Magnificent's grandson, Lorenzo de' Medici after learning of Giuliano's death.
Early reactions to The Prince were critical of its blunt political Darwinianism. They were shocked by the ideas expressed through the terrifyingly accurate portrayals of the rulers described. Many attributed the work to the devil and even accused Machiavelli of being one. Shakespeare, in one of his works, mentions "the murderous Machiavel." Even modern commentators, the most influential being Leo Strauss, have labeled Machiavelli as a teacher of evil. Modern English vocabulary defines something "Machiavellian" as being synonymous with cunning and deceit. Whether or not Machiavelli deserves such infamy is still open to debate. But there is no denying the impact it has had on political thought and ethics. It has a secure place in the canon of the classics. The Prince must be evaluated within the context of his other works, most notably, The Discourses (1517) and The History of Florence (1525). Although his tone is always incisive, Machiavelli's other works reveal a "gentler" side. In addition to his work on politics and history, Machiavelli wrote several plays. Mandragola (1520) is considered one of the best plays of the Renaissance. Machiavelli died in 1527 at the age of 58.
De Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Daniel Donno. New York: Bantam Books, 1966.
Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.