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Niccolò Machiavelli and "The Prince"

In the late medieval period and the early Renaissance, Italy was in a bad situation. The country was being invaded by powerful foreign nation states such as France and Spain. In Rome, the corrupt Alexander Borgia won the Papal election through bribery, and he rapidly appropriated the church's wealth for his own family's benefit. In Florence, the once-powerful Medici family, patron of the arts and civic projects, was in decline, rapidly losing and gaining power in alternate decades. Parts of Italy became Republics such as Genoa, but other cities like Venice fell to dictators. There was no hereditary monarchy to rule the country and no centralized government existed. Each Italian city was like a little nation unto itself, ruled by oligarchic families who viciously eliminated business competitors in a manner that would make the modern Mafia turn pale. Italy was literally tearing itself apart, and it couldn't unify itself or defend the peninsula against aggressors. It was a bad time to be an Italian.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born into this unstable time of shifting fortunes in the year 1469. He served in a number of minor government positions, and was banished or imprisoned at various points of his career. One of his most notable positions was serving as a sort of political advisor to the Borgia family. The head of the family, Alexander Borgia, was Pope; the eldest son was Cesare Borgia, a bloodthirsty young warlord; the younger daughter Lucrezia was rumored to have poisoned her way through several husbands in order to stuff the Borgia coffers with golden inheritances. The name "Borgia" was synonymous with betrayal, murder, and powermongering.

Machiavelli, disillusioned with the ineffectual bickering and infighting among the Italian cities, saw the effectiveness of the Borgia family members in seizing and maintaining their power. He formulated his own theory of effective government in a treatise known as "The Prince," and he based his ideal "Prince" on Cesare Borgia's life. He famously asserted that good rulers sometimes have to learn "not to be good," they have to be willing to set aside ethical concerns of justice, honesty, and kindness in order to maintain the stability of the state. The idea was shocking to contemporaries, who had inherited medieval ideas about divine kingship, in which the king was appointed by God for the express purpose of serving as a sort of celestial deputy on earth, upholding law and justice. In popular medieval belief, the king was thought to be a "primate," an avatar of human virtue with innate authority over lesser beings in the cosmological hierarchy. In contrast, Machiavelli argued that the most successful kings were not the ones who acted according to dictates of law, or justice, or conscience, but those willing to do whatever was necessary to preserve their own power--and thus indirectly preserve the order of the state. His title, "The Prince," in fact, is a subtle mockery of the idea that rulers should be noble in their character. The implication of his title is that the idealized Prince Charming is a mere fairy tale. Machiavelli was excommunicated for espousing his views, but his arguments had a profound effect on Renaissance attitudes toward government. In literature such as Renaissance drama, the "machiavelle," or machiavellian villain, became a moustache-twirling stereotypical villain--the bad guy who appears to be good in front of all his companions in order to betray them all the more effectively. "Machiavellian" became a by-word for treachery, sneakiness, ambition, and ruthlessness.

The following snippet may not be historically accurate. It first appears in German propaganda nearly a hundred years after Machiavelli lived, and it purports to be an account of Machiavelli's advice to Cesare Borgia in quelling a rebellion lead by the Duchess of Sforza. All we can be certain about from contemporary records is that Caterina Sforza did rebel, and that Cesare Borgia did succeed in capturing her and re-conquering the district. However, though this passage is apocryphal in origin, it does capture the essence of Machiavellian politics, and adequately reflects the way his contemporaries viewed "The Prince." The duke of Sforza had just died, and rebels in the Compagna of Italy rose up against the Borgia rulers under the widowed duchess, Caterina Sforza. The rebel forces fought for three months of bloody fighting, laying waste to the countryside. The crops stood unharvested, rotting on the stem. Common people starved, and entire villages burned down during the ruinous warfare. Cesare Borgia asked Machiavelli what to do. Machiavelli supposedly advised him thus,

"My Prince, I advise you to treat with Caterina Sforza under a white flag. Her troops are too strongly encrenellated in the fortress, and it will take months to root the rebels out. For everyday we fight, more of your loyal troops are slaughtered, more of your good citizens have property damaged or destroyed, and the crops go unharvested and children starve. The battle must be ended. Therefore my advice is this. Treat with Caterina Sforza under a white flag and under the pretense of peace. Then seize her and take her captive. Once she is captive, strip her of her fine garments and place in her in an iron cage to parade her in front of the rebel troops, and rape her before their eyes before you kill her. The enemy forces will know their leader is captured and humiliated, and the magnitude of this deed will so horrify them that in they will flee from battle and fear and never raise arms against your might again."

Cesare Borgia supposedly did so. The war soon ended. For Machiavelli, the end always justifies the means. Among his most famous dictates are that "it is better to be feared than loved" and that "the appearance of virtue" is more important than virtue itself. He also advocates that preparations for war should be the foremost occupation of a leader, and that constant, preemptive action is necessary to prevent others from seizing control. For downloadable excerpts of "The Prince" in RTF format, click here. For the complete text available online, go to http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/machiavelli.html.


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