This summer I finally got round to reading Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince”, written in 1513 and published in 1532 after his death. In 1498, Machiavelli was installed in the newly elected city government in Florence and appointed Head of the Second Chancery exercising influence in his unofficial role as counsellor to the head of government. He experienced the behind the scenes world of European politics during his 14 years service until he fell out of favour in 1513, when he was imprisoned and tortured on charges of conspiracy against the Medici. After being pardoned he withdrew from the political world and wrote “The Prince”.
“The Prince” is a manual for those who wish to win and keep power. Yet Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good and that the virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice in the political arena to safeguard those same institutions.
It’s considered a cornerstone of political theory, and immediately provoked controversy because the descriptions within The Prince have the general theme of accepting that the aims of princes can justify the use of immoral means to achieve those ends. It defined human nature as inherently selfish, with social conflict and violence a natural phenomena that helps determine the ablest, most versatile form of government. This earned him the reputation for ruthlessness, deception and cruelty.
“In judging policies, we should consider the results that have been achieved through them, rather than the means by which they have been executed.”
Machiavelli: undated letter to Piero Soderini
I wonder what Machiavelli would make of contemporary politics? Perhaps he would nod his head as if to say, “this looks familiar.”
This portrait of the author, by Santi di Tito, hangs in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.