In 1511, Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat, respected and secure in his position. He was an agent of Piero Soderini, often sent abroad to represent Florence, and highly esteemed as both a scholar and a political mind. Then came 1512, and the fall of the Florentine Republic. Despite Machiavelli’s objections, the Florentine government relied heavily on its French allies; when the French jumped ship, Florence was left to face the papacy, brimming with strength due to its alliance with Spain. The Spanish infantry crushed the Florentine armies, and the government collapsed. The Medicis, a powerful family who had earlier ruled the city, returned. Machiavelli was implicated in a conspiracy and thrown in prison, where he was tortured and threatened with execution for a period of time. Then tempers changed, and he was released as an exile. He retreated to the country, and there wrote The Prince.
The book is prefaced as a plea to the Medicis; it is offered as a gift to Lorenzo. It did not wind up having the desired effect, and Machiavelli never again regained the position in politics he had earlier enjoyed. The book itself was not published until after his death, in 1532. Since then, however, it has grown exponentially in stature, and is today regarded as one of the most important political treatises ever written.
The Prince establishes politics, in sharp contrast to the prevailing Christian view, as a realm of its own. Though it would be nice to find in a political leader all of those qualities to which Christians aspire, Machiavelli argues that “human conditions do not permit it” (62). What we ought to do, in a moral or abstract sense, is not nearly as effectual as what men actually do. Indeed, in a society dominated by evil deeds, virtue means letting go of what should be done for what is done in order to triumph. Indeed, Machiavelli’s virtue is essentially control over one’s fortune and destiny, regardless of the means.
Machiavelli outlines his strategic study of history, asserting that informed choices will lead to desired ends. His is a calculus of causes and effects – a study of political necessity in order to make successful decisions in a variety of circumstances. Machiavelli focuses on attaining power, security, and honor. Though the path to this position of control, constancy, and credibility is filled with obstacles and dangers, leaders “must overcome them with virtue”.
For Machiavelli, human nature dictates political reality and necessity. What Machiavelli views as “necessary” in any given situation turns out to be the means to political stability and power. Since men are naturally evil, effective governance often requires harsh measures. By equating virtue and power and justifying cruelty as a necessary means to political stability and power, Machiavelli establishes a new system of morality. Actions and intentions are no longer inherently good or bad, but are judged according to their usefulness in attaining certain ends. Machiavelli seeks to redefine what we ought to consider acceptable.
Machiavelli’s skillful redefinition of principles represents a shift from the classical notion of virtue taught by religion to a system of self-interest justified by secularism. In this conception, ideals are judged according to their utility. Indeed, in his acceptance of all effectual means to political power, Machiavelli grants a certain kind of approval for what were previously held to be evil acts. It is for this reason that Machiavelli is perhaps the most famous as well as the most infamous of political philosophers.
Despite its widespread popularity and touchstone status in the collective consciousness, The Prince remains a controversial book. Some view it as a cold-hearted realpolitik manifesto; others see in it a glorious expression of humanism; still other scholars read it as a highly personal account, imbued with the pains of torture, imprisonment, and exile, a first-person piece of writing. The word “Machiavellian” has entered the dictionary; particularly incendiary passages (such as those involving the use of cruelty) continue to turn heads. Yet the book is a more mysterious object than these glib associations suggest. It is short, simple, its arguments clearly articulated…and yet somehow there is an undeniable sense of untouched depths, levels that exist beneath the surface schematics. We have not finished teasing the myriad meanings out of Machiavelli’s crystalline prose, and he continues to instruct, to entertain, and, perhaps most importantly, to puzzle.