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The Core Curriculum

Machiavelli

1469 CE – 1527 CE

Scion of a Florentine family of minor noble extraction, Niccolò Machiavelli was born into a world beset on all sides with social and political strife. The Florence in which Machiavelli came of age was sharply divided along the axes of religious asceticism and aristocratic extravagance, the former personified by the book-burning Dominican friar Savonarola, the latter by the de facto ruler of the city, Lorenzo de’ Medici (appropriately dubbed “The Magnificent”). This tension between adherence to spiritual ideals and the pursuit of temporal riches is entirely characteristic of the Renaissance, during which religious fervor and worldly ambition often found themselves at loggerheads. And yet, the florescence of internecine political conflict so characteristic of Italy during this period was also a consequence of the peninsula’s unique sociopolitical structure. Unlike the rest of Europe, the major kingdoms of which (e.g. France, Spain) were still bound by the antiquated customs of feudalism, Italy comprised a patchwork of democratic and despotic regimes. Thanks to its central geographical location with respect to major trade routes, Italy had given birth to an entirely new class of sovereign whose authority derived not from hereditary right but rather economic might. This ascendancy of the merchant class (among whom we can count the Medici) posed fundamentally new problems of how to procure the consent of the governed in the absence of traditional modes of legitimation.

It is within this labyrinthine maze of power and intrigue that Machiavelli plied his trade as a statesman, advisor and diplomat. The trajectory of Machiavelli’s professional career closely mirrors the tumultuous events of his era. Upon the expulsion of the Medici from power in 1494, Machiavelli entered into public service as the Second Chancellor to newly-liberated Republic of Florence. In said capacity Machiavelli functioned as something of a factotum— his duties ran the gamut from negotiating peace treaties to commanding the Florentine citizen’s militia, all while conducting precarious diplomatic relations with a veritable who’s-who of Renaissance heads of church and state. These activities provided Machiavelli with an invaluable reservoir of practical experience upon which he would later draw extensively in his literary works. And yet, like so many statesmen before him, Machiavelli ultimately found himself subject to the vicissitudes of fortune. Restored to power in 1512 and justifiably paranoid of the old regime, the Medici quickly accused Machiavelli of conspiracy and summarily imprisoned him. Happily, then-Pope Leo X intervened on Machiavelli’s behalf and negotiated for his release. Soon thereafter, Machiavelli retired to his modest country estate outside Florence where he would devote the rest of his days to various scholarly pursuits that he hoped might regain him the favor of the Medici. Despite a handful of Pyrrhic victories to that effect, Machiavelli died a de facto exile in 1527 at the age of 58.

Core Connections

Lit Hum:
Essays, Montaigne 1580
King Lear, Shakespeare 1606

Music Hum:
The Madrigal c. 1500-1600

Art Hum:
Raphael 1483-1520
Michelangelo 1475-1564

Works Consulted

Nederman, Cary, "Niccolò Machiavelli", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/machiavelli/>.

Max Lerner’s introduction to the Modern Library edition to The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Modern Library, 1940).

Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University

Historical Contexts

The Prince

While Machiavelli is often lauded as a pioneer of modern political thought, the content and contours of his work were not without historical precedents. In the case of The Prince, the most immediate of these was the so-called speculum principis (“mirror-of-the-prince”) genre of Medieval literature. Equal parts self-help book and how-to guide for a would-be ruler, these manuals were rather quaint and formulaic simplifications of the complexities of governance. Moreover, their theoretical foundations were shot through with theology, metaphysics and idealistic goals for governance and morality—entirely appropriate for an era in which the behavior of the aristocracy was most powerfully motivated by the fanciful dictates of chivalric code. Such wide-eyed naïveté contrasts sharply with Machiavelli’s thoroughly-demystified outlook on politics, and herein lies his chief originality. Briefly put, Machiavelli advocates for the necessity for unsentimental realism in assessing the world of men, and, by extension, for the subjugation of theoretical knowledge to the practical exigencies of political reality. In the Prince, he casually discards the idea, much ballyhooed for centuries, that moral probity has any inherent relationship to the acquisition and maintenance of power. Rather, Machiavelli maintains that authority is inconceivable as a right separate from the power and capacity to enforce it. By jettisoning normative ethics for moral (some would say amoral) pragmatism, Machiavelli shifted the focus of political theory from the abstract discussion of virtue and justice to an objective analysis of the machinations of governance. In so doing, he shed the ponderous weight of Medieval Europe’s deceptively static conception of society, and leapt headlong into the dynamically chaotic world of Renaissance politics. 

Core Connections

Lit Hum:
Essays, Montaigne 1580
King Lear, Shakespeare 1606

Music Hum:
The Madrigal c. 1500-1600

Art Hum:
Raphael 1483-1520
Michelangelo 1475-1564

Works Consulted

Nederman, Cary, "Niccolò Machiavelli", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/machiavelli/>.

Max Lerner’s introduction to the Modern Library edition to The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Modern Library, 1940).

Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University

The Discourses

Machiavelli’s method in The Discourses is far more anthropological and sociological than it is philosophical, and it is for this reason that he has often been cited as the first properly modern analyst of power. If “humanism” is to be broadly construed as the adoption of antiquity as a model for study, then Machiavelli can be safely designated the first “humanist” to write extensively on matters of political policy and governance. Here The Discourses stand as exemplary, in which Machiavelli takes Livy’s history of Rome as both an object of commentary as well as an impetus to reflection on his own historical situation. And yet, Machiavelli broke decisively with such venerated thinkers as Plato and Aristotle by insisting that the point of departure for political science ought to be the social status quo rather than the utopian “ideal state” imagined by philosophy. Rather than seeking to justify authority by invoking divine will and religious sanction, Machiavelli approached the problem of governance with what seems much like sober eye of an empirical scientist. This approach led Machiavelli repeatedly to underscore the importance of the cohesion and organic unity of the state, and to explore tactics for procuring the consent of the governed. Given the utterly secular and temporal orientation of his worldview, it should come as no surprise that the reception of Machiavelli by his contemporaries was uneven and capricious. One of the most frequently vilified scapegoats in all of Western history, to our ears his name has become more or less synonymous with evil and connivance. And yet, as any diligent reader of Machiavelli will soon discover, the wealth of insight and depth of reflection in his works more than accounts for his enduring fame and relevance.

Core Connections

Lit Hum:
Essays, Montaigne 1580
King Lear, Shakespeare 1606

Music Hum:
The Madrigal c. 1500-1600

Art Hum:
Raphael 1483-1520
Michelangelo 1475-1564

Works Consulted

Nederman, Cary, "Niccolò Machiavelli", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/machiavelli/>.

Max Lerner’s introduction to the Modern Library edition to The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Modern Library, 1940).

Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University