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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for The Prince by Machiavelli

Relates to: 

 Title page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli's Il Principe and La Vita di Castruccio Castracani. (Wikimedia Commons) Title page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli's Il Principe and La Vita di Castruccio Castracani. (Wikimedia Commons) 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. 


Sean Hallowell, Department of Music, Columbia University


Works Consulted

Nederman, Cary, "Niccolò Machiavelli," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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