The Italian Renaissance came into being like the Big Bang – arising out of the nothingness of the grim Middle Ages – an explosion of art, science and literature all in the light of humanism and secular learning.

Primavera by Botticelli , commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici
Primavera by Botticelli , commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici

But along with the  conglomeration of  art forms and humanist learning, there also came a whiplash of political decline. Italy 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 competitors. The old medieval feudalism presupposed that God had vested earthly power in the members of noble families, the kings and lords who owed loyalty to Him and to whom in turn their social dependents were expected to entrust themselves. However, the bloody history and complicated political arrangements of the Italian states, where feudalism never took root, belied the medieval ideal. Lacking a framework that placed a premium on loyalty and cooperation, dukes and princes instead competed fiercely with each other. Italy was literally tearing itself apart, and it couldn’t unify itself or defend the peninsula against aggressors.

cvr9781416556282_9781416556282_hrIn this time of turmoil came in Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), often called the first modern political scientist. He wrote two major books that forced people to reconsider how states really were governed. In 1498, when Florence became a republic, he obtained a position in the government as a clerk and quickly rose through the government ranks, soon being made head of the second chancery. On December 10, 1513, he wrote a now-famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori wherein he described his pursuits and political observations and analyses of the Florentine court:

“And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost. And if ever you can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you; and by a prince, and especially by a new prince, it ought to be welcomed.”

The little book is The Prince dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, and published posthumously in 1532. As a book of advice to rulers, it was constantly questioned by Italian humanists on the grounds of morality and ethics. For instance, they had asked whether the Prince that is, the ruler is bound by conventional ethics, and they had tended to set up an exalted picture of the Prince as a creative figure, absolved from restraints and determining the form of the state. Yet Machiavelli claims to be doing something different from what his predecessors have done, for, while they were picturing ideal states that have never existed, he plans to deal with reality. His sources, he claims, are his own long experience and his constant study of the past. His aim is to tell monarchs how their states can be “governed and maintained.” His chief interest, as he told Vettori, was in “new monarchies,” as distinguished from hereditary ones; these new monarchies are those which a prince creates or acquires with his own abilities. The new princes to whom he devotes most attention are Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia.

Machiavelli posited that the prince does not have any true moral obligations to his people.  He believed that moral corruption could produce security and stability for the state. Machiavelli also declared that it was better for the prince to have vices than to possess virtues, because a virtuous prince supposedly spoiled the people with his goodness. In his chapter on ‘How Not To Be Virtuous’, he says, “The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”
He claims that a prince will often discover that some of the deeds which appear to be virtues (such as generosity, honesty, commitment) may ruin him, while some deeds which appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity. Machiavelli was adamant that the best way for a prince to act is self-interestedly. On the subject of generosity he says, “If you do in fact earn a reputation for generosity you will come to grief. This is because if your generosity is good and sincere it may pass unnoticed and it will not save you from being reproached for its opposite. If you want to acquire a reputation for generosity, therefore, you have be ostentatiously lavish; and a prince acting in that fashion will soon squander allhis resources, only to be forced in the end, if he wants to maintain his reputation, to lay excessive burdens on the people, to impose extortionate taxes, and to do everything else he can to raise money. This will start to make his subjects hate him, and, since he will have impoverished himself, he will be generally despised.” Machiavelli’s solution to this is that a prince should only give away to his subjects what he has obtained through plundering and pillaging, quoting the example of Caesar, Cyrus and Alexander. 

One of his most famous remarks is that “In the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means.” It is, therefore, unnecessary for princes to keep faith any longer than it serves their interests. For Machiavelli, the end always justifies the means. In a letter written to Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli gives him advice on quelling a rebellion lead by the Duchess of Sforza:
“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.”

As far as religion was concerned, Machiavelli believed that the prince should appear to be religious in order to keep the commoners happy. Machiavelli did not believe that a prince should have an ardent faith.  The prince of a state should appear to be merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright, but in reality, did not have to possess any religious moral character.  His appearance of religion should satisfy his citizens who are members of the Catholic faith.  In Machiavelli’s opinion, religion served to keep peace amongst the lower classes, and it was used as a tool to provoke good will by the people towards their ruler.  Religion was really of no consequence, because the state was all in all.

Machiavelli’s advice is steeped in selfishness; everything the prince did was for his own good and not for the good of the people. He devoted little in his writing to the duties of the people under the state.  Machiavelli believed that peasants provided only two basic functions. Firstly, peasants paid taxes so the prince could take care of the state and carry out his duties. Money was necessary for war, for livelihood, and protection. Second, peasants served in military service. Above all, they were to be submissive and loyal to the state.

For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially co-equal. Whoever has power has the right to command, but goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good. Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power.

To conclude, we can assert that The Prince purports to reflect the self-conscious political realism of an author who is fully aware, on the basis of direct experience with the Florentine government, that goodness and right are not sufficient to win and maintain political office. Machiavelli thus seeks to learn and teach the rules of political power. For Machiavelli, power characteristically defines political activity, and hence it is necessary for any successful ruler to know how power is to be used. Only by means of the proper application of power, Machiavelli believes, can individuals be brought to obey and will the ruler be able to maintain the state in safety and security.