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Historical Context

In the sixteenth century, when Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Italy was not a unified country. Instead, it was a collection of city-states, each with its own court and ruler, each attempting to gain power over the others. In addition to being a place of domestic intrigue, Italy was also a battleground for the power-hungry French, the Spanish, the Germans, and the forces of the Catholic Church under the Popes (who were, in essence, as powerful as secular kings at this time). One of the major Italian city-states, the republic of Florence, had long maintained an alliance with the French, and when Pope Julius II defeated the French in 1512, Florence was defeated too. Pope Julius declared that he would not agree make peace unless Florence ceased to be a republic and accepted the Medici family as their rulers.

These political developments had a serious impact on the life and career of Machiavelli. Hardly a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of princes, Machiavelli had actually served for the past thirteen years as a councillor and diplomat for the former rulers of Florence, the anti-Medici republicans (his first book, The Discourses, presents a theory of republican government). When Florence fell into the hands of his princely enemies, Machiavelli narrowly escaped execution and found himself exiled instead. Formerly a man who lived in the center of political power, Machiavelli was now unemployed and disgraced (not to mention bored!) in the countryside outside Florence. He began to write a series of letters, begging the new Medici rulers in Florence to allow him to return to his beloved city. He continued this unsuccessful effort for fourteen years, until his death in 1527.

We must read The Prince, written in 1513, as one of the first of the documents that Machiavelli wrote in order to ingratiate himself with the new Florentine prince, Lorenzo de Medici. Is Machiavelli insincere? Is he a hypocrite? After all, his first book declared that a republic was the ideal form of government, not a state governed by the authority of a prince. And yet, we must note that Machiavelli never says anywhere in The Prince that he likes the notion of government by princes. He merely states that if a country is going to be governed by a prince, particularly a new prince, he has some advice as to how that prince should rule if he wishes to be great and powerful. In other words, Machiavelli's book is absolutely practical and not at all idealistic. Leaving aside what government is "best" in an ideal world, The Prince takes for granted the presence of an authoritarian ruler, and tries to imagine how such a ruler might achieve success. It is, of course, also entirely topical as well: Machiavelli offers Lorenzo an expert handbook that deals with precisely the situation of Florence at the time. He seems genuinely interested in using his political experience, as well as his wide reading in history and philosophy, to help Lorenzo be the best prince he can be. But he also obviously expected some personal gain from the book as well - Machiavelli clearly hoped that Lorenzo would find The Prince so helpful that he would immediately bring its author back to Florence where he could be a political counselor once again!

Unfortunately, Machiavelli's cunning plan didn't work. Despite the lavish praise for Medicis and Popes that continues throughout The Prince, Lorenzo did not seem to like the book very much, and certainly never called Machiavelli back from exile. Ironically, shortly before Machiavelli died, Charles V of France defeated the Pope and removed the Medicis from power. Florence became a republic once again, and Machiavelli surely expected his long exile to end at last. There was one slight problem, however: Machiavelli had written a short book dedicated to Prince Lorenzo de Medici, advising him on how best to acquire and maintain power - not a very republican thing to do! And so, that very book that Machiavelli had hoped would bring him back to Florence - The Prince - finally kept him away for good.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Important Persons
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Summary of the Argument
Prefatory Letter
Chapters 1 and 2
Chapter 3
Chapters 4 and 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapters 9 and 10
Chapters 11 and 12
Chapters 13 and 14
Chapters 15 and 16
Chapters 17 and 18
Chapters 19 and 20
Chapters 21, 22, and 23
Chapters 24, 25, and 26


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