Biography (1469-1527)

  • Italian historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance
  • He was fascinated with the idea of political power, but also wrote poetry and other literary works.
  • Machiavelli lived in interesting times: Italy was divided into a series of city-states, papal territories, and land controlled by other major European powers. In this environment, war and diplomatic treachery were commonplace.
  • Along with the pope and the major cities like Venice and Florence, foreign powers such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Switzerland battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri (mercenary leaders) who changed sides without warning, and short lived governments rising and falling.
  • His best known works were The Prince and Discourses on Livy.

Human Nature

  • Machiavelli asserts that a number of traits are inherent in human nature. People are generally self-interested, although their affection for others can be won and lost.
  • They are content and happy so long they are not victims of something terrible. They may be trustworthy in prosperous times, but they will quickly turn selfish, deceitful, and profit-driven in times of adversity.
  • People admire honor, generosity, courage, and piety in others, but most of them do not exhibit these virtues themselves.
  • Ambition is commonly found among those who have achieved some power, but most common people are satisfied with the status quo and therefore do not yearn for increased status.
  • People will naturally feel a sense of obligation after receiving a favor or service, and this bond is usually not easily broken.
  • Nevertheless, loyalties are won and lost, and goodwill is never absolute.

Free Will

Machiavelli attempts to compromise between free will and determinism by arguing that fortune controls half of human actions and leaves the other half to free will. However, Machiavelli also argues that through foresight—a quality that he champions throughout the book—people can shield themselves against fortune’s vicissitudes.

The Nature of Virtue

  • Machiavelli defines virtues as qualities that are praised by others, such as generosity, compassion, and piety.
  • He argues that a prince should always try to appear virtuous, but that acting virtuously for virtue’s sake can prove detrimental to the principality.
  • A prince should not necessarily avoid vices such as cruelty or dishonesty if employing them will benefit the state.
  • Cruelty and other vices should not be pursued for their own sake, just as virtue should not be pursued for its own sake: virtues and vices should be conceived as means to an end.

Honesty of The Prince

  • Machiavelli notes that a prince is praised for keeping his word. However, he also notes that a prince is also praised for the illusion of being reliable in keeping his word.
  • A prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard. Therefore, a prince should not break his word unnecessarily.


Fear and Mercy of The Prince

  • In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes, “The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” As Machiavelli asserts, commitments made in peace are not always kept in adversity; however, commitments made in fear are kept out of fear. Yet, a prince must ensure that he is not feared to the point of hatred, which is very possible.
  • Fear is simply a means to an end, and that end is security for the prince. The fear instilled should never be excessive, for that could be dangerous to the prince. Above all, Machiavelli argues, do not interfere with the property of their subjects, their women, or the life of somebody without proper justification.


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