Niccolò Machiavelli: idealist or opportunist? 

An analysis of the context behind Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince for Module A: Comparative Study of The Prince and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. 

In this article, we take a closer look at the influence of context on Machiavelli’s texts The Prince and Discourses on Livy.

While in exile on a farm in rural Italy, Machiavelli wrote his famous treatise on governance. It is better to be feared than loved, he declared, and to be cunning rather than good. Above all, Machiavelli’s The Prince is interested in how a ruler can maintain and expand her power, not in whether the means with which power is held are just.

niccolo machiavelli-cesare borgia - the borgias

Julian Beach as Niccolo Machiavelli (right) and Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia in Showtime’s The Borgias

But in Discourses on Livywritten around the same time as The Prince, Machiavelli argues for the importance of fair governance. He was one of the first early modern thinkers to argue for republican government. 

What is a ‘Republican Government’?

A republic is a form of government in which rulers are elected by the citizen body. It is based on the principle that sovereignty rests with the people. A necessary characteristic common to all republics is that the head of state is not a hereditary monarch, but an elected representative of the people.

In practice, whether or not and how citizens can gain direct entry into government has varied between countries. Some modern republics, such as The People’s Republic of China, is only a republic in name: leaders in the PRC are actually chosen by a small group of people in a faction of the government.

Discourses on Livy

Discourses on Livy is a long work of political history and philosophy published, like The Prince, after Machiavelli’s death. It focuses primarily on how republics work, why they are beneficial, and how they can be maintained. Its main case study is the Roman Republic.

In Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes:

“In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.” (Book I, Chapter II of Discourses on Livy)

Compare this with a passage from The Prince:

“The prince must acquire and keep his principality, and the means by which he does this will always be praised and judged honourable by all, because the common people will be convinced by appearances and by the end result. And the world is made up of common people, among whom the few dissenters who can see beyond appearances do not count when the majority can point to the prince’s success.” (Page 66 of the Peter Constantine translation, published in 2009).

What Machiavelli means here is that as long as the ruler can appear to be serving the people, it doesn’t matter if he actually is. It also doesn’t matter whether a few discerning people can see through his mask, as long as the majority are deceived. In other words, the prince can do whatever he likes as long as he can get away with it. In Discourses on Livy however, he argues for the need for the common people to curb the prince’s power, and for power to be more evenly distributed between ruler and ruled.

How can Machiavelli hold two such dramatically different views simultaneously? We can argue that his personal context influenced him to write The Prince so that the Medicis would see how indispensable he was and call him back from exile. We can also say that the wider socio-cultural context of Renaissance Italy, in which many thinkers looked backwards to the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration, led him to believe that justice and integrity were more important for a prince than absolute power. The Roman Republic after all was founded on the principle that states are better when they are governed by the voices of many people than if they are led by the voice of one person. This was an idea that they themselves borrowed from the Greeks, whose system of dēmokratiā – ‘rule by the people’, consisting of demos (people) kratos (rule) – formed the basis of government in its city-states.

The co-existence of two opposing views in the same composer shows us that we should hesitate before using a text as testimony of whom, or what, the composer was. While personal circumstances may have compelled Machiavelli to write a treatise advising the monarch to rule autocratically, he actually wished for a society in which more people had access to the corridors of power. But the latter too, was a view shaped by the wider cultural milieu – namely, the return of Greek and Roman values to the intellectual circles of Renaissance Florence.

*The quotes used here are from the 2009 Peter Constantine translation – the Tim Parks version prescribed by the Board of Studies will be slightly different.*


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