Niccolo Machiavelli was a 16th Century political theorist. Since his name is become synonymous with his political theories, the question often becomes who is Machiavelli? But the answer is in the book The Prince. The Prince was likely written in 1513 in manuscript form and distributed among a few people, but the text as it has come down to us was not published until after Machiavelli’s death. It first came to print in 1532.
First published with the permission of the Medici Pope Clement VII, the tract gained immediate fame for its cynical and almost dismal portrayal of the nature of political power. It was written in the style of other treatises on politics and the guides for princes, but scholars generally agree that Machiavelli’s text was especially innovative and powerful.
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Some consider The Prince to be one of the first truly modern works of philosophy. By emphasizing the force of individual will over divine will, Machiavelli was one of the first philosophers to articulate ideas which were distinctly secular. These ideas were in direct conflict with the ruling doctrines of the Catholic Church and with the conventional beliefs of scholars of the age.
The conventional and ruling ideology of the time dictated that power and the rights of kings were derived from God. What is more, the nature of society was one that was guided by an idealist perspective. The world functions as it does because of the ideals and standards of belief handed down from antiquity. Machiavelli asserted that power comes from the exertion of force and from conscious manipulation of the masses. Kings are powerful because they are willing and able to use violence and duplicity to gain power.
More than just a political work, Machiavelli’s The Prince raises more far-reaching issues. Free will, good versus evil, human nature—all of the issues which would be the central issues of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and humanities are at least evoked in this text.
It is crucial to note that Machiavelli and his ideas were vilified in his time. For centuries, Machiavelli would be cast as a spokesman for evil and ill-will. This should not bias our reading of the text. Students should ask if Machiavelli articulated ideas that are truly evil, or did he simply observe and report on the truth of how human society functions.