Worldwide: Machiavelli's The Prince: The Little Book That Shook The World

Last Updated: 29 November 2016
Article by Nigel Feetham

Few books have attracted so much controversy, commentary and debate over the last 500 years than Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Written in the vernacular a few months after he was tortured and exiled from Florence in 1513, it is no more than 70 pages long and was never published in his lifetime. Interestingly, the name was given to the book by the publisher posthumously and was originally entitled De Principatibus (About Principalities). The original manuscript, if not a job application, was certainly an attempt to win favour with the Medici family, whom he was wrongly accused of trying to conspire against.

Frustratingly for Machiavelli, he was at the height of his intellectual powers, having spent the last 14 years as secretary to the Second Chancery. To not be permitted to return to Florence and instead forced to live in a farmhouse and in virtual poverty, must have been anguish for a man with boundless nervous energy. There is no evidence that the Medici even read the work and Machiavelli's disappointment must have turned into bitterness as the initial months in isolation turned into years. His letter to his friend Francesco Vettori of the 10 December 1513 gives us an insight into what an ordinary day in his life would have looked like, a mix of mundane daily activities, boredom and contemplation. It is my favourite letter of the Renaissance and various versions are available online.

"...I am living on my farm...I shall tell you about my life. I get up in the morning with the sun and go into one of my woods that I am having cut down; there I spend a couple of hours inspecting the work of the previous day and kill some time with the woodsmen who always have some dispute on their hands either among themselves or with their neighbours...Upon leaving the woods, I go to a spring; from there, to one of the places where I hang my birdnets. I have a book under my arm: Dante, Petrarch, or one of the minor poets like Tibullus, Ovid, or some such...Then I make my way along the road toward the inn, I chat with passersby, I ask news of their regions, I learn about various matters, I observe mankind: the variety of its tastes, the diversity of its fancies. By then it is time to eat; with my household I eat what food this poor farm and my minuscule patrimony yield. When I have finished eating, I return to the inn, where there usually are the innkeeper, a butcher, a miller, and a couple of kilnworkers. I slum around with them for the rest of the day playing cricca and backgammon...When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lost. And if ever any whimsy of mine has given you pleasure, this one should not displease you. It ought to be welcomed by a prince, and especially by a new prince; therefore I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano..."

(Translation. J.B Atkinson & David Sices, Machiavelli and his Friends: Their Personal Correspondence, pp. 262-65 (1996)).

Unfortunately, he would never live in his beloved Florence again or work at the heart of the city's administration. But luckily for posterity, he turned to writing. Whilst this is not his only contribution to literature since Machiavelli wrote a number of other books and plays, The Prince is his most famous work. Of course, he could not have known that this "little work", as he called it, would have such a profound impact on Western political thought. It is a very simple book to read and is neither verbose nor pompous. It can hardly be described as a history book, for although it is littered with references to famous ancient figures, it is essentially a contemporary account of the political state of Italy (then a collection of separate city-states). If Machiavelli had a political purpose in mind in writing the book, as I believe he did, it was an aspiration for the unification of Italy under a single strong leader to liberate Italy from the foreign 'barbarians', something that would not happen for another 400 years. Here he was far ahead of his times.

The book did not achieve notoriety (or rather, infamy) until well after Machiavelli's death. Whilst its circulation was aided by the new invention of the printing press, still, it is quite remarkable that a book written in the vernacular Italian (rather than in Latin), and which therefore had to be translated for a wider readership, would have gained such prominence across Europe. Published in print five years after his death in 1532 and nineteen years after it was first written, it was banned by the Pope in 1559.

For a book that was not intended for publication beyond limited circulation in manuscript, The Prince has undoubtedly become one of the most influential and controversial books ever written. What made it so and what can we learn from this? Here are my thoughts.

  1. Machiavelli challenged conventional thinking of the day, not just Christian doctrine but that of his ancient and classical predecessors. This was a radical shift for the time and would have promoted wide interest in the book. It therefore had all the ingredients of a modern best-seller.
  1. He was clearly not afraid of being highly controversial (although some may say he was simply being realistic). Indeed, he must have known that even the least sensitive among his readers would find some of his writing shocking. Unsurprisingly, its content became no less disturbing over the course of the next 500 years, which probably accounts for why the book has not faded from public memory. Of course, Machiavelli's writing cannot be judged by modern standards. After all, this book was written as a survival guide for 'princes' (rulers) who today would be condemned as ruthless dictators. But even today the book is not without relevance in the world of modern political and corporate intrigue and the word 'Machiavellian' is still a commonly used adjective.
  1. Machiavelli did not lie idle when faced with the most abject conditions and instead turned to writing based on his wide experiences. I wonder how many other potentially influential thinkers in history have denied posterity the chance to read their work by not having the same mental attitude.
  1. It would not be difficult to see The Prince as a piece of opportunistic writing. The book might never have been written if Machiavelli had not been exiled and thereafter summoned the courage to send it to the Medici, to whom he dedicated the work. In this sense, he was following his own advice to his imaginary 'prince' – be bold when an opportunity presents itself.
  1. The book found a ready and influential audience among rulers of the age, humanist writers of the Renaissance and the growing number of critics of the Papacy. A copy, for instance, is said to have been presented by Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII of England and influenced the King's decision to break with Rome.
  1. I read the book today in a modern context as advice on how to succeed by being bold and innovative, on risk-taking and on when to be ruthless. The underlying message in the book is therefore one that resonates through time.
  1. There is no doubt that The Prince is based on Machiavelli's broad experience in diplomacy as a former senior official of Florence. He was therefore not writing as a historian or a playwright but as an experienced adviser in statecraft. In the turbulent and uncertain times in which Machiavelli lived such a book would have attracted the intense interest of contemporaries beyond mere curiosity.
  1. The old notion of the 'virtuous prince' as the defender of a strict moral code based on Christian values was detached from the brutal realities of the time. Instead, Machiavelli was just brave enough to write about what was uppermost in all rulers' minds, namely their own security and longevity.
  1. Whilst Machiavelli doubtless would have bemoaned that he was the victim of misfortune (as indeed his life events show), I cannot help thinking that as far as the book itself was concerned, 'luck' played a part in his work becoming a sensation. Ironically, fortune (fortuna) is a key concept in The Prince.

My lasting impression of Niccolò Machiavelli is of a Renaissance Man seeking to break free from the shackles of his Medieval past. In so doing, he awakened Western political thought but was himself condemned to shackles by succeeding generations.

It is a matter of conjecture what Machiavelli would have made of the book's notoriety and the harsh criticism levelled against him ever since. Probably he would have been surprised on the first account but almost certainly would not have been troubled on the second account. It is not difficult to imagine Machiavelli delivering half a smile and saying "do I now have your attention?"

This article is dedicated to my son Matthew on the occasion of our visit to Florence. To walk the streets of Florence is to walk in the shadows of Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Da Vinci and no City captures better than Florence the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.


Nigel Feetham is a partner at Hassans (a Gibraltar law firm) and Visiting Professor at Nottingham Law School, Not­tingham Trent University. Nigel is the author and co-author of a number of law books. He is also fascinated by all things related to the Italian Renaissance.


www.gibraltarlaw.com

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Nigel Feetham
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions