October 31, 2006


Caption: The prince must stand tall.

This is the second post in a series about reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the first entry.

After old Nick got in trouble with the Medici's Florentine Home Office, he retired to a family farm in nearby San Casciano. The day involved all kinds of rural chores, but nights were reserved for study and reflection.

He once wrote to a friend that

When evening comes I return to the house and go into my study. Before I enter I take off my rough mud-stained country dress. I put on my royal and curial robes and thus fittingly attired I enter into the assembly of men of old times. Welcomed by them I feed upon that food which is my true nourishment, and which has made me what I am. I dare to talk with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. Of their kindness they answer me. I no longer fear poverty or death.

During those evenings, he apparently worked on two books at once.

(Note: he must not have had many goats or he wouldn't have peace to write. Without goats, El Cabrero would be a much better writer.)

The Discourses on Livy contain the core of his republican political philosophy. The Prince, by contrast, is a short work that addressed the immediate situation in Florence and Italy and offered concrete suggestions.

If all you knew about Old Nick was either of those books, you'd be very surprised to find he wrote the other one. How do you account for the difference?

Our guy believed in dealing with the world they way he found it, not the way he wanted it to be.

His long term goal was to establish a just, lasting and free republican government. But the Italy he lived in was characterized by warring states, unrest, intrigue and foreign domination.

Without a measure of order and stability, it would be impossible to survive, let alone create a republic. You can think of The Prince as the emergency program.

The nice folks at Wikipedia suggest that this quote provides the common thread to both books:

All cities that ever at any time have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence, because the latter is not enough alone, and the first either does not produce things, or when they are produced, does not maintain them. Force and prudence, then, are the might of all the governments that ever have been or will be in the world.

Note: while Old Nick was no pacifist, force primarily means strenght rather than violence.

Next time: the "good" and "bad" parts.


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