Machiavelli and Lessons of the Italian Wars

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  • 0:05 Machiavelli & Italian Wars
  • 3:09 Expect the Worst
  • 4:31 Ends Justify the Means
  • 5:38 It's Better to Be Feared
  • 6:50 When All Else Fails, Lie
  • 8:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson focuses on Machiavelli and his views on governing, specifically pertaining to the actions of rulers. It will also highlight the actions of several countries involved in the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Machiavelli and Italian Wars

So, here's a question.

If someone calls you a Machiavellist, are they calling you

a) kind

b) smart

c) adorable

d) deceitful and cunning

If you chose D, you're right, which means you're either lucky, or you already know a bit about today's topic, the man Niccolo Machiavelli and the lessons of the Italian Wars. If so, good for you! If not, no worries, you're about to learn.

Before we get to Machiavelli, let's do a quick sum up of the Italian Wars . The Italian Wars were a series of wars fought over the city-states of Italy. At the opening of the Wars, some of the prominent Italian city-states, or Italy's sovereign cities and their surrounding territories, were Venice, Florence, Naples, Sicily, and the Papal State of Rome. With much of Europe involved, these wars waged from the late 15th to the mid-16th century. Although they started out with many players who all changed sides and traded alliances, they soon degraded into a power struggle between France and Spain. In order to fully understand Machiavelli's lessons, it's important to be familiar with the Italian Wars.

Although Machiavelli was a government official who played a role in the politics of Florence during part of the Italian Wars, he is most famous for his written masterpiece, The Prince. In it, he lays out a formula for how a ruler should act in order to keep control of his land. The intent of this famous work was to teach Lorenzo de Medici and his family, the rulers of Florence, how to rule in order to make Florence free from outside domination. Sadly for Florence, Machiavelli's words came a bit too late, but his lessons still capture the imaginations of 21st century psychologists and political scientist.

Since we don't have the time to cover the whole work, we'll just focus on a few of its lessons, and we'll call them, 'Master Machiavelli's Musings.' Yes, I made that up. As we discuss these musings, it's important to realize Machiavelli had a rather unpopular view of politics. He lived in a time when people were just gaining freedom from the oppressive rule of the church, when most still held to the Platonic philosophy that rulers should be of upright, moral character.

In contrast, Machiavelli claimed that leaders need to be selfish and self-protective in order to stay in power and keep their lands free from invasion. In other words, virtues like mercy and kindness only make a ruler weak and susceptible to invasion. Throughout today, we're going to be hearing some of the words of Machiavelli. Although we're going to stick true to the intent of his writings, keep in mind his works have been re-published and re-translated for years upon years so the wording probably isn't exact. With this in mind, let's get onto his musings.

Expect the Worst

Musing #1: Expect the Worst

Obviously, this one isn't going to make it onto any motivational posters, but Machiavelli thought it absolutely crucial. He wrote, 'The Romans in these matters acted as all wise princes should, having regard not only for present ills, but to future ones as well, and preparing for the latter with all possible care. For if evils are anticipated, they can be easily remedied. ' Or to put it in words we can digest, he was simply saying, 'Any good ruler should be ready for the next shoe to drop'.

Although we can't be positive what Machiavelli was thinking, many historians surmise he came to this conclusion while watching Italy fail to properly prepare for the Italian Wars. To explain, at the onset of the wars, the Italian city-state Milan actually invited France to march through her land on their way to invade neighboring Naples. Milan did this hoping to strip Naples of power. What they didn't foresee was France deciding to stay and help themselves to all of Milan. In other words, they didn't expect the worst from France, and it proved to be disastrous! If Machiavelli had been in charge, perhaps they would have remained free.

The Ends Justify the Means

Musing #2: The Ends Justify the Means

For this one, Machiavelli didn't pull any punches as he wrote, 'In actions of all men, and especially princes, where there is no court of appeal, the end is all that counts.'

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