Niccolo Machiavelli: Philosophy, Politics & Books

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Machiavelli established the standards for much of our modern day evaluation of leaders in society. This lesson will assist you in understanding the historical foundations of this criteria. It will also explore the politics, works, and philosophy of ~'father of modern political theory,~' Niccolo Machiavelli.


Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the most prominent writers and theorists of the Renaissance. His greatest works include The Prince, The Art of War, and Discourses of Livy. His theories are marked with strong meaningful statements that have stood through centuries. 'The ends justify the means' and 'it is better to be feared than be loved' are two such quote that have never lost their vigor.

Machiavelli, the father of modern political theory

Life of Machiavelli

Machiavelli served as diplomat for 14 years in Italy's Florence Republic. While serving Florence, he was sent on diplomatic missions to Germany, France, and other Italian cities. During this travel, Machiavelli was studying how each government worked and what made each one a success or failure. Unfortunately, the Medici family that had controlled Florence during a prior period, was coming back to power. Machiavelli was charged with stopping them, though he failed. He was then arrested and tortured by the family before being forced into a life of simplicity away from the life he loved, public service.

Machiavelli hated his new life. He studied in depth Roman history searching for keys to success in politics and wrote numerous books. His most famous work was a book called The Prince. We'll discuss this book, along with two other influential books that demonstrate Machiavelli's core political philosophy, The Art of War and Discourses on Livy.

The Prince

The Prince is based on one main theme that Machiavelli believed to be a key to success in politics. He believed that a man had to control his own destiny and may resort to any means in order to establish total control.

Machiavelli then warned rulers to always pay close attention to their army if they want to stay in power. He then went on to discuss the four types of armies. The most dangerous, according to Machiavelli, were the mercenary armies. Auxiliaries that are loaned to you by other rulers, as well as mixed troops, are also unreliable. The most desirable army is one that is composed of native troops.

In The Prince, Machiavelli declares that 'a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything as his art but that of war and its orders and discipline; for that is the only art which is of concern to one who commands' (the military).

The most studied and quoted portion of The Prince were the recommendations on character of a leader:

  • When decisions of pay and money are at hand, it is much better to be stingy than generous. This will make people want to work hard and appreciate what they have.
  • In matters of severity of actions, Machiavelli suggests that to be cruel is much more effective than being generous. Generosity implies weakness, and cruelty shows strength.
  • If you make a promise to your people and it ends up being against your interest as a ruler, the response is simple; break it.
  • A prince should not be afraid to take on great projects to gain respect and awe from his people.
  • Finally, choose your advisers carefully. A man who is wise is good adviser, but those who flatter are not trustworthy.

The Art of War

The Art of War explained the most effective ways to use military force, acquire land, and control that land. According to Machiavelli, war is an extension of politics. It should be limited warfare with an emphasis on a state militia and armed citizens. The security of society rests with the military.

Machiavelli recommended training, discipline, and classifications in the military. His insistence on drilling, dividing an army in sections, planning, and organizing campaigns are still somewhat viable. He believed the Romans were the example that should be followed in almost all aspects of their military.

Representation of a Roman legion, which inspired Machiavelli
Roman legion

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