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Why Did Machiavelli Write The Prince?

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

This lesson examines Niccolò Machiavelli's reasons for writing 'The Prince'. The book is considered by many to be the first work on the topic of modern political theory, and Machiavelli's own political ambitions were behind the creation of the work.

Italy in the 16th Century

Many people believe that so-called dirty politics is a 20th century phenomenon, but the truth is that political conflict has always existed. This is certainly true of 16th-century Italy, when many competing factions were competing for control. The many political entities existing at the time virtually ensured conflict, as the various city-states, and the papacy, sought political supremacy.

The Medici family had ruled Florence for years, but as a young man Machiavelli had witnessed their removal from power. The Medicis were driven temporarily from power by a popular revolt.

Cesare Borgia

Machiavelli was well-educated and likely well-qualified when he received his first political appointment to serve as chancellor of Florence. From this position he was able to observe Cesare Borgia, the man who greatly influenced Machiavelli's thoughts on seizing and maintaining power.

''I shall never hesitate to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions,'' Machiavelli writes, exemplifying Machiavelli's high regard for Borgia's methods.

Machiavelli is especially interested in Borgia as an example of inherited power. Cesare Borgia's father was Pope Alexander VI, whose influence provided his son with land and power. Once his father died, however, he was unable to maintain his position. Machiavelli writes that Borgia was simply a victim of bad luck.

Reinstatement of the Medicis

After a number of years, the Medicis returned to power. Machiavelli was dismissed from his position, tortured, and imprisoned. After he was released from prison, he retired to a small town where he composed The Prince.

Dedication

The Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, and Machiavelli explicitly states his reasons for writing the book in the dedication. He says that those who are seeking favor from the ruler typically bring gifts of 'horses, weapons, cloths of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments.'

But Machiavelli knows that his knowledge of political strategy, earned through the study of Cesare Borgia, would be a valuable asset to Lorenzo de' Medici. In place of the typical gifts, Machiavelli offers his advice to Medici in the form of The Prince.

The political arena still seduces Machiavelli, though he now lives in exile. By demonstrating his knowledge of political strategy and thereby his value in the political realm, he seeks an appointment from Medici and a return to the political life.

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