Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Niccolo Machiavelli was a Florentine statesman and political theorist during a time when Italy was divided into city-states. He had a humanistic education and first-hand practical experience in war and diplomacy. Cesare Borgia nearly unified central Italy and so served as a model for Machiavelli (and was later involved in incest and poisonings with his sister Lucrezia and father Pope Alexander VI).

The Medici family came into power in 1512, toppling the republic. Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured by Giuliano de Medici, ruler of Florence 1512Ð1513, as a suspect conspirator. The Prince (1513) was dedicated to the father of Giuliano, Lorenzo Medici, with the hopes that the Medicis would defend Italy from France and Spain. (In 1527 the Medicis were out and the republic restored, but not Machiavelli.)


Chapters 1-11 , following the medieval scholastic custom of breaking the topic down, just delineate different types of dominions or principalities: hereditary, mixed, new, and ecclesiastical.
Chapters 12-14 focus on the importance of military power.
Chapters 15-23 include the most famous bits: on attributes of Prince himself. The chapters are notorious for their pragmatic, their amoral advice for sustaining power. “Machiavellian” comes to denote deceptive, manipulative, amoral, coldblooded, technically efficient nastiness in power politics.
Chapters 24-26 conclude with the current affairs in Italy. “Machiavelli addresses himself to a new prince with a vehement exhortation to make use of his teaching to free Italy from foreign domination” (Vergani 18).

The Norton Anthology betrays an anxious dismissiveness:

Manuals of this sort may be classified, in one sense, as pedagogical literature. While for their merits of form and of vivid, if stylized, characterizations they can be considered works or art, their overt purpose is to codify a certain set of manners and rules of conduct….

His view of the practical world may have been an especially startling one; but the sensation caused by his work would have been far less without the rhetorical power, the drama of argumentation, which make The Prince a unique example of “the art of persuasion.”

Indeed, the pessimistic notion that man is evil is not so much Machiavelli’s conclusion about human nature as his premise; it is the point of departure of all subsequent reasoning upon the course for a ruler to follow. The very fact of its being given as a premise, however, tends to qualify it; it is not a firm philosophical judgment, but a strategem….

His picture of the perfectly efficient ruler has something of the quality of an abstraction….

Machiavelli’s method here becomes imaginative rather than scientific.

Of this cleansing [of the city-state], Italy on the one side and the imaginary prince on the other may be taken as symbols.

It sounds as if the editors are attempting at length to treat the work as if it’s mere sophistry, just a pose or exercise. (Like the last stanza of Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply”: it would be nice but isn’t the case, so…).
But is the pessimism about humanity a pose?
“Imaginative” = idealist instead of realist?

The Norton editors are worried because this becomes a system of becomes free-floating principles: no moral excusing, no ethics involved where the end would justify the means. So they push the idea of “idealism.”

The MacMillan Anthology notes critical responses (1870): Machiavelli is one of first to treat politics as a science rather than as a branch of ethics; others insist he’s being ironic, the piece is a satire; others treat it safely as an exercise of the literary art of rhetoric.

So there’s lots of worry about this text, excuses and abstract treatment as a literary exercise rather than as a political/historical text.

The Prince is primarily focused on muck: Machiavelli has the guts to say coldly what we all know is true.


  • Do you agree with his assumptions about human nature?
  • Are his assumptions realistic or too cynical?
  • Use a Machiavellian interpretation to analyze the behavior of a current political figure.
  • Why does the Renaissance need such instruction books?
  • What does this have to do with the rise of the market economy?

Replace “Prince” with “Politician.” The systems are somewhat different: we don’t have to kill everyone to get what we want. (Do they want anything or just abstract power? No grounding now; not a matter of kingdoms and booty really.)

The system of public image-making becomes free-floating: the Cult of Personality.

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Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Excerpts. Literature of the Western World, Vol. I. 5th ed. by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 2282-2288.

Vergani, Luisa. Cliffs Notes on Machiavelli’s The Prince. Lincoln, NE: Cliffs Notes Inc., 1967.