ONE of the most reviled and misunderstood characters in the history of political philosophy is undoubtedly Niccolo Machiavelli, the eminent Florentine republican whose very name has become synonymous with evil. Within the body of “The Prince,” the reader will find many dastardly and outright immoral political prescriptions, such as the necessity of exterminating the family of a ruler one has deposed or the relative value of the principles of honesty, integrity and humanity.
However, as with all elements of history, there is always a more subtle and nuanced understanding to be extracted from the context of this work. Born at the height of the Renaissance, Machiavelli’s early life is marked by a fervent desire to enter into the profession of statecraft. At the age of 29, he finally obtained a commission as the Secretary to the Second Chancery in Florence, at that time a burgeoning republic. He occupied this post for 14 years, travelling both within and without Italy on various diplomatic missions which brought him into contact with numerous statesmen and military leaders from whom Machiavelli garnered the political and human wisdom evident in the pages of “The Prince.” It was during this period that Machiavelli also acquired the military knowledge that was later used in his treatise “The Art of War,” acting as an adviser and organizer for the Florentine military and establishing its citizen militia.
Previous to the commencement of his career, Florence was ruled by the hidden hand of the Medici oligarchy, the family in control of what was then Europe’s largest bank. For decades, they had used their massive fortune to buy influence in the Florentine Republic and, when such methods failed, their assassins were notorious, even in such an age of widespread cloak and dagger politics. Following a military defeat at the hands of the French, stemming from the inept and brutal nature of Piero de Medici, the family was expelled by the government of Florence, of which Machiavelli was at that time secretary. Upon their return to Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family for his role in their fall from grace and barred from ever again occupying political office.
It was at this point that he began to write profusely and “The Prince” is the most well-known work to have emerged from this period of his life. It is in this light that we must re-examine “The Prince” as perhaps the most subtle and finely crafted political satire ever created. Exhortations to violence, murder, deception and all kinds of inhuman barbarism take on new meaning when examined alongside the rest of Machiavelli’s work and the actions of his life.
For his entire political life, Machiavelli was an ardent republican, finding far more value in the philosophy of representative self-rulership than in the oppressive nature of princely dominion and this is equally echoed in his voluminous works on the subject of republican government. This is not to say that draconian logic of “The Prince” is unsound or even that it was not in some way an effort to ingratiate himself with the new political power of Florence but rather that this historically reviled document perhaps has many things to say, most of which are not entirely evil.
There is also a dimension of “The Prince” that is applicable to the modern individual, that being the use of Machiavelli’s precepts in the governing of the Self: the one kingdom that every human being can be said to rightfully possess. Machiavelli constantly reminds the would-be prince that ruthless self-discipline is required to achieve any measure of success in his enterprises and that to be truly secure in your position you must be able to rely upon your own forces and abilities. A king who holds his dominion by the assistance of others cannot honestly be said to hold dominion over anything.
The Masonic Publishing Company is proud to present this re-contextualized edition of William K. Marriot’s translation of “The Prince,” and we hope that it will provide new insight on a work that is just as relevant today as it was five centuries previous.
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