Happy Birthday 500 Years of The Prince
On December 10, 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli, then in exile, wrote a letter to his friend, Francesco Vettori, telling him that he had composed “a little work entitled De Principatibus.”
The Prince was not actually published in 1513. Publication awaited Machiavelli’s death in 1532. The Roman Catholic Church condemned it in 1559 and, for good measure, again in 1564. The condemnation has never been formally revoked.
The Prince has been everything from a handbook on how to acquire and keep political power to a video game during its 500-year history. At the time, it was a radical innovation from traditional political thought leading the English to name the devil “Old Nick” in honor of the author.
According to the flyer for an exhibit now traveling the United States, “This would one day be the most celebrated and most criticized, the most read and, at the same time, the most misunderstood political work of the next 500 years. It is one of the basic texts of modern political science and explains how reason, combined with the lessons taught by history can be used to govern conflicts and found stable systems. It is a disenchanted dissertation on human nature, on the elementary passions and feelings that have guided both individual and collective actions in every period. It is an apologia for power and deceit that expresses all the cynicism of the period in which it was written. It is a manual for anyone aspiring to power and success in life. Or just possibly it is all of these things at the same time, or none of them. There is no definitive way of reading or interpreting this text.”
“… The people do not wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people; and from these two opposite desires there arises in cities one of three results, either a principality, self-government, or anarchy” (the Prince, IX)
“All three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehended; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless” (the Prince, XXII)
If politics seems bare knuckled today, imagine what it must have been like in the era of Savonarola, Cesaré Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, Caterina Sforza, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the de Medici family, all jostling for power in the mountainous geography of northern Italy, with Naples, Spain, the Vatican and France seeking to consolidate them all.
Today’s blow-dried marionettes, whose strings are pulled by their handlers, would have been no match for these masters.