Nonfiction > Harvard Classics > Niccolo Machiavelli > The Prince
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Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527).  The Prince.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Introductory Note
 
 
NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI, one of the most brilliant and versatile intellects of the Italian Renaissance, was born at Florence, May 3, 1469. He entered the public service as a young man, and between 1500 and 1512 he was employed in a number of diplomatic missions to the other Italian cities, to France, and to Germany. When the Medici returned to power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli lost his positions, and suffered imprisonment and torture. On his release in the following year, he retired to the country and devoted himself to study and the composition of his most famous work, “The Prince.” Other writings followed; and in the last year of his life we find him again in active life, this time as a soldier. He died June 21, 1527.  1
  A more detailed account of Machiavelli, by Lord Macaulay, will be found in the volume of “English Essays” in the Harvard Classics.  2
  Machiavelli’s aim in “The Prince” has been very variously interpreted. His motive was probably mainly patriotic; but the exclusion of moral considerations in his treatment of politics led, even in his own century, to his name’s becoming a synonym for all that is diabolical in public and private policy. Whatever may be the relation of the methods expounded in “The Prince” to his personal ideals, the book remains a most vivid and suggestive picture of political conditions in the Italy of the Renaissance.  3
  Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy’s Decades” deals on a larger scale with many of the topics of “The Prince”; his “Art of War” elaborates his views on the military side; and his “History of Florence,” his “Life of Castruccio Castracani,” and his comedy, “Mandragola,” are characteristic products of an accomplished man of letters who one time was diplomat and soldier, at another historian, poet, and dramatist. Few men represent so thoroughly the extraordinary versatility of that wonderful age.  4
  “Of all Machiavelli’s writings,” says Garnett, “‘The Prince’ is the most famous, and deservedly, for it is the most characteristic. Few subjects of literary discussion have occasioned more controversy than the purpose of this celebrated book. Some have beheld in it a manual for tyrants, like the memoirs of Tiberius, so diligently perused by Domitian; others have regarded it as a refined irony upon tyranny, on the sarcastic plan of Swift’s Directions to Servants, if so humble an analogy be permissible. From various points of view it might alternately pass for either, but its purpose is accurately conveyed by neither interpretation. Machiavelli was a sincere though too supple a republican, and by no means desired the universal prevalence of tyranny throughout Italy…. His aim probably was to show how to build up a principality capable of expelling the foreigner and restoring the independence of Italy. But this intention could not be safely expressed, and hence his work seems repulsive, because the reason of state which he propounds as an apology for infringing the moral code appears not patriotic, but purely selfish…. With all his faults and oversights, nothing can deprive Machiavelli of the glory of having been the modern Aristotle in politics, the first, or at least the first considerable writer who derived a practical philosophy from history, and exalted statecraft into science.”  5
 

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