Philosopher Kings to Mall Culture Sophists

Niccolò Machiavelli was a monumental force of change who defined the modern politic by fundamentally transforming the notion of how statesmen should act and what their responsibilities and duties entail in regard to their country. What we observe before Machiavelli’s The Prince is an attempt at princes to strictly adhere to virtue in order to bring about an end most amenable to excellence and ideal progress while in the modern politic princes practice both the virtues and vices, only concern themselves with the state of things (not how things should be), find deception, the generation of fear and superficiality useful tools to sway public opinion, are capable of ignoring the rule of law in order to bring about change, find themselves quick to pander to the caprice of the masses and define the lowest common denominator as not excellence but power. These latter qualities still reflect the state of politics today as all pretenses of the “Greek lifestyle” have been discarded and those with the most attractive faces and most mesmerizing words seem to find themselves on the throne in lieu of excellent and heroic alternatives, only to abuse it for their own ambitions. Ultimately The Prince was crucial in removing all moral and religious considerations from politics and proposed a method which would bring about effective changes for economic and military purposes, laying the foundation for modern political science.

To understand how such a change came about we must first understand the age known as the Renaissance, a period which must have been a crucial influence on Machiavelli’s thoughts and made possible the sort of radical philosophies he was espousing. Yet defining the Renaissance has stood as a problem for many historians. Is the Renaissance a historic period, a philosophy (a spirit) or is it a lens to which we have artificially created in order to make sense of events in the past?

There is enough evidence to make an argument for any of these positions as respectively the ideas and works normally associated with Renaissance do appear to have all emerged in a generally well defined timeframe, seem to be a general inspiration which seeds ideas and lastly can be considered a contemporary lens in that much of the misery, prejudices, stagnation and disease of the medieval era seemed to persist well into the “golden age” of the Renaissance. Poverty, high rates of infant mortality and disease, as well as crime, intolerant religious dogma and backward social norms were still very familiar in the Renaissance, especially among the common people. The concept that the Renaissance was a flawless golden age is flawed if we look at the historical record.

Defining the Renaissance as a spirit is problematic because then it would lose historical relevancy. One could argue that the Greeks who originally inspired such Renaissance ideals such as humanism, individualism, the use of reason, liberal arts and science were also experiencing the Renaissance. In the end a renaissance might be the consequence of certain conditions such as elevating wealthy and literacy.

Perhaps the best way to define “the” Renaissance would be an arbitrary set of dates where classical ideas began to be reborn among the people who had inhabited the ruins of great civilizations in Europe. From the end of the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century we observe in the historical record major intellectual changes impacting society as authors begin to write in the common tongue, frequently cite classical references, discuss humanistic ideas and become fascinated with beauty, art, knowledge and the improvement of the civic landscape for the sake of man only, with no church inclinations. This definition however is not an infallible one as the Renaissances’ nebulous nature escapes a succinct academic consensus.

What we do know is that the Renaissance began in Italy. Italy was the birthplace of many Renaissance ideas in the first place under the reign of the Roman Empire and the ruins may have inspired the people to once more quest for greatness. Italy, while being wounded by the Black Death as most of Europe, seemed to more easily recover and was not disabled by it. The trade from Constantinople, the lucrative banking industries and the vast affluence of the Vatican allowed for more eager patronage of the arts, an inclination which would not be so eagerly cultivated in the poor areas of Europe. Venice was often the port of departure and return for the crusaders and this influx of people also brought with it easier access to Arab translations of classical texts as well as increased prosperity due to shipping charter costs.

The wool refinement industry of Florence created vast wealth and also an entirely new class of merchant statesmen who were eager to increase their prestige by commissioning great works. Geography also helped the Renaissance flourish in Italy as the fields were easier to tend and people had to work less to feed their families. Combined with more free time, the Black Death enabled ambitious lower classmen the opportunity to advance in the social structure by claiming now vacant land which in turn improved the quality of life, leading to more incentives for patronage of the great works which would come to exemplify the spirit of Renaissance.

Physically Italy was closest to the Middle East amongst European states and allowed humanists such as Petrarch the opportunity to travel and collect ancient manuscripts easier, texts which would inspire a revolution of mind amongst those who studied them. Ultimately the Renaissance was born in Italy as a result of increased wealth, proximity to ancient, glorious past and geographical opportunities.

Key characteristics of the Renaissance as defined by Monica Brennan, professor of history at Saint Joseph’s College at Suffolk are secularism, practicality, urbanization, individualism, consumption (materialism), creativity and curiosity, cosmopolitanism and increased cultural diffusion, the common use of reason rather than superstition as an end to solve problems, classical imitation, urbanity and sophistication among citizens of a city.

Renaissance art came to express ideas, report or record on events, saw the advent of propaganda, was created for public pride and civic engagement, was used as mere decoration, inspired the people and could serve a didactic purpose. In stark contrast medieval art was often religious in nature, often had a sort of unnatural quality to it, used symbolic posturing, was technically primitive and lacked realism. Renaissance art was not also technically different and become an evolving technology as artists year after year created more sophisticated compositions by mastering perspective, painting techniques, finding less restrictive media and improving precision and detail. Renaissance artists such as Giotto used realistic, anatomically correct depictions, heroic classical poses, nudity, natural themes, mastered light and shadow and began to create “art for the sake of art.” Renaissance music followed in step, becoming more entertaining, technically varied and complicated (polyphony), more tuneful and more emotional. Architecture began to stress harmony, proportion, comfort, and beauty. Classical forms such as arcades, logia, hospitals and civic buildings all designed by golden symmetry once more became prominent.

Renaissance politics were also different from the medieval era of God’s lieutenants charged with ensuring the salvation of their subjects, bound to protect the church and who only answered to God. Renaissance statesmen were concerned with civic laws, wanted their states to prosper economically, favored centralization and nationalism, began to use modern political theory (especially after the advent of The Prince), sought power for the sake of power, focused on wealth, developed complicated bureaucracies which lead to efficient government and also saw to the disappearance of dogmatizing political priests to be replaced by “rationalizing ministers.”

Machiavelli was born in 1469 during this time of great progress, change and wealth into the city of Florence. The glory of the Italian city states was threatened by massive empires on all sides, namely the Holy Roman Empire, France and Spain. During Machiavelli’s life Spain invaded Florence, inspiring him to pen The Prince in hopes of unifying Italy and expelling the conquerors, realizing that the only way of surviving the onslaught of the foreigners would be the rallying cry of a strong, charismatic prince willing to do everything in his power to restore sovereignty and create an endurable state and future (evidence of this notion is found in a reading of the final chapter of The Prince labeled “An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians”). Machiavelli intensely studied the classical examples and judged that their methods were unable to bring about the changes he sought, ruling that the ancients were idealists who overlooked the way things are and instead focused on the way they should be. In turn, Machiavelli created his own method in The Prince with classical history constantly in mind, in order to offer a realistic guide on how an effective ruler, or prince, should behave.

The methods of The Prince are to be contrasted with Education of a Christian Prince by Erasmus. While both men lived during the Renaissance, Education of a Christian Prince represents a medieval (or ancient) guide for the conduct of a prince more in line with the writings of the Stoics or Plato’s Republic than the modern Machiavellian concept of political theory. Paradoxically both of these texts can be arguably labeled as Renaissance, as both consider classical sources and write about humanistic themes but simply come to different conclusions. While Erasmus finds the benevolence, justice and virtue of the “philosopher kings” an inspiration to aspire to, Machiavelli takes a much more cynical view of the world and calls for deception, force and fear as methods of bringing about change. While a case-by-case analysis of Machiavelli’s divergence from medieval concepts to Renaissance or modern methods might fill a library, the author will highlight a few examples arbitrarily from The Prince which best illustrate the contrast. In most examples we will see a political theory emerge that is based on the study of history and empirical results instead of ideals and ethics, which has come in the contemporary era to be known as the “realistic” school of political thought.

In chapter five of The Prince Machiavelli claims that an effective way to “govern cities or principalities which lived under their own laws before they were annexed” is to “dismantle” their greatest cities and “exterminate” the ruling families in order to better subjugate the population and avoid future rebellions:

The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, dismantled them, and did not lose them. They wished to hold Greece as the Spartans held it, making it free and permitting its laws, and did not succeed. So to hold it they were compelled to dismantle many cities in the country, for in truth there is no safe way to retain them otherwise than by ruining them. And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watch-word of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget. … in republics there is more vitality, greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance, which will never permit them to allow the memory of their former liberty to rest; so that the safest way is to destroy them…

This maxim is in accordance with a central theme in The Prince: it is better to be feared than loved, and as long as the prince maintains control over his realm, the welfare of the people is irrelevant. As the people lack the moral conscience and reason to govern themselves, they must be whipped into submission and continually intimidated by threats, both internal and external, the eventual outcome being compliance with policy. For Machiavelli agreements made in peace have nothing to enforce them, while agreements made out of fear are kept by the cowardice of the population. It is important to note that while Machiavelli thought the prince should be feared, he states in chapter nineteen that he should not be hated, or at least avoid being hated by the most powerful, namely the officers of the soldiery, lest he find himself overthrown. In chapter seventeen Machiavelli argues:

…a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.

Machiavelli proposes a concept truly novel in chapter fifteen: the notion that ideals are useless, have no basis in reality, will only lead to a princes’ downfall and that the pursuit of virtue alone is not productive, that a prince must be willing to practice both the virtues and vices in order to ensure the power of his realm:

…it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity… if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.

Machiavelli’s prince must be willing to snuff out political opponents if they offer a destabilizing threat to the realm, must destroy documents which could incriminate him, must be willing to lie about threats in order to mobilize the citizenry to arms; must be willing to accept things which normally are considered repellant to the human conscience as viable tools in ensuring his power. Machiavelli assures us in chapter eighteen that while we can act in whatever way will bring about the change we desire, we must always appear to be virtuous and religious, even if at heart we are vile, a notion which has been inherited today in political “debate”:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

Within this text Machiavelli has set up a new paradigm for the leadership of Europe. While rulers in the past were expected to be sincerely religious, virtuous men who ruled for the sake of the souls of the people, Machiavelli is suggesting that a ruler only need to put on a convincing display of authenticity, that the people are so capricious and so prone to the power of “bread and circuses” that any offense will be forgiven. Machiavelli’s prince must appear as a classical figure of great virtue and excellence but in practice would not be. Machiavelli proposes in chapter nineteen that a prince must come to imitate the personalities of the fox and lion. Niccolò clearly states in chapter seventeen that as long as the prince does not confiscate the people’s property or steal the people’s women, he has free reign to do as he pleases:

It makes him hated above all things, as I have said, to appear rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain. And when neither their property nor honour is touched, the majority of men live content, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can curb with ease in many ways.

While the previous maxims have directly conflicted with ideas that have come before, Machiavelli also proposed a number of novel methods which would result in the creation of modern, secular, empirical political science and practical diplomacy. Machiavelli proposed that a prince should surround himself with wise, honest, qualified advisors and listen to and take into consideration all of their opinions, but to be wary of flatterers, and not to deviate from a decision once it was made (chapters twenty two and twenty three). Machiavelli surveyed how states are created and gained in the early chapters (by fortune or by ability) and concluded the The Prince with warnings about how they are lost, with no discussion of ideals but instead a focus on the historical record with accompanied analysis of the merit of past princes’ decisions. Most of what Machiavelli covered is of no outstanding note today and serves simply as “common sense” but during the time of its writing was revolutionary and condemned by most western thinkers (and banned by the Vatican), inspiring the term “Machiavellian” as a pejorative adjective.

Most important amongst what most westerners would consider “common sense” today is the creation of a professional and well maintained citizen army. In Machiavelli’s time the city states of Italy were subject to volatile and unpredictable alliances, condotta mercenaries who often changed allegiances at the whims of a higher bidder, fled from battle or looted the countryside to appease their own greed and ambition, and constantly shifting borders and lieges. Machiavelli proposed in chapter twelve of The Prince to do away completely with reliance on mercenaries and auxiliary soldiers and argued that the only way to bring about stability in a realm is the creation of a professional citizen army solely loyal to the state, not any particular lord. This notion contrasted with the medieval notion of feudal armies comprised of dukes, knights, counts, peasants and land owners, all with varying levels of allegiance to one another. Machiavelli envisioned an army of citizens loyal to the prince only, not local lords, led by the most qualified, not necessarily those with the most titles, a modern army with generals and a hierarchy of rank. Machiavelli believed that if the people were fighting for their homes rather than for a mercenary’s wage, or in the case of auxiliaries, fighting for an allies’ land instead of their own, that they would fight honorably and to the death, that conquest by “barbarians” would not be possible.

We take for granted our military today but during the time of Machiavelli no such army structure existed. Machiavelli also argued in chapter ten that the sole way in which the strength of a principality is to be measured is in its ability to wage war, defend itself from attack, threaten and make fearful those who would think to assault it, and acquire resources it desires, notions which are most familiar to the contemporary westerner today.

Although Machiavelli was censored and banned during his time and died without seeing the unification of Italy and expulsion of the invaders (even under his protégé Lorenzo de Medici) his ideas forever changed the way politics and the study of history are attended to. Machiavelli is arguably the most important thinker of the Italian Renaissance and one of the most influential thinkers mankind has ever produced, ushering in an age of secular and pragmatic rulers who utilized the methods of The Prince to obtain, maintain (and often) abuse their power. Machiavelli laid the foundations for the academic study of history, politics and nationalism and embodied the Renaissance in his bold, creative, humanistic, individualistic world view.


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Patchogue, NY. October 2007.

Brians, Paul. Reading About the World (Volume 1). New York: American Heritage Custom

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Erasmus, Desiderius. The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born

[c.1936]. Columbia University Records of Civilization. New York: Octagon Books, 1963.

King, Ross. Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (Eminent Lives). New York: Eminent Lives,


Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by W.K. Marriott [c. 1908]. New York:

Everyman’s Library, 1992.

Zophy, Jonathon W. A Short History of Renaissance and Reformation Europe: Dances over Fire

and Water (3rd Edition). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.

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