Renaissance Politics and Machiavelli

Writing at the turn of the 16th century, Nicolo Machiavelli was no stranger to conflict, upheaval and change rather than stability.  The Prince highlights the nature of that instability and offers guidelines, suggestions and examples for would-be rulers to emulate, as well as countless examples best avoided.  By divorcing ethics from politics[1], Machiavelli extoled virtues that could easily be seen as cruel and immoral, and extoled the virtues of several leaders of questionable moral character, perhaps none more so than the figure of Cesare Borgia.

Although Cesare’s rise to power can in many ways attribute its beginnings to the fact that his father was Pope Alexander VI, Machiavelli praises him greatly for the way that he conducted himself while in power.  Machiavelli seemed to admire many of Cesare’s qualities, believing that someone who possessed them would be able to unite all of Italy under a single rule – a feat that Cesare himself may have aspired to but failed to achieve[2].  According to Machiavelli, a good Prince by necessity needed to learn how to commit evil acts, to practice deceit and to not be afraid to take risks, all of which Cesare Borgia had no problems putting into practice[3].  In fact, cruelty was a quality that was to be employed under necessity, and Machiavelli points out that Borgia’s cruelty succeeded in uniting the Romagna and was actually kinder to the people than the alternative they would have faced in his stead[4].

While Machiavelli never hesitates to criticize the failures of the various examples utilized within the Prince, he attributes the failure of Cesare not to Cesare himself, but to the “malignity of fortune[5]”  While Cesare had planned for the inevitability of his father’s death and had put a four-step plan in place to ensure that his power was maintained, he failed to plan for the unexpected turn that caused him to be sick “unto death[6]” as well.  In addition, although he did carry influence within the College of Cardinals, he selected the wrong pope to succeed his father, sealing his own fate and aligning with someone who would not favor him[7].  Although Cesare failed, Machiavelli admits that he cannot be blamed.  He was an example of a Prince that other rulers should emulate for his bravery, his planning and his cruelty[8].

By embracing the necessity for violence, cruelty and deceit, Machiavelli made heroes out of figures that history often reviles and allowed men like Cesare to be looked at in a different light. Although Cesare was ultimately unsuccessful in Machiavelli’s ultimate aim in uniting Italy under a single Prince, Machiavelli clearly highlighted his methodology and his numerous successes while minimizing his ultimate failure in a way that not many other examples within the work enjoyed.  While Machiavelli’s ideal Prince may seem foreign in the 21st century, it was a very real example of the harshness of life at the turn of the 16th, and paints a valuable picture into the realities of a divided and conflicted Italian peninsula.

[1] Liana Cheney, “Italian Renaissance Art: Political Background: Machiavelli and Medici,” University of Massachusetts, Lowell, accessed February 22, 2016,

[2] Dr. Mike Abrams, “Machiavelli’s The Prince a summary with quotations,”, accessed February 22, 2016,

[3] Mike Abrams.

[4] Mike Abrams.

[5] Nicolo Machiavelli, trans. W.K. Marriott, “The Prince,” The Constitution Society accessed February 15, 2016,

[6] Nicolo Machiavelli.

[7] Nicolo Machiavelli.

[8] Nicolo Machiavelli.

Politics, as shown from both this week’s reading from the textbook as well as from reading Machiavelli’s The Prince was convoluted and complicated throughout the renaissance, and while there were many paths to gaining political power, some were considerably considered better than others were.  There were many paths to power, and there were many ways to ultimately lose it and to potentially lose your life along with it if you weren’t careful.  Rulers of many principalities throughout Europe gained power in many different ways and had different strategies and approaches to keeping it, expanding it and consolidating it.  As technology continued to advance and the use of gunpowder became more common-place, the composition of armies and the development of a standing army rather than one called up in time of need became more and more necessary for Kings and Empires, rather than a monarch depending on the reliability and loyalty of their nobles to supply forces when required[1].


Machiavelli, writing in a time of continual conflict and turmoil between Italian city-states (between internal and external forces) highlighted the qualities that a leader should have, even if those qualities are not popular.  He underlines the necessity of sometimes cruel actions that become necessary in order to keep and retain power as in chapter 19 as he discusses the need to be loved, and if being loved is not possible, a Prince should at least strive to not be hated: “And here it should be noted that hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones, therefore, as I said before, a prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil[2]”.  By separating politics from ethics, Machiavelli highlights and extols virtues that modern society would not consider particularly virtuous but finds them necessary such as being two-faced, deceit, cruelty, and the extermination of not only one’s enemies but also their families to prevent revolts and uprisings in the future.  He also advocates that Princes that have taken over communities that were once free to either destroy them or to reside there in order to limit the desire and the ability to reclaim that freedom[3].  Although such methodology seems foreign to us in the west (for the most part) in the 21st century, such acts were commonplace in the tumultuous world that Machiavelli knew as nation states in Italy and beyond continually warred with each other and were also constantly under threat from both Spain, France and the Ottoman empire[4].


While Machiavelli is a name that came to be reviled from his ability to separate what would be considered good or moral or just from what he perceived to be necessary, several leaders throughout history can be truly called Machiavellian.  In his own day, there were several leaders that Machiavelli seemed to revere, such as Cesare Boriga, whose downfall was not attributed to his own failures, but due to his inability to act decisively as he was deathly ill at the same time that his father, Pope Alexander VI was dying, in chapter 7: “I do not know how to blame him, but rather it appears to me, as I have said, that I ought to offer him for imitation to all those who, by the fortune or the arms of others, are raised to government.  Because he, having a lofty spirit and far-reaching aims, could not have regulated his conduct otherwise, and only the shortness of the life of Alexander and his own sickness frustrated his designs[5].”

[1] Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pg. 88-89.

[2] Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W.K. Marriott (Italy, 1515),

[3] Machiavelli.

[4] Weisner-Hanks.

[5] Machiavelli.

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