The Italian humanist Niccolò Machiavelli was born on this day in 1469. Despite a wide range of writing (poetry, drama, a dozen books on history), in some of which he espoused the same democratic ideals he practiced as a chancellor of democratic Florence, Machiavelli’s reputation is now based on The Prince, regarded as poster copy for political calculation and cynicism:
For generally speaking, one can say the following about men: they are ungrateful, inconsistent, feigners and dissimulators, avoiders of danger, eager for gain, and whilst it profits them they are all yours. They will offer you their blood, their property, their life and their offspring when your need for them is remote. But when your needs are pressing, they turn away. The prince who depends entirely on their words perishes when he finds he has not taken any other precautions.
In his 2011 biography Machiavelli, Miles J. Unger explains The Prince as the response of a patriot, a scholar, and a satirist to his historical moment. With the return of the Medicis and their dynastic politics, Machiavelli had recently been removed (this process included imprisonment and torture) from his high position in the republican Florentine government. Desiring to serve the city-state under whatever conditions, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, argues Unger, pretty much as a “job application” submitted to the Medicis. Also, as Machiavelli explains in his introduction, researching and writing the book seemed good exercise for a Renaissance gentleman-scholar bored with exile to his farm:
Come evening, I return to my house and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my ordinary clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and wrap myself in robes meant for a court or palace. Dressed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts filled with ancient men where, affectionately received, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse and ask them to explain their actions, and where they, kindly, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I have no fear of poverty, or even of death. I enter their lives completely.… I have written down what I have learned from these conversations and composed a little pamphlet, De Principatatibus.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.