Nationalism, Unification and the Prince: the Machiavellian Ideology 

An Exploratory Essay by Blake Masterson

The medieval city-states that made up present-day Italy were defined through their civic values and cultural individuality. The great renaissance was born in these city-states absorbing all the arts, music, literature, and principle civic values from small medieval cities in the Tuscan hills. Widely regarded as one of the most culturally rich periods in history, the Renaissance produced some of the most famous artists, writers, and philosophers. There aren’t much more famous than Niccolò Machiavelli. Born May 3, 1469, in Florence during the height of the early Renaissance, Machiavelli was brought up in a wealthy and politically prominent family, Machiavelli had access to many educational resources including a library with books on politics and philosophy (Britannica). It was in the library, reading the works of many philosophers before him where he developed his strong ideologies, many of which were unique and unheard of at the time. Aside from his controversial and provocative literature including “The Prince”, Machiavelli became famous for his “call” to unify these city-states into one nation under one flag. He was far ahead of his time in political theory and thought, earning him the title of the “father of nationalism” in the eyes of many historians (King, 234). Not only were his ideas provoking at the time, but they continue to make parallels with present-day political ideologies.

Machiavelli was already a political philosopher and statesman when the Medici family regained power in Florence. Once they began their rule, they arrested, tortured, and imprisoned Machiavelli on suspicions of conspiracy until 1513 when they sent him into exile. Although banished from his city by his own leaders, there was still nothing Machiavelli loved more than Florence and the people found all over the Italian city-states. He was a true patriot who wanted a unified nation to succeed no matter who ruled it. It was clear to him that without unification the city-states were susceptible to attack and invasion by other republics. Machiavelli’s strongest nationalist agenda came in his conclusion to The Prince (Chapter 26, “Exhortation to Seize Italy and to Free Her from the Barbarians”). Here he specifically writes to Lorenzo Medici calling for him to liberate Italian lands from French, German, and Spanish influences. He says “One ought not, then, let this occasion pass, so that Italy, after so much time, might see the one who is her redeemer. Nor can I express with what love he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered by these foreign floods; with what thirst for vengeance, with what obstinate faith, with what piety, with what tears.” Fortune can be compared to a river that floods, destroying everything in its way. But under the right circumstances, people can prepare dams to control the flood and be fortuitous. These “foreign floods” have brought destruction to Italy for years in the form of invasions from one city-state to another. Machiavelli saw the weakness that various city-states brought, the possibility of the unity of all city-states into one saw the promise as there could not be any threat from an outside invader. A unified nation could be beneficial in a number of ways including alliance, protection, and the shared values of culture and beliefs. 

Many of Machiavelli’s political philosophies were inspired in part by his readings of the Roman government and system. Unlike many others at the time, Machiavelli turned away from Christianity and towards ancient Rome for inspiration. He studied the Romans to understand their goals of strength and conquering the tangibles earth has to offer. He preferred this over the Chrisitan focus on spirituality and the afterlife. He didn’t like the fact that the Pope and the church had so much power, seeing a divided people confined to separate city-states with the Chrisitan church in the middle. The success of the nation was the most important thing to Machiavelli and in order for that to occur, the people must be united. Machiavelli called for a political renaissance similar to the rebirth of the Roman republic. A key aspect in Machiavelli’s call for unity is that he believed that a republic must return to its founding principle and core identity (Easley). Some consider his philosophy to be conservative considering its interest in preserving power, however, Machiavelli was known for seeing things the way they are, and not in the way “God created them” (Easley). His form of nationalism attains its goals through control and power specifically from the elite.

“Papal States” Britannica. This image depicts the areas controlled directly by the Pope and the Church throughout history. The control of the Papal States began in 756 and ended in 1870. Machiavelli was known for rejecting the Pope and disliking the power and control he had over the city-states.

Machiavelli saw a clear set of benefits from unifying the various city-states into one nation under one ruler. His nationist idea of a unified nation came with many material benefits. The prosperity of one city-state such as Venice would be the good fortune of the entire nation. Resources, money, and knowledge could spread throughout the nation with a nationalized army protecting the people. Machiavelli believed this to be crucial for state survival. Unity of the city-states would also allow for a centralized government and single ruler above all perfectly fit for the “Prince” Machiavelli describes in his treatise. This ruler would be able to consolidate their power and control the entire nation. Nationalism was essential for a Prince to succeed and rule over everyone. Externally, Machiavelli was worried about an attack from a foreign power and believed that a nationalized military was imperative to protect against external threats, invasion, and to maintain the power of the state, Machiavelli studied the military make up of a unified France for reference which at the time was building a nationalized military force (Leung). Machiavelli firmly believed that a unified nation was the key to safety for the state and to protecting the people from suffering from the powers of foreign domination. He believed it was vital to the preservation of the state. In his view, “duty to one’s country overrides all other duties, and for the state” (Sabine, 349). 

“Entry of Charles VIII into Florence” Giuseppe Bezzuoli, 1829 (Uffizi). This painting depicts French King Charles VIII entering Florence on his path to Naples during the French invasion of Italy in 1494. This scene represents the threat Machiavelli saw from foreign nations and unified armies rolling through the individual city-states without any resistance. A unified nation would prevent anything like this from happening again. 

Machiavelli also lays out the keys to making a unified society run properly internally including economic stability and equality, a strong civil society, and peace. Machiavelli criticizes the wealth inequalities present in Florence between citizens and says that the desire to preserve power and the need to acquire more is “the cause of great troubles” (The Discourses, 254). Justice was something that Machiavelli believed to be crucial in the maintenance of social equality within civil society.  As he states, “No more useful and necessary authority can be given to those who are guardians of the liberty of a state, than the faculty of accusing the citizens to the people, or to any magistrate or council, for any attempt against public liberty” (The Disclosures, 130). The common good and protection of the state are also the utmost priority to a Prince as said in Machiavelli’s treatise, but the steps taken to achieve this may not always be morally correct. As he says in Chapter XV,  the Prince’s first priority is the safeguard of the state, and if that means harboring “bad” characteristics to keep the state safe then so be it. “A prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how to not be good.” Many things that the Prince must do to become a powerful and successful ruler break many morals, some of which directly go against the tenants depicted in the fresco like peace and justice. For the majority of the Prince, Machiavelli describes these factors necessary for a Prince to succeed in running a city-state, but it is clear that this same guide applies to a Prince to run a nation. Justice, law and order, and the common good are all necessary to attain a unified nation. 

Machiavelli’s nationalist ideology strived to unify the nation offering protection against various outside threats. He wanted this new nation to compete against others in the area and to ultimately become the most powerful. Many international relations scholars would identify this as a realist ideology. An ideology that emphasizes the role of the nation-state and believes that the nation is motivated solely by its own best interests. Machiavelli believed that if a nation was not constantly striving to become stronger, then it would become weaker in comparison to other nations. If a nation is not plotting to defeat its neighbors, then it will be defeated (Easley). To Machiavelli war was what international relations was, it was needed for a state to benefit (The Disclosures, 58-60). He saw every other nation as a competitor. 

Italian Unification History (Wiki Commons). This Gif depicts the historical unification of each Italian state until the Kingdom of Italy was formed in 1871. 

Machiavelli was far ahead of his time ideologically. He saw the great power and benefits unification could bring to a nation including dominance on the world stage. The unification of Italy started in 1848 and ultimately finished with the capture of Rome and the designation of the city as the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1871. Machiavelli had seen the threat a unified neighboring France posed to the weak individual regions in Italy and was correct once France had invaded parts of Italy in 1799 during their war with Austria. France had later invaded the Italian peninsula again under Napoleon until his death in 1814 when Italian states started to realize the importance of unification. The unification movement began to gain popularity during the mid-1800s with secret societies like Young Italy founded by Guiseppe Manzzini pushing for their importance (US Gov, Office of the Historian). The nationalist movement was strong until the eventual unification of Italy in 1871. Machiavelli had accurately seen the foreign threats and preceded the Italian nationalist movement that became so important in finally unifying these separate states. It is rare to see a political philosopher’s ideologies still be relevant hundreds of years later, but Machiavelli is an exception. He has cemented himself as one of the most influential political philosophers and historical figures of all time. 

Works Cited

Sabine, & Thorson, T. L. (1973). A history of political theory (4th ed. / revised by Thomas Landon Thorson.). Dryden Press.

Chittolini, Giorgio. “Cities, ‘City-States,’ and Regional States in North-Central Italy.” Theory and Society, vol. 18, no. 5, 1989, pp. 689–706, http://www.jstor.org/stable/657616. Accessed 25 Apr. 2022.

Easley LE. Nationalist Princes and Patriotic Publics: Machiavelli and Rousseau’s Enduring Insights on Nationalism.

“Entry of Charles VIII into Florence: Artworks: Uffizi Galleries.” Artworks | Uffizi Galleries, https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/entry-of-charles-viii-into-florence#text.

“History Of Italian Unification.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/countries/issues/italian-unification.

Machiavelli, Niccol`o. Discourses on Livy. Trans. by H. C. Mansfield and N. Tarcov from the 1531 original. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1996.

“Niccolò Machiavelli.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Niccolo-Machiavelli.

projects, Contributors to Wikimedia. “File: Italian Unification.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 8 Dec. 2021, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File.

Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (New York: Atlas Books/HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 234-235 

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