Who was Niccolò Machiavelli, and how did he represent a change in political ideology

Niccolò Machiavelli undeniably represented a significant change in the thought process of Italians during the Renaissance. During a time of a human-focused Italy, Machiavelli would also reinvent the thoughts of politics. Many of the governing recommendations made by Machiavelli can still be found today in oppressive monarchies and corrupt governments. Some of his predictions even came true later in Italian History. But what were these ideas that Machiavelli wrote, and how did he come to these conclusions? This article will explore a little bit about who Machiavelli was, how his past affected his writings, and how he represented a change in politics in The Prince.

Who was Niccolò Machiavelli?

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3rd, 1469. The first time it was recorded that he played an active part in his city’s politics was in 1498, the same year the previous regime controlled by Girolamo Savonarola fell.[2] Girolamo Savonarola was practically a dictator due to his heavy influence on the moral politics of the city. Girolamo made many enemies and eventually was overthrown and executed.

The execution of Girolamo Savonarola on May 23, 1498, Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Soon afterward, the city’s council dismissed his remaining supporters, and ultimately, a position opened up in the government with Machiavelli’s name mentioned as a possible replacement. He was only 29 at the time and had no previous governmental experience. Despite his inexperience, he was appointed by the council as second chancellor of the Florentine republic. During this time, after the ousting of Girolamo, the council expected anyone in the government to commit to a humanist education. This would consist of mastering Latin, rhetoric, ancient history, and moral philosophy.[2] The last two portions would go on to provide Machiavelli with an extensive background on which to base some of his ideas written in The Prince. During Machiavelli’s time in the chancery, he had two main tasks. To deal with correspondence relating to the administration of Florence’s territories and to go on diplomatic missions abroad, acting as a secretary and bringing home reports on foreign affairs.[2] During his first mission, he was tasked with going to France to discuss a recent failure on the part of Florence’s military. He stayed there for six months and even talked to the king directly, learning that the view of the Italian city-states was unfavorable. The king mentioned that he wanted to know “what he could expect from such an ill-run government.”[2] This interaction absolutely had an impact on Machiavelli, as you can see in later writings. On another mission to Borgia, Machiavelli would meet a leader who he felt created a government founded on nothing more than good fortune and believed this leader lacked foresight and failed to see dangers by only relying upon luck. This event would also influence later writings and show how much his past influenced his ideas. Machiavelli would go on even more missions and get more and more knowledge about politics and governance.

The takeover of the Medici family

Raphael, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, 1518.

In 1510 the pope declared war on France, which concerned Machiavelli as he saw it as very irresponsible.[2] He believed that Italy was not equipped for such a war and could not survive against a sizable modern nation. His fears would turn out to be true. Italy started to lose many of the city-states to the French. Eventually, an alliance was made with Spain in order to help Italy with the war. Spain was able to drive out the French, but since Florence had not declared support for the Pope, its government was overthrown. With this, the previously ruling Medici family returned to power. Machiavelli was then ousted from his position and then eventually falsely suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the new Medici government. He was imprisoned, tortured, and fined heavily. Eventually, though, he was released and did attempt to rejoin politics but found little success, so he returned to his small farm in Santeria and started to write. It would be here that he would write The Prince.[1][2]

Machiavelli’s opinions on how a ruler must act

A short summary of The Prince

The portions of the book on how a ruler should act are probably some of the most controversial parts as they delve into some of the ways a ruler must act to keep power. These methods are not always moral, but they are what Machiavelli had observed as successful from his historical knowledge and personal experience. He starts off this portion by talking a little more about the different types of principalities, the hereditary, new and mixed, and how to gain them. He discusses how it is easy to hold a hereditary state as one only needs to hold the status quo to rule one of these states. Though new and mixed principalities require much more attention. Issues start to arise when a ruler wants to take control of an area that has already been governed by itself. To solve this Machiavelli gives three options:

“There are three ways of holding them; the first, to destroy their political institutions; the 2nd, to go live there yourself; 3rd, to let them continue to live under their own laws, exacting tribute and setting up an oligarchical government that will keep the state friendly towards you.”

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532 [1]

Many are most definitely modern political ideas such as puppet states like Belarus to Russia. He also walks the line of morality when he discusses things like being loved or hated, or if rulers must keep their word. He says that rulers “cannot always act in ways that are considered to be good”[1] because doing so would undermine their own power and or state. Machiavelli essentially states that sometimes the preservation of a state or nation is more important than an individual’s moral responsibility.

Machiavelli brings up a few times that it is dangerous to gain power through the fortune of others as “such men are entirely dependent on the goodwill and prosperity of those who gave them their positions,”[1] he goes on to state that these men are incapable of ruling as they don’t understand what they need to rule. This could be seen as a stab at the Medici family as they were given power and were just wealthy individuals, so Machiavelli most likely believes that they don’t know what they’re doing. Those who become leaders to the goodwill of the people, on the other hand, have a much simpler time ruling; they know what it takes to lead, and are already in popular public opinion. Machiavelli also gives advice over a military where he states that  “mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous.” He backs this up with many historical examples of strong empires with their own private militaries. This is an important point to him as he saw how weak Italy was with its separated armies and mercenaries.

Machiavelli talked about how rulers should be viewed by the public. Some concerning ideas come up where he states that rulers must learn  “to be able to not be good”[1] and “rulers who have done great things have held the keeping of their word to little account.”[1] He also recommends that leaders lean towards the side of inspiring fear as men are less hesitant about offending or harming a ruler who does so. Though he does mention that it is unfavorable to be completely hated as people will rebel, so a leader must know how to walk this line. Machiavelli also discusses human freedom and about how much pure luck has to play when ruling. He states that “fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, but it lets us control roughly the other half.”[1] Even in saying this, he later goes on to say that if we can control this other half, we can take preventative measures to ensure that these unknown circumstances don’t happen. Machiavelli’s views on morality show the change that was taking place during the renaissance. As Harvey Mansfield said in an interview about Machiavelli;

“morality wants always to be absolute, it never makes exceptions for necessity but that’s really impossible.”

Harvey Mansfield [4]

This differs greatly from the medieval views of the common good that every decision must be made for – the good of the people or the good of the religion. Machiavelli believes that a ruler doing what they see best inevitably brings the greatest benefit to the people as their relationship is almost Symbiotic. The ruler needs the people, not to revolt and protect against the other princes. The people need the ruler for organization and protection.[4] Machiavelli’s views on fate are also extremely timely and mirror other writings of the time such as the Oration on the dignity of man which also discusses human choice and the ability to choose destiny.[3]

How his past influenced The prince and how it changed politics

Machiavelli’s past is intertwined with his writing, especially towards the end of the book during the recommendation to the Medici. He takes knowledge from his missions such as his trip to France where the king directly told him his opinion on Italy. Machiavelli clearly knew that the simple city-states of Italy would not stand a chance against a larger more modern nation. This would be strengthened by the multiple military failures that he had to answer for usually due to Italy using mercenary forces a point that would later show in the chapters about militaries in the prince. His writings would be used by many modern politicians and philosophers and marked the transition into modern politics at the time. It would later be studied by Antonio Gramsci, a prominent Italian Marxist philosopher, and many today still consider it important to read for even modern politicians.[5][6] No matter how controversial the writings of Machiavelli, it is undeniable that the ideas presented in The Prince are still being used today in nations such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. This shows just how powerful and truthful some of the writings of the prince were and how they showed the transition into modern politics and ideas of human nature.[6]


[1] Machiavelli, N. (2019). The prince. (Q. Skinner & R. Price, Eds.). Cambridge University Press.

[2] Skinner, Q. (2019). Machiavelli: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

[3] Giovanni, P. della M., & Caponigri, A. R. (2017). Oration on the dignity of man. Gateway Editions.

[4] Mansfield, H., & Kristol, B. (2015, December 6). Harvey Mansfield on Niccolò Machiavelli and the origins … Retrieved April 28th, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVnh4woNXFg

[5] Davidson, A. B. (1973). Gramsci and Reading Machiavelli. Science & Society, 37(1), 56–80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40401692

[6] Student, H., Ralph, Francisco, Luis, Johaness, W., Emily, Bobby, Stephano, D., Senator, Florence, Y., touthang, N., Mezzabotta, D., & Clivette. (2013, February 6). Machiavelli’s the prince: Still relevant after all these years: Bu Today. Boston University. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.bu.edu/articles/2013/machiavelli-the-prince-still-relevant-after-all-these-years/