Context is everything

Here’s something else I ran across at Making Light, and it will cheer you right up: it’s a history of Machiavelli’s time and place. If you thought Machiavelli was a ruthless, cunning schemer who presaged the modern political world of cynicism and expedience…you might just change your mind after reading it.

And now I want to visit Florence. Wait, I’ve always wanted to visit Florence…OK, now I want to visit it more.

Aww, heck, I want to see all of Italy.

Note also: her intelligent re-interpretation of the Avengers movie is also well worth reading.


  1. Beatrice says

    Heh, I just commented on TET about traveling tonight…. I’m going to Florence!

  2. lightninlives says

    I’m one of those people that had a naive and mostly negative perception of Machiavelli. Time to read up. No sense in letting the ole intellect stand still.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Machiavelli’s The Prince was not the only thing Machiavelli wrote.
    He was well aware of the consequence of poor government/misrule/nepotism, or “corruzione” as he called it. Today’s use of “corruption” has a more narrow definition.

    He realised that any attempt to describe how to run a state must be based on what we know about how politics actually work, not how we would like it to work.

  4. Gregory in Seattle says

    It is kind of scary to realize that Machiavelli was a progressive thinker genuinely concerned with good governance.

  5. says

    I named one of the characters in my book Machiavelli, but he was nicer than the usual image of the author of The Prince. (He even becomes a priest — but at least it’s a Jesuit.)


  6. Paul says

    It is kind of scary to realize that Machiavelli was a progressive thinker genuinely concerned with good governance.

    Less scary when you realize that what he wrote in The Prince was the polar opposite of what he wrote both before and after. It’s hard to see it as anything but satirical.

  7. Gregory in Seattle says

    @Paul #7 – From the linked essay:

    The new system of ethics Machiavelli introduces in his manual to keep the Medici in power is deservedly recognized as one of the most radical, dangerous and potentially destructive moves in the history of philosophy, and one of the most far-reaching. We are used to the trite summary “the end justifies the means,” and all the terrible, villanous things which that phrase has justified. But Machiavelli’s formula is not in any way villanous, nor was he. I will need another day to fully explain what that phrase means, but in a micro-summary, yes, Machiavelli did argue that the end justifies the means, and yes, he did mean it, but in his formulation “the end” was limited to one and only one very specific thing: the survival of the people under a government’s protection. Or even more specifically, the survival of Florence. That cathedral, those lively alleyways, those sculptures, that poetry, that philosophy, that ambition.

    I don’t see that as satirical: I see that as a man working to protect a city he loved deeply in very troubling times.

    The problem is, of course, that nearly every tyrant is motivated by the same emotions. Historically, it has been pretty rare for someone to assume absolute power for the sake of absolute power or personal gain: most are motivated by doing what they truly believe is in the best interest of the people.

  8. Paul says

    I don’t see that as satirical: I see that as a man working to protect a city he loved deeply in very troubling times.

    Was the essay written by Machiavelli? I don’t have time to read it in full, but it appears to be by someone trying to justify The Prince as what you say it is (how did they come to the conclusion that they’re trying to support?). This seems wholly unnecessary if one actually reads any of Machiavelli’s other writings (he didn’t just write the one book, you know, but the essay doesn’t seem to look at any of his other works that can be used to get a feel for the man?), wherein his political leanings are so far from The Prince that I don’t understand the wanking in trying to reconcile The Prince with a well-meaning man trying to “protect a city he loved deeply”.

  9. Randomfactor says

    Florence is an amazing city. Saw it during a high-school trip back before some of my adult friends were even born…FSM but I’m old.

  10. gworroll says

    Relevant article on Cracked:

    Basically, taken in the context of the rest of his writings, there’s no plausible way to interpret The Prince as anything but satire.

    He had also been tortured by the Medicis shortly before writing The Prince. As a well known advocate of republics both before and after(what got him tortured and his arms broken), it’s hard to think this would have made him a fan of the Medicis and how they ran things, it comes off like a sarcastic “of course you are SOOO great”. It is worth noting that some historians, considering his other writings, have thought it was an attempt to curry favor with the Medicis, but given his subsequent output this doesn’t seem very likely.

    There were also some issues with translation. Translation is not a strictly mechanical process for most language pairs, even among mutually intelligible dialects of the same language you can run into trouble occasionally. The Cracked article points this out with his famous “The end justifies the means”, which would be more accurately translated “One must consider the end”, which is quite different, a balanced approach rather than an absolutist approach.

  11. says

    Wonderful article and pretty much spot on.

    And I highly recommend Florence. It’s a beautiful city and there’s nothing quite like seeing the history of places like Sante Croce.

  12. madknitter says

    Machiavelli was not the ruthless do-as-you-would-be-done-by-but-do-it-first that people think he was. Most people don’t know that when the Medici were reinstated he was tortured and put to the strapado several times.

    I lived in Florence as a child, and have only visited it once since I left when I was 10. It is the most amazing city, the whole place is a museum. PZ, go and see the Davide, the Uffizi, the Palazzo Pitti, and the Giardine di Bobboli. Florence means churches, and two of the best are S. Miniato al Monte, which is heartbreakingly beautiful, and S. Croce, which has the only frescos in the city by Giotto (as well as art by his master, Cimabue), and the tombs of many Florentine luminaries, including Machiavelli and Galileo.

  13. RFW says

    Before you buzz off to Firenze, read “Brunelleschi’s Dome” about the construction of the dome of the Duomo. More politicking than one would anticipate.

    I fault the book, however, for not giving enough technical information on the many engineering innovations involved in the construction of the dome which was the largest in the world at the time. One of the remarkable aspects of the dome is that it was built without centering; that is, no scaffolding underneath to support it while incomplete. Brunelleschi also took care to ensure the safety of the workmen; iirc, there were no deaths from someone falling to the floor of the Duomo.

  14. says

    Hey PZ, when you do finally make your way down to Italy write me, I’ll set you up ;) – I’m not kidding, it would be an honor!

  15. lpetrich says

    Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince was essentially about how to win in the politics of his society, even if that meant using the unscrupulous methods that many of his contemporaries had been known to use. Not surprisingly, Machiavelli recommended that leaders try to seem virtuous, no matter what they actually do.

    He wrote another book about politics, his Discourses, and we find that his ideas of ends are much more worthwhile. He preferred what we now call democracies because such systems are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconstant than strongman rule. His ideal political system was a balance of power between leaders, nobles, and common people, much like the Roman Republic. Religion he thought of as valuable as a social cement without necessarily being true; he appreciated the ancient Romans’ pretending to believe in official divinations and punishing those who did not respect them.

    Bertrand Russell found his political thought shallow in a certain way. He was preoccupied with great lawgivers, Moses figures like Romulus or Theseus or Lycurgus who supposedly create communities from scratch. The idea of a community growing as a collective effect rather than from the decrees of some leaders is a modern one.

  16. robertfoster says

    I just came back from two weeks in Italy and spent two days in Florence. The place was awash with tourists. I think I heard more English than Italian. Forget seeing the original David unless you make online reservations well in advance, but the caveat is that you need to know the exact day and hour of your visit to buy the tickets (expensive tickets). My advice to you is to go in the off-season which, I know, may be tough for a college prof. An acquaintance there told us that because of the awful world economy the tourist season there has been truncated by at least two months. It now starts in early June and is pretty much done by mid-August. Local businesses are struggling and will try to wring every last euro out of you to make up for the shortfall. It is a great place to visit but, in truth, I didn’t fall in love with Italy or the Italians. Make sure you’ve got a pocket full of coins as baksheesh for the swarms of beggars that will fall upon you, especially in Rome. They think foreign tourists are an easy touch. They won’t go near an Italian, but they can harass you relentlessly.

  17. Die Anyway says

    PZ said: “I’m going to Omaha”

    Or as we called it when I was stationed at “Awfull” Air Force Base — Omygod, Nebraska.

  18. jessiexl says

    I love Italy and the Italians. I think my favourite place so far is Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast.

  19. jws1 says

    Have to chime in here. Machiavelli never says “ends justify the means.” Matter of fact, quite the opposite – you may have to be unjust at times. What he does say is “ends require means.” It is annoying to me that the ethic that bears his name is as old as politics itself, and not invented by him.

  20. leonpeyre says

    Yes, someone who gets Machiavelli! Wonderful!

    I read Machiavelli in college myself. Like most people, I went into it thinking I was going to hear ruthless, amoral stuff–but was open-minded enough to see that, even in The Prince he wasn’t really like that. He was interested in how politics worked, not trying to pretend they worked the way we wished they would. Unfortunately others in my class weren’t so open-minded, and still thought he was a heartless bastard.

    But remember, The Prince was the short tract he wrote to get a job, much like The Communist Manifesto was something Marx wrote to rouse the masses to revolution. If you want to understand what Marx was really about (or if you’re battling insomnia), forget the Manifesto and read Das Kapital. Similarly, if you want to understand Machiavelli, read The Discourses. He says some things in there that make the phrase “machiavellian” seem like a joke; my favorite of them is something we would do very well to listen to today:

    “Now in a well-ordered republic it should never be necessary to resort to extra-constitutional measures” (ch. XXXIV)

  21. lpetrich says

    Writing around 1940 in A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell noted

    Perhaps our age, again, can better appreciate Machiavelli, for some of the most notable successes of our time have been achieved by methods as base as any employed in Renaissance Italy. He would have applauded, as an artistic connoisseur in statecraft, Hitler’s Reichstag fire, his purge of the party in 1934, and his breach of faith after Munich.

    Most recently, certain Republican Party strategists have been willing to employ “Machiavellian” methods like racial demagoguery, vote-suppression tactics, support of third parties like the Greens, etc.

  22. charlessoto says

    I have a bone to pick. Paltrow is NOT a supermodel, and Potts the Potts character is DEFINITELY not.

  23. carbonbasedlifeform says

    Yes, you should go to Florence. I can give you the name of some good restaurants.

    When I went into the Accademia, I was not grabbed by the statue of David, but by a set of statues that Michelangelo was doing for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Julius died while Michelangelo was still working on them, and the new pope decided that something less expensive was in order, so he told Michelangelo that his statues were no longer needed. Of course, since he was not going to be paid for them, he immediately stopped work. But you can see the statues coming out of the stone.

    When I was in the Pitti Palace, I asked how the Medici managed to assemble such an incredible collection of art. The guide said there were three reasons: exquisite taste, tons of money, and a reputation for prompt payment.