Well, it's certainly not the next great American novel. It's not any kind of novel, actually. The Prince is a treatise, which is just a dressy way to say "really long discussion of an idea." Since that idea is the problem of ruling a nation, and Machiavelli is pretty rational about it, that makes his treatise not only political, but also philosophical. A double whammy.
The key to understanding the philosophy behind The Prince lies in two things: humanism and the mirror of princes. Despite not being your typical example of either (as you will see), The Prince is the most famous example of both, and one of the few that is still read today. Can you name another one? (In case you were thinking about it, The Courtier doesn't count.)
Yeah, didn't think so.
Hmm, what does the study of humans have to do with anything? Nothing, unless you're an anthropologist. But that's not humanism.
Humanism began in the 1300s, when suddenly individuality was becoming a thing. We know that it's kind of weird to think that people didn't see themselves as individuals when we have whole pages dedicated to every waking moment of our lives on good old Facebook, Twitter, and any other social network that you can imagine, but stick with us.
In the good old feudal days, the story goes, society was more important than the individual. Everything was organized for the benefit of society—especially if by "society" you mean "crazy rich and powerful landlords"—and you filled the role you were born into. No finding yourself with a $200K liberal arts education in feudal society. If your dad was a brickmaker, you'd be a brickmaker, and you'd like it.
By the 1300s, times were a' changing. Some non-nobles started having enough money to stop worrying about dying any minute and enjoy themselves a little. People (rich ones, anyway) started being able to do things like choose what clothes they wanted to wear, or decide they actually liked certain foods, instead of dealing with whatever they got and doing what the Church said to do.
Geeking Out over History
Humanists looked way back in time at ancient literature and philosophy, and what they saw looked pretty good. These guys didn't care about Heaven or Hell or any of the supernatural stuff. They just wanted to have a good time and maybe learn a few things in the process. So, they were pretty into studying history, and recommended that everyone do it, too.
Even Machiavelli joins in on the fun:
Another thing a ruler must do to exercise his mind is read history, in particular accounts of great leaders and their achievements. He should look at their wartime strategies and study the reasons for their victories and defeats so as to avoid the failures and imitate the successes. (14.5)
Machiavelli takes his own advice. You can tell he's serious about this whole history thing, because every statement he makes is backed up by some historical example of why he's right.
These humanist guys are also responsible for what we call the humanities or liberal arts today. These were subjects that they thought were important for new individuals to know about. You can thank them for your English, history, and literature classes. You're welcome.
We Call It Christianity 2.0
Now, you might think that humanism is anti-Christian and anti-pagan—and it pretty much is today. Renaissance humanism couldn't be farther from atheism, since these early humanists clung pretty tightly to Christian law and morals. They just wanted to spice it up a little. Couldn't they have their Jesus and their Epicurus too?
It's true that Renaissance humanists didn't seem to believe that the supernatural world controlled the entire fate of humanity, but God certainly wasn't out of the picture. Think of the humanists as smack-dab in between the God-centered Middle Ages and the modern scientific era that would be soon to come.
Machiavelli is often listed as a humanist, but he's tricky. In a lot of ways, Machiavelli is closer to the modern definition of a humanist than the old-school one. For example, Machiavelli thought, like most humanists at the time, that people could control their own destinies. The thing is, he went one step further and said that they didn't need to worry about Christian virtues while they were doing that. Yowza.
Another difference is that humanists, as we said before, were history geeks. They looked to history for examples of how to behave. Machiavelli was, too, but he didn't look at history just for examples of virtue. Nah, he wanted it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly. No moral judgment here; he just wanted to know what works. Actually, part of Machiavelli's whole PR problem is that he was the first dude to separate politics and morality.
Want some examples? This phrase from Machiavelli is pretty typical humanist speak: "God doesn't like doing everything himself, he doesn't want to deprive us of our free will and our share of glory" (26.3). But then he busts out something atypical, this this: "We can say this of most people: that they are ungrateful and unreliable; they lie, they fake, they're greedy for cash and they melt away in the face of danger" (17.5). Where most humanists praised men and their potential, Machiavelli is dissing humanity old-school style.
Mirrors for Princes and Conduct Books
Self-help books. They seem to be getting more popular each year, taking up more and more real estate in all of our local bookstores. What if we told you that these books have been written since at least the Middle Ages? No way?
How to do Everything for Idiots
Back then they weren't called self-help books, they were called "conduct books," and they were everywhere. People wrote them in the form of letters, sermons, anything. They talked about morals, manners, being a good Christian, choosing a wife or husband, running a home, being a good parent, eating nicely, everything.
If you could think of it, there was a conduct book for it. Today, there would probably be one for proper YouTube commenting etiquette. These books were all the rage during the Renaissance, and everyone was reading them not only to learn how to dress appropriately, but also how to please God.
How to do Ruling for Princes
Around the same time, a genre of books called "mirrors of (or for) princes," created by humanist writers, started getting popular. The books focused on giving a new ruler advice on how to win at ruling. They were sort of like conduct books, only exclusively for princes. By the time the Renaissance rolled around, writers had begun adding historical examples to the abstract advice people wrote in the Middle Ages. These books were kind of like cheat sheets for running a kingdom. Sound familiar?
Most of these books emphasized that being a good Christian king or prince was the best way to rule. The books often had aphorisms and maxims that generalized moral truth, and they talked a lot about this word, virtù. Looks familiar right? Just like our word "virtue."
Well, that's one of its meanings. In this sense, it meant being morally and intellectually and theologically super duper fantastic. So a moral, smart, and faithful pope has this kind of virtù.
The second meaning was being able to withstand fortune. So if a hurricane came and everyone died except you, you had virtù. These two types of virtù were thought to work together, and it was assumed that you couldn't have one without the other.
Just like other mirrors of princes, The Prince builds on the works that came before it, mimicking their styles and structures. If you check "Writing Style," you'll see that Machiavelli doesn't skimp on the aphorisms. He even talks about virtù a whole lot; and who can forget all those examples and role models he likes to tell us about. Even the whole dedication is based on an older text, Isocrates' address to Nicocles, which was a pretty normal way to write those sorts of dedications. Seems pretty by-the-book so far.
Even though it shares some features, The Prince is a wee bit different from the mirrors of princes that came before it. Obviously, it's way more famous. It also uses aphorisms in a different way, not making moral judgments but advocating adapting your ruling style to the times, even if that means being "un-Christian."
Imagine telling people to ignore Christian morals in Italy, a Catholic nation, where the Pope lives, back when the Catholic Church was the church. Yeah, you can see how this kind of approach got Machiavelli's name in a bit of trouble when people got wind of it. (He probably didn't mind though, since he was dead by the time The Prince was published.)
As part of his un-Christian remix of the genre, Machiavelli changed what virtù traditionally meant. Sure, he talked about it a lot, but Machiavelli's virtue was not your grandma's virtù. Remember all that smart, faithful, moral stuff? Yeah, that stuff is out the window. In its place is the ability to do what you need to do to rule. That's what will bring you good fortune. Not that squishy stuff.
Actually, Machiavelli calls out all those other humanist writers of mirrors for princes. He says:
Many writers have dreamed up republics and kingdoms that bear no resemblance to experience and never existed in reality; there is such a gap between how people actually live and how they ought to live that anyone who declines to behave as people do, in order to behave as they should, is schooling himself for catastrophe. (15.1)
In other words, all those other guys are just saying the same old, ineffective stuff. Listen to them and worry about "ideals," and you're finished.
Machiavelli does think that virtues are important in one way, but it's probably not the way that you were thinking: "So, a leader doesn't have to possess all the virtuous qualities I've mentioned, but it's absolutely imperative that he seem to possess them" (18.5), Machiavelli writes. How's that for turning virtù on its head?