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Machiavelli - a young white man with short dark hair

Niccolo Machiavelli

When did Machiavelli live?

Around 1500 AD, Machiavelli was working for the government in the city-state of Florence. Florence was smack in the middle of the Renaissance, which meant that everybody in Florence was thinking and talking about how cool ancient Rome was. As a young man, Machiavelli got involved in a fight to get rid of the Medici, who were unofficially controlling the Republic of Florence. He wanted to get power back into the hands of a larger group of voters.

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Why did he write his book?

But he and his friends lost their fight, and the Medicis won. After the Medicis tortured him and pushed him out of power in 1513, Machiavelli began writing books about politics instead. He was still only 44 years old, and he seems to have hoped that his books would convince the Medicis to let him work in politics again.

What is “The Prince” about?

Machiavelli wrote a book called “The Prince.” He proposed that governments, in order for their citizens to do well, sometimes should do things that would be wrong for individual people to do. Governments may have to kill people, or torture people, or take people’s money, or lie to people. Machiavelli suggested that these bad things might really be good if they helped save a lot of people’s lives by stopping a war or a rebellion, for example. For Machiavelli, the ends justified the means.

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Florence, seen from high above

Florence, Italy

Democracy or dictatorship?

Machiavelli disagreed with Plato‘s earlier theory that the best people should rule, and not stupid ordinary people. Machiavelli agreed more with Cicero‘s idea that power should lie with the people, in a republic, because all the people together would make better choices than one person who might turn out to be bad or wrong. (This may not have been the best plan for getting the Medici to like him, because they were one very powerful family controlling the Republic of Florence.)

Plato’s ideas
Who was Cicero?
Who were the Popes?

The Catholic popes hated Machiavelli’s work, because they wanted the rulers of Europe to rule because God had chosen them, and Machiavelli didn’t care about who God wanted at all.

Palazzo Vecchio, where Florence's government met (Florence, Italy, 1200s AD)

Palazzo Vecchio, where Florence’s government met (Florence, Italy, 1200s AD)

So did he get his job back?

Machiavelli sent copies of his books to the Medici rulers of Florence, and the Medici seem to have liked them. But when Machiavelli died, at 58 years old, he still hadn’t gotten to work in politics again.

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Renaissance Florence

Bibliography and further reading about Machiavelli:


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