349. No More Mr Nice Guy: Machiavelli

Posted on 17 May 2020

Machiavelli’s seminal work of political advice, The Prince, tells the ruler how to be strong like a lion and cunning like a fox.

Further Reading

• A.H. Gilbert (trans.), Niccolò Machiavelli: Chief Works and Others, 3 vols (Durham: 1965).

Q. Skinner and R. Price (eds), Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince (Cambridge: 1988).


• E. Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince: A New Reading (Oxford: 2013).

• N. Capponi, An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli (Cambridge: 2010).

• F. Chabod, Scritti su Machiavelli (Turin: 1964).

• C.S. Celenza, Machiavelli: A Portrait (Cambridge: 2015).

• M.L. Colish, “Republicanism, Religion, and Machiavelli’s Savonarolan Moment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60 (1999), 597-616.

• M. Coyle (ed.), Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester: 1995).

• J.M. Najemy, The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli (Cambridge: 2010).

• C.J. Nederman, “Amazing Grace: Fortune, Thought, and Free Will in Machiavelli’s Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60 (1999), 617-38.

• C.J. Nederman, Machiavelli (Oxford: 2009).

• Q. Skinner, Machiavelli (Oxford: 1981).

• C. Vivanti, Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography (Princeton: 2013).

• C.H. Zuckert, Machiavelli’s Politics (Chicago: 2017).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Niccolò Machiavelli



dukeofethereal 26 May 2020

Hello Professor, I hope you and your loved ones are doing well under the current pandemic/Quarantine situation. 

I just wanted to ask how many episodes left until we reach Italian renaissance reception of Aristotle? You're covering Republicanism before you touched Renaissance Logic/University based on tentative episodes list.

Seems like you will be covering this route at the moment;

Machiavelli  (2 scripted + Skinner interview) 

Italian Utopia (Ludovico Zuccolo, Francesco Doni &Francesco Patrizi)

Economics thought (Benedetto Cotrugli and San Bernardino da Siena) 

Renaissance Legal thought

History Writing (Francesco Guicciardini and Bernardo Segni)

Renaissance Logic

Renaissance Universities (Blasius of Parma and Pomponio Leto)

Followed by episodes on Aristotelianism/Averrosim ?



Wow, thanks for paying such close attention. We're close to the series of episodes on Italian scholasticism and Aristotelianism/Averroism, this will kick off after the summer break in September with episode 355. I am ahead writing scripts so the one I am writing now is actually 354 on economics and then we'll get into the scholastic material. Those episodes will go like this, I think:

355 Italian Renaissance Universities

356 Aristotle in Renaissance Italy

357 Interview: David Lines on reception of Aristotle's Ethics

358 Paduan Aristotelianism

359 Pomponazzi and Nifo on the Soul

360 Interview: Dag N. Hasse on reception of Islamic learning

And then the Italian Renaissance will wind up with another miniseries on the sciences: Cardano and mathematics, medical topics, the anti-Aristotelian physics of Telesio and Campanella, astronomy/astrology and magic, ending with Bruno and finally Galileo. Or something like that.

Oh by the way I decided against the episode on legal thought.

Regarding Legal thought episode, it would be better to have that in the reformation section (Alberico Gentili living in England, De Vitoria's Just law regarding colonised natives and Hugo Grotius = 3 figures of early international law)

So it seems like Zabarella will be included in Episode 356 as a thematic figure? 


So just to clarify, before the summer break you will cover hopefully Machiavelli Scripted Part 2, Machiavelli Interview, Renaissance Logic, Renaissance Utopia and Renaissance Economics? History writing will be saved as a miniseries towards the end after Italian scholaticism/averrorism?


Right, there will be quite a lot of legal theory in the Reformation part actually, there is also Pufendorf for example.

History writing is coming up soon actually, that is the end of the Machiavelli miniseries - Renaissance logic will not have its own episode, but will be covered while I do the universities, I think. To be honest I still need to look into what to cover for logic, because I already did Paul of Venice to some extent back in the medieval episodes.

Ken 26 June 2020

Hello Dr. Adamson. Been marathoning the podcasts to get caught up and while this was an excellent episode, I have one complaint: this should've been the episode where you played 2Pac's Hail Mary (which he performed under the name, that's right, Makevelli). A little humor for the day.

Sorry, I am from Boston and grew up in the 80s so the only Hail Mary in my heart is Doug Flutie's.

Nursen 6 July 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Sorry, I have nothing substantial to comment here except - these comments here just made my day? (including the prior one about the right sequence of the next episodes)

Scheming in the UK 8 October 2021

Hello Peter

In one of Nigel Warburton's introductory books, he wrote that Machiavelli might be writing ironically. That opened my mind a little. It hadn't occurred to me that some of these learned, sombre, great white dead men may have subtly been taking the mick. Or that these great books may be fundamentally misread and misunderstood. However, unless I missed it, you don't mention this possibility in three episodes. That's despite commenting in podcast 354 at about 14:30: "but I'll say it again, this is the 15th century and humanists are delighting in irony and literary gamesmanship". That's been a characteristic of recent episodes. (Recent for me).

While looking up some stuff for a comment on podcast 354, I can see that Erica Benner takes the ironic view. She wrote in The Guardian, "Have We Got Machiavelli All Wrong":

"If Machiavelli did send the Medici The Prince, which seems unlikely, he could not have expected them to take its “advice” – to bribe, swindle, and assassinate one’s way to power – as gifts of friendly wisdom. Nor would it have helped his cause that he addresses the Medici as “princes” in his dedication, and insists on their remoteness from the people. Just like modern dictators, the Medici were keen to keep up the fiction that they were mere “first citizens” in Florence’s republic, not monarchs or tyrants. Calling them princes was an audacious piece of cheek. No wonder readers of The Prince in the early modern era – philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Spinoza and Rousseau – had no doubt the book was a cunning exposé of princely snares, a self-defence manual for citizens. “The book of republicans,” Rousseau dubbed it."

It seems you dismiss the ironic interpretation as not worth mentioning, if so, why so? I don't know enough to think that it should be mentioned, but I'm interested in the reasoning behind that choice.

Peter Adamson 8 October 2021

In reply to by Scheming in the UK

I guess one can't rule out such an ironic reading entirely, but I think that it seems pretty unlikely in the context of his thought as a whole. Like, if you read the Discourses you see lots of connections to the Prince, as I hope I made clear, and the way the Prince uses history is also a lot like the Discourses. But it seems inconceivable that the Discourses is ironic in the way you are suggesting. Furthermore, there is just so much in the Prince that doesn't make sense as mere irony, like the handling of the theme of greatness. Actually much less of the Prince is horrible and cynical than people remember - it is more like scattered passages. So we are not dealing with a text like Swift's Modest Proposal here. A more plausible idea might be that some aspects of the Prince are ironic, but I would need to see how that would be worked out in detail: which passages and why.

Alexander Johnson 12 October 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I must admit I was also surprised to hear little to no controversy on this issue.  In pop history and in casual conversations or podcasts I've heard all of the following:

  • The Prince & Discourses were both satire (as the guardian article the above user mentioned suggests)
  • The Prince was written ironically and for the people, and the discourses are what he truly wants,
  • The Prince was written to suck up to de Medici, and discourses was written when he felt more secure  (both of these with the suggestion that discourses are pro republic and the prince is anti)
  • The Price was written for a new prince (of a new government), and Discourses was written for a well established government. (again, wit the suggestion that they differ significantly)
  • As well as disagreements on if it was meant to apply to leaders to all people, or just some.  To leaders all the time, or just when leading.  Or to all people, or just leaders.  

Are these issues not as hotly contested amongst historians of renaissance philosophy?

Peter Adamson 13 October 2021

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Well, obviously the scholarship on this is vast but when I was reading up on the Prince (and I did read quite a bit) I don't think I saw any serious discussion of whether the whole thing is ironic or a Swift style joke. He was definitely sucking up to the Medici, as I think I did mention, but to be frank pretty much all Italian Renaissance literature was written in part for the sake of currying favor with patrons so that doesn't mean much in terms of the interpretation. But your point about new vs established government is more promising, I think, as a key to understand the relationship between the two works.

As I say I think in any case that the contrast between the Prince and Discourses should not be overstated; as we saw in the podcasts they can be pretty readily seen as cohering into a consistent political theory, albeit with differences of emphasis which could indeed be owing to the occasions and audiences for which they were written.

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