Niccolò Machiavelli, the First Modern Political Scientist, and The Prince, the First Major Work of Modern Political Philosophy
By most measures Descartes is thought of as the father of modern philosophy, but Descartes’ work doesn’t start until the 1630’s, while Machiavelli pens his work more than a full century earlier!
Machiavelli’s The Prince was written by 1513 and published in 1532 and can be reasonably citied as “the first major modern work of political philosophy”, but it isn’t his first or only notable book.
Machiavelli’s earliest work, Discourse on Pisa from 1499, is likely “the first work” of modern political science, but unlike some of his other important texts it is not “a major work”. Likewise, A Discourse about the Provision of Money is an early work of economics predates Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations by a good 250 years, but it hardly had the same impact.
The majority of works in Western philosophy before Machiavelli’s time, not counting those of the Greeks and Romans, were theological and came from the Churches. The most radical other popular work of the time is probably Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, a religious work. Thus, Machiavelli stands out not only in talking about Governments socioeconomics again like the Greeks and Romans had done, but in doing so from a “realist” non-religious standpoint (which is essentially what makes him modern).
Despite the clear influence of the Greeks like Aristotle, Roman’s like Livy, and early “Dark Age” thinkers like Michael Psellos, Machiavelli created a new modern type of political science in his masterworks Discourses on Livy and The Prince (while the Prince is more popular and shorter, Livy was more influential and more insightful and is by most measures THE Republican manifesto; one reason why we can call Machiavelli “the Father of Modern Republicanism” too).
These books went on to influence nearly every important political thinker from that point forward. When you read Buchanan, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Montesquie, anyone, you’ll catch at least a nod to Machiavelli’s Livy… if not also the Prince (just as you’ll catch a nod to Aristotle’s Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric).
Although the Prince and Livy (a discourse on the great Roman populist Republican Titus Livius) are very different books, they both contain a type of modern “political realism” that didn’t focus on God or idealism, but rather on the nitty gritty truth in this new era. They were practical guides which conveyed knowledge only previously known to elite classes to the masses for the first time.
In those books (and his others) Machiavelli goes between evenhandedly examining past governments and expressing favor for free republics, and in the Art of War and Prince specifically, describing cunning, underhanded, and sometimes brutal tactics for politicians, cluing leaders in on how to get and keep power.
Despite the equally disturbing and useful content, Machiavelli the Prince specifically can (and arguably should) be read as a type of satire, a call for good leaders to overcome their intrinsic weaknesses, pointing out that in politics, virtue must often be traded for some amount of vice if one wishes to be successful (if the virtuous don’t utilize vice, then the vicious will, and this itself is vice).
The Prince, like nearly all his others works, can also be read as a description of the merits of popular governments, republicanism, and liberty.
The “underhanded” style of writing in the Prince can be attributed to Machiavelli’s story. His tale is one of being involved in politics in a relatively free Republic in Florence, and even running a citizens army because he disliked mercenaries. This continued until a series of political revolutions resulted in him being imprisoned and tortured by the powerful Medici family which ruled by hereditary power.
After his imprisonment Machiavelli devoted himself to studying and writing of the political treatises, never being able to get a job in politics again.
The view of Machiavelli as a Republican rather than a tutor of hereditary princes is backed up by Discourses on Livy This book is much more straightforward about its democratic and republican values. It contains early versions of the concepts of checks and balance and asserts the superiority of a republic over a principality.
It is Discourses, and not The Prince, that became one of the central texts of republicanism, although we can attribute both to his honorary title of “father of modern political philosophy.”
POLITICAL THEORY – Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a political realist, but he wasn’t trying to teach his realism to corrupt hereditary princes. Machiavelli was, by most reasonable measures of his work, a Republican who favored the people and virtue… which is exactly why he sought to teach realist criminal virtue to the otherwise virtuous.
TIP: George Buchanan used to read a young Mary, Queen of Scots (and likely later her son and future King James I) Livy on a daily basis. These were some of the first liberal-ish monarchs of Britain (and this may not be fully coincidence). The story is somewhat Romantic in the way Aristotle was Alexander the Great’s tutor. Sentiment aside, it reminds us of Machiavelli’s vital role as the West’s first Republican philosopher.
Niccolo Machiavelli – BBC Documentary 720p.
TIP: In this first line of The Prince Machiavelli essentially coins the modern usage of the word “state” and re-popularizes the idea of the republic and the non-hereditary princedom as a vehicle for liberty. Despite these lovely liberal qualities and its satirical nature, the book truly does read as a set of underhanded tactics. They are meant for those who seek to overthrow a tyrant and establish a free republic, not for tyrannical princes. This strategy is of course, very Machiavellian.