Mentioning the name Niccolò Machiavelli can unleash a powerful response, even among people who have never read a word of his writings. Our language even has a word—Machiavellian—that encapsulates the images those responses conjure up:
- An indistinct figure quietly making his way through the darkest corridors of power, hatching plots to play one rival against another
- A cold-blooded political liar, ready to justify any duplicity undertaken in the name of a noble end that will ultimately justify the most malignant means
- A coolly practical leader—amoral at best—willing to do whatever is necessary in a world governed not by ideas of right or wrong, but by solutions dictated by realpolitik.
But does the Machiavelli most of us think we know bear any resemblance to the Machiavelli who lived, pondered, and wrote?
According to Professor William R. Cook, a reading of Machiavelli that considers only those qualities that we today call "Machiavellian" is incomplete, and Machiavelli himself "certainly would not recognize" such sinister interpretations or caricatures of his writings and beliefs. Indeed, The Prince—on the pages of which so much of this image was built—was not even published in his lifetime.
Meet an Extraordinary Student of History
In the 24 lectures that make up Machiavelli in Context, Professor Cook offers the opportunity to meet an extraordinarily thoughtful and sincere student of history and its lessons, and to learn that there is far more to him than can be gleaned from any reading of The Prince, no matter how thorough.
Although The Prince is the work by which most of us think we know Machiavelli, and although some have indeed called it the first and most important book of political science ever written, it was not, according to Professor Cook, either Machiavelli's most important work or the one most representative of his beliefs. Those distinctions belong, instead, to his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, a longer work started at about the same time and which would, like The Prince, not be published until well after his death.
"Everyone who has seriously studied the works of Machiavelli agrees that he ... believed in the superiority of a republican form of government, defined as a mixed constitution with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
"Once we recover the context of the writing of The Prince, and analyze it along with the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, it will be clear how The Prince can be read as a book designed to guide leaders in the creation—for Machiavelli, restoration—of republican government in Italy.
"Ultimately, Machiavelli's goal wasn't much different from ours. It was to live in a free and equal participatory society, because he believed that was the greatest way in which human beings could live and flourish."
In fact, says Professor Cook, "Machiavelli's republican thought influenced the development of institutions and values both in Europe and in America."
Learn Machiavelli's Most Important Ideas
To present a complete and well-rounded picture of Machiavelli's ideas on how human societies should be organized and governed, Professor Cook sets aside much of Machiavelli's written output—which included the political work The Art of War, a biography, many letters, and even some plays—to focus on The Prince, the Discourses, and, more briefly, his Florentine Histories.
In doing so, Professor Cook draws on the same qualities so evident in his previous courses for The Teaching Company: Tocqueville and the American Experience, Dante's Divine Comedy, Francis of Assisi, and St. Augustine's Confessions.
Teaching in the relaxed and informal style of those courses, Professor Cook moves easily among the different disciplines so pertinent to an understanding of Machiavelli's ideas, including history, philosophy, government, and the elements of leadership. He is unfailingly clear, always provides any definitions needed to understand the material at hand, and is always ready with a touch of wit whenever that is appropriate.
Because so much of our contemporary misunderstanding of Machiavelli's ideas comes from a lack of context, Professor Cook carefully sets the stage for a complete perspective of Machiavelli's world.
Long before he turns to the works themselves, you'll have learned about Florence and its political history, both before and during Machiavelli's lifetime; the developing Renaissance culture of Machiavelli's time, especially as it bears on the use of ancient political thought by writers and political leaders; and Machiavelli's own life story, including his education, service to the Florentine Republic, years spent in exile south of Florence, and the ways each period of his life affected his writings.
A Stunning and Original Thinker
The result is a thorough grounding in the information one needs to understand and appreciate this stunningly original thinker.
You'll learn, for example, what Machiavelli means when he discusses the important ideas of virtù and Fortuna.
Though these are today invariably translated as virtue and fortune, Machiavelli's meanings can involve much more. Though he sometimes uses virtù in the sense we would understand today, he often uses the word—which comes from the classical Latin word for Man—as a means of describing the way one practices successful statecraft: aggressively, with no reluctance to use lies, deceit, and cruelty that may be required to maintain power, and hence the stability the people deserve.
In a similar way Machiavelli uses Fortuna in a different sense than might have been used by, say, Dante when he describes the vagaries of fate over which we have no control.
Instead, Machiavelli uses the adage, "Fortune is like a river." Though we cannot control fortune, which may well choose to make the river flood, a good ruler, practicing virtù, can indeed prepare for it, and thus modify its effects.
You'll see how Machiavelli first became exposed to history and one of its earliest great practitioners—the Roman historian, Livy—through his own experience of Fortuna.
Though printed books such as Livy's Early History of Rome were too expensive for a family like the young Machiavelli's in the 15th century, his father did own a copy. He had written the index, and a copy of the book had been part of his payment. Thus Machiavelli grew up with the volumes about which he would one day write his own most important work, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy.
You'll be introduced to Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI and the man regarded as Machiavelli's model for The Prince, especially in the way his actions embodied the virtù so important to Machiavelli.
Hear a Shocking but Illustrative Story
Professor Cook brings this out in a shocking story of Borgia's use of a tough and merciless Spaniard—Ramiro d'Orco—to impose order and stability on the area of north central Italy known as the Romagna that had come under Borgia's rule and was beset by crime and violence.
D'Orco's brutal methods had the desired effect. And when the job was completed, the local people emerged from their homes one morning to find the two halves of Ramiro d'Orco's body on opposite sides of the town square of Cesana, because d'Orco had been too tough, and Cesare Borgia needed a way to advertise further his concern for the people whose loyalty he wanted.
The story also embodies, for Machiavelli, the idea that cruelty can be "well-used," just as being merciful—withholding such cruelty when a leader deems it needed—may be less than merciful in its long-term impact.
Finally, you will get to see, throughout these lectures, the development of Machiavelli's reliance on history for its lessons, his role as a Renaissance Humanist thinker, and the emergence of his republican views, which still have tremendous influence today as we ask how republics start, grow, succeed, or fail.
As Professor Cook notes, we are not going to agree with all of Machiavelli's answers. But his commitment to asking the right questions—to thinking, reflecting, and learning everything history has to teach us about the best ways to govern and safeguard the future—was total.