This experience is optimized for Internet Explorer version 9 and above.

Please upgrade your browser

Send the Gift of Lifelong Learning!

Machiavelli in Context

Machiavelli in Context

Professor William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo

Gifting Information


To send your gift, please complete the form below. An email will be sent immediately to notify the recipient of your gift and provide them with instructions to redeem it.

  • 500 characters remaining.

Frequently Asked Questions

With an eGift, you can instantly send a Great Course to a friend or loved one via email. It's simple:
1. Find the course you would like to eGift.
2. Under "Choose a Format", click on Video Download or Audio Download.
3. Click 'Send e-Gift'
4. Fill out the details on the next page. You will need to the email address of your friend or family member.
5. Proceed with the checkout process as usual.
Q: Why do I need to specify the email of the recipient?
A: We will send that person an email to notify them of your gift. If they are already a customer, they will be able to add the gift to their My Digital Library and mobile apps. If they are not yet a customer, we will help them set up a new account so they can enjoy their course in their My Digital Library or via our free mobile apps.
Q: How will my friend or family member know they have a gift?
A: They will receive an email from The Great Courses notifying them of your eGift. The email will direct them to If they are already a customer, they will be able to add the gift to their My Digital Library and mobile apps. If they are not yet a customer, we will help them set up a new account so they can enjoy their course in their My Digital Library or via our free mobile apps.
Q: What if my friend or family member does not receive the email?
A: If the email notification is missing, first check your Spam folder. Depending on your email provider, it may have mistakenly been flagged as spam. If it is not found, please email customer service at ( or call 1-800-832-2412 for assistance.
Q: How will I know they have received my eGift?
A: When the recipient clicks on their email and redeems their eGift, you will automatically receive an email notification.
Q: What if I do not receive the notification that the eGift has been redeemed?
A: If the email notification is missing, first check your Spam folder. Depending on your email provider, it may have mistakenly been flagged as spam. If it is not found, please email customer service at ( or call customer service at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance.
Q: I don't want to send downloads. How do I gift DVDs or CDs?
A: eGifting only covers digital products. To purchase a DVD or CD version of a course and mail it to a friend, please call customer service at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance. Physical gifting can still be achieved online – can we describe that here and not point folks to call?
Q: Oops! The recipient already owns the course I gifted. What now?
A: Great minds think alike! We can exchange the eGifted course for another course of equal value. Please call customer service at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance.
Q: Can I update or change my email address?
A: Yes, you can. Go to My Account to change your email address.
Q: Can I select a date in the future to send my eGift?
A: Sorry, this feature is not available yet. We are working on adding it in the future.
Q: What if the email associated with eGift is not for my regular Great Course account?
A: Please please email customer service at ( or call our customer service team at 1-800-832-2412 for assistance. They have the ability to update the email address so you can put in your correct account.
Q: When purchasing a gift for someone, why do I have to create an account?
A: This is done for two reasons. One is so you can track the purchase of the order in your ‘order history’ section as well as being able to let our customer service team track your purchase and the person who received it if the need arises.
Q: Can I return or Exchange a gift after I purchase it?
A: Because the gift is sent immediately, it cannot be returned or exchanged by the person giving the gift. The recipient can exchange the gift for another course of equal or lesser value, or pay the difference on a more expensive item
Video title

Priority Code


Machiavelli in Context

Course No. 4311
Professor William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Share This Course
Course No. 4311
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring around 80 maps and portraits. There are maps and illustrations of the Italy of Machiavelli's time; portraits of the great thinker and his contemporaries, including Cesare Borgia; and lengthy on-screen excerpts from masterpieces like The Prince and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
Audio Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

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.

Hide Full Description
24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2006
  • 1
    Who Is Machiavelli? Why Does He Matter?
    The course opens by placing Machiavelli in the context of the history of Western political thought, addressing the debate over the "real" Machiavelli and examining his role as perhaps the first "modern" thinker. x
  • 2
    Machiavelli’s Florence
    What sort of place was Florence in the period we call the Renaissance? The lecture introduces us to an independent entity constantly working to gain advantage over its Italian neighbors as well as deal with the great European monarchies. x
  • 3
    Classical Thought in Renaissance Florence
    The Renaissance can best be understood as an educational movement that approached and found value in the classics in new ways. This lecture introduces the principal tenets of Renaissance Humanist thought and practice. x
  • 4
    The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli
    In the republican interlude (1494–1512) that interrupts the Medici domination, Machiavelli leads an active life as a part of Florence's government, although his most important writings are produced in the years after the Medici family re-established its rulership. x
  • 5
    Why Did Machiavelli Write The Prince?
    In studying Machiavelli's letters and The Prince itself, we learn the circumstances in which he produced his most famous work, as well as the degree to which his ideas, though owing much to classical thought, are quite original. x
  • 6
    The Prince, 1–5—Republics Old and New
    The lecture begins the in-depth exploration of The Prince, including both the view that it was an attempt to win the favor of the Medici and Machiavelli's first extended use of an example from classical antiquity to illuminate his discussion. x
  • 7
    The Prince, 6–7—Virtù and Fortuna
    We look at two terms Machiavelli uses often and what he intends them to mean before moving into the heart of one of the book's most famous chapters, in which Machiavelli introduces Cesare Borgia, often referred to as his role model for a modern prince. x
  • 8
    The Prince, 8–12—The Prince and Power
    Machiavelli examines civil principalities, leading to a discussion of the prince's relationship with the citizens he governs, including his claim that it is more important for a prince to have the support of the people rather than the nobility. x
  • 9
    The Prince, 13–16—The Art of Being a Prince
    Machiavelli denounces the common practice of his day for Italian city-states to rely on auxiliary soldiers, and lays out part of what is new in his political thought, pointing out that human weakness lessens the value of those in the past who have written of ideal, imaginary republics. x
  • 10
    The Prince, 17–21—The Lion and the Fox
    Should a prince be loved or feared, if he cannot be both? Traditional thinkers would have chosen the former, while Machiavelli argues for the latter. Similarly, Machiavelli asks if it is necessary or wise for a prince always to keep his word. x
  • 11
    The Prince, 21–26—Fortune and Foreigners
    Machiavelli states that a prince must gain the esteem of his people and then addresses several important issues regarding a prince's court—including advisors and how to use them and the problem of flattery—before focusing once again on contemporary Italy and its problems. x
  • 12
    Livy, the Roman Republic, and Machiavelli
    We turn to Machiavelli's most carefully thought out and longest book on political thought, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, beginning with a description of the Roman Republic and a broad view of how Livy understood Rome's republican past. x
  • 13
    Discourses—Why Machiavelli Is a Republican
    Machiavelli argues that it was conflict between patricians and plebians that led to the full development of Rome's republican constitution. Hence, conflict can be either destructive or positive in a nation. While it was good for Rome, it was bad for Florence. x
  • 14
    Discourses—The Workings of a Good Republic
    Machiavelli holds that a Republic requires a strong man who is unafraid to act boldly—citing Numa's establishment of a moral structure for citizens—and looks forward, as well, asking what happens if the citizenry becomes corrupted. x
  • 15
    Discourses—Lessons from Rome
    Machiavelli examines several questions relating to the governance and reform of a republic—including the roles played by merit, tradition, initiative, and punishment—before making a case for the freedom that comes with knowledge of the past. x
  • 16
    Discourses—A Principality or a Republic?
    After contrasting a virtuous republic with a city without virtue, Machiavelli writes about his beliefs in signs and prophecies, a reminder to us that Machiavelli is both a man of his time and a modern man. x
  • 17
    Discourses—The Qualities of a Good Republic
    Although Machiavelli dealt with the role of fortune in The Prince, he takes up the issue again at the beginning of his second discourse, considering claims that Rome was more lucky than skilled or virtuous in its stability and growth during several republican centuries. x
  • 18
    Discourses—A Republic at War
    Machiavelli discusses the organization and practice of warfare in ancient Rome, offering us the opportunity to draw lessons that override the details of the kind of warfare no longer waged in our time. x
  • 19
    Discourses—Can Republics Last?
    Concerned for war-torn Italy, Machiavelli takes up several issues that Livy dealt with in his History of Rome, ultimately worrying about how nations, and especially republics, can survive in a dangerous and unpredictable world. x
  • 20
    Discourses—Conspiracies and Other Dangers
    With famous historical examples to emphasize the importance of taking action against opposition when a change of government occurs, Machiavelli writes about the nature of conspiracies and the qualities different historical circumstances demand of a leader, then reiterates several of his major themes. x
  • 21
    Florentine Histories—The Growth of Florence
    Writing his most important work of history—Florentine Histories—as a commission from the Medici, Machiavelli applies many of the ideas set forth in The Prince and Discourses. x
  • 22
    Florentine Histories—The Age of the Medici
    The Pazzi conspiracy of 1478 is an attempt to overthrow Medici rule by assassinating Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giuliano. It becomes for Machiavelli a case study that illuminates the particular issue of conspiracies and how we learn from history. x
  • 23
    The Fate of Machiavelli’s Works
    Machiavelli's major works fail to find publication in his lifetime, but his republican thought, at least indirectly, contributes to the development of an American republican tradition. x
  • 24
    Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian?
    The final lecture addresses the most important questions we need to ask about Machiavelli, including the fairness of the judgment brought on him by history, and why he remains such a vital model, even after five centuries. x

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
Video DVD
CD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 12 CDs
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

Your professor

William R. Cook

About Your Professor

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 53 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Brilliant Prior to hearing this course, I heard three courses given by Professor Bartlett on Italy around the era of the Renaissance: “Italians before Italy…”, “Italian Renaissance”, “and “The Smithsonian Guide to Essential Italy”. These were invaluable for providing the historical context for understanding Machiavelli, and I believe that if I only had to rely on the rather brief historical context given in the current course I would have had a hard time understanding much of what was taught. The course was wonderful! Professor Cook was absolutely masterful at exposing all of the different dimensions of Machiavelli’s teachings. Obviously – for most people Machiavelli goes together with Machiavellian: the aims justify the means… Professor Cook shows how much more there is to Machiavelli and how, in some ways, this is exactly the opposite from what Machiavelli actually thought while in others it isn’t. A complicated and sophisticated thinker indeed, especially considering that he was writing in the 16th century! This is the second course I have taken given by Professor Cook, the first being “Saint Francis of Assisi” which he taught with Professor Herzman. I did not particularly enjoy that course nor Professor Cook as the lecturer. I simply did not feel it rose to any great heights. This course is a totally different story: Professor Cook is sharp, provocative, ironic and very entertaining. He does a brilliant job in showing how multi-facetted Machiavelli is and how much thought has to be invested when reading his teachings in order to understand all of the subtleties. He explains why Machiavelli is called so many times “the first modern man”, while at the same time shows us that though one can imagine sitting down with Machiavelli at a pub and arguing politics, he is STILL a sixteenth century man with the appropriate prejudices and superstitions. A brilliant course and highly recommended! October 27, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by Good Content-Poor Delivery I feel guilty because the content was good. However, his speech impediment was extremely distracting. The video may have been better, but the audio was tough. April 9, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Machiavelli yes, Machiavellian Not so Much My introduction to Machiavelli, like most students, was of short snippets of Machiavelli's "The Prince," with little or no narrative to explain or support the statements. Any picture of Niccolo Machiavelli was of a conniving, self-serving politician with no respect for the institutions supporting the government he served. The description of an individual, usually a politician, as Machiavellian, is an invitation to disrespect his motives, his methods, and his oratories. Professor Cook demonstrates that Machiavelli was not a conniving politician, but a true student of history, applying a careful analysis to the sources he had at his disposal. Professor Cook's lectures reveal his deep intimacies with the intricacies of Machiavelli's personal history, corpus of work, and historical knowledge. This makes this series of lectures a joy. His lectures cover not only his best known work, "The Prince," but his more important works, His "Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius," and his "Histories of Florence." The narrative history is fascinating, which you'd expect of someone with decades of close association with the leaders of Florence. Professor Cook's exposition on the works themselves enables the students to compare today's political scene with not only that of sixteenth century Florence, but that of Athens and Rome. There is always some bit of the course that, for me, embodies the most valuable part of that course. In the case of this series, his lectures on the structure, history, and functioning of the republic are golden. Like most students of history, I thought I had a solid basis for my knowledge of the republcan form of government. I know a lot more now. This course, like many others, has added to my reading list. For this course, it is an added piece of luck that Machiavelli's work is available on the net from repositories that serve the public without violating anyone's copyright. In Professor Cooks own words, "If you haven't given Machiavelli a try, give him a try." This course is an excellent way of doing just that. March 31, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by Machiavelli in Context Review I was very surprised to read some of the negative reviews about the lecturers style. I thought he was great. A lot of fun to listen to, energetic, and very interesting. I suppose it is just a matter of opinion but I would not hesitate to listen to another course by him. The content was a very nice overview of the key aspects of Machiavelli's philosophy in context with the times and setting he lived in. I suppose if you already knew a bunch about Machiavelli this course might not be as in-depth as you'd like. For me, knowing really nothing about him, this course was a perfect introduction. After listening to the course I bought The Prince and plan on reading the Discourses on Livy as well for a more in-depth study. I highly recommend this course for anyone wanting a very accessible overview of Machiavelli's philosophy by a lecturer who really knows his stuff and seems to be passionate about the topic. November 10, 2014
  • 2015-11-25 T10:16:29.174-06:00
  • bvseo_lps, prod_bvrr, vn_prr_5.6
  • cp-1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_53, tr_53
  • loc_en_US, sid_4311, prod, sort_default
2 3 next>>

Questions & Answers