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Machiavelli in Context

Machiavelli in Context

Professor William R. Cook Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Course No.  4311
Course No.  4311
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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
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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.

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24 Lectures
  • 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

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William R. Cook
Ph.D. William R. Cook
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 in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
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Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 50 reviewers.
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
Rated 1 out of 5 by I will never buy anythhing from cook again I came to this course from Bartlett's Italian Renaissance course, hoping to learn much more about this critical period. While Cook has a solid bibliography, he dumbs down all the important concepts and ideas. I kept trying to continue and tried to ignore his "cutesy" references to Machiavelli's "dad" and his feeble attempts to make it seem that we would all like to go out and have a beer with Machiavelli but finally had to quit. This is among the absolute worst Teaching Company courses I have taken. Unintellectual, irritating simplistic presentation and a total waste of time. Please spend your money on Bartletts course which is erudite and uplifting. May 29, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by rather simplistic presentation Prof. Cook does a quite complete presentation of the general themes on Machiavelli, and rightfully highlights his republicanism, but his style of presentation is a bit simplistic/unsophisticated in analysis, the tone of voice is unfortunately quite put-offish (a bit shrill a times, very crude in vocabulary). Wish I had kept my receipt and returned this ite, March 29, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by My Favorite Course from the Teaching Company This is the course that got me hooked on The Teaching Company. Entertaining, informative, and most importantly enlightening. 50+ courses later it is still my favorite. Prof. Cook is fantastic. I cannot recommend it higher. March 20, 2014
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