Books That Matter: The Prince

Course No. 4944
Professor William Landon, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
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Course No. 4944
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Examine how Livy's Histories and the radical preacher Savonarola influenced Machiavelli's political thought.
  • numbers Learn where The Prince fits in the tradition of princely advice books (or "mirrors").
  • numbers Using literary works like Brave New World, discover the novelty-and horror-of Machiavelli's break from the classical tradition.
  • numbers Learn how The Prince was received by Machiavelli's friends, as well the author's tensions with one man linked to the center of power.
  • numbers Survey the diversity of 20th-century responses to The Prince.

Course Overview

Do the ends justify the means? Should leaders be feared or loved? Can dictators give rise to democracy? Should rulers have morals or wear them like a mask? Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince puts forth unsettling questions like these, whose answers redefined centuries of political wisdom. But what does it really mean to be Machiavellian?

Written in the early 1500s at the height of the Florentine Renaissance, The Prince is well known to most of us as a manual for political corruption and a symbol of the underlying dark heart of politics. But to read Machiavelli’s slim volume only in this way is merely to scratch the surface of how groundbreaking a book it is; how it shattered the old classical approach to politics, replacing it with something grittier and, in some ways, better suited to the ruthlessness of the dawning modern age.

A compelling and multifaceted document, The Prince has gone on to shape subsequent centuries of Western civilization. Its controversial (and complex) views on power, leadership, ethics, and virtue are still with us. But The Prince is also a work filled with conflicting and tragic ironies, and it was written by a man who, throughout his own political career, failed to live up to the advice he put forth. Such complexities make it all the more important to have a complete understanding of what The Prince is really about, what it says (and doesn’t say) about political power, and why it ranks as a book that matters to all of us.

Delivered by renowned Machiavelli scholar William Landon, Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of History and Geography of Northern Kentucky University, the 24 lectures of Books That Matter: The Princeare more than just a close reading of one of the great books of Western history. They’re a revealing investigation of the historical context of Machiavelli’s philosophical views, his tumultuous relationship with Florentine politics, his reception by his contemporaries and by 20th-century scholars, and his lasting influence on everyone from William Shakespeare to Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini. For those who’ve already read The Prince, prepare to engage with the text on a deeper level than ever before. And for those who’ve always wanted to read this important book, this is your introduction to one man’s revolutionary beliefs about achieving—and maintaining—power.

Plunge into Machiavelli’s Life and Times

The Prince was not written in a vacuum. Rather, it’s a fascinating piece of political writing that was clearly shaped and informed by the world in which it was produced. Going beyond the commonly held vision of Renaissance Italy as a place of creative genius and unparalleled beauty, Books That Matter: The Prince reveals the drama and terror of Machiavelli’s life and world.

  • Machiavelli and Florence: During Machiavelli’s time, Italy wasn’t a unified nation but instead a conglomeration of city-states, each with its own form of government, language, culture, and economy. So Machiavelli didn’t see himself as “Italian” but rather as “Florentine.” And his location in Florence put him at the birthplace of the Renaissance, surrounded by the re-emergent Greco-Roman ideas that he would later upend when writing The Prince.
  • Machiavelli and the Medici: In November 1512, after the powerful Medici family returned to reclaim their rule of Florence, Machiavelli was sent into exile. Yet the Medici would also be his main reason for penning The Prince. The entire work was written to advise the Medici masters (specifically the young Lorenzo de’ Medici) on how best to run their new government; in the process, Machiavelli hoped to gain reentry to the Florentine state and a position of influence.
  • Machiavelli and the Borgias: Machiavelli’s experiences in the court of the infamous Cesare Borgia from 1502 to 1503 were fundamental to some of the most controversial ideas in The Prince. According to Professor Landon, Machiavelli was mesmerized by Cesare Borgia’s ability to maintain a carefully constructed persona that hid his true character: that of “a murderous liar, a charismatic cheat, and a villainous fraud.” In short, he was Machiavelli’s ideal prince.

You’ll also learn about the inner workings of Florence’s patronage system, the relationship between the papacy and political power, Florence’s international conflicts, and the creation of citizen militias—one of Machiavelli’s most successful political achievements.

Discover New Ways to Read The Prince

Throughout Books That Matter: The Prince, you’ll dive deep into the work’s most important chapters to survey their main insights; read between the lines to uncover hidden meanings, inspirations, and ironies; learn how scholars have debated their historical inspiration and importance; and discover the author’s sometimes beautiful language and startling imagery.

  • Dedicatory letter: The Prince opens with a dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici. In it, Machiavelli presents himself to the young prince as a tutor in the affairs of the Florentine state. As you’ll learn, it’s an audacious and awe-inspiring dedication that also places The Prince in the long-tradition of “mirrors for princes,” or advice books aimed at educating young rulers.
  • Chapter Seven: Titled “Of new princedoms acquired by Fortune and the aid of others,” this chapter is one of the most infamous in the entire book. By focusing on the ruthless exploits of the Borgias (specifically Pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia), Machiavelli ended up solidifying the influential family’s infamy right down to the present day.
  • Chapter Fifteen: You’ll learn how to read this chapter, “Of the qualities in respect of which men, and most of all princes, are praised or blamed,” as a powerful rebuke against the political advice of Seneca. In effect, what Machiavelli does in this chapter is throw away the most widely accepted forms of pagan and Christian ethics, advising princes that they should forget about trying to change the world for the better.
  • Chapter Twenty-Six: The final chapter of The Prince, filled with sweeping emotion, hammers home how Machiavelli’s ideal prince can liberate Italy from any foreign (“barbarian”) influence. But the chapter’s unique style has also led to some controversy, with scholars debating when exactly the chapter was written and added to subsequent copies of the book.

As you read between the lines of these and other memorable portions of The Prince, you’ll also probe some intriguing questions about the book’s origins, ideas, contradictions, and legacies.

  • Was The Prince meant to be taken seriously, or is it just a cunning piece of satire?
  • Who was responsible for rescuing The Prince from the brink of obscurity?
  • How did Machiavelli redefine the meanings of “virtue” and “patriotism”?

Get Two Decades of Research in One Great Course

With these lectures, you’re in the hands of a master scholar who’s devoted twenty years of his career to examining Machiavelli’s masterwork. Professor Landon transforms this slim volume into a compendium of history, philosophy, and literature that will have you rethinking your preconceived ideas about what it means to be a leader in a complex world.

“The ideas Machiavelli put forth are as novel as they are appalling,” he says. “But I think in the contemporary age, the many truths he shared are worthy of remembering and, yes, even celebrating.”

Bringing together two decades of tireless research into Machiavelli’s infamous “little book,” Books That Matter: The Prince is your guide to a powerful piece of writing that throws more than 2,000 years of political, religious, and ethical thought straight out the window.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 27 minutes each
  • 1
    Who Was Niccolò Machiavelli?
    To truly understand The Prince, you have to understand the man who wrote it. After providing an overview of Machiavelli's early life, Professor Landon introduces you to Machiavelli's Italy, including its conflicts with the French and Spanish, its network of city-states, and its role as the seat of humanist thought. x
  • 2
    Machiavelli's Renaissance: Rise and Rebirth
    Go back in time to Renaissance Florence: the city that shaped Machiavelli's formative years. You'll examine how Livy's Histories and the radical preacher Savonarola influenced Machiavelli's political thought, and you'll discover what Machiavelli learned about leadership from his experiences in the court of the fearsome Cesare Borgia. x
  • 3
    Machiavelli's Fall from Grace
    Machiavelli reached the heights of success in 1509 with his Florentine militia. A few years later, he'd be exiled from his beloved Florence. Get the full story on these tumultuous years, which include military victories (and defeats), political machinations, the return of the Medici, and the end of the Republic. x
  • 4
    Machiavelli's Patronage Problem
    To return from exile, Machiavelli needed a patron. What were the unwritten rules of the patron-client relationship in Renaissance Florence? How could Machiavelli gain entry to Lorenzo de' Medici's patronage network? See what a close reading of The Prince's dedicatory letter reveals about the irony of the author's predicament. x
  • 5
    How to Conquer a Renaissance City-State
    Turn now to Machiavelli's masterwork itself. First, learn where The Prince fits in the tradition of princely advice books (or mirrors"). Then, dive into the first six chapters, which discuss the two prominent forms of government, the wisdom of Alexander the Great, and the "destruction" of enemy states. " x
  • 6
    Cesare Borgia: Machiavelli's Perfect Prince
    Chapter Seven of The Prince, one of its most infamous chapters, uses the terrifying Borgia family as an example of the acquisition of power and political unification. In examining this section, you'll encounter one of the many troubling problems with Machiavellian thought: the use of amoral means to attain moral ends. x
  • 7
    Machiavelli's Criminal Princes
    What were Machiavelli's views on achieving power through criminal means? If Cesare Borgia wasn't a criminal prince, then who was? Read between the lines of Chapter Eight of The Prince, which discusses the merits of cruel leaders by comparing Cesare Borgia with the careers of two other dastardly princes. x
  • 8
    Church versus State in Machiavelli's Italy
    Continue to Chapter Nine, Of the Civil Princedom," in which Machiavelli lays out the strategies Lorenzo needs to employ if he wishes to remain successful. Then, look at Chapter Eleven, "Of Ecclesiastical Principalities," which advises Lorenzo to work with Pope Leo X to remove the Spanish and French from Italy." x
  • 9
    Senecan Mirrors and Machiavellian Masks
    One inspiration for The Prince was Seneca's De Clementia (On Clemency"), one of the most influential advice books of Machiavelli's time. After a brief look at this illustrious work, examine how Chapter Fifteen of The Prince completely undermines Seneca's advice-and all widely accepted forms of ethics and respect." x
  • 10
    Fear Is Love: Machiavellian Authority
    Is it better for a leader to be feared or loved? The Prince answers this question in Chapter Seventeen, which advocates for the use of terror to control one's subjects. Using literary works like Brave New World, open your eyes to the novelty-and horror-of Machiavelli's break from the classical tradition. x
  • 11
    Machiavelli Reinvents Virtue
    Focus on how The Prince subverted, in shocking and ironic ways, the vocabulary of classical political thought-specifically three Florentine words for Roman values: virtu (virtue"), stato ("the state") and patria ("patriotism"). Through these linguistic manipulations, Machiavelli revealed how blind people were to the harsh realities of Italian politics." x
  • 12
    Verita Effettuale: Machiavellian Realism
    Chapter Eighteen of The Prince demolished the advice of Cicero and challenged the worldview of St. Paul. As you break down this chapter, you'll encounter one of the book's most famous passages, and you'll learn why Machiavelli envisioned a great prince as someone who was part fox and part lion. x
  • 13
    Achieving Fame and Glory Machiavelli's Way
    Professor Landon guides you through Chapter Twenty-One of The Prince. Here, Machiavelli explains how a prince should make himself great through religion, and how he should conduct foreign wars to distract citizens from his consolidation of power at home. The best historical example of this prince: Ferdinand of Aragon. x
  • 14
    The Irony of Machiavelli as Adviser
    How should a great prince select a personal adviser and avoid flatterers? To answer this question, you'll jump into the poisonous pit of the Florentine court and learn how The Prince was received by Machiavelli's friends, as well the author's tensions with one man linked to the center of power. x
  • 15
    Machiavelli on Fighting Fortune
    One of the most hotly debated chapters in The Prince is Chapter Twenty-Five, which declares Fortune to be the guide of human actions and suggests that great men must always live in a state of preparedness. How does Machiavelli come to grips with free will? What did Fortune mean to Florentines? x
  • 16
    Machiavelli Calls for a United Italy
    Filled with emotion, the final chapter of The Prince offers Lorenzo de' Medici pointed advice on how to liberate Italy from barbarians." Probe the scholarly debate over when this chapter was added to the text. Also, learn how The Prince compares with Machiavelli's other famous book on Republican idealism." x
  • 17
    Machiavelli Reads Lucretius
    In the first of two lectures on the intellectual underpinnings of Machiavelli's political thought, Professor Landon explores how Epicurean materialism-as exemplified by Lucretius's famous poem De rerum natura (On the nature of things")-shaped the author's life while in exile, and also his writing of The Prince." x
  • 18
    Lucretian Ethics in The Prince
    Ponder the connection between the writing of The Prince with the metaphor of Sisyphus's punishment rolling a boulder up a hill. You'll learn how a famous letter offers insights into Machiavelli's political divorce from Florence, and you'll ponder connections between Machiavelli and the 20th-century philosopher Albert Camus. x
  • 19
    Was Machiavelli an Atheist?
    According to Professor Landon, Machiavelli was a materialist and possibly an atheist. How does this influence our reading of The Prince? What are some scholarly arguments that Machiavelli was a Christian? What does the author's private correspondence reveal? Consider the evidence and draw your own conclusions about Machiavelli's belief-or lack thereof. x
  • 20
    The Machiavellian Moment
    The year 1527 saw the expulsion of the Medici, the restoration of the Florentine Republic, and the death of Machiavelli. Experience what it was like to live during the growing wars of religion. Then, spend time with the famous author during his last days and learn the fate of his little book. x
  • 21
    Machiavelli in Hell: Banning The Prince
    Discover how The Prince was received by the generations who came after Machiavelli. You'll follow the book's journey from unpublished obscurity to its position on Pope Paul IV's Index of Banned Books to the preservation of its authentic, unedited text thanks to the help of Machiavelli's rebellious grandsons. x
  • 22
    Machiavelli at Work in the Wars of Religion
    The ideas contained in The Prince were blamed for a number of historical atrocities. Here, spend some time with critics of Machiavelli's book, including Cardinal Reginald Pole (who declared the book to be written by Satan's finger"), the Protestant critic Innocent Gentillet, and even great English playwrights like William Shakespeare." x
  • 23
    Machiavelli Redeemed: The Enlightenment
    What was the role of The Prince in a world that turned to the Enlightenment and a focus on human rights? Find out how great minds and leaders from this era in modern history-including Frederick the Great of Prussia, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Adams-responded to Machiavelli's political ideas. x
  • 24
    Machiavelli's Legacy
    Survey the diversity of 20th-century responses to The Prince, from Benito Mussolini, who used it to justify his fascist dictatorship, to contemporary Renaissance scholars, who see the work as a brilliant piece of satire. Centuries after it was first written down, Machiavelli's ideas continue to resonate with human civilization. x

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Your professor

William Landon

About Your Professor

William Landon, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
Dr. William Landon is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of History and Geography at Northern Kentucky University. He received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in History, with an emphasis on the life and works of Niccolò Machiavelli, from the University of Edinburgh. While in Edinburgh, he studied under noted historian of Renaissance Italy Richard Mackenney. Dr. Landon has published two books: Politics, Patriotism and...
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Books That Matter: The Prince is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 29.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Was Niccolo un-Machiavellian? Before starting these lectures I read a translation of Niccolo's "The Prince", and reviewed it earlier on Goodreads, trying what I thought might be an interesting exercise to see if my interpretation of this 'little book' would the same, or even similar to, Dr Landon's. It turns out that it was! I think it helps to have at least a working knowledge of the life and times of Machiavelli...what the environment of Florence was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. I was helped by a recent visit to Florence during which I was impressed by the artistic and literary genius of that time, and the influences that Niccolo must have had. It also helps to know a bit about classical history about those leaders/tyrants who shaped their world is sometimes the most terrible ways. Dr Landon refers to him often as a literary genius and dedicated republican, as he certainly was. But these lectures filled gaps in his personal life that I didn't pick up...his religious views...his attempts at military endeavors...his somewhat unconventional personality...and finally, his purpose in writing a how-to book that was not intended for publication. I agree with Landon that the book was not intended as a satire, but rather a relatively naive attempt to unify Italy as a republican nation/state through any means available. I'm less sure about the good doctor's thoughts about Niccolo's potential influence on the horrible religious wars in the later 16th century. And, as for current leaders who have Machiavellian tendencies, I suppose only some future historian will be able to identify them, since the good (?) tyrants won't be recognized during their 'reign', especially the ones who have read this 'little book' (or had it read to them) And that could be HUUUUGE! Recommended for the history buff who is ready to do his/her homework...and who recognizes the value and power of a sale and coupon.
Date published: 2020-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Prince- Professor Landon Well laid out background into the history and time of Machiavelli. Professor Landon is very well versed in his subject and a pleasure to listen to. The guidebook that accompanies the set is edited and shorter that the lectures as Professor Landon goes into great detail and history. I am intrigued and captivated by this course.
Date published: 2019-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant set of lectures I've put off reading The Prince for years because I figured that without any background knowledge, I might not get the kind of experience out of the book that I would like. This course is excellent. It gives far more information than I thought it would and it is so well presented. I will definitely listen to the course again as I begin reading The Prince. What an excellent set of lectures.
Date published: 2019-04-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Book, the Writer, Florence and the Renaissance This is not necessarily a criticism, but this course was not exactly what I was expecting. Of course context is important when examining any worthwhile work, so a certain amount of discussion of Florence and other parts of what is now Italy before, during and after the Renaissance is appropriate, as is, understanding the Medici, the politics and religion of the times. I’m not sure how much of a mixture of the book and the other elements is correct, but for me, the contextual parts of this set of lectures could have been cut back and more direct critique of “The Prince” included. Others may well feel differently. For example, one whole lecture is devoted to whether or not Machiavelli was an atheist, plus there were significant sections of other lectures where his religiosity was called into question. For me this was a lot of time devoted to a side issue. One that no doubt deserved mention, and is important in giving a perspective that influenced the book, but one that could have been dealt with briefly, especially as there was no firm conclusion as to Machiavelli's belief(s). Professor Landon clearly knows his subject both broadly and in detail and his delivery is smooth, practiced and easy to follow. I thought that the weaving of the book and the writer into the times was well done, especially the parts that dealt with Machiavelli’s relations with other personalities of the day. Less convincing to me however, were the later lectures that centered on Machiavelli’s influence later, such as during the Enlightenment: Adams, Jefferson, Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Rousseau. On the other hand, the discussion of the possibility that The Prince is a work of satire certainly never occurred to me and I found the idea fascinating, even if Dr. Landon rejects the idea that other scholars have raised. I’d have liked more in-depth discussions of issues of this kind that dealt directly with the work itself. Overall worth listening to, but just be sure you are aware of the thrust of the course’s content before buying.
Date published: 2019-04-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Machiavelli NOT Apreciated! Presenter repeatedly said Machiavelli wrote about how the world IS but believed that he should have written about how the world SHOULD be. By that logic humanity would never have advanced even to the Stone Age.
Date published: 2018-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! I have enjoyed the discussions even more than I thought I would! This course is tremendously interesting!
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Comprehensive Look at a Misunderstood Work This course provided an in-depth analysis of one of the greatest and most misunderstood books in the world. The most important aspect of this course was putting The Prince in the historical context of the time that Machiavelli was living in. In doing so, Professor Landon made the work more cohesive for me because he is trying to describe and recapture a world that no longer exist. Machiavelli was certainly the first modern political thinker in many ways and his ideas in The Prince would lead in the long run to Italian nationalism in the 19th century and fascism in the 20th century. TProfessor Landon made me appreciate the ‘evil’ genius of Machiavelli.
Date published: 2018-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful historical insight I really enjoyed this course. It was easy to listen to and walked me through The Prince quite nicely. I've been teaching history for a few years and Dr. Landon made me reconsider quite a few things. I liked the way he seamlessly blended the historical events surrounding the Prince into his lectures. Once he got me through the work, then he considered the whole work and its impacts and reception. So well done!
Date published: 2018-03-03
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