POL208Y1 Study Guide - Cesare Borgia, Human Nature, Castruccio Castracani
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Discourses; History of Florence, Bk. V; The Prince, Chs. I – XI
1. Where does Machiavelli turn for inspiration and political education? And why?
Machiavelli turns to the many writers and artists during Italian Renaissance for his
inspiration and political education. He does so because during this period it marked a
revival in the sciences and arts and marked a time where religion was losing its influence
in politics. Machiavelli uses this theme in all his writings and separation of church and
state is a monumental change for not only his work but many others during this time
On Book II, the Discourses, Machiavelli turns for inspiration and political education from
previous thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.
For inspiration, Machiavelli argues that in order to encourage prince to be good, people
must look the great past to see how great the predecessors were. From his point, if
predecessors did well in the past, successors would be inspirited and think they can also
do well in the future as their predecessors did. As he remarks in the beginning of Book II,
“men always praise ancient times.” Machiavelli thinks that in order to be great prince, one
must study the greats of the past, and in order to avoid faults, one must examine the
mistakes of failed predecessors. Therefore, political education is necessary to be a good
2. How does Machiavelli view history? When does culture arise and what are its effects?
What lesson does Machiavelli wish to offer with his example of the founding of Rome? Is
there a “limit” to the use of violence?
Machiavelli views history as tested and proven successes and failures of the
ancients from which we can learn to avoid their failures, and imitate to achieve the same
successes. He illustrated this with examples on –Page 170- when he says that medicines
that doctors base their diagnoses on in the present began as experiments carried out by
ancient doctors; and civil law that instructs our jurors today, were judgements made by
Machiavelli validates this view of history based on his interpretation of human
affairs always being in motion –page 288-, the cyclical nature of past, present and future
events. Since the events of the past are just a reflection of the events of the present –page
413- (since it is cyclical) then we can apply the same measures and proceedings in dealing
with the present events as the ancients did to achieve the same result that they achieved.
We can see the cyclical nature of history illustrated when Machiavelli on -page 557-
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describes how chaos can go to order, which then causes tranquility (highest point, in
which empire is established and is at height of culture), which causes laziness (people
getting too comfortable in their present state, can become ignorant and less alert of
dangers to their established life –revolution, civil war, etc), and laziness contributes to
ruin (those dangers coming to life –revolution, civil war, foreign invaders) and ruin
becomes chaos (lowest point); and then from chaos, order is born. So we see that history
is constantly going from the highest point (cultured, established, tranquil) and then when
it can go no higher, it must descend to the lowest point (chaos, disorder) and then when it
can go no lower, back to the highest point.
Machiavelli also places great emphasis on the extraction of practical knowledge
from the past rather than just admiring the past and condemning the present (which he
says that most people do). Practical knowledge becomes the most important asset that our
past can afford us –page 171-.
Machiavelli describes to us the history of the founding of Rome. –Page 200- Many
people have the popular view that Rome was founded on cruel fratricide. Machiavelli has
a different view from which we can judge the founding of Rome. In the founding of
Rome, Romulus had killed his brother Remus to keep his claim on the throne. There
could not have been two rulers/founders because the strongest republics prosper because
they were founded by one ruler with extraordinary virtu. Virtu, according to Machiavalli
is not necessarily moral virtu. Rather it means: skill/ability, political prowess, and
strength of body and of mind. It can be said that Romulus was exercising his virtu in
killing his brother to keep the throne which would lead to the founding of Rome.
Although it seems overly violent and senseless to kill his brother, we can see that
Romulus’ actions after claiming the throne can excuse, not justify—but excuse, the harsh
decision that he had to make. We can see that the action was not performed out of
selfishness or greed for the power of the throne. The murder was done for the better good,
that is for the good of the civilians. We can prove that Romulus was not after personal
ambition because right after he won over his brother, Romulus set up a senate to which he
afforded great power (he kept for himself, military control and the power to summon the
senate). The lessons that Machiavelli is illustrating by using the founding of Rome as an
example is that
a)One founder is ideal.
b)The founder can make decisions that seem immoral or violent. We must consider
the goal and result of the actions. Those actions must be for the greater good and
not private ambition. Those actions must also be to mend and create instead of
destroy. If these stipulations are met than the actions that might be considered
immoral/violent can be justified as necessary.
Machiavelli views history is a guideline to be a good prince and prince need to learn
history. On the Prince, he writes “A prince should read history and reflect on the actions
of great men.” According to Machiavelli, new culture would arise when a new culture has
been corrupted and reach chaos. When a new culture arise, it would grows up and be
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stronger. And then, it will be corrupted and reach chaos again. Then, this culture will fall
and another new culture arises. It is just like a circle.
According to his example of the founding of Rome, he wants to people know that the
most notable princes who became princes by their own force, especially his own military
force. Mercenary is convenience but they only fight for money. Foreign arms are easy to
use but they are even more dangerous because they are already loyal to another prince.
According to Machiavelli, there is no “limit” to the use of violence. In the whole book,
Machiavelli discusses that better safe than sorry; better to be feared than to be loved – this
is Machiavelli’s mainly advice. On the other hand, on the Chapter IV, he also advocates a
prince should destroy the conquered republic rather than set a colony or a puppet
government. He writes, according to history, the Spartans established oligarchies in
Athens and Thebes but lost both of them at last. The Romans destroyed Capua, Carthage,
and Numantia and never lost them.
3. What does Machiavelli mean by virtù (virtue, talent), and what is the relationship
between virtù and opportunity?
“As for exercising the mind, a prince should read history and reflect on the actions of
great men.” Machiavelli was a student of the past, and he peppers The Prince with
numerous scholarly examples: from Cyrus to Cesare Borgia (Chapter 7), from the ancient
Romans (Chapter 6) to King Louis of France (Chapter 3), from Carthage to German city-
states, the art of the telling example is crucial to The Prince’s rhetorical strategy. That
strategy is, in turn, recommended for princes: Machiavelli argues that in order to be great,
one must study the greats of the past, and in order to avoid pitfalls, one must examine the
mistakes of failed predecessors. This may seem like common sense, but it is also a view
grounded in the thinking of Machiavelli’s time, when Renaissance scholars were
reshaping history, looking to the past for inspiration, and calling attention to the giants of
According to Machiavelli, culture in itself is cyclical. It brings about the decay and
growth of society. By studying history, the Prince will know how to expect this and deal
with it. It is always best for a leader to be feared rather than beloved. This will allow the
Prince to rule even in times of decay without fear of civil uprising.
The founding of Rome was said to be when Remus was killed by Romulus (Chapter 6).
The two lessons to be learned were that firstly most notable princes who became princes
by their own force. Secondly, when a leader is blessed with the fortuna to have the
opportunity to exercise their virtu, they must act upon it. This was the dilemma put before
Romulus. The state could not have two rulers and he had the opportunity to rule. He had
to take this opportunity to kill his brother so he could effectively exercise his virtu.
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