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Teaching Machiavelli through his letters (exurbe.com)
135 points by Tomte 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 33 comments

If you enjoy reading any of Machiavelli's books or letters, I highly recommend Frederick the Great book called "Anti-Machiavel" (as well as his other books), for a different POV

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Machiavel


Fredrick when in power acted lived more by Machiavelian realities then his moral principles.

Fun to see Ada Palmer posted here! One of my favorite essays by her is The Shape of Rome, which tells Rome’s history through its architecture. It is a fascinating history of course but her writing is what stood out to me: it felt fast, almost breezy, while still conveying the sense of just how much time had passed between events.

I wish more history writing were like it, and if folks have recommendations I’d appreciate it.


Everyone knows him for the Prince and the fact that it made his name an adjective. It's worth your time to browse his Discourses on Livy. It's like a troubleshooting guide for republics.

Machiavelli in Context is amazing Audiobook/Great Courses, that points out this exact thing.

The Prince is most famous but certainly Discourses on Livy is his biggest work.

The Prince is surprisingly easy a read and somewhat house-of-cardlish, let me reply here to take note on your dig-deeper suggestions for when I'm over it.

I love the Discourses! It's always surprising to discover his deep sympathy for the republican (i.e. non monarchical) mode of political rule...his excoriation of Caesar is always a good read.

For those not familiar with that blog,

She previously wrote a long series on Machiavelli which was a great deep dive into his life

If interested start here: https://www.exurbe.com/machiavelli-s-p-q-f/

Thank you very much!

Very interesting article.

Reading this part . . . :

"And he did go back to Rome, and then Della Rovere made him paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling knowing Michelangelo hated painting, basically as punishment for trying to run away. I’m not exaggerating."

. . . made me think of a quote by El Greco I once read:

"When he was later asked what he thought about Michelangelo, El Greco replied that "he was a good man, but he did not know how to paint", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Greco#cite_ref-Scholz20_43-...

I thought that sounded almost like jealousy from El Greco's part and "how can you even say that about THE Michelangelo", but maybe he had a point after all (but what would I know :-)?

I wonder if El Greco comment on Michelangelo was less a general statement and more philosophical or something more detailed?

I find sometimes folks who are deep into a topic make statements about others who are similarly deep in that topic that sound very broad and general to me ... but really are more focused / about other things.

Lacking knowledge in this area, it's hard to say; might have to do with the painting techniques he was using?

As contemporaries, although El Greco was only in his early twenties when Michelangelo died, I guess one would have less reverence for a fellow artist as one might have now many hundred years later.

Artistic exceptionalism. The painters I work with have nothing but endless criticisms and contempt for each other's thinking. "To them, all art stopped in $era. They have no appreciation or talent for $mystyle" is an incredibly common sentiment confided to one, given some time and not necessarily a willing ear.

El Greco saw himself as a master painter and colorist but Michaelangelo as just another passably capable producer of frescos and drawn bodies, a prolific grunt with no taste or style.

I can't recommend the author's novels highly enough. Terra Ignota, the first book being Too Like the Lightning.

And the fourth and final one is coming out in August! I've started reading them out loud with my girlfriend. They're actually a little too complicated sentence-structure wise to be great for reading out loud, but whatever. It's lovely introducing her to Mycroft Canner.

The release was moved back to September 7th. The book ended up being 2x the length, and extra weird to typeset and translate to audiobook. I quite like the existing audiobooks. The narrator seems to be good with languages, and is familiar with the Iliad (Rage!)

Basically, what happens when a historian imagines a world 400 years in the future as different, socially, as we are from 400 years in the past.

One of the most realistic and "real" worlds from a socio-historical pov I've ever read.. Palmer's world building does for history and sociology what peter watts does for biology and neuroscience.

I really like the worldbuilding, but I don't think it's any more "realistic" than a fantasy novel or galactic empire science fiction. In particular, the complicated governance stuff is in there because it's fun, not because it would actually work. There is straight-up magic as well as ambiguous possibly-magic.

Others in thread have mentioned this, but if you want to get a feel for Machiavelli the Prince is not the right place. Discourses on Livy is much more like his actual view. Here is why:

The first existence of the Prince is supposedly from 1513, while NM was still alive. However, the first printed version (which had to be approved by his arch rivals, the Medici's) wasnt available until 1532, 5 years after he died. Because of Italian politics at the time, NM was tortured by Medici family in 1513 (same year the first manuscript appeared...) because supposedly he was a political rival. Yet NM dedicated the Prince "To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici". So was he a rival or not? Why would you release a manuscript like this which was surely scandalous when your political rivals already suspected you of being politically dangerous? Additionally, if this is your view of the world, why make it public? why not keep it hidden? Did the Medici release it merely to smear him as a purveyor of evil? Was he just sucking up to the Medici by honoring Lorenzo?

If you are the Medici, why would you allow a book like this to be printed? They certainly could bring it off the presses if they wanted.

In Chapter 1 of the Prince, NM tells us he is talking about Princes, not republics, and mentions he has written about republics elsewhere. His Discourses on Livy was not released until 1517 (unless there were earlier copies of that too, which is possible). So the original manuscript must have been edited to some degree from the (Medici) edition we read today.

If you have followed my line of thinking carefully, one would have to scrub NM from any mentions of being an evil teacher, encouraging dark traits, etc.

From wikipedia, final chapter of the Prince: "Pope Leo X was pope at the time the book was written and a member of the de Medici family. This chapter directly appeals to the Medici to use what has been summarized in order to conquer Italy using Italian armies, following the advice in the book. Gilbert (1938:222–30) showed that including such exhortation was not unusual in the genre of books full of advice for princes. But it is unusual that the Medici family's position of Papal power is openly named as something that should be used as a personal power base, as a tool of secular politics. Indeed, one example is the Borgia family's "recent" and controversial attempts to use church power in secular politics, often brutally executed. This continues a controversial theme throughout the book."

I have two theories: 1) NM tricked Medici into publishing the text. 2) Medici wanted to slander NM.

My guess is 2. Medici were not stupid. They were tyrants, but not stupid. Read Discourses to learn about NM.

Interesting thread, regarding political philosophy is there some theory in which the objectives for a government are elected first, and then people is elected to work on those objectives instead of their own political party ideals?

I mean, if you keep that first election but replace that second election with prediction markets, then you're roughly describing Robin Hanson's idea of futarchy!

What's the 30 second elevator pitch on why I should know about Machiavelli? (Classical literature ignoramus here)

He is so important in western thought that his name became an adjective. (Though one can quite easily argue that the meaning of the adjective does not really line up with his thinking)

About 22x longer than your elevator pitch but this is a fun video about how Machiavelli was a brilliant and misunderstood researcher... and cosplayer


You should know about Machiavelli so you can understand how misunderstood he is in pop-culture.

Isn’t Machiavelli dead? How are you able to teach a dead guy anything, regardless of your pedagogical approach?

Machiavelli is fine, but is there more to be learned from Castiglione than him?. Reading Manzoni, thats the view I get.

Obligatory Quentin Skinner link: https://youtu.be/gH-NxQmf87k

I had the opportunity to hear Skinner lecture at Cambridge, and he is easily the best public speaker I've encountered. Made all the more obvious by the fact so many historians at that university are stuffy antiquarians. Skinner was kind, humble and brought subjects that I would normally find boring flourishing into life.

I wish they would upload a version with better sound. My speakers are on full blast and my audio is set to 100% and I can barely hear him.

I got absolutely nothing out of Machiavelli - he is on par with Greene's "48 Laws of Power" in terms of contradicting himself all the time and not having clear direction. Not only that, but his advice is absolutely useless to someone not already "close to/in power". And yes, it was written as advice to Italian princes, but my qualm is with people pushing it as a must read book.

The only, literally the only, part that sticks out as useful is "Doll out bad news in one portion, good news in spaced-out portions."

As far as "classic" general texts go, Sun Tzu is ages ahead of him in the Art of War in terms of advice that you can actually follow.

It might help to give some concrete examples of Machiavelli not meeting your standards.

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