fartMACHIAVELLI ON SELF AND SOCIETY
Bruce Thompson, Stevenson Core Lecture, November 19, 2007
It's possible to argue that the modern world was invented approximately 500
years ago in Florence, Italy, a city-state of approximately 60,000 people—not
much bigger than Santa Cruz. The man who did more than anyone else to
clarify the nature of modernity, and of modern ideas about the self and society,
was Niccolò Machiavelli, who had been a high-ranking official in the Florentine
chancery, a diplomat who had met kings and popes and emperors, but who was
also a scholar of ancient history and a keen observer of contemporary events.
Born in 1469, he was 25 years old in 1494 when the French had invaded Italy,
roiling the already troubled waters of Italian politics, and creating a precociously
modern sense of political crisis.
But the real crisis of Machiavelli's life came in 1512, when the republican
government of Florence, in which he had been the brightest star, lost its grip on
power in the city. The Medici family, who had been the principal rulers of the
city for most of the previous century, returned and dismissed all the servants of
the republican regime. Machiavelli was forced to retire from public service at the
age of 43. In the following year he was arrested and tortured: his name had
been found on a list of possible anti-Medici conspirators. Released from prison
and exiled to his villa in the country, he began to compose The Prince, which was
among other things a kind of job application directed to the Medici family—the
very people who were responsible for torturing him. At the same time, he
continued to conduct an extensive correspondence with his republican friends.
In one of his letters, to Francesco Vettori, we find the following account of his
reading in the period when he was writing The Prince:
"When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the
threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered...