Machiavelli in Context

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

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on the First Ten Books of Livy, a longer work started at about the same time and which would, like The Prince, not be published until well after his death.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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

William R. Cook

About Your Professor

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
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...
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Machiavelli in Context is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 83.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Machiavelli the Master Those who can’t practice politics must settle for writing it. Such was the fate of Niccolò Machiavelli, former diplomat for the ex-republic of Florence who lost his job when the Medici family reestablished its rule over the city, turning it into a principality. After a brief spell of arrest and torture, he retired to his family’s farm in the Tuscan country to work, read and write. As you know from the lecture list, Professor Cook concentrates on just two of Machiavelli’s works, the short and infamous Prince, and the long and obscure Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. There is time for only two lectures on the Florentine histories, and none for other works, The Art of War and a biography of the now-forgotten mercenary captain Castruccio Castracani. Because later generations have dismissed Machiavelli, thanks to The Prince, as a crude preacher of deception and cruelty, Cook reminds us to keep the consider that work’s intent and place in Machiavelli’s thought. The author restricted his harsh and daring recommendations to despots who lacked the deep legitimacy of hereditary monarchs and the stability of well-established republics. In fact, Machiavelli preferred republics and valued the rule of law. His Discourses held up ancient Rome as the best model for maintaining, defending, and expanding the state. Even in The Prince, he regarded power as a mean to promote the public welfare, not as its own end. He famously concluded with a plea for the Medici to drive the “barbarians” (Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Germans) out of Italy. Machiavelli’s thought appears to us as astonishingly modern but Cook cautions listeners to remember the historical context. To be sure, the author shocked readers by reversing traditional assumptions about Christian rulership. Kings and princes were supposed to embody the Christian virtues of mercy, charity and forgiveness for the good of their subjects as well as their own good, whereas virtues for Machiavelli meant any behavior, however violent or cunning, that strengthened their power. Furthermore, he relied heavily on historical evidence to make his case rather than the Bible or religious or philosophical principles. As a child of the humanist era, he revered classical civilization and had little regard for the Middle Ages (up to about 1300). Yet he was not an atheist. In addition to recommending religion as useful to government, he took the power of the spirit world seriously, especially portents and signs. Nor did he reject Christianity as a personal faith (though he was an irrepressible womanizer); instead, he separated it from his politics. My own take on Machiavelli is rather different than most people’s; he was naïve as well as cynical, provincial as well as cosmopolitan. By favoring examples from antiquity and the modern (1300-1500) Italian states, he ignored the importance of dynastic relations and institutional Christianity as political forces in Christendom. For much of European history, kings and princes had less idea of service to the state or a state than they did of keeping and acquiring profitable territories to be transmitted to their male offspring as family possessions. The old Roman res publica was never forgotten, but it remained a subordinate ideal for centuries after Machiavelli. As late as the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), one of Spain’s aims was to get Milan as a principality for Philip, son of King Philip V, though the unfortunate man had to make do with Parma instead. Consider the Hapsburg Empire, never a single state or a confederation of states, but a conglomeration of lands assembled through inheritance and conquest, having no single language or church. It lasted until 1918 and might have done so longer but for World War I. As for Christianity, it was not just the way to a moral life and blissful afterlife, but a machine for producing revenue (e.g. tithes, fees, and sales of indulgences), elevating prince-bishops (especially the Bishop of Rome) above the laity, administering territory, raising troops (during the Crusades) and imposing thought-control by teaching dogma and suppressing heresy. Monarchs, popes, and princes quarreled over who should own the church’s worldly power, but until the Enlightenment almost no one questioned that such power should exist. That Machiavelli passes over these contemporary truths in silence, even though he was very familiar with the exciting career and dire ending of the priest Savonarola in his native Florence, demonstrates a large zone of blindness in his political vision. Yet Professor Cook makes a convincing case for the allure and importance of Machiavelli’s writings. If you buy this course, you will not be sorry. As for me, I hope one day to take on Livy’s first ten books (of which only thirty-five survive out of the original one hundred forty-two or nine thousand pages if you can believe it) and then the Discourses.
Date published: 2020-09-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Teaching Style Professor Cook makes the material approachable. He gives great context in terms of understanding the time and place in which Machiavelli was operating
Date published: 2020-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite lecturers This guy makes every topic interesting. A fascinating and objective study of a man who still influences politics today.
Date published: 2020-04-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Context is key to understanding I have been binging on Machiavelli lately...reading 'The Prince', listening to Landon's "Books That Matter-The Prince", reviewing portions of 'The Discourses'...even visiting Florence! It seems that Machiavelli's gotten a bad rap over the years. Then along comes Dr Cook, with his (fairly) well organized set of lectures that finally puts things...and their contextual places. In Cook's enthusiastic lectures, we find that Niccolo is far from the scheming skeptic as he is often depicted, rather he seems to be a dedicated republican sometimes much too eager to gain a patron. We find that he is also an historian, first and foremost, seeking ways to improve society in general. These lectures make to hungry to learn a little more about how literature and historians can truly affect societies. Highly recommended...remember that it's better to both love a sale and coupon, and fear full prices!
Date published: 2020-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great presentation I am so happy with the way the professor presented the lectures.
Date published: 2019-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Prince Put in His Place This is my first course from Professor Cook teaching alone. I’ve taken two others that were co-taught with Professor Ron Herzman. I thought that their course on Francis of Assai was good, though the subject may not have been my cup of tea and I loved their course on Augustine’s Confessions with a couple of reservations, and I think that in this course, Dr. Cook has put together an outstanding set of lectures. A few reviewers have not cared for Professor Cook’s presentation style. For me his voice only betrayed his enthusiasm for his subject in specific and I think, for teaching in general. His casual speaking style, using a restricted vocabulary combined with familiar references, belies a staggering grasp of his subject matter and a seemingly effortless ability to convey complex issues simply. Not surprisingly a full 25% of the lectures are devoted to “The Prince”, but this small book is not at all the centerpiece of the course. The central part of the course is given to “Discourses”, a work with which I was not at all familiar. Professor Cook’s lectures on “Discourses”, Livy (on whose writings this book was based) and “Florentine Histories” helped me to more fully understand Machiavelli as a complete person, rather than the one-dimensional, cardboard cutout that had been my prior understanding. To be fair to Professor Landon, his course on “The Prince” had also helped in shaping my more complete understanding. I took this course in audio, which I think was completely satisfactory, although I speculated what coat and tie combinations he might have put together for the lectures (I've seen him in other courses). If your impression of Machiavelli has been shaped on what you have read in “The Prince” or what others have written about him and that book, this course will radically alter that perception.
Date published: 2019-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Maybe Just a Little Surprised Bought it because it was a bargain. Liked it more than I anticipated was another great course.
Date published: 2019-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Who Would of Thought: A “republican” I have enjoyed several of Professor Cook’s other TC courses for his lucid, well-paced, and common-sense treatments, and this 2006 course is no exception. As with most folks, my familiarity with Machiavelli is limited to ‘The Prince’, a sixteenth-century publication that, taken at face value, has been rightly excoriated for condoning ruthlessness on the part of rulers. Professor Cook widens the perspective here to not only Machiavelli’s times, but also to his other works, most significantly his much longer, more profound and nuanced ‘Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy’. Not being familiar with the period nor knowing much more about Machiavelli than my reading ‘The Prince’ some decades ago, this course turned out to be an eye-opener. According to Professor Cook “…once we recover the context of the writing of ‘The Prince’ and analyze it, along with a longer work started about the same time, his ‘Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy’, we will see clearly that ‘The Prince’ can be read as a book designed to guide leaders in the creation—for Machiavelli, the restoration—of republican government in Italy.” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). This is very well accomplished in the course lectures. One gets the sense of how ‘The Prince’ fits into a larger Machiavelli puzzle, and why the same author would create two such important works so seemingly diametrically opposed. Not only were these works created around the same time, but neither were published till after Machiavelli’s death. ‘The Prince’ is buttressed with many examples from recent times, and those of the ‘Discourses’ mainly with extensive references to ancient, republican, Rome. Professor Cook does not claim an original insight into Machiavelli’s republican position, crediting the ground-breaking 1975 ‘The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition’, by J. G. A. Pocock. Nevertheless, Professor Cook does an excellent job in making matters plain for us, rounding out the Machiavelli too often rendered as little more than a byword for ruthlessness, duplicity, and other nasty attributes. While I found this course interesting and eye-opening, it may drag for some, especially in the treatment of events in republican Rome and the two-lecture treatment of Machiavelli’s ‘Florentine Histories’. But, even here, Professor Cook is good at explaining events and contexts. What I found especially interesting once Professor Cook leaves the early sixteenth century behind, is his treatment of Machiavelli’s impact down the centuries. Notable here are not only the negative examples from ‘The Prince’ (several Shakespeare characters are called “Machiavels” and Napoleon and Mussolini studied it for guidance) but also the positive influence of his republican ‘Discourses’ on the American Revolution and Constitution. The 105-page Course Guidebook is very helpful with good, concise, lecture summaries, as well as timeline, glossary, biographical notes, and annotated bibliography.
Date published: 2018-11-23
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