"Niccolo Machiavelli Questions for Alfred J. Drake's English 242: World Literature 400-1600 CE, Spring 2009 at Chapman University"



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Of Interest: Biblioteca Italiana | Renaissance Backgrounds

Assigned: from The Prince (2517-34).

From The Prince

1. On 2521-23, Machiavelli discusses the career of Pope Alexander VI's son Cesare Borgia. How did Cesare come to power? What tactics did he employ to maintain and increase his power? Why did he ultimately fail, and why does Machiavelli nonetheless set forth Cesare's career as an example of wisdom and virtu (forcefulness of character, masculine strength)?

2. On 2524, Machiavelli advances a striking argument about morality's place in politics: a prince "must learn how to be not good, and to use that ability or not as is required" (2524). On 2525-28, how does he demonstrate this proposition by discussing liberality versus parsimony and pity versus cruelty? Why, for instance, is being generous dangerous to a prince, and why is it less dangerous to be feared than to be loved?

3. On 2528-29, Machiavelli explores the value to a prince of dissembling and breaking faith. In what circumstances is such dishonesty necessary? What view of human nature underlies his claims that it is more important to maintain the appearance of morality than actually to observe it? Is Machiavelli abandoning the time-honored notion that there are absolute moral standards, or is his relativism itself relative -- i.e. applicable only in a given set of circumstances? Explain.

4. On 2530-31, Machiavelli discusses the relative role of fortune (la Fortuna), temperament, and free will in human affairs -- how much significance does he allot to each, and what rationale does he give for his distribution? As for his remark that "Fortune is a woman" who must be conquered violently, how does this affect your view of his other statements about political action?

5. On 2532-34, what position does Machiavelli adopt towards the unification of Italy? Why does he think it is possible -- what would it take to reunify such a fragmented political entity as Italy in 1513? It's clear that Machiavelli is arguing in The Prince to a Medici ruler who does not share his admiration for the ancient republican forms of governance -- does that contradiction invalidate his authority as a "political scientist," or can it be defended?

6. A contemporary question: political discussions today seem to turn on issues pertaining to "character" and the morality or immorality of policies. What do you think Machiavelli would say about the assumptions underlying such arguments? Furthermore, would he accept the idea that the reasons leaders give for what they do are (or should be) the ones that actually motivate them? Does it matter? Explain your reasons.

7. Another contemporary question: what do you think Machiavelli would say about America's entering into a war with Iraq and then maintaining its forces in that country? From a Machiavellian perspective, what are the potential benefits? What are the potential problems? Do you suppose Machiavelli would approve of President Bush's Iraq policy (in its early or later phase) or not? Explain your reasons.

8. Machiavelli is sometimes considered the first modern political scientist. How does "poly-sci" differ fundamentally from earlier views (Aristotle's and Plato's in particular) about the nature and purpose of political organization?

Edition: Lawall, Sarah, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd edition. Volumes 1ABC. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN A = 0-393-97755-2, B = 0-393-97756-0, C = 0-393-97757-9.