Machiavelli: Borgia Should Have Been More Prepared

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Might Cesare Borgia have conquered all of Italy? Where did he go wrong?

During the Italian Renaissance, Cesare Borgia found huge success and was poised for more. But, it all came crashing down around him. According to Machiavelli, Borgia might have stayed in power if he had been more prepared for life’s inevitabilities.

Keep reading to learn how fortuna can destroy a prince.

Machiavelli on Borgia

Princes often meet their downfall due to bad luck, but Machiavelli argues that a lack of skill also plays a role in their failure. If the prince had planned ahead better or anticipated threats, they could have endured whatever bad luck came their way. According to Machiavelli, Borgia (a notorious Italian prince of the late 1400s and early 1500s) is a good example of this.

Borgia was unprepared for a change in his fortunes. As the son of a pope, he had enormous success manipulating his enemies and establishing his own state in central Italy. For a time, it seemed like Borgia might succeed in conquering the entire peninsula, but, soon after his father died, his state crumbled. He failed to either foresee the danger or to adapt to the times, and all his cunning and brutality could not protect him from being overthrown. Machiavelli argues that, if he had better prepared for the inevitability of his father’s death, he might have held onto power longer. 

Borgia as an Ideal Prince

Machiavelli invokes Borgia more often than any other historical figure, leading some to call Borgia the “hero” of The Prince. What may be lost on a modern reader is how bizarre and controversial Borgia was as a choice. His family was a known enemy of the Medici, to whom Machiavelli dedicated The Prince, and Borgia’s name was synonymous with treachery and violence throughout Italy. 

Whatever successes Borgia may have had in life, it ended in disgrace, and Machiavelli frequently contradicts himself when attempting to praise him. For example, in the same breath as arguing that Borgia failed to prepare for his father’s death, Machiavelli insists that Borgia had “done all that ought to be done by a wise and able man” and, indeed, “could not have regulated his conduct otherwise.” If Borgia’s skill was simply not enough to defeat fortuna, does that mean his downfall was inevitable?

This, along with other inconsistencies, has provided evidence for the belief among some scholars that The Prince is actually intended as a satire. If Machiavelli invokes Borgia as representative of all princes, that may mean that all princes are cruel, dishonest, self-interested, and ultimately doomed to fail. His comparison of Borgia to the Medici might have been intended as a condemnation, revealing to the reader that all princes were fundamentally alike, even when they opposed one another. While this reading is not universally accepted, it does provide one explanation for how the known republican Machiavelli could praise an authoritarian like Borgia.
Machiavelli: Borgia Should Have Been More Prepared

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  • Niccolò Machiavelli's description of how authoritarian leaders should rule
  • An unapologetic depiction of the “real truth” of politics
  • Analyses of how Machiavelli's lessons survive in modern-day politics

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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