As an aficionado of The Great Courses, it’s always a delight for me to receive a new set of lectures I can listen to in the car or when walking my dog. The wide range of topics and ideas in their catalogue provides a wealth of learning and intellectual exercise for any interest. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to listen to these courses and learn from them.
Among the six or eight courses I purchased last year, is Machiavelli in Context, a 24-part series that covers a wide range of topics related to Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance and popular views of Machiavelli’s collected work – and what it means to be “Machiavellian.” The course description notes:
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on the First Ten Books of Livy, a longer work started at about the same time and which would, like The Prince, not be published until well after his death…Once we recover the context of the writing of The Prince, and analyze it along with the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy,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.
I usually get these courses as digital downloads of the audio only and transfer them to my MP3 player – but some of the courses are on DVD because they are visual not audio, so the bandwidth demand is high. These I buy as DVDs so I can watch them while on the elliptical at home.
The 24 lectures in this series on Machiavelli are:
- Who Is Machiavelli? Why Does He Matter?
- Machiavelli’s Florence
- Classical Thought in Renaissance Florence
- The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli
- Why Did Machiavelli Write The Prince?
- The Prince, 1–5—Republics Old and New
- The Prince, 6–7—Virtù and Fortuna
- The Prince, 8–12—The Prince and Power
- The Prince, 13–16—The Art of Being a Prince
- The Prince, 17–21—The Lion and the Fox
- The Prince, 21–26—Fortune and Foreigners
- Livy, the Roman Republic, and Machiavelli
- Discourses—Why Machiavelli Is a Republican
- Discourses—The Workings of a Good Republic
- Discourses—Lessons from Rome
- Discourses—A Principality or a Republic?
- Discourses—The Qualities of a Good Republic
- Discourses—A Republic at War
- Discourses—Can Republics Last?
- Discourses—Conspiracies and Other Dangers
- Florentine Histories—The Growth of Florence
- Florentine Histories—The Age of the Medici
- The Fate of Machiavelli’s Works
- Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian?
The course is presented by Dr. William Cook, a professor of history at the State University of New York. He teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. I found him quite sympathetic towards Machiavelli, and very expressive in his lectures, going to great lengths to express Machiavelli’s republican sentiments as expressed in The Discourses. The final lecture is one of the highlights of the series:
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.
The course description also says:
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.
One review of the course says it provides “a much more nuanced view of Machiavelli.” I agree that’s true if your view has been constrained by The Prince alone, or (as I have too often found), based on popular misconception and not actually from reading anything Machiavelli wrote. If you are already a student of Machiavelli, it’s more of a confirmation and reassurance of the conclusions drawn from his whole body of work.
I recommend this series unreservedly. It’s probably the best overall introduction to Machiavelli I’ve found, and is easy to consume in small pieces (each lecture is about 30 minutes long). It also comes with a good course guide (book or PDF, depending on how you purchase the course). The (current) average rating from consumers is 4.7 stars out of five.
A final note: all of these courses go on sale frequently. The current sale price for this series is $29.95. I recommend you check their site frequently to see if a course you wants is on sale and get it then. They also offer combination sets with some savings when you buy the set.