The Prince vs The Decameron: Compare & Contrast

The Prince vs The Decameron: Compare & Contrast
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Italy was a key catalyst for rebirth and revival in Europe at the onset of the Renaissance (Baron xxv). Two renowned Italian scholars of this time were Machiavelli and Boccaccio. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) “was the restorer of the Roman conception of politics as civil wisdom, with the aim of preserving the civil life” (Viroli 1). He founded the theory of modern republicanism. Machiavelli’s well-known work The Prince formed the foundation of the modern scientific study of politics. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was a poet and writer; one of his greatest works was The Decameron which had a lasting impact on European literature (Kreis, 2009).

      Thesis Statement: The purpose of this paper is to investigate humanism and human fate in the two works The Prince by Machiavelli and The Decameron by Boccaccio.  


  1. Are The Prince and The Decameron examples of humanism? Why or why not?

Chapters 17 and 18 of The Prince display paradiastole which is “a redescription of behavior in order to transform its moral significance” (Machiavelli xxxiv). Chapter 17 is about cruelty and compassion, and the preferable choice: of being more loved than feared or the reverse (p.51), and Chapter 18 deals with the extent to which rulers are required to keep their word (p.53). Humanism is an intrinsic part of these ethical situations, with the eternal choice between being ruled by the head or the heart.

Machiavelli had been educated as a humanist, with a study of texts and rhetoric. However, The Prince does not believe in the humanists’ preoccupation with the art of persuasion as the highest political skill.  For example, Chapter 5 relates to how cities or kingdoms should be governed, that prior to being acquired had functioned under their own laws (Machiavelli 17). Chapter 6 deals with new kingdoms won with the help of one’s own armies and personal skills (p.18), and Chapter 7 is a narration about new principalities that are acquired with the forces of others and with good fortune (p.21). Here humanism is evident in the skills and deeds of individuals.

 A skeptical search for existential meaning characterized the humanism of the Decameron’s one hundred stories (Kircher 99). Humanism acknowledges that all individuals are incomplete, changing every day, and essentially compassionate (Kircher 227). There is also a touch of caustic in the stories narrated on the ten days. In the first story of the First Day, Ser Cepparello becomes a saint after his death, though he deceives a holy friar (Boccaccio & McWilliam 26). In the fourth story, a monk who commits a sin deserving of severe punishment escapes adverse outcomes by politely reproaching his Abbot of the very same misdemeanor (Boccaccio & McWilliam 44).

 In a paradoxical way, the ability to achieve ethical insight gained strength “by appreciating the flawed human quality of all moral communication” according to the humanists (Kircher 99). An example is that among the Decameron story-tellers, Dioneo had the tendency for telling erotic tales. He is the narrator of the first improper tale of the Decameron, concerning the sexual frolickings of the monk and the abbot (Decameron 48), and he prescribes the topic “adulterous wives” for the set of bawdy tales that are told on the Seventh Day. For example, the second story about Petronella (p.493) and the third story about Friar Rinaldo (p.498) deal with the main characters being unfaithful to their spouses but use their wits to wriggle out of unpleasant consequences. Most stories in the Decameron are similarly based on the caustic humor aspect of humanism.

      Compare how human fate is addressed by both Boccaccio and Machiavelli

 In Decameron, the primary function of human fate is to determine the results of a particular course of action. If fate were favorable, it would lead to successful accomplishment, and if unfavorable, it would prevent the action from taking place. Fate or fortune is the power that helps Boccaccio’s characters to carry out their illicit intentions. Fortune favors the daring, as seen in the story of Petronella and her lover (Boccaccio & McWilliam 490), in which she bluffs the husband on the reason for the lover’s being under the tub. Both together ultimately make the husband scrape the tub which the lover says he wishes to buy, and make him carry it all the way to the other man’s house. Similarly, fate favors the mischievous intentions of Bruno and Buffalmaco (Boccaccio & McWilliam 579) by allowing Calandrino to reach home unnoticed.

“Boccaccio adds sensual pleasures” (Cioffari 3), to other gains that fate permits. However, according to Boccaccio, both Nature and Fate are governed by Divine Will. This is exemplified by the story of Landolfo Rufolo (Boccaccio & McWilliam 94) which begins with his turning to piracy because of financial ruin. After he is shipwrecked, he survives by holding on to a treasure chest full of precious jewels and returns home rich.

Machiavelli perceives human fate as changing constantly. The inconsistency of fate is responsible for the outcome of the battle, both good and bad, it has the power to form friendships from enmity and to make enemies of friends. Variations of fortune and fate are the direct result of the desire to acquire is greater than the power to do so, which in turn leads to dissatisfaction and changes in fortune (Cioffari 11).

Machiavelli has been characterized as the champion of fatalism, as well as the champion of Free Will against fortune. Man’s well-being has been considered as dependent on his own efforts, “because Fortune has no sway over his mind, only over his external goods” (Cioffari 12). Fate is Machiavelli’s key term for denoting the uncertainty, unpredictability, and dependency of human affairs, particularly of politics.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is about how princely states can be won, retained, and how they can be lost. Although both political virtue and good fortune were key elements for success, “he that relies least on luck has the best prospect of success” (Machiavelli 18). Similarly, the prince should not depend on factors beyond his control, such as foreign troops or on Fortune, but on his own freedom of action. Regarding the part played by human fate, Machiavelli (p.21) conceptualizes Fortuna as a powerful goddess whose support is required for success; as seen in the decline of Renaissance leader Cesare Borgia’s fortunes which he had built up as result a great military successes.


This paper has highlighted humanism and human fate in The Prince by Machiavelli and The Decameron by Boccaccio. These concepts play different roles in the two scholars’ works. In The Prince, humanism is more understated, evident in the deeds and outcomes of individuals, whereas in the latter it is in the ethical aspects of the characters in the stories. Human fate in Machiavelli’s work is considered to be partly responsible for individuals’ lives, with one’s own skills and efforts also playing a significant part. However, in the Decameron fortune is seen to favor the brave.

Works Cited:

Baron, Hans. Crisis of the early Italian Renaissance. Edition 2. New Jersey: Princeton,  University Press, 1966.

 Boccaccio, Giovanni & McWilliam, G.H. The Decameron. Edition 2. The United States of America: Penguin Classics, 2003.

 Cioffari, Vincenzo. The function of fortune in Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli. Italica, 24.1 (March 1947): pp.1-13.

 Kircher, Timothy. The poet’s wisdom: the humanists, the church, and the formation of philosophy in the early Renaissance. Volume 133 of Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History. The Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 2006.

 Kreis, Steven. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History. 2009.

 Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. The United States of America: Kay Dreams Publications, 1637.

 Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli. London: Oxford University Press, 1998.