Machiavelli’s daily routine while writing The Prince

“For four hours I forget all my worries and boredom, I am afraid neither of poverty nor death.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Kubrick’s willpower, Baldessari’s “Johnisms,” and other pieces of subtle inspiration.


Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)

Machiavelli died on this day in 1527. For 14 years, he was a high-ranking diplomat in the Republic of Florence, but the return of the exiled Medici family in 1512, and the subsequent dissolution of the republican government, resulted in Machiavelli’s sudden fall from power. In the words of the historian Paul Strathern, he was “stripped of his office, deprived of his Florentine citizenship, and fined 1,000 florins, which effectively bankrupted him. He was then banned from the city and exiled to his family smallholding seven miles south of the city walls, to a life of poverty and disgrace.”

In exile, Machiavelli turned his attention to writing a book that drew on everything he had learned in his diplomatic career. This was, of course, The Prince, one of the most influential works of political thought in Western history. He wrote the book in a matter of months, working in the evenings after full days supervising work on his land (and playing backgammon at the local inn). Machiavelli described his daily routine in a letter from December 10, 1513:

Let me tell you what I do now with my day. I get up in the morning at sunrise and go into one of my woods that I am having cut down. Here I spend a couple of hours looking over the work done on the previous day and chat away with the woodsmen who are always involved in some dispute, either amongst themselves or with their neighbors. . . . Then I return [home] to eat with my family the meager fare that this poor farm yields. Afterwards I go to the inn, where I meet up with the innkeeper, together with a butcher, a miller, and a few kiln workers. I muck about with them for the rest of the day playing backgammon. Our games lead to endless disputes and much swearing—usually over nothing more than a penny—though you can hear us shouting as far as the next village. This is the way I blow the mold from my brain, cooped up as I am amongst my country lice—the only way I have of letting off steam and venting my anger at my fate.

When it’s evening, I return home from the inn and retire to my study. Before entering I take off my everyday work clothes, which are covered with mud and filth, and go through the ritual of donning my robes of state. Thus fitted out in appropriate dress, I enter the venerable courts of the ancients, where they kindly receive me. Here I nourish myself on the food that alone is mine and for which I was born. Here I am bold enough to converse with the mighty, and to question them about the motives for their actions; whilst they, out of their gracious humanity, consent to answer me. For four hours I forget all my worries and boredom, I am afraid neither of poverty nor death. I am utterly absorbed in this world of my mind. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he remembers what he has understood, I have noted down what I have learned from these conversations. The result is a short book, called The Prince, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the subject of how to rule—discussing the definitions of princedoms, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired and how retained, and why they are lost.

I love the first few lines of the second paragraph above—Machiavelli’s ritual of removing his filthy work clothes, donning his robes, and entering the “venerable courts of the ancients,” where he can converse with them and write down what he has learned. That’s not quite how I feel upon sitting down to my MacBook in my zip-up fleece covered in dog hair . . . but I know what he means. When the writing’s going well, it does feel utterly absorbing. Here’s hoping we can all access that otherworldly court in the coming weeks.

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Source: Paul Strathern, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped (2009)

JUST TWO HOURS A DAY, DUH!

Machiavelli wrote The Prince by working for four hours each evening—but a lot of writers have been happy with smaller increments of daily work. (Gertrude Stein said she only wrote for about 30 minutes a day.) A contemporary example that came to my attention recently is the New York Times bestselling author Julie Clark, who described her writing routine in a Q&A included with her first novel, The Ones We Choose:

How do you prepare yourself to be creative? Do you have a ritual or a time or place that is most conducive to working? What one element is absolutely necessary for your process?

I write every day first thing in the morning. Monday through Friday I wake up at 3:45 in the morning and write until 6:00. On weekends I let myself sleep in and then get right to work. My best thinking happens when my brain is still soft from sleep, with a giant pot of hot coffee next to me. But during the week, my writing time is usually over by 6:00. After that, I have to get the kids up, get lunches packed, get out the door, and teach a full day. There isn’t room to write on top of all that. If I’m on a deadline, I’ll put in a couple more hours in the evenings, but I try to save evenings for reading and relaxing. I always say . . . you can write a whole book in just two hours a day!

This is one of those writer’s routines that I find both inspiring and depressing—like, what a great attitude! But also: I don’t know if I’m capable of being so cheerfully, straightforwardly productive! (I wrote the first Daily Rituals book in two hours a day before work, but it just about broke me and I’ve never really been able to summon that level of disciplined focus since . . . though I’m hoping to get there with the new book.)

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SUBTLE ADVICE

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(Read my past advice here.)


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