SEE THE END OF THIS POST FOR AN IMPORTANT UPDATE
Machiavelli to Zanobi Buodelmonti and Cosimo Rucellai
Member’s of Machiavelli’s circle, the Orti Oricellari , Zanobi and Cosimo are told that they are receiving the best Machiavelli has to offer, the greatest thing he has written (to date). In a typically bold move, Machiavelli encourages them to remember that if there are problems with the writing they are as much to blame as he is. Whatever his failings as an author, they are the ones who “have forced me to write what I would never have written for myself”(Letter).
Machiavelli also defends dedicating his work to his friends, rather than to princes or political rulers as was the “common usage of those who write.” This common usage is mistaken, he argues, since very often such dedications are based on “ambition and avarice” and full of praise for the sorts of people who ought to be condemned. Instead, Machiavelli has “chosen not those who are princes but those who for their infinite good parts deserve to be” (Letter).
Machiavelli himself was no stranger to the more traditional form of introduction, writing in his dedication of The Prince to Lorenzo the Magnificent:
Men who are anxious to win the favour of a Prince nearly always follow the custom of presenting themselves to him with the possessions they value most…. Now, I am anxious to offer myself to Your Magnificence with some token of my devotion to you, and I have not found among my belongings anything as dear to me or that I value as much as my understanding of the deeds of great men, won by me from a long acquaintance with contemporary affairs and a continuous study of the ancient world; these matters I have very diligently analysed and pondered for a long time, and now, having summarized them in a little book, I am sending them to Your Magnificence. 
Interestingly, both forms of book dedication have fallen out of practice. Book dedications these days are largely aimed at family members and close friends, regardless of political status or personal virtue. I’ll admit that, while I find Machiavelli’s candor somewhat refreshing, I don’t know how I would react to opening a book and seeing something along these lines on the first page:
Never mind my spouse, children, parents, teachers, or close friends. I dedicate this book to John Smith, a member of my discussion group, who is a good and noble person. Any mistakes in this book are his fault.
First Book: Preface
According to Mansfield’s note, Machiavelli’s opening paragraph is not found in early editions of the Discourses but does exist in his own handwriting as “the only surviving autograph fragment of the discourses.”  This makes sense, as it is basically a recapitulation of the dedicatory epistle, with the addition of the note that any errors are the result of either his own lack of ability or his ignorance of the subject matter. He hopes that at the very least, he will open a door to new ways of thinking about the common good (“those things I believe will bring common benefit to everyone,” I.Preface.1) that other, more competent writers will walk through.
In the preface proper, Machiavelli explains that his project is to bring into the political sphere the reality that already exists in law, medicine, and other human sciences—that is, a modern foundation for politics built according to the wisdom and success of the classical world.
To be sure, contemporary political leaders claim to respect the great men of Greece and Rome, but the ancients “are rather admired than imitated.” While across the board in other disciplines we see a flourishing of the rediscovery of ancient wisdom, in politics “neither prince nor republic may be found that has recourse to the examples of the ancients” (I.Preface.2).
But why is this the case? Having rejected several possible explanations (including both the specific influence of Christianity and the general influence of human laziness), Machiavelli argues that this deficiency has two causes: first, a kind of ignorance “from not having a true knowledge of histories, through not getting from reading them that sense nor tasting that flavor that they have in themselves” (I.Preface.2). Far too many people read the texts and enjoy the quaint (or less quaint) stories, but fail to really understand the lessons found therein.
Second, our instinct is to assume that the conditions and events we observe in the ancient world are so different from our own that we have no hope of replicating their success. We judge “that imitation is not only difficult but impossible—as if heaven, sun, elements, men had varied in motion, order, and power from what they were in antiquity” (I.Preface.2). Machiavelli aims in the Discourses on Livy to correct this misconception by a close and careful exposition of the text.
This last point may be the most interesting one to keep an eye on as we go through the Discourses. While I certainly do love the ancient world, there is something to be said for letting context affect action. It was a very different time, and while I happen to believe that human nature is fairly constant (which is no commendation of human nature), our circumstances are as different from ancient Rome as Machiavelli’s were from Mycenean Greece. Even more, I’m still working through exactly what kind of inspiration one ought to take from the study of ancient history. While one may (should!) read the classics and become a more humane and liberal individual, I’d hesitate to say that whatever personal improvement results is based on one becoming more like an ancient Roman.
Coyle Neal is the newest contributor to Nomocracy in Politics and is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.
 For more on this circle of Renaissance humanists, see chapter three of Quentin Skinner’s Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction or chapter seven of Robert Black, Machiavelli (New York: Routledge, 2013).
 Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. George Bull (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 3.
 Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 5. For the rest of the posts in this series, any citations from this translation will be in-text and include only the book, chapter, and paragraph number. For example, “Considering thus how much honor is awarded to antiquity…” would be followed by (I.Preface.2).
As you may or may not have noticed, there was an error in the original schedule published in the post announcing this project. This has been corrected, and the updated schedule is available as a PDF here: Discourses on Livy Reading Schedule—Updated (and yes, the lack of symmetry in the schedule does bother me…)