Who Is Niccolò Machiavelli?
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, writer, playwright and poet of the Renaissance period. He has often been called the father of modern political philosophy and political science. For many years he served as a senior official in the Florentine Republic with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is of high importance to historians and scholars. He worked as secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his best-known work The Prince (Il Principe) in 1513, having been exiled from city affairs.
The word Machiavellian is widely used as a pejorative to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli advised most famously in The Prince. Machiavelli proposed that immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and the killing of innocents, was normal and effective in politics. He also notably encouraged politicians to engage in evil. The book gained notoriety due to claims that it teaches “evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power”.
The term Machiavellian often connotes political deceit, deviousness, and realpolitik. Even though Machiavelli has become most famous for his work on principalities, scholars also give attention to the exhortations in his other works of political philosophy. His much less popular treatise, the Discourses on Livy, is often said to have paved the way of modern republicanism.
Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, the third child and first son of attorney Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family is believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice, one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months and who formed the government, or Signoria; but he was never a full citizen of Florence because of the nature of Florentine citizenship in that time even under the republican regime. Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini in 1502.
Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era in which popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities often fell from power as France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri (mercenary leaders), who changed sides without warning, and the rise and fall of many short-lived governments.
Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric, and Latin. It is thought that he did not learn Greek even though Florence was at the time one of the centers of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494 Florence restored the republic, expelling the Medici family that had ruled Florence for some sixty years. Shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli was appointed to an office of the second chancery, a medieval writing office that put Machiavelli in charge of the production of official Florentine government documents. Shortly thereafter, he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace.
In the first decade of the sixteenth century, he carried out several diplomatic missions: most notably to the Papacy in Rome. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503, he witnessed the brutal reality of the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) and his father, Pope Alexander VI, who were then engaged in the process of trying to bring a large part of Central Italy under their possession. The pretext of defending Church interests was used as a partial justification by the Borgias. Other excursions to the court of Louis XII and the Spanish court influenced his writings such as The Prince
Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia. He distrusted mercenaries (a distrust that he explained in his official reports and then later in his theoretical works for their unpatriotic and uninvested nature in the war that makes their allegiance fickle and often too unreliable when most needed) and instead staffed his army with citizens, a policy that was to be repeatedly successful. Under his command, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509.
However, Machiavelli’s success did not last. In August 1512 the Medici, backed by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato, but many historians have argued that it was due to Piero Soderini’s unwillingness to compromise with the Medici, who were holding Prato under siege. In the wake of the siege, Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state and left in exile. The experience would, like Machiavelli’s time in foreign courts and with the Borgia, heavily influence his political writings.
After the Medici victory, the Florentine city-state and the republic were dissolved, and Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512. In 1513 the Medici accused him of conspiracy against them and had him imprisoned. Despite having been subjected to torture (“with the rope” in which the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body’s weight and dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released after three weeks.
Machiavelli then retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea in Percussina, near San Casciano in Val di Pesa, and devoted himself to studying and writing of the political treatises that earned his place in the intellectual development of political philosophy and political conduct.
Despairing of the opportunity to remain directly involved in political matters, after a time, he began to participate in intellectual groups in Florence and wrote several plays that (unlike his works on political theory) were both popular and widely known in his lifetime. Still, politics remained his main passion and, to satisfy this interest, he maintained a well-known correspondence with more politically connected friends, attempting to become involved once again in political life.
In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:
When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savour. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.
Machiavelli died in 1527 at 58 after receiving his last rites. He was buried at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. An epitaph honouring him is inscribed on his monument. The Latin legend reads: TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM (“So great a name (has) no adequate praise” or “No eulogy (would be) a match for such a great name”).
Commentators have taken very different approaches to Machiavelli and not always agreed. Major discussion has tended to be about two issues: first, how unified and philosophical his work is, and second, concerning how innovative or traditional it is.
There is some disagreement concerning how best to describe the unifying themes, if there are any, that can be found in Machiavelli’s works, especially in the two major political works, The Prince and Discourses. Some commentators have described him as inconsistent, and perhaps as not even putting a high priority in consistency. Others such as Hans Baron have argued that his ideas must have changed dramatically over time. Some have argued that his conclusions are best understood as a product of his times, experiences and education. Others, such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield, have argued strongly that there is a very strong and deliberate consistency and distinctness, even arguing that this extends to all of Machiavelli’s works including his comedies and letters.
Commentators such as Leo Strauss have gone so far as to name Machiavelli as the deliberate originator of modernity itself. Others have argued that Machiavelli is only a particularly interesting example of trends which were happening around him. In any case Machiavelli presented himself at various times as someone reminding Italians of the old virtues of the Romans and Greeks, and other times as someone promoting a completely new approach to politics.
That Machiavelli had a wide range of influences is in itself not controversial. Their relative importance is however a subject of on-going discussion. It is possible to summarize some of the main influences emphasized by different commentators.
1. The Mirror of Princes genre. Gilbert (1938) summarized the similarities between The Prince and the genre it obviously imitates, the so-called “Mirror of Princes” style. This was a classically influenced genre, with models at least as far back as Xenophon and Isocrates. While Gilbert emphasized the similarities, however, he agreed with all other commentators that Machiavelli was particularly novel in the way he used this genre, even when compared to his contemporaries such as Baldassare Castiglione and Erasmus. One of the major innovations Gilbert noted was that Machiavelli focused upon the “deliberate purpose of dealing with a new ruler who will need to establish himself in defiance of custom”. Normally, these types of works were addressed only to hereditary princes. (Xenophon is also an exception in this regard.)
2. Classical republicanism. Commentators such as Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, in the so-called “Cambridge School” of interpretation, have asserted that some of the republican themes in Machiavelli’s political works, particularly the Discourses on Livy, can be found in medieval Italian literature which was influenced by classical authors such as Sallust.
3. Classical political philosophy: Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle. The Socratic school of classical political philosophy, especially Aristotle, had become a major influence upon European political thinking in the late Middle Ages. It existed both in the Catholicised form presented by Thomas Aquinas, and in the more controversial “Averroist” form of authors like Marsilius of Padua. Machiavelli was critical of Catholic political thinking and may have been influenced by Averroism. But he rarely cites Plato and Aristotle, and most likely did not approve of them. Leo Strauss argued that the strong influence of Xenophon, a student of Socrates more known as an historian, rhetorician and soldier, was a major source of Socratic ideas for Machiavelli, sometimes not in line with Aristotle. While interest in Plato was increasing in Florence during Machiavelli’s lifetime, Machiavelli does not show particular interest in him, but was indirectly influenced by his readings of authors such as Polybius, Plutarch and Cicero.
The major difference between Machiavelli and the Socratics, according to Strauss, is Machiavelli’s materialism, and therefore his rejection of both a teleological view of nature and of the view that philosophy is higher than politics. With their teleological understanding of things, Socratics argued that desirable things tend to happen by nature, as if nature desired them, but Machiavelli claimed that such things happen by blind chance or human action.
4. Classical materialism. Strauss argued that Machiavelli may have seen himself as influenced by some ideas from classical materialists such as Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius. Strauss however sees this also as a sign of major innovation in Machiavelli, because classical materialists did not share the Socratic regard for political life, while Machiavelli clearly did.
5. Thucydides. Some scholars note the similarity between Machiavelli and the Greek historian Thucydides, since both emphasized power politics. Strauss argued that Machiavelli may indeed have been influenced by pre-Socratic philosophers, but he felt it was a new combination:-
…contemporary readers are reminded by Machiavelli’s teaching of Thucydides; they find in both authors the same “realism,” i.e., the same denial of the power of the gods or of justice and the same sensitivity to harsh necessity and elusive chance. Yet Thucydides never calls in question the intrinsic superiority of nobility to baseness, a superiority that shines forth particularly when the noble is destroyed by the base. Therefore Thucydides’ History arouses in the reader a sadness which is never aroused by Machiavelli’s books. In Machiavelli we find comedies, parodies, and satires but nothing reminding of tragedy. One half of humanity remains outside of his thought. There is no tragedy in Machiavelli because he has no sense of the sacredness of “the common.” — Strauss (1958, p. 292)
Amongst commentators, there are a few consistently made proposals concerning what was most new in Machiavelli’s work.
Empiricism and realism versus idealism
Machiavelli is sometimes seen as the prototype of a modern empirical scientist, building generalizations from experience and historical facts, and emphasizing the uselessness of theorizing with the imagination.
He emancipated politics from theology and moral philosophy. He undertook to describe simply what rulers actually did and thus anticipated what was later called the scientific spirit in which questions of good and bad are ignored, and the observer attempts to discover only what really happens.— Joshua Kaplan, 2005
Machiavelli felt that his early schooling along the lines of a traditional classical education was essentially useless for the purpose of understanding politics. Nevertheless, he advocated intensive study of the past, particularly regarding the founding of a city, which he felt was a key to understanding its later development. Moreover, he studied the way people lived and aimed to inform leaders how they should rule and even how they themselves should live. Machiavelli denies the classical opinion that living virtuously always leads to happiness. For example, Machiavelli viewed misery as “one of the vices that enables a prince to rule.” Machiavelli stated that “it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.” In much of Machiavelli’s work, he often states that the ruler must adopt unsavory policies for the sake of the continuance of his regime.
A related and more controversial proposal often made is that he described how to do things in politics in a way which seemed neutral concerning who used the advice—tyrants or good rulers. That Machiavelli strove for realism is not doubted, but for four centuries scholars have debated how best to describe his morality. The Prince made the word Machiavellian a byword for deceit, despotism, and political manipulation. Leo Strauss declared himself inclined toward the traditional view that Machiavelli was self-consciously a “teacher of evil,” since he counsels the princes to avoid the values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people in preference to the use of cruelty, violence, fear, and deception. Strauss takes up this opinion because he asserted that failure to accept the traditional opinion misses the “intrepidity of his thought” and “the graceful subtlety of his speech.” Italian anti-fascist philosopher Benedetto Croce (1925) concludes Machiavelli is simply a “realist” or “pragmatist” who accurately states that moral values in reality do not greatly affect the decisions that political leaders make. German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1946) held that Machiavelli simply adopts the stance of a political scientist—a Galileo of politics—in distinguishing between the “facts” of political life and the “values” of moral judgment. On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead has argued that The Prince‘s advice presupposes the importance of ideas like legitimacy in making changes to the political system.
Machiavelli is generally seen as being critical of Christianity as it existed in his time, specifically its effect upon politics, and also everyday life. In his opinion, Christianity, along with the teleological Aristotelianism that the church had come to accept, allowed practical decisions to be guided too much by imaginary ideals and encouraged people to lazily leave events up to providence or, as he would put it, chance, luck or fortune. While Christianity sees modesty as a virtue and pride as sinful, Machiavelli took a more classical position, seeing ambition, spiritedness, and the pursuit of glory as good and natural things, and part of the virtue and prudence that good princes should have. Therefore, while it was traditional to say that leaders should have virtues, especially prudence, Machiavelli’s use of the words virtù and prudenza was unusual for his time, implying a spirited and immodest ambition. Mansfield describes his usage of virtu as a “comprimise with evil”. Famously, Machiavelli argued that virtue and prudence can help a man control more of his future, in the place of allowing fortune to do so.
Najemy (1993) has argued that this same approach can be found in Machiavelli’s approach to love and desire, as seen in his comedies and correspondence. Najemy shows how Machiavelli’s friend Vettori argued against Machiavelli and cited a more traditional understanding of fortune.
On the other hand, humanism in Machiavelli’s time meant that classical pre-Christian ideas about virtue and prudence, including the possibility of trying to control one’s future, were not unique to him. But humanists did not go so far as to promote the extra glory of deliberately aiming to establish a new state, in defiance of traditions and laws.
While Machiavelli’s approach had classical precedents, it has been argued that it did more than just bring back old ideas and that Machiavelli was not a typical humanist. Strauss (1958) argues that the way Machiavelli combines classical ideas is new. While Xenophon and Plato also described realistic politics and were closer to Machiavelli than Aristotle was, they, like Aristotle, also saw philosophy as something higher than politics. Machiavelli was apparently a materialist who objected to explanations involving formal and final causation, or teleology.
Machiavelli’s promotion of ambition among leaders while denying any higher standard meant that he encouraged risk-taking, and innovation, most famously the founding of new modes and orders. His advice to princes was therefore certainly not limited to discussing how to maintain a state. It has been argued that Machiavelli’s promotion of innovation led directly to the argument for progress as an aim of politics and civilization. But while a belief that humanity can control its own future, control nature, and “progress” has been long-lasting, Machiavelli’s followers, starting with his own friend Guicciardini, have tended to prefer peaceful progress through economic development, and not warlike progress. As Harvey Mansfield (1995, p. 74) wrote: “In attempting other, more regular and scientific modes of overcoming fortune, Machiavelli’s successors formalized and emasculated his notion of virtue.”
Machiavelli however, along with some of his classical predecessors, saw ambition and spiritedness, and therefore war, as inevitable and part of human nature.
Strauss concludes his 1958 book Thoughts on Machiavelli by proposing that this promotion of progress leads directly to the modern arms race. Strauss argued that the unavoidable nature of such arms races, which have existed before modern times and led to the collapse of peaceful civilizations, provides us with both an explanation of what is most truly dangerous in Machiavelli’s innovations, but also the way in which the aims of his immoral innovation can be understood.
Machiavelli shows repeatedly that he saw religion as man-made, and that the value of religion lies in its contribution to social order and the rules of morality must be dispensed with if security requires it. In The Prince, the Discourses, and in the Life of Castruccio Castracani, he describes “prophets”, as he calls them, like Moses, Romulus, Cyrus the Great, and Theseus (he treated pagan and Christian patriarchs in the same way) as the greatest of new princes, the glorious and brutal founders of the most novel innovations in politics, and men whom Machiavelli assures us have always used a large amount of armed force and murder against their own people. He estimated that these sects last from 1,666 to 3,000 years each time, which, as pointed out by Leo Strauss, would mean that Christianity became due to start finishing about 150 years after Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s concern with Christianity as a sect was that it makes men weak and inactive, delivering politics into the hands of cruel and wicked men without a fight.
While fear of God can be replaced by fear of the prince, if there is a strong enough prince, Machiavelli felt that having a religion is in any case especially essential to keeping a republic in order. For Machiavelli, a truly great prince can never be conventionally religious himself, but he should make his people religious if he can. According to Strauss (1958, pp. 226–27) he was not the first person to ever explain religion in this way, but his description of religion was novel because of the way he integrated this into his general account of princes.
Machiavelli’s judgment that democracies need religion for practical political reasons was widespread among modern proponents of republics until approximately the time of the French Revolution. This therefore represents a point of disagreement between himself and late modernity.
Positive side to factional and individual vice
Despite the classical precedents, which Machiavelli was not the only one to promote in his time, Machiavelli’s realism and willingness to argue that good ends justify bad things, is seen as a critical stimulus towards some of the most important theories of modern politics.
Firstly, particularly in the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli is unusual in the positive side he sometimes seems to describe in factionalism in republics. For example, quite early in the Discourses, (in Book I, chapter 4), a chapter title announces that the disunion of the plebs and senate in Rome “kept Rome free”. That a community has different components whose interests must be balanced in any good regime is an idea with classical precedents, but Machiavelli’s particularly extreme presentation is seen as a critical step towards the later political ideas of both a division of powers or checks and balances, ideas which lay behind the US constitution, as well as many other modern state constitutions.
Similarly, the modern economic argument for capitalism, and most modern forms of economics, was often stated in the form of “public virtue from private vices.” Also in this case, even though there are classical precedents, Machiavelli’s insistence on being both realistic and ambitious, not only admitting that vice exists but being willing to risk encouraging it, is a critical step on the path to this insight.
Mansfield however argues that Machiavelli’s own aims have not been shared by those he influenced. Machiavelli argued against seeing mere peace and economic growth as worthy aims on their own, if they would lead to what Mansfield calls the “taming of the prince.”
Machiavelli is most famous for a short political treatise, The Prince, written in 1513 but not published until 1532, five years after his death. Although he privately circulated The Prince among friends, the only theoretical work to be printed in his lifetime was The Art of War, which was about military science. Since the 16th century, generations of politicians remain attracted and repelled by its neutral acceptance, and also positive encouragement, of the immorality of powerful men, described especially in The Prince but also in his other works.
His works are sometimes even said to have contributed to the modern negative connotations of the words politics and politician, and it is sometimes thought that it is because of him that Old Nick became an English term for the Devil. More obviously, the adjective Machiavellian became a term describing a form of politics that is “marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith”. Machiavellianism also remains a popular term used casually in political discussions, often as a byword for bare-knuckled political realism.
While Machiavellianism is notable in the works of Machiavelli, scholars generally agree that his works are complex and have equally influential themes within them. For example, J.G.A. Pocock (1975) saw him as a major source of the republicanism that spread throughout England and North America in the 17th and 18th centuries and Leo Strauss (1958), whose view of Machiavelli is quite different in many ways, had similar remarks about Machiavelli’s influence on republicanism and argued that even though Machiavelli was a teacher of evil he had a “grandeur of vision” that led him to advocate immoral actions. Whatever his intentions, which are still debated today, he has become associated with any proposal where “the end justifies the means”. For example, Leo Strauss (1987, p. 297) wrote:
Machiavelli is the only political thinker whose name has come into common use for designating a kind of politics, which exists and will continue to exist independently of his influence, a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends—its end being the aggrandizement of one’s country or fatherland—but also using the fatherland in the service of the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s party.
To quote Robert Bireley:
…there were in circulation approximately fifteen editions of the Prince and nineteen of the Discourses and French translations of each before they were placed on the Index of Paul IV in 1559, a measure which nearly stopped publication in Catholic areas except in France. Three principal writers took the field against Machiavelli between the publication of his works and their condemnation in 1559 and again by the Tridentine Index in 1564. These were the English cardinal Reginald Pole and the Portuguese bishop Jeronymo Osorio, both of whom lived for many years in Italy, and the Italian humanist and later bishop, Ambrogio Caterino Politi.
Machiavelli’s ideas had a profound impact on political leaders throughout the modern west, helped by the new technology of the printing press. During the first generations after Machiavelli, his main influence was in non-republican governments. Pole reported that The Prince was spoken of highly by Thomas Cromwell in England and had influenced Henry VIII in his turn towards Protestantism, and in his tactics, for example during the Pilgrimage of Grace. A copy was also possessed by the Catholic king and emperor Charles V. In France, after an initially mixed reaction, Machiavelli came to be associated with Catherine de’ Medici and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. As Bireley (1990:17) reports, in the 16th century, Catholic writers “associated Machiavelli with the Protestants, whereas Protestant authors saw him as Italian and Catholic”. In fact, he was apparently influencing both Catholic and Protestant kings.
One of the most important early works dedicated to criticism of Machiavelli, especially The Prince, was that of the Huguenot, Innocent Gentillet, whose work commonly referred to as Discourse against Machiavelli or Anti Machiavel was published in Geneva in 1576. He accused Machiavelli of being an atheist and accused politicians of his time by saying that his works were the “Koran of the courtiers”, that “he is of no reputation in the court of France which hath not Machiavel’s writings at the fingers ends”. Another theme of Gentillet was more in the spirit of Machiavelli himself: he questioned the effectiveness of immoral strategies (just as Machiavelli had himself done, despite also explaining how they could sometimes work). This became the theme of much future political discourse in Europe during the 17th century. This includes the Catholic Counter Reformation writers summarised by Bireley: Giovanni Botero, Justus Lipsius, Carlo Scribani, Adam Contzen, Pedro de Ribadeneira, and Diego Saavedra Fajardo. These authors criticized Machiavelli, but also followed him in many ways. They accepted the need for a prince to be concerned with reputation, and even a need for cunning and deceit, but compared to Machiavelli, and like later modernist writers, they emphasized economic progress much more than the riskier ventures of war. These authors tended to cite Tacitus as their source for realist political advice, rather than Machiavelli, and this pretense came to be known as “Tacitism”. “Black tacitism” was in support of princely rule, but “red tacitism” arguing the case for republics, more in the original spirit of Machiavelli himself, became increasingly important.
Modern materialist philosophy developed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, starting in the generations after Machiavelli. This philosophy tended to be republican, but as with the Catholic authors, Machiavelli’s realism and encouragement of using innovation to try to control one’s own fortune were more accepted than his emphasis upon war and factional violence. Not only was innovative economics and politics a result, but also modern science, leading some commentators to say that the 18th century Enlightenment involved a “humanitarian” moderating of Machiavellianism.
The importance of Machiavelli’s influence is notable in many important figures in this endeavor, for example Bodin, Francis Bacon, Algernon Sidney, Harrington, John Milton, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith. Although he was not always mentioned by name as an inspiration, due to his controversy, he is also thought to have been an influence for other major philosophers, such as Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu.
Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau is associated with very different political ideas he was also influenced by him, although he viewed Machiavelli’s work as a satirical piece in which Machiavelli exposes the faults of a one-man rule rather than exalting amorality.
In the seventeenth century it was in England that Machiavelli’s ideas were most substantially developed and adapted, and that republicanism came once more to life; and out of seventeenth-century English republicanism there were to emerge in the next century not only a theme of English political and historical reflection—of the writings of the Bolingbroke circle and of Gibbon and of early parliamentary radicals—but a stimulus to the Enlightenment in Scotland, on the Continent, and in America.
Scholars have argued that Machiavelli was a major indirect and direct influence upon the political thinking of the Founding Fathers of the United States due to his overwhelming favoritism of republicanism and the republican type of government. According to John McCormick, it is still very much debatable whether or not Machiavelli was “an advisor of tyranny or partisan of liberty.” Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson followed Machiavelli’s republicanism when they opposed what they saw as the emerging aristocracy that they feared Alexander Hamilton was creating with the Federalist Party. Hamilton learned from Machiavelli about the importance of foreign policy for domestic policy, but may have broken from him regarding how rapacious a republic needed to be in order to survive. George Washington was less influenced by Machiavelli.
The Founding Father who perhaps most studied and valued Machiavelli as a political philosopher was John Adams, who profusely commented on the Italian’s thought in his work, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. In this work, John Adams praised Machiavelli, with Algernon Sidney and Montesquieu, as a philosophic defender of mixed government. For Adams, Machiavelli restored empirical reason to politics, while his analysis of factions was commendable. Adams likewise agreed with the Florentine that human nature was immutable and driven by passions. He also accepted Machiavelli’s belief that all societies were subject to cyclical periods of growth and decay. For Adams, Machiavelli lacked only a clear understanding of the institutions necessary for good government.
The 20th-century Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci drew great inspiration from Machiavelli’s writings on ethics, morals, and how they relate to the State and revolution in his writings on Passive Revolution, and how a society can be manipulated by controlling popular notions of morality.
Joseph Stalin read The Prince and annotated his own copy.
Revival of interest in the comedies
In the 20th century there was also renewed interest in Machiavelli’s La Mandragola (1518), which received numerous stagings, including several in New York, at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976 and the Riverside Shakespeare Company in 1979, as a musical comedy by Peer Raben in Munich’s antiteater in 1971, and at London’s National Theatre in 1984.
Machiavelli’s best-known book Il Principe contains several maxims concerning politics. Instead of the more traditional target audience of a hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince”. To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully balance the interests of a variety of institutions to which the people are accustomed. By contrast, a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling: He must first stabilise his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. Machiavelli suggests that the social benefits of stability and security can be achieved in the face of moral corruption. Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. As a result, a ruler must be concerned not only with reputation, but also must be positively willing to act unscrupulously at the right times. Machiavelli believed as a ruler, it was better to be widely feared than to be greatly loved; A loved ruler retains authority by obligation while a feared leader rules by fear of punishment. As a political theorist, Machiavelli emphasized the “necessity” for the methodical exercise of brute force or deceit including extermination of entire noble families to head off any chance of a challenge to the prince’s authority.
Scholars often note that Machiavelli glorifies instrumentality in state building, an approach embodied by the saying, often attributed to interpretations of The Prince, “The ends justify the means”. Fraud and deceit are held by Machiavelli as necessary for a prince to use. Violence may be necessary for the successful stabilisation of power and introduction of new political institutions. Force may be used to eliminate political rivals, to destroy resistant populations, and to purge the community of other men strong enough of a character to rule, who will inevitably attempt to replace the ruler. Machiavelli has become infamous for such political advice, ensuring that he would be remembered in history through the adjective, “Machiavellian”.
Due to the treatise’s controversial analysis on politics, the Catholic Church banned The Prince, putting it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Humanists also viewed the book negatively, including Erasmus of Rotterdam. As a treatise, its primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is the fundamental break between political realism and political idealism, due to it being a manual on acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society is not a model by which a prince should orient himself.
Concerning the differences and similarities in Machiavelli’s advice to ruthless and tyrannical princes in The Prince and his more republican exhortations in Discourses on Livy, few assert that The Prince, although written as advice for a monarchical prince, contains arguments for the superiority of republican regimes, similar to those found in the Discourses. In the 18th century, the work was even called a satire, for example by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. More recently, scholars such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield have stated that sections of The Prince and his other works have deliberately ironic statements throughout them. However, this is not to say that they thought it was a joke, rather that Machiavelli sees grave and serious things as humorous because they are manipulable by men, and sees them as grave because they “answer human necessities”.
Other interpretations include for example that of Antonio Gramsci, who argued that Machiavelli’s audience for this work was not even the ruling class but the common people because the rulers already knew these methods through their education.
Discourses on Livy
The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, written around 1517, published in 1531, often referred to simply as the “Discourses” or Discorsi, is nominally a discussion regarding the classical history of early Ancient Rome although it strays very far from this subject matter and also uses contemporary political examples to illustrate points. Machiavelli presents it as a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured. It is a much larger work than The Prince, and while it more openly explains the advantages of republics, it also contains many similar themes from his other works. For example, Machiavelli has noted that to save a republic from corruption, it is necessary to return it to a “kingly state” using violent means. He also excused Romulus for murdering his brother Remus and co-ruler Titus Tatius to gain absolute power for himself in that he established a “civil way of life”. Commentators disagree about how much the two works agree with each other, as Machiavelli frequently refers to leaders of republics as “princes”. Machiavelli even sometimes acts as an advisor to tyrants. Other scholars have pointed out the aggrandizing and imperialistic features of Machiavelli’s republic. Nevertheless, it includes early versions of the concept of checks and balances and asserts the superiority of a republic over a principality. It became one of the central texts of modern republicanism, and has often been argued to be a more comprehensive work to The Prince.
From The Discourses:
- “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.” Book I, Chapter II
- “Doubtless these means [of attaining power] are cruel and destructive of all civilised life, and neither Christian, nor even human, and should be avoided by everyone. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings.” Book I, Chapter XXVI
- “Now, in a well-ordered republic, it should never be necessary to resort to extra-constitutional measures. …” Book I, Chapter XXXIV
- “… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII
- “… if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious”. Book I, Chapter LVIII
- “For government consists mainly in so keeping your subjects that they shall be neither able nor disposed to injure you. …” Book II, Chapter XXIII
- “… no prince is ever benefited by making himself hated.” Book III, Chapter XIX
- “Let not princes complain of the faults committed by the people subjected to their authority, for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example.” Book III, Chapter XXIX
Other political and historical works
- Discorso sopra le cose di Pisa (1499)
- Del modo di trattare i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati (1502)
- Descrizione del modo tenuto dal Duca Valentino nello ammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, il Signor Pagolo e il duca di Gravina Orsini (1502) – A Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino when Murdering Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, the Signor Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina Orsini
- Discorso sopra la provisione del danaro (1502) – A discourse about the provision of money.
- Ritratti delle cose di Francia (1510) – Portrait of the affairs of France.
- Ritracto delle cose della Magna (1508–1512) – Portrait of the affairs of Germany.
- Dell’Arte della Guerra (1519–1520) – The Art of War, high military science.
- Discorso sopra il riformare lo stato di Firenze (1520) – A discourse about the reforming of Florence.
- Sommario delle cose della citta di Lucca (1520) – A summary of the affairs of the city of Lucca.
- The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca (1520) – Vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, a short biography.
- Istorie Florentine (1520–1525) – Florentine Histories, an eight-volume history of the city-state Florence, commissioned by Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII.
Besides being a statesman and political scientist, Machiavelli also translated classical works, and was a playwright (Clizia, Mandragola), a poet (Sonetti, Canzoni, Ottave, Canti carnascialeschi), and a novelist (Belfagor arcidiavolo).
Some of his other work:
- Decennale primo (1506) – a poem in terza rima.
- Decennale secondo (1509) – a poem.
- Andria or The Girl From Andros (1517) – a semi-autobiographical comedy, adapted from Terence.
- Mandragola (1518) – The Mandrake – a five-act prose comedy, with a verse prologue.
- Clizia (1525) – a prose comedy.
- Belfagor arcidiavolo (1515) – a novella.
- Asino d’oro (1517) – The Golden Ass is a terza rima poem, a new version of the classic work by Apuleius.
- Frammenti storici (1525) – fragments of stories.
Della Lingua (Italian for “Of the Language”) (1514), a dialogue about Italy’s language is normally attributed to Machiavelli.
Machiavelli’s literary executor, Giuliano de’ Ricci, also reported having seen that Machiavelli, his grandfather, made a comedy in the style of Aristophanes which included living Florentines as characters, and to be titled Le Maschere. It has been suggested that due to such things as this and his style of writing to his superiors generally, there was very likely some animosity to Machiavelli even before the return of the Medici.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia