Philosopher, theorist, playwright
(1469 – 1527)
As a Florentine statesman, political philosopher, theorist, and playwright of the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli addressed a wide range of political and historical topics while embracing strictly literary forms in his various publications.He came to be identified almost exclusively with the realist political theory that he described in The Prince (1513), which is basically a pragmatic guidebook for obtaining, and preserving, political power. Critics have long pointed out the incongruities between the republican philosophy that Machiavelli professed in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513–1517) that nations should be republics guided by the principles of liberty, rule of law, and civic virtue and the philosophy he described in The Prince, which has been variously hailed, denounced, and distorted as advocating an ends-justify the means approach to politics. His perspective in The Prince, inparticular, quickly gave rise to the term Machiavellian: deceiving and manipulating others for personal gain.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, to an established middle class family whose members had traditionally filled responsible positions in local government. While little of the author’s early life has been documented, it is known that as a boy he learned Latin and quickly became a dedicated reader of the ancient classics. Machiavelli lived during the height of the Italian Renaissance, a ‘‘rebirth’’ of the arts and sciences that rivaled the accomplishments of the ancient Romans andGreeks. During this time, an interest in classical subjectsand techniques became popular, as shown in the art of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This interest in classical ideas is also reflected in the work of Machiavelli, who wrote much in support of the idea of republican government first developed by Plato.
Machiavelli’s first recorded involvement in the complicated political scene in Florence occurred in 1498, when he helped the political faction that replaced the dominant religious and political figures in Florence at the time. That same year, Machiavelli began acting as secretary to a sensitive government agency that dealt chiefly with warfare and foreign affairs. Machiavelli participated both in Italian politics and in diplomatic missions to foreign governments. He quickly gained political prominence and influence, so that by 1502 he had become a well-respected assistant to the republican head of state. His posts afforded him many opportunities over the next fourteen years to closely examine the inner workings of government and to meet prominent individuals, including Cesare Borgia, who became Machiavelli’s major model for leadership in The Prince. Read the rest of this entry