Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli

Philosopher, theorist, playwright
(1469 – 1527)

machiavelliAs 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.

Imprisonment and the Medici Family

In 1512, Spanish forces invaded Italy, and the Florentine political climate changed abruptly. The Medici family for centuriesthe rulers of Florence but exiled since 1494 seized the opportunity to depose the head of state and replace the elected government with their own regime. Machiavelli was removed from office, jailed, and tortured for his wellknown republican sentiments. He was finally banished tohis country residence in Percussina, Italy. Machiavelli spen this forced retirement writing the small body of political works that would ensure his literary immortality. Between   1513 and 1517, he completed Discourses upon the First Ten Books of Titus Livius and The Prince, neither of which was published until after Machiavelli’s death. Around 1518, Machiavelli turned from nonfiction to drama, writing Mandragola (1518). The play was popular with audiences throughout much of Italy for several years.

His next effort, a military treatise published in 1521 and titled The Art of War, was the only historical or political work published during his lifetime. Meanwhile, Machiavelli had made several attempts to gain favor with the Medici, including dedicating The Prince to Lorenzo. In 1520 he was appointed official historian of Florence and entrusted with minor governmental duties. His prodigious History of Florence (1532) carefully dilutes his republican platform with the Medicean bias expected of him. In 1525 Pope Clement VII recognized his achievements with amonetary stipend. Two years later, the Medicis were again ousted, but Machiavelli’s hopes for advancement under the revived republic were frustrated, for the new government was suspicious of his ties to the former ruling family. Disheartened by his country’s internal strife, Machiavellifell ill in 1527 and died a disillusioned man, his dream of an operational republic unrealized.

Works in Literary Context

Up to Machiavelli’s time, other political theorists had masked issues of leadership in vague diplomatic terms in their writings. Machiavelli presented his theses in direct, candid, and often passionate speech, using metaphors and examples that readers could easily understand. He was, in many ways, a superb propagandist, convincing others to accept his perspectives through well turned exaggerated phrases, polished language, and masterly composition. Pragmatism and the Nature of Mankind – Two philosophical perspectives guided almost all of Machiavelli’s writings: political pragmatism or real world practicality, free of wishful thinking and the idea that people are fundamentally flawed with selfishness. Unlike what so many detractors have claimed, however, Machiavelli’s plans for obtaining and maintaining power were not wholly evil. He placed some limited restrictions on bad actions, including the idea that cruelty must be swift, effective, and short-lived.

machiavelli princeUntil Machiavelli, writers, thinkers, and philosophers typically had a Christian view of history, attributing politicalactions to an omnipotent divine power. Machiavelli had a much more worldly perspective, believing in humanity’s capacity for determining its own destiny. Fundamental to his understanding of history and politics, therefore, were concepts that had nothing to do with religion: fortuna and virtu`. Fortuna, or fortune, gave or took away a political leader’s opportunity for decisive action. Bad luck, Machiavelli thought, could sometimes undermine even the most brilliant leaders. Similarly, virtu` in politics was nothing like Christian virtue. For Machiavelli, it meant having an effective combination of force and cleverness, as well as a touch of greatness.

Leaders who had this characteristic and who were also smiled on by fortuna, Machiavelli argued, had the best chance of remaining in power. It is not clear precisely when or how Machiavelli developed his notions about politics, but it is assumed that he was influenced in his youth primarily by his reading of Livy’s history of the Roman Republic and later by his own observations. What is better known, however, is the extensive influence his work had on later writers. Some 395 direct references can be found to Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature, including the work of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and the literature of the 1600s is steeped in his philosophy and what his philosophy came to represent. The authors and playwrights John Webster, Philip Massinger, John Ford, John Marston, Cyril Tourneur, and Thomas Middleton are all so heavily indebted to him, either in the form of revulsion or delight, that they could be called the children of Machiavelli.

Influence on Political Science – Primarily on the strength of the Discourses and The Prince, Machiavelli has been called the founder of empirical (observation based) political science, having a noticeable influence on the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon and on the thought of such modern political theorists as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, GeorgesSorel, and Robert Michels. While The Prince receives byfar the majority of attention from scholars and critics, Machiavelli’s Discourses, in particular, had an influence and significance as an early treatise on republicanism. But precisely how significant Machiavelli’s political thinking was for the development of modern republicanism remains controversial. Some contemporary scholars nevertheless argue that he was an important contributor to theemergence of liberal ideas of freedom and civic virtue inEngland and the United States through his influence on such thinkers as Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington, John Locke, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, David Hume, the baron de Montesquieu, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

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