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Machiavelli, NiccolÓ

Machiavelli, NiccolÓ



NiccolÓ Machiavelli (1469–1527) was an Italian political and military theorist, civil servant, historian, playwright, and poet.

The Machiavellis, an ancient middle-class family of Florence whose income came from landed property, had been reduced to near poverty at the time of Machiavelli’s birth. His father was a doctor of law. Machiavelli seems to have been carefully educated in humanistic studies, although he never learned Greek. He entered Florentine government service in 1498, at the age of 29, as second chancellor and secretary of the Ten of Liberty and Peace, an executive committee concerned with domestic as well as military and foreign affairs. During his 14-year tenure he was engaged in numerous and sometimes lengthy diplomatic missions which took him to France, Switzerland, and Germany. His dispatches and reports contain ideas that anticipate many of the doctrines of his later works.

Military affairs were a continuing preoccupation of Machiavelli’s. Not only was the famous militia ordinance of 1506 his, but also the responsibility for implementing it, in the capacity of secretary of the specially constituted Nine of the Militia. When the Florentine government was threatened in 1512 with the restoration of the Medici by Spanish forces, Machiavelli skillfully mobilized an army of twelve thousand conscripts to withstand the invasion; however, the amateur citizen-soldiers proved ineffectual before seasoned troops.

With the restoration of the Medici, Machiavelli was briefly imprisoned and tortured. Upon release he was banished from Florence to live in impoverished retirement on the small estate his family owned at Sant’Andrea. After 13 years of political inactivity he was recalled to government service by the Medici in 1525, but two years later the Medici were overthrown, and the new republic again excluded Machiavelli from office. He died in 1527, receiving the last rites of the church.

Machiavelli was a good father and an affectionate if unfaithful husband. Scrupulously honest, he was also generous and tolerant and had unusual courage and integrity. He excelled in witty conversation and storytelling. As much a poet as a man of practical affairs, he was a dedicated republican who desired only to serve Florence rather than any particular party. He was an extraordinary literary artist and has long been recognized for his masterful prose style; as the author of the comedy Mandragola (see 1509–1527) he has been acclaimed the equal of Moliere.

Method Machiavelli was neither a system builder nor a philosopher in a technical sense. In no single treatise did he rigorously expound his theory of man and government. His views are presented in a diffuse and impressionistic fashion, scattered through a number of different works. At the same time, there is system and remarkable consistency to his ideas, even if the coherence is not the most obvious and depends to a degree upon imaginative reconstruction by the sensitive reader.

Among Machiavelli’s particular achievements was his attempt to discover an order in political activity itself, not in some external standard or cause. He examined politics in a detached, rational manner, analyzing the ways power can be acquired and maintained. He showed the kinds of actions that in varying situations will lead to political success or failure. Although he was not concerned with moral and political obligation or with the analysis of moral and political concepts, a conception of a good society does inform most of his political writings.

The sources of his approach are a matter of conjecture. He probably owed less to the traditional philosophers than to nonphilosophical classical writers—in particular, to Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, Xenophon, Polybius, Vegetius, and Frontinus. Machiavelli was not alone among his contemporaries in abandoning a moralistic approach to human behavior for a rational and objective one: the influence of Platonism resulted generally in increasing efforts to reduce activity to an inherent order and these efforts in turn led to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (Cassirer 1927). That Machiavelli lived in a city whose very life was finance and commerce may also help to explain his method, which had some of the characteristics of a business calculation of profit and loss. Another possible influence was the increasing conceptualization of government policy, since the thirteenth century, in terms of a notion of public utility: the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick n (1194–1250), Philip iv of France (1268–1314), and some Italian legalists held that the security and well-being of the state at times necessitated omcial acts which under ordinary circumstances would be considered morally reprehensible. Machiavelli was heir to this late medieval tradition.

Machiavelli was essentially concerned with ascertaining the conditions of political success, and he sought to do so by determining what kinds of acts have proved beneficial and what kinds detrimental to the (political) actors who performed them. In The Prince and the Discourses, written between 1513 and 1521 (see 1532a), he demonstrated the soundness of certain political precepts by using a kind of calculus: he cited numerous examples, drawn from history and from the events of his own time, that would support a particular proposition aboutthe conditions of political success, and he then searched for further examples that would appear to negate the same maxim; only after careful scrutiny of the “negative” cases did he decide whether they really were in fact negative or only appeared to be so because of very different circumstances. He used this method for military precepts, in these works and in The Art of War (1521). Again, his penchant for discovering general patterns is evident in his History of Florence, completed in 1525 (1532fr), in which he sought to establish causal relationships in place of mere chronology. It is a pioneer work in modern western European historical writing.

The inspiration for the method may well have been two books with which he was familiar—the Dictorum factorumque memorabilium of Valerius Maximus, a compendium of ancient examples to illustrate human behavior, which was dedicated to the first century emperor Tiberius, and the Strategemata of Frontinus, a catalogue of military stratagems of the latter part of the same century. Whatever the sources, the method differs markedly from that of classical and medieval political theory. In a way, Machiavelli’s approach anticipates the inductive method of Francis Bacon, which, much like an adversary proceeding, entails the collection of positive and negative examples and their resolution.

Theory of man . Crucial to Machiavelli’s political theory is his concept of man’s nature. From his own shrewd observation and omnivorous reading of history, he concluded that man’s nature is changeless—were it not changeless, generalizations about politics could not be made—and that it is essen- tially evil. (Unlike Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli used the concept of human nature in a descriptive rather than a normative sense.)

Man’s innate evil qualities are such, however, that they do not preclude the possibility of cooperative human endeavor; indeed, some of these very qualities facilitate social cooperation. Man’s basic traits are the following: he is a creature of insatiable desires and limitless ambition, and his primary desire is for self-preservation; he is short-sighted, judging most commonly by the immediacy of reward rather than the remote consequences of his actions; he is imitative, inclined to follow the example of authority figures; and he is inflexible, so that behavior patterns established through imitation can be changed only to a limited extent.

Given these traits, the outlook for social cooperation may appear dim, but this is not so: men’s desire for self-preservation and their very shortsightedness make them peculiarly susceptible to manipulation by civic leaders, and as stated above, their imitativeness predisposes them to accept the conditioning provided by leadership and organization. Furthermore, under conditions of necessity, when their lives are threatened by a hostile physical environment or by an act of aggression, men’s desire for self-preservation moves them to act cooperatively and even virtuously: they prove to be industrious, courageous, and self-denying. Even after an immediate threat to survival has been overcome, social virtues can be maintained by astute leadership and rational social organization. In other words, Machiavelli differentiated between an original (evil) and a second (socially benevo-lent) nature, between natural and socially acquired characteristics.

Man’s essentially evil nature, then, is raw material that may be molded or conditioned by leadership and organization; although, to be sure, the original nature of the material limits its malleability. Man is capable of socialization, and more or less desirable characteristics can be imprinted on his original nature by education, in the sense of conditioning. Civil society is the great school of mankind. Human behavior can be vitally affected by the structure of the social environment, by the socially established ends that canalize human de-sire. All men are to some extent creatures of convention rather than merely natural men; indeed, neither an absolutely natural nor an absolutely conventional man can exist, any more than either an absolutely evil or an absolutely good man is possible. All men fall somewhere along a scale between these extremes. It seemed plausible to Machiavelli that good and evil are roughly in equilibrium in the world, although their distribution may vary from age to age, each quality being in some periods concentrated in particular societies, and in other periods dispersed.

Values . The supreme end of politics, in Machiavelli’s view, is the public utility, the security and well-being of the community rather than the moral goal imputed to politics by previous thinkers. When he assessed the validity of political precepts by examining the consequences of particular political acts, he treated moral acts like any other kind, from a strictly instrumental point of view. The social and political consequences of acts always interested him more than the moral intent of the actors, and he argued that in human affairs the consequences of acts are bound to be both good and evil. Basically, he was not concerned with the problems of moral philosophy, and he accepted the fact that a life of action is necessarily one of moral dilemma and paradox. Perhaps Machiavelli’s one important moral insight, never explicitly articulated, is that the very conditions of personal morality are dependent upon the security afforded by the immorality of the state.

This does not mean that Machiavelli condoned violations of personal morality or that he was himself immoral. He did distinguish between moral and immoral acts in the conventional sense. He never suggested that some people are innately superior to others, thereby having a right to dominate and enslave. He was usually careful to affirm that the common good upon occasion excuses rather than justifies immoral means. Violation of the standards of personal morality is excusable only when necessary for the public utility. Statesmen must know how to act iniquitously for the sake of the common good; but violence, cruelty, and deception should never become ends in themselves, and they should always be rationally controlled.

While Machiavelli himself was not above moral reproach, he was born and died a Christian and was neither depraved nor unprincipled. His attacks on the church were anticlerical rather than anti-religious, being directed against the scandalous lives of the popes and their political activities. He did compare contemporary Christianity unfavorably with the paganism of the ancients, but he criticized Christianity primarily because it had become the means to socially undesirable ends—the subjection of the many to an avaricious minority— and called for a return to some kind of original creed. While he dwelt upon the socially pragmatic value of religion he did not view it from this stand-point alone.

The highest end to be pursued by man, according to Machiavelli, is glory. Glory is conferred by acts that are remembered and cherished by mankind. The brief but glorious life of an individual or commonwealth is worth far more to Machiavelli than a lengthy mediocre existence. Meresuccess or reputation arising from great power or wealth has far less value than true glory. The greatest glory is to be won (in order of decreasing importance) by founding religions, by establishing commonwealths, by commanding armies, and by creating literature.

True glory depends upon the virtu of an individual or a people. Machiavelli’s term is ambiguous, but what he seems most often to have had in mind is the pattern of conduct of the soldier in battle who displays foresight, self-discipline, constancy, determination, purposefulness, decisiveness, bravery, boldness, and vigor. War is only the archetypal struggle between virtu (the manly) and fortuna(the changeable, unpredictable, and capricious), for in fact all of life is such a contest. Rational control over the physical and social environments, so essential for human survival and well-being, depends upon the opposition of virtu to fortuna. By virtuous action men can control at least some part of their lives and limit the whims of chance.

Machiavelli again studied history to discover the conditions that produced the greatest possible amount of virtu in a commonwealth and the consequent achievement of glory. He decided that the most virtuous leaders and peoples were those of classical antiquity, particularly of republican Rome. The virtu of a people, he believed, depends entirely on education, while that of a prince or leader tends to be inborn but shaped by education. A republicanism in which liberty flourishes, defended by a citizens’ army, is the atmosphere most conducive to the exercise of virtu; under these conditions political power will be the greatest and most durable, and the political order will be the most stable. The basic elements in Machiavelli’s conception of political success, then, are glory,virtu, and liberty. Machiavelli lamented the decline of virtu in his own age; he condemned its luxurious, commercial life and directed his efforts to the problem of re-storing the conditions of glory.

Conflict and corruption . Conflict is a vital concept in Machiavelli’s political thought. He accepted conflict as a universal and permanent condition of society, stemming from human nature. The traditional classical and medieval view had been that social conflict is not a natural condition, and many classical and medieval thinkers had tried to design a type of social organizationthat would eliminate contention. The conception of social conflict as un-natural ran parallel to the Aristotelian concept that matter at rest is more natural than matter in motion. Machiavelli abandoned the former of these ancient modes of thought with his notion of the naturalness of social conflict, although the latter was not discarded until the next century with Galileo’s revolutionary insight that the natural state of matter is motion.

The basic manifestation of social conflict, according to Machiavelli, is the perennial struggle between the common people and the great and powerful. While this is clearly a notion of class struggle involving economic factors, Machiavelli’s explanation of the struggle is not couched in economic terms. The primary cause of domestic strife and of war between states is, as he saw it, a lust for power and domination. Within any state, the overwhelming majority seek security for their persons and possessions, while a handful, either a hereditary aristocracy or a commercial oligarchy, desire to dominate the masses.

Inspired by Polybius, Machiavelli believed that such conflict is not only natural but that it may be turned to socially useful ends. Virtuous common-wealths exhibit this kind of conflict no less than do corrupt ones. The difference lies not in the presence of conflict in the one and the absence in the other, or even in the degree of conflict, but in the quality of conflict in each.

Conflict in a virtuous commonwealth takes place within certain bounds: it is limited by a patriotic dedication to the common good that supersedes narrow self-interest, by a willingness to respect law and authority, and by an aversion to the use of violence and nonlegal activity. Republican Rome, Machiavelli’s ideal of the virtuous commonwealth as described in the Discourses, exemplified this kind of limited conflict in that the struggle between patricians and plebeians was institutionalized through the Senate and the popular assemblies with their tribunes. The very strength and unity of the republic together with the citizens’ liberties depended upon the continued contest.

By contrast, Florence, as analyzed in the History of Florence, is Machiavelli’s prototype of the corrupt state. In such a state, society becomes atomized; each man is for himself. Religious sentiment declines, and with it civic honesty, the spirit of civic duty, and respect for authority. Factionalism and conspiracy are rife, and government is the successive captive of the most powerful cliques. Virtu decays; avarice proliferates; indolence, luxury, and economic inequalities rend the social fabric. Corruption is likely to develop in an overly successful society that knows peace and prosperity for a lengthy period. With the lack of challenge to sur- vive, with well-being and leisure, men turn to private advantage; laws are no longer vigorously observed and enforced or adjusted to compensate for new conditions. Prevention of corruption requires a return to first principles, a periodic renovation of the civic order. Even the greatest vigilance and most prudent statesmanship, however, will not stem the tide of decay forever. Change is the way of all things, and the best-ordered commonwealths —for example, Rome and Sparta—are bound to decline.

Government and politics . The most important contrivance at man’s command for containing and canalizing man’s egoistic nature toward socially desirable ends is, according to Machiavelli, the state. By means of the state man can create the conditions for security and well-being.

Although Machiavelli frequently used medical imagery to describe the state, his conception of it actually resembles a mechanism more than an organism. The state has no higher end or spiritual purpose, nor does it have a life or personality apart from the people who constitute it. What has come to be called “reason of state,” an expression Machiavelli himself never employed, is the calculated and prudent policy of statesmen to advance the secular aims of the governed, not a superrationality.

In The Prince and the Discourses Machiavelli presented a twofold classification of states based on the number who rule—the polar types being monarchies and republics. Monarchies may be limited (France), despotic (Turkey), or tyrannical (Syracuse); republics may be mass (Athens) or balanced (Rome). Of the balanced republics, in turn, two principal types exist—aristocratic (Venice) and democratic (Rome). On the basis of the Florentine experience Machiavelli distinguished two unstable forms intermediate between monarchies and republics, which might best be called oligarchy and plebiscitary monarchy. Machiavelli also classified states in other respects: according to the way power is acquired; according to their tendencies to expansion (Rome) or preservation (Sparta), to corruption (Florence) or virtu (Roman Republic); and according to whether the constitution originates with a single lawgiver (Sparta) or develops over time and with experience (Rome).

Machiavelli had, of course, elaborate prescriptions for successful government. Good government rests upon the foundation of a strong military establishment for protection against the external enemy. The life, property, family, and honor of each citizen must be safeguarded against interference from other citizens. General economic prosperity should be encouraged, individual economic aggrandizement prevented, and luxury strictly regulated. Adequate recognition must be given to the meritorious among the citizens, and advancement in the service of the state should be open to those who seek honor and glory. The best government draws upon and utilizes the skills of the governed, and the best state is one in which rank corresponds to ability.

These ends can be realized most fully in a re-public patterned after the Roman one, which had a mixed constitution and such institutions as dictatorship in times of emergency, censorship, public accusations, popular assemblies, sumptuary laws, and a citizens’ army. Republics, however, cannot be established everywhere; the form of the state should be suited to the conditions of a particular society. Moreover, the successful founding of any commonwealth depends on the presence of a single individual of the greatest virtu and prudence.

Any well-ordered state is, according to Machiavelli, a rational organization in which citizens know with a high degree of certainty the legal consequences of their actions, i.e., what they can and cannot do with impunity. Hence, central to Machiavelli’s proposals for successful government is a rational system of law that will eliminate arbitrary rule by guaranteeing legal equality, by providing regularized procedures for the redress of grievances, by prohibiting retroactive laws, and by executing all laws vigorously and efficiently. Civil law should establish a state religion for the inculcation and maintenance of civic virtue. Law should also institute a citizens’ army that will have a genuine stake in the common good and that will serve as a prime means of civic education, instilling citizens with a respect for authority, patriotism, and martial virtues.

Machiavelli’s description of the model army in The Art of War gives a clearer picture of his concept of a rational society than does the Discourses. Since he viewed domestic politics as a kind of war-fare and dealt with political matters as a general might deal with the problem of defeating an enemy, it is not surprising that he wrote about politics as classical military theorists wrote about war. Military stratagems are translated into political maxims of the same calculating objectivity, and a rationally organized and commanded army serves as a model of a rational social organization.

Most political situations, Machiavelli believed, are conspiratorial or counterconspiratorial, and conspiracy is primarily of a military character. The political art is akin to the military art with its premium upon secrecy, planning and preparedness, estimation of factors, flexibility, rapidity and decisiveness of execution, surprise, and deception.

These qualities characterize the conspiratorial methods necessary for founding or radically reforming a state and the counterconspiratorial methods required for maintaining a state (since conspiracy must be prevented by avoiding the hatred and contempt of the governed). Prior to Machiavelli, only military theorists had dealt in detail with the problems of conspiracy; in the Discourses (see in, vi), he formulated the West’s first general theory of political conspiracy.

Not only did Machiavelli liken political situations to military ones and the art of politics to the military art, but he also considered political and military leadership to be similar. Political leadership resembles the creative activity of the general who organizes, disciplines, trains, and leads an army to victory. That virtu is the cardinal quality of political leadership as well as of successful generalship is significant. The political virtuoso is rational, calculating, and eminently self-controlled, plays many roles with aplomb, and is prudent enough to identify his own interest with the well-being of those he seeks to manage. Machiavelli’s heroes are the ancient founders and the soldier-statesmen of the Roman Republic. He particularly admired the moderate, liberal-minded, and humane military genius Scipio Africanus Major.

Good internal government and successful foreign policy are caried on essentially in the same way. A state’s foreign policy is advanced either by diplomacy or war. The familiar roster of necessary qualities is attached to skillful diplomacy—foresight, initiative, decisiveness, flexibility, and deception. Negotiation is the technique of the ambassador, who must be ready to persuade, temporize, or intimidate, as occasion demands. If negotiation fails, war may well be unavoidable. Careful military preparations must be made in peacetime because sooner or later war is inevitable, given man’s nature. Machiavelli preferred a war with limited objectives and gains to total war.

Significance and influence . Although few would deny Machiavelli a foremost place among Western political thinkers, his reputation, all too often based on The Prince alone, has long rested on his description of the stratagems by which political power can be seized and conserved without regard for moral ends. Consequently, for centuries he has been vilified as devil’s disciple and despots’ tutor. More favorable appraisals have appeared in recent years: he is being discovered as the first political scientist, the first modern political theorist, or the first liberal. But these positive labels again contain only half-truths. One does find in Machiavelli’s thought harbingers of science, modernity, and liberalism. Yet it must not be forgotten that he had one foot firmly planted in the classical world, and this classical aspect of his work has had a considerable influence. The seventeenth-century English classical republicans—Harrington, Neville, and Sidney—found in Machiavelli theories of limited republican government and of a citizens’ militia, and bequeathed them to the American constitutional fathers. Montesquieu came upon the Machiavelli of the Discourses in England, and his imprint is seen throughout the Considerations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur decadence and also in Uesprit des lois, which in turn fired the radical Rousseau, the conservative Burke, and the liberal Tocqueville. Bodin, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hegel all recognized Machiavelli’s genius.

Machiavelli has also been vitally important as a military thinker. Because of his revival in The Art of War of the classical stress upon military training, discipline, and organization, he is unquestion-ably the father of modern military science, who directly or indirectly influenced practitioners and theorists from Maurice of Nassau to Clausewitz.

Today, Machiavelli is of importance as a forerunner of the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Notwithstanding his pessimism about human nature and cynicism about human behavior, he was not without hope. He never lost his vision of a good society and his faith that men could in part shape their destinies. Relevant to the social scientific concerns of our own time are his views on the integrative function of conflict, the instrumental value of law and ideology in shaping society, the role of conspiracy, and the political craft in general. A careful study of his military image of politics may help us to perceive more readily the inadequacy of our own comparable image of the political.

Neal Wood

[see also Leadership ;Power; Social Contract;State;and the biographies of Bodin; Clausewitz; Harrington; Hegel; Hobbes; Kautilya; Mntesquieu; Rousseau; Shangyang; Spinoza.]


(1504–1549) 1965 Chief Works and Others. 3 vols. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

(1506–1549) 1963 Lust and Liberty: The Poems of Machiavelli. With notes and introduction by Joseph Tusani. New York: Obolensky.

(1509–1527) 1961 Literary Works: Mandragola; Clizia; A Dialogue on Language; Belfagor; With Selections From the Private Correspondence. Edited and translated by J. R. Hale. Oxford Univ. Press.

(1521) 1965 The Art of War. Edited with an introduction by Neal Wood. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

(1532a) 1950 The Prince and The Discourses. With an introduction by Max Lerner. New York: Modern Library.

(1532b) 1960 History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy, From the Earliest Times to the Death of Lorenzo the Magnificent. With an introduction by Felix Gil-bert. New York: Harper.

(1532c) 1950 Discourses. With an introduction and notes by Leslie J. Walker. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings. 4 Bols. Boston: Osgood, 1882.


Baron, Hans 1955 The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. 2 vols. Princeton Univ. Press.

Bayley, Charles C. 1961 War and Society in Renaissance Florence: The De militia of Leonardo Bruni. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Cassirer, Ernst (1927) 1964 The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Translated and with anintroduction by Mario Domandi. New York: Barnes & Noble.→ First published as Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophic der Renaissance.

Chabod, Federico (1924–1955) 1958 Machiavelli and the Renaissance: Essays. London: Bowes & Bowes.→ First published in Italian.

Gilbert, Allan H. 1938 Machiavelli’s Prince and Its Forerunners: The Prince as a Typical Book de Regime Principum. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Gilbert, Felix 1965 Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-century Florence. Princeton Univ. Press.

Hexter, J. H. 1964 The Loom of Language and the Fabric of Imperatives: The Case of II principe and Utopia. American Historical Review 69:945–968.→ See especially Hexter’s discussion of the concept of “lostato” in Machiavelli’s work.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1924) 1962 Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’titat and Its Place in Modern History. New York: Praeger.→ First published as Die Idee der Staatsrdson in der neueren Geschichte.

Post, Gaines 1964 Studies in Medieval Legal Thought: Public Law and the State, 1100–1322. Princeton Univ. Press.

Raab, Felix 1964 The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation. 1500–1700. With a foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper. London: Routledge.

Ridolfi, Roberto (1954) 1963 The Life of Niccolo Machiavelli. Univ. of Chicago Press.→ First published in Italian.

Strauss, Leo 1959 Thoughts on Machiavelli. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Villari, Pasquale (1877–1882) 1892 The Life and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli. 2 vols. New ed., rev. & enl. London: Unwin.→ First published in Italian.

Whitfield, John H. 1947 Machiavelli. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

The Italian author and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) is best known for The Prince, in which he enunciated his political philosophy.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence of an aristocratic, though by no means wealthy, family. Little is known of the first half of his life, prior to his first appointment to public office. His writings prove him to have been a very assiduous sifter of the classics, especially the historical works of Livy and Tacitus; in all probability he knew the Greek classics only in translation.

In 1498 Machiavelli was named chancellor and secretary of the second (and less important) chancellery of the Florentine Republic. His duties consisted chiefly of executing the policy decisions of others, carrying on diplomatic correspondence, digesting and composing reports, and compiling minutes; he also undertook some 23 missions to foreign states. His embassies included four to the French king and two to the court of Rome. His most memorable mission is described in a report of 1503 entitled "Description of the Manner Employed by Duke Valentino [Cesare Borgia] in Slaying Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, Signor Pagolo and the Duke of Gravina, Orsini" with surgical precision he details Borgia's series of political murders, implicitly as a lesson in the art of politics for Florence's indecisive and timorous gonfalonier, Pier Soderini.

In 1502 Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini, who bore him four sons and two daughters. To his grandson Giovanni Ricci we owe the preservation of many of his letters and minor works.

In 1510 Machiavelli, inspired by his reading of Roman history, was instrumental in organizing a citizen militia of the Florentine Republic. In August 1512 a Spanish army entered Tuscany and sacked Prato. The Florentines in terror deposed Soderini, whom Machiavelli characterized as "good, but weak," and allowed the Medici to return to power. On November 7 Machiavelli was dismissed; soon afterward he was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to torture as a suspected conspirator against the Medici. Though innocent, he remained suspect for years to come; unable to secure an appointment from the reinstated Medici, he turned to writing.

In all likelihood Machiavelli interrupted the writing of his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius to write the brief treatise on which his fame rests, II Principe (1513; The Prince). Other works followed: The Art of War and The Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520); three extant plays, Mandragola (1518; The Mandrake), Clizia, and Andria; the Istorie fiorentine (1526; History of Florence); a short story, Belfagor; and several minor works in verse and prose.

In 1526 Machiavelli was commissioned by Pope Clement VII to inspect the fortifications of Florence. Later that year and the following year his friend and critic Francesco Guicciardini, Papal Commissary of War in Lombardy, employed him in two minor diplomatic missions. He died in Florence in June 1527, receiving the last rites of the Church that he had bitterly criticized.

The Prince

Machiavelli shared with Renaissance humanists a passion for classical antiquity. To their wish for a literary and spiritual revival of ancient values, guided by such authors as Plato, Cicero, and St. Augustine, he added a fierce desire for a political and moral renewal on the model of the Roman Republic as depicted by Livy and Tacitus. Though a republican at heart, he saw as the crying need of his day a strong political and military leader who could forge a unitary state in northern Italy to eliminate French and Spanish hegemony from Italian soil. At the moment that he wrote The Prince he envisioned such a possibility while the restored Medici ruled both Florence and the papacy. He had taken to heart Cesare Borgia's energetic creation of a new state in Romagna in the few brief years while Borgia's father, Alexander VI, occupied the papal throne. The final chapter of The Princeis a ringing plea to his Medici patrons to set Italy free from the "barbarians." It concludes with a quotation from Petrarch's patriotic poem Italia mia: "Virtue will take arms against fury, and the battle will be brief; for the ancient valor in Italian hearts is not yet dead." This exhortation fell on deaf ears in 1513 but was to play a role 3 centuries later in the Risorgimento.

The preceding 25 chapters of The Prince are written in a terse, analytical, and frequently aphoristic style. Preceding political writers, from Plato and Aristotle in ancient times and through the Middle Ages and the 15th-century humanists, had all concurred in treating politics as a branch of morals. Machiavelli's chief innovation was to break with this long tradition and to confer autonomy upon politics. In chapter 15 of The Prince he writes: "My intent being to write a useful work for those who understand, it seemed to me more appropriate to pursue the actual truth of the matter than the imagination of it. Many have imagined republics and principalities which were never seen or known really to exist; because how one lives is so far removed from how one ought to live that he who abandons what one does for what one ought to do, learns rather his own ruin than his preservation." Like Galileo in astronomy at the end of the 16th century, Machiavelli in politics chooses to describe the world as it is, rather than as people are taught that it should be. Although his longest work, the Discourses on Livy, takes the familiar humanistic form of a commentary on a classical text, his approach to political theory marks a sharp break with tradition.

Fundamental to Machiavelli's conception of history and politics is the binomial of fortuna and virtù. Abandoning the Christian view of history as providential, Machiavelli views events in purely human terms. Often it is fortune that gives—or terminates—the political leader's opportunity for decisive action. Borgia, though a virtuoso politician, succumbed to an "extreme malignity of fortune" when he fell ill just as his father died. Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus alike received their occasions from fortune. Sacred history implicitly is reduced to the same plane as secular history. In some passages it seems that fortune itself hinges upon human habits and institutions: "I believe that the fortune which the Romans had would be enjoyed by all princes who proceeded as the Romans did and who were of the same virtue as they." Like others in the Renaissance, Machiavelli believed in man's capacity for determining his own destiny in opposition to the medieval concept of an omnipotent divine will or the crushing fate of the ancient Greeks. Virtù in politics—unlike Christian virtue—is an effective combination of force and shrewdness, the lion and the fox, with a touch of greatness.

The kernel of The Prince is found in chapters 17, "On Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better To Be Loved or Feared," and 18, "How Princes Should Keep Their Word." As Machiavelli frequently says also in other works, the innate badness of men requires that the prince instill fear rather than love in his subjects and break his pledge, when necessary, with other princes, who in any case will be no more honest than he. Moralistic critics of Machiavelli have sometimes forgotten that he is attempting to describe rather than to invent the rules of political success. For him the state is an organism, greater than the sum of its citizens and individual interests, subject to laws of growth and decay; its health consists in unity, but even in the best of circumstances its longevity is limited.

The founding of a state is the work of one man; its continuance, however, is better trusted to many than to one (Discourses, I, 9 and 58). If this maxim is kept in mind, much of the alleged discrepancy between the monarchical Prince and the republican Discourses vanishes. The two books differ little in their teachings; the Discourses is more leisurely and somewhat fragmentary, The Prince more "scientific," absolute, revolutionary, and exciting. Both works are excessively exemplary; unlike Guicciardini, Machiavelli thought it possible to find in his Roman ideal a practical guide to contemporary Italian politics. Particularly in The Prince, he combines recent examples with ancient ones to illustrate his axioms.

Other Works

Certain passages in the Discourses (I, 11 and 12; II, 2) set forth Machiavelli's quarrel with the Church: by the bad example of the court of Rome, Italy has lost its devotion and religion; the Italian states are weak and divided because the Church, too feeble politically to dominate them, has nevertheless prevented any one state from uniting them. He suggests that the Church might have been destroyed by its own corruption had not St. Francis and St. Dominic restored it to its original principles by founding new orders. However, in an unusual if not unique departure from traditional anticlericalism, Machiavelli contrasts favorably the fiercely civil and militaristic pagan religion of ancient Rome with the humble and otherworldly Christian religion.

The Mandragola, the finest comedy of the Italian Renaissance, is not unrelated to Machiavelli's political writings in its comic indictment of contemporary Florentine society. In a well-knit intrigue the simpleton Nicia contributes to his own cuckolding. Nicia's beautiful and virtuous wife, Lucrezia (so named by the author with an eye to Roman history), is corrupted by those who should be her closest protectors: her mother, her husband, and her unscrupulous confessor, Fra Timoteo, all pawns in the skillful hands of the manipulator Ligurio.

Although not equaling Guicciardini as a historian, Machiavelli in his History of Florence nevertheless marks an advance over earlier histories in his attention to underlying causes rather than the mere succession of events as he tells the history of the Florentines from the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492.

Machiavelli closely adhered to his maxim that a servant of government must be loyal and self-sacrificing. He nowhere suggests that the political morality of princes is a model for day-to-day dealings between ordinary citizens. His reputation as a sinister and perfidious counselor of fraud is largely undeserved; it began not long after his death. His works were banned in the first printed Index (1559). In Elizabethan England, Machiavelli was represented on the stage and in literature as diabolically evil. The primary source of this misrepresentation was the translation into English by Simon Patericke in 1577 of a work popularly called Contre-Machiavel, by the French Huguenot Gentillet, who distorted Machiavelli and blamed his teachings for the St. Bartholomew Night massacre of 1572. A poem by Gabriel Harvey the following year falsely attributed four principal crimes to Machiavelli: poison, murder, fraud, and violence. Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1588) introduces "Machiavel" as the speaker of an atrocious prologue; Machiavellian villains followed in works by other playwrights.

Many of Machiavelli's authentic values are incorporated into 19th-century liberalism: the supremacy of civil over religious power; the conscription of citizen armies; the preference for republican rather than monarchical government; and the republican Roman ideals of honesty, work, and the people's collective responsibility for values that transcend those of the individual.

Further Reading

Recommended translations of Machiavelli's works are The Prince and the Discourses, translated by Luigi Ricci, E. R. P. Vincent, and Christian E. Detmold (1940); Mandragola, translated by Anne and Henry Paolucci (1957); Literary Works, edited by J. R. Hale (1961); and The Chief Works and Others, edited and translated by Allan Gilbert (3 vols., 1965). Among the many works about Machiavelli are Pasquale Villari, Life and Times of Niccolò Machiavelli (2 vols., 1877-1883; trans., rev. ed. 1892); Federico Chabod, Machiavelli and the Renaissance (1926; trans. 1958); Mario Praz, Machiavelli and the Elizabethans (1928); Ralph Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance (1933); D. Erskine Muir, Machiavelli and His Times (1936); Leonardo Olschki, Machiavelli the Scientist (1945); J. H. Whitfield, Machiavelli (1947); Roberto Ridolfi, The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli (1954; trans. 1963); and Giuseppe Prezzolini, Machiavelli (1966). □

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Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527)


MACHIAVELLI, NICCOLÒ (14691527), political theorist. Niccolò Machiavelli was born on 3 May 1469, the son of a lawyer of modest means from an old Florentine family. He received an excellent humanistic education in the classics, but nothing else is known about his early life until he was appointed head of the foreign policy chancery of the Florentine government in June and July 1498. He spent much of the next fourteen years traveling, negotiating agreements, and reporting to his government. This gave him the opportunity to visit Italian and foreign states and to observe rulers, statecraft, and military actions. He also organized and trained a militia that helped Florence reconquer the neighboring city of Pisa in 1509.

In 1512 the republican government that employed Machiavelli fell, and the Medici family came to power. Machiavelli was dismissed, and he moved to his small farm outside of Florence. Out of office, he wrote in the next fifteen years all the works that made him famous.

Machiavelli gradually worked his way into favor with the Medici by undertaking small tasks and commissions. In 1525 he became friends with the Florentine Francesco Guicciardini (14831540), a statesman and the most important historian of the Italian Renaissance. In 1526, as war neared Florence, the Medici rulers of Florence employed Machiavelli to help defend the city. But in the spring of 1527 the Florentines threw out the Medici and reestablished a republican regime. Machiavelli asked for a position in government but was turned down because of his association with the Medici. He died on 21 June 1527.


Machiavelli wrote Il principe (The prince) in the second half of 1513, but it was not published until 1532. It is probably the best-known work in political theory of all time. Machiavelli employed the advice-to-princes genre, which usually advised a prince act honorably and to work for the good of his people and state. The Prince is a manual on how a ruler should gain and hold power. It is based on what Machiavelli had witnessed of politics and war plus reading in ancient history. He wanted to understand politics, what succeeded and what failed, what actions and principles produced a successful ruler.

Several themes dominate the work. Machiavelli believed that politics could be understood through observation, study of the past, and the application of reason to uncover rules. He endorsed the use of force against internal and external foreign enemies to achieve desired ends. He emphasized the importance of the ruler's personal ability or virtù, a combination of manipulation, boldness, and stealth that brought success. He insisted that the prince must base his actions not on what people ought to do but what they were likely to do in the pursuit of self-interest and without concern for what was morally right. He viewed the bulk of the inhabitants of the state as fickle, selfish, and easily duped. But Machiavelli also recognized that rulers were not completely masters of their own destinies, but were at the mercy of necessity and fortune. Necessity was the accumulation of adverse circumstances so great that no ruler or state could withstand it. Fortune was luck, chance, even opportunity, the unpredictable in politics. Machiavelli offered numerous examples drawn from contemporary politics and the ancient world in support of his views.

A great part of Machiavelli's appeal and influence came from his brilliant and memorable language. Numerous phrases (here paraphrased) leap from the pages to drive home his points. "It is better to be feared than to be loved." "A good man will come to ruin among so many who are not good." "The prince must learn how not to be good." "Fortune is a woman who yields to the young and the bold." "A man will sooner forget the loss of a father than the loss of his fortune."


The Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the first ten books of Livy) was probably written between 1515 and 1517, although some scholars believe Machiavelli began it in 1513, dropped it to write The Prince, then returned to it. He used the first part of the famous history of the Roman Republic from its foundation in 753 b.c.e. to 194 b.c.e. written by Titus Livy (59 b.c.e.17 C.E.) as the starting point. Machiavelli offered analyses of the principles and institutions of successful, enduring republics, that is, states in which the people have greater or lesser participation in government.

In the Discourses, Machiavelli paid less attention to individuals but focused on groups, such as the nobles and the people, and especially the political, religious, and military institutions and laws needed for a successful republic. Using even more examples from the ancient world, especially Rome, and current events than he used in The Prince, he argued that a successful republic must have good laws that the people respect. Indeed governments should engender respect by severely punishing transgressors. He endorsed civil religion with the argument that ancient Roman religion strengthened the state by encouraging its inhabitants to fight for the state. By contrast, Christianity, with its ideals of humility and peace, weakened the state. Machiavelli also criticized the papacy for dividing Italy through its politics and wars.


Machiavelli also wrote Dell'arte della guerra (15191520; The art of war), which discussed military organization and tactics. Machiavelli believed strongly that states should develop citizen militias, which would be much more reliable than the untrustworthy and fickle mercenary soldiers. His Istorie fiorentine (15201524; Florentine histories) used episodes from Florentine history to illustrate political principles and to criticize Florentine factionalism. But he carefully avoided either praising or criticizing the Medici. His play La mandragola (c. 1517; The mandrake root) is a thoroughly amoral and hilarious masterpiece. The best comedy to come from Renaissance Italy, it is still performed in the twenty-first century. He also wrote another comedy, Clizia (c. 1525), the short story Belfagor (written between 1515 and 1520), poetry, shorter historical works, numerous personal letters, plus diplomatic reports during his active political career.


Machiavelli's works had enormous influence from the moment of the printing of most of his works in 1532 through the eighteenth century. Although the Index of Prohibited Books forbade the publication, holding, or reading of all of Machiavelli's works, numerous printings and translations, some of them under fictitious names, appeared in the sixteenth century and the following centuries. And writers responded to Machiavelli because he posed the basic political question, can political success and the moral law be reconciled? The view that they could not was expressed in terms of "reason of state" (an expression Machiavelli did not use), the argument that for the good of the state a ruler or government may commit evil actions, such as killing innocent family members of political rivals, an action Machiavelli endorsed in The Prince.

The French Huguenot Innocent Gentillet (c. 15321588) in his Discours contre Machiavel (1576; Discourse against Machiavelli) was the first to condemn Machiavelli for separating politics from morality, although some of his political recommendations were equivocal. The term Machiavellian, meaning the use of immoral means to achieve political power, soon came into use. The English playwrights Christopher Marlowe (15641593) and William Shakespeare (15641616) several times used such expressions as "murderous Machiavel." King Richard III of England (ruled 14831485), who lived before Machiavelli wrote, was seen as Machiavellian, because it was believed that he murdered several people in his ruthless ascent to power.

Political theorists tried to come to terms with the issues Machiavelli raised. Giovanni Botero (15441617) in his Della ragion di stato (1589; Reason of state), which saw many reprints and translations, argued that rulers could reconcile political ends and Christian morality, especially if the state's actions benefited religion. When in doubt, the ruler should consult his confessor. Some seventeenth-century English Puritan casuists also endorsed the principle that the state's actions in defense of true religion were morally defensible. Frederick II the Great (ruled 17401786), king of Prussia, did not completely condemn Machiavelli in his Anti-Machiavel (1767). Machiavelli's republican theories also influenced such English political theorists as James Harrington (16111677), Henry Neville (16201694), and Algernon Sidney (16231683), and perhaps the founders of the American Republic in the late eighteenth century.

See also Florence ; Guicciardini, Francesco ; Index of Prohibited Books ; Medici Family ; Political Philosophy ; Political Secularization ; Republicanism ; State and Bureaucracy .


Primary Sources

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. Translated and edited by James B. Atkinson and David Sices. De Kalb, Ill., 1996. Letters to and from Machiavelli revealing many aspects of his personality.

. Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others. Translated by Allan Gilbert. 3 vols. Durham, N.C., 1965; reprint 1989. Good English translation.

. The Portable Machiavelli. Edited and translated by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1979, with reprints. Contains complete texts of The Prince, The Mandrake Root, and other works plus substantial selections from The Discourses.

. Tutte le opere. Edited by Mario Martelli. Florence, Italy, 1971. Best single-volume edition of Machiavelli's works.

Secondary Sources

Bireley, Robert. The Counter-Reformation Prince: Anti-Machiavellianism or Catholic Statecraft in Early Modern Europe. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990. Discusses the anti-Machiavellian tradition.

Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence. Princeton, 1965. Best discussion of Machiavelli's thought in the context of contemporary politics and political thought.

Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli. Translated from the Italian by Cecil Grayson. Chicago, 1963. The standard biography.

Paul F. Grendler

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Machiavelli, Niccolò

NiccolÒ Machiavelli

Born: May 3, 1469
Florence, Italy
Died: May 22, 1527
Florence, Italy

Italian statesman and author

The Italian author and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli is best known for The Prince, in which he voiced his political philosophy.

Early life

Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, of nobility, though by no means wealth. His parents, Bernardo and Bartolomea, had three other children, two daughters and a son. Bernardo was a lawyer and small landowner with a small salary. Machiavelli's education started at age seven. Some accounts say that Machiavelli spent the years from 1487 to 1495 working for a Florentine banker. A love of books was a family value that Machiavelli shared. His writings prove that he tirelessly read the classics.

In 1498 Machiavelli was named chancellor (secretary to a nobleman, prince, or king) and secretary of the second chancellery (chief executive officer) of the Florentine Republic (government in Florence whose leaders were voted for by citizens). His duties consisted chiefly of carrying out the policy decisions of others, writing diplomatic letters, reading and writing reports, and taking notes; he also went on some twenty-three diplomatic missions (formal visits by a representative of a nation to foreign countries to conduct discussions on international affairs) to foreign states. These included four trips to France and two to the court of Rome.

In 1502 Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini, who bore him four sons and two daughters. His grandson, Giovanni Ricci, is credited with saving many of Machiavelli's letters and writings.

In 1510 Machiavelli, inspired by his Roman history, was active in organizing a citizen militia (a body of citizens, who are not soldiers by career, called to duty in a national emergency) of the Florentine Republic. In August 1512 a Spanish army entered Tuscany and sacked Prato. In terror, the Florentines removed their leader Soderini, a man Machiavelli characterized as "good, but weak," and allowed the Medici, a family formerly in power, to return. On November 7 Machiavelli was dismissed from his role as chancellor. Soon afterward he was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to torture as a suspected schemer (one who plots or plans) against the Medici family. Though innocent, he remained a suspect for years to come. Unable to secure an appointment from the reinstated (reestablished) Medici, he turned to writing.

The Prince

Machiavelli had a passion for ancient history. He had a fierce desire to rebuild the government with a stronger political and moral foundation, similar to that of the Roman Republic (107101 b.c.e.). He felt the biggest need of his day was a strong political and military leader who could bring together northern Italy, ridding it of French and Spanish influence. At the time that he wrote The Prince he pictured such a possibility while the restored Medici ruled both Florence and the papacy (system of government of the Roman Catholic Church of which the pope is the head). This hope is played out in the final chapter of The Prince. It is a heartfelt plea to his Medici patrons (people who support a specific cause, a person, or an establishment) to set Italy free from the "barbarians." It closes with a quotation from Petrarch's patriotic poem Italia mia: "Virtue will take arms against fury [anger], and the battle will be brief; for the ancient valor [courage] in Italian hearts is not yet dead." No one listened to this plea in 1513, but it was to play a role three centuries later in the Risorgimento (a movement for Italian unification).

The chapters of The Prince are written in a clear and straightforward style. Earlier political writers had treated politics as a branch of morals. Machiavelli broke with this long tradition and treated politics on its own. Machiavellian politics described the world as it was, rather than what people imagined or were taught to believe. This was a big change in tradition.

Abandoning the Christian view of history as guided by God, Machiavelli viewed events in purely human terms. Often it is fortune that givesor takes awaythe political leader's opportunity for significant (important and meaningful) action. Like others in the Renaissance, Machiavelli believed that man had the ability to control his own fate. This was the opposite of the Middle Ages' (period in Western European history that started with the end of the Roman empire and continued to the fifteenth century) concept of an all-powerful divine will (a higher soul or spirit that controls the destinies and actions of all) or the ancient Greeks' crushing fate (inescapable downfall). Machiavelli's virtù (artistry) in politicsunlike Christian virtueis a useful combination of force and level-headedness.

Serious critics of Machiavelli sometimes forget that he attempted to describe rather than to invent the rules of political success. For him the state was greater than its citizens and their individual interests; its health consisted in unity, but even at its height its lifetime was expected to end at some point.

Other works

Certain passages in the Discourses (I, 11 and 12; II, 2) explained Machiavelli's argument with the Church: by bad example, the court of Rome, Italy, had lost its devotion and religion; the Italian states were weak and divided because the Church, too weak politically to dominate them, had nevertheless prevented any one state from uniting them. He suggested that the Church might have been destroyed by its own corruption (deception and lies) had not St. Francis (c. 11821226) and St. Dominic (c. 11701221) restored it by founding new orders. However, Machiavelli gives a good comparison between the pagan (religion of many gods) religion of ancient Rome and the Christian religion.

As a historian, Machiavelli in his History of Florence did better than earlier historians, because he focused on the underlying causes rather than the chain of events in the history of the Florentines from the death of Lorenzo de' Medici (14421492) in 1492. Medici was an Italian merchant prince who, without an official title, led the Florence government until his son took over.

Machiavelli stuck closely to his motto that a servant of government must be loyal and self-sacrificing. Nowhere did he suggest that the political morality (sense of right and wrong) of princes is a model for day-to-day dealings between ordinary citizens. His reputation as being evil and disloyal is largely undeserved; it began not long after his death. His works were banned in the first printed Index (1559). In Elizabethan England (England during Queen Elizabeth's reign, 15581603), Machiavelli was represented on the stage and in literature as evil. The primary source of this misrepresentation (incorrect presentation) was the translation into English by Simon Patericke in 1577 of a work popularly called Contre-Machiavel, which misrepresented Machiavelli and blamed his teachings for the St. Bartholomew Night massacre of 1572 (a night chosen by the Queen of Florence to rid the city of all non-Catholics). A poem by Gabriel Harvey the following year falsely blamed Machiavelli for four principal crimes: poison, murder, deception (the act of lying and cheating), and violence. Machiavellian enemies followed in works by other playwrights (writers of plays).

Machiavelli's values are represented in nineteenth-century liberalism (political philosophy based on belief in progress, the goodness of man, and individual freedom). Both Machiavelli and liberalism support government over religious power, the recruitment (the act of bringing together) of citizen armies, the preference for a government with voting citizens and elected officials rather than a king or queen, and the ideals of honesty, work and society's responsibility overriding the lone citizen's.

Though he was unappreciated in his time and times thereafter, Machiavelli's influence lives on in the thinking of people worldwide. He died in Florence in June 1527, receiving the last rites of the Church that he had bitterly criticized.

For More Information

Godman, Peter. From Poliziano to Machiavelli. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Macchiavelli. Edited by Antony Shugaar. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

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Machiavelli, Niccolò

Machiavelli, Niccolò 1469-1527


The Renaissance political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli shocked Christian Europe by declaring that success in politics both necessitates and excuses any means used to achieve it. Born in 1469 in Florence to a family of some prominence but modest means, Machiavelli probably received a humanistic education in his youth, enabling him to become head of the Second Chancery of the Florentine Republic in 1498. This office brought him into close contact with a number of Renaissance potentates, inciting his penetrating mind to form a stern, indeed, cynical view of politics. After the republics fall in 1512, Machiavelli retired to his small landed property to study ancient writers and reflect on political affairs.

In 1513 Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a slender book in the traditional mirror-of-princes genre. His advice to princes, however, was far from traditional. Rather than exhorting them to practice the virtues, he encouraged them to know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity (Chap. XVIII), on the grounds that a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good (Chap. XV). In particular, he argued that princes should not hesitate to use deceit and violence to maintain their state and secure their subjects. This advice transformed the European tradition of reason of state (Lat. ratio status, Fr. raison détat ). Whereas the medieval proponents of this tradition had considered the necessity to break moral rules for the common good to be exceptional, and thus reconcilable with a community of virtue, Machiavelli assumed necessary evil to be a regular aspect of politics, thus separating it from ethics. Machiavellis pithy maxims to this effect inspired generations of writers who called for strong measures to build the modern state, such as Gabriel Naudé in France and Johann Gottlieb Fichte in Germany. His approach also legitimized the ruthlessness of many statesmen who constructed it, including Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Richelieu, Napoleon, and Mussolini.

From roughly 1515 to 1520, Machiavelli belonged to a circle of educated Florentines who met in the Oricellari Gardens and whose political views reflected the civic strand of Renaissance humanism. Drawing on the Aristotelian and Ciceronian notion of citizenship, civic humanism advocated vivere civile, a life of intense involvement with public affairs, based on a humanistic education and framed by the institutions of a republic. Accordingly, they believed that men ought to deliberate wisely and serve capably in the offices of their city, while also practicing the virtues, fostering concord, upholding liberty, and attaining greatness. Machiavellis exposure to this ideal prompted his major republican writings, the Discourses on Livy (c. 1518), the Art of War (1521) and the Florentine Histories (1525). In these works Machiavelli followed Renaissance fashion by taking the Roman republic as a model. According to Machiavelli, Rome maintained its liberty because it provided the commoners with a representative, the Tribune of the Plebs, who checked the tyrannical ambitions of the nobles with his power to veto any law and intercede with any action of the magistrate. Having this share in authority also made the commoners loyal enough to be armed for war in large numbers, enabling Rome to conquer a vast empire and attain unprecedented greatness. Moreover, Romes superior institutions were brought to life by the good customs of its citizens, allowing nobles and commoners to conduct their struggles over wealth and power without bloodshed and settle them by compromise.

The fact that civic humanism formed Machiavellis historical context has led a number of historians, most prominently J. G. A. Pocock (1975) and Quentin Skinner (1978), to conclude that Machiavelli was a civic humanist himself. More penetrating analysis, however, reveals that Machiavellis republican writings rest on the same premises on human nature and ethics as The Prince, and they consequently propose corresponding maxims of action: As all those demonstrate who reason on a vivere civile, and as every history is full of examples, it is necessary to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad (Discourses on Livy I.3.1). To found, as well as to reform a republic, an autocrat must therefore kill all those opposed to equality before the law. The good customs of the citizens are not only acquired by habituation under threat of punishment, they also are continuously degraded by their natural ambition and thus must be constantly renewed by exemplary and excessive punishments. Republics can execute policies more effectively than principalities because the majority can easily crush the minority, regardless of the harm done to individuals. Republics wage aggressive wars because the citizens need to satisfy their ambition abroad in order to mitigate conflict at home, and because security rests on striking first and acquiring empire. In other words, the reason of state forms the core of Machiavellis republican thought as well. He made this fact most explicit when he claimed that where one deliberates entirely on the safety of his fatherland [i.e., republic], there ought not to enter any consideration of either just or unjust, merciful or cruel one ought to follow entirely the policy that saves its life and maintains its liberty (Discourses on Livy III.41).

Preference must therefore be given to the older view of Machiavelli as a bold, if not reckless, thinker who broke with civic humanism and the entire classical tradition by limiting political thought to what men do rather than what they ought to do. According to the German historian Friedrich Meinecke (1924), this impulse led Machiavelli to probe and reveal the full extent of the reason of state, while the philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1946) believed that it prepared the ground for the empirical approach of modern political science by making no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate states. According to the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1953), it led Machiavelli to undermine the Western belief in a cosmos unified by reason. The political scientist Sheldon Wolin (1960) noted that it made Machiavelli conceive of politics as a struggle between conflicting interests. The philosopher Leo Strauss (1963) observed that this impulse prepared Machiavelli to lower the ethical standards that human beings ought to follow. It was in these ways that Machiavelli lit the flame of modernity.



Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1513. The Prince. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. c. 1518. Discourses on Livy. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1521. Art of War. Trans. Christopher Lynch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1525. Florentine Histories. Trans. Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.


Berlin, Isaiah. 1953. The Originality of Machiavelli. In Studies on Machiavelli, ed. Myron P. Gilmore, 147206. Florence: Sansoni, 1972.

Cassirer, Ernst. 1946. The Myth of the State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Meinecke, Friedrich. [1924] 1984. Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison dEtat and Its Place in Modern History. Trans. Douglas Scott. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Skinner, Quentin. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Vol. 1, The Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Strauss, Leo. 1987. Niccolò Machiavelli: 14691527. In History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 296317. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolin, Sheldon S. 1960. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Boston: Little, Brown.

Markus Fischer

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Machiavelli, Niccolò

Niccolò Machiavelli (nēk-kōlô´ mäkyävĕl´lē), 1469–1527, Italian author and statesman, one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance, b. Florence.


A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the Florentine republic and rose rapidly in importance. As defense secretary he substituted (1506) a citizens' militia for the mercenary system then prevailing in Italy. This reform sprang from his conviction, set forth in his major works, that the employment of mercenaries had largely contributed to the political weakness of Italy. Machiavelli became acquainted with power politics through his important diplomatic missions. He met Cesare Borgia twice and was sent by way of Florence to Louis XII of France (1504, 1510), to Pope Julius II (1506), and to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1507).

The Medicis' return (1512) to Florence caused his dismissal; in 1513 he was briefly imprisoned and was tortured for his alleged complicity in a plot against the Medici. Machiavelli retired to his country estate, where he wrote his chief works. He humiliated himself before the Medici in a vain attempt to recover office. When, in 1527, the republic was briefly reestablished, Machiavelli was distrusted by many of the republicans, and he died thoroughly disappointed and embittered.

Principal Writings

Machiavelli's best-known work, Il principe [the prince] (1532), describes the means by which a prince may gain and maintain his power. His "ideal" prince (seemingly modeled on Cesare Borgia) is a supremely adaptable, amoral, and calculating tyrant who would be able to establish a unified Italian state. The last chapter of the work pleads for the eventual liberation of Italy from foreign rule. Interpretations of The Prince vary: it has been viewed as sincere advice, as a plea for political office, as a detached analysis of Italian politics, as evidence of early Italian nationalism, and as political satire on Medici rule. However, the adjective Machiavellian has come to be a synonym for amoral cunning and for justification by power.

Less widely read but more indicative of Machiavelli's politics is his scholarly Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio [discourses on the first 10 books of Livy] (1531). In it Machiavelli expounds a general theory of politics and government that stresses the importance of an uncorrupted political culture and a vigorous political morality. Vaster in conception than The Prince, the Discourses shows clearly Machiavelli's republican ideals and principles, which are also reflected in his Istorie Fiorentine [history of Florence] (1532), a historical and literary masterpiece, entirely modern in concept.

Other works include Dell'arte della guerra [on the art of war] (1521), which viewed military problems in relation to politics, and numerous reports and brief works. He also wrote many poems and plays, notably the lively, satiric, and ribald comedy Mandragola [the mandrake], an extremely popular work first performed in 1520. His correspondence has been preserved and is of great interest. The chief works of Machiavelli are available in several popular English editions.


See P. Constantine, ed., The Essential Writings of Machiavelli (2007); biographies by P. Villari (2 vol., tr. 1878), R. Ridolfi (1954, tr. 1963), and M. Vitoli (2000); H. Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (1956); S. Anglo, Machiavelli (1970); E. Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (1987); P. S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (1989); R. King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (2007); C. Vivanti, Niccolò Michiavelli: An Intellectual Biography (2013); P. Bobbitt, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2013); A. Ryan, On Machiavelli: The Search for Glory (2013); M. Viroli, Redeeming The Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli's Masterpiece (2013).

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Machiavelli, Niccolo (1469–1527)

Machiavelli, Niccolo (14691527)

Diplomat and author, and a central figure of the Italian Renaissance whose short work The Prince has remained a classic of political philosophy. Born in Florence, Machiavelli was schooled in classical Latin literature. He began his career as a government clerk in 1494, the year in which the Medici dynasty fell from power and republican government in Florence was restored. He rose in the ranks of public servant and was appointed a diplomat. He traveled on diplomatic missions to the courts of King Louis XII of France and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and to the headquarters of the Papacy in Rome.

In 1503 Machiavelli became an officer of the Florence city militia. He observed with great interest the career of Cesare Borgia, the ruthless and ambitious son of Pope Alexander VI. Borgia never hesitated in using deceit, violence, and all-out war to further his own goals, which was the conquest of territory in the name of the Papacy that he would rule personally.

In 1512, the Medici regained power and the Florentine Republic came to an end. Machiavelli was forced out of office, arrested, and charged with conspiracy. Subject to torture, he refused to confess to his crime. He survived this ordeal and retired to his estate in the nearby countryside, where he took up study of the classics and setting down his experiences and his philosophy of government.

In The Prince, he drew on the works of ancient authors as well as his own experience of government and of political leaders, giving his opinion that a ruler must be prepared to act unscrupulously, and inspire fear in his rivals, in order to ensure his authority and the well-being of his nation. Machiavelli's rather dark view of human character and the nature of politics is tempered by his opinion that the ultimate goal of the actions of a prince should be the stability of the state he rules. The ends do not necessarily justify the means, and power alone does not excuse violence, dishonesty, and criminality. In the case that a ruler must act with violence or cruelty, in his view, he must act quickly and effectively, strike balance between idealism and reality, and mitigate harsh actions as soon as possible.

Machiavelli believed The Prince might place him in the good graces of the returning Medici; instead it earned him condemnation by the church, which placed the book on its Index of banned works. His contemporaries among the Renaissance humanists saw the author as an opportunistic and cynical politician, a reputation that survived into modern times in the term Machiavellian, meaning to act unscrupulously in the quest for power.

Machiavelli's interests led him well beyond politics; he was also a poet, musician, and a scholar of the classics. In this field he produced Discourse on the First Ten Books of Livy, a book describing the history of the Roman republic. The Discourse is a guidebook to republican government, holding up the early Romans as an ideal to be followed by his Italian contemporaries and all others to follow. He most admired the balanced, three-part nature of the early Roman government, divided as it was into rulers, aristocrats, and common citizens. Two centuries later this opinion would be reflected in the United States Constitution.

See Also: Borgia, Cesare; Medici, Cosimo de'

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Machiavelli, Niccolò

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527) Florentine statesman and political theorist. From 1498 to 1512, he served as an official in the republican government of Florence, but lost his post when the Medici family returned to power. His most famous work, The Prince (1513), offered advice on how the ruler of a small state might best preserve his power, including judicious use of force. The term Machiavellian, to describe immoral and deceitful political behaviour, arose from a simplification of his ideas.

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Machiavelli, Niccolò

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527) An influential Florentine political theorist and humanist. Believing human nature to be essentially selfish, Machiavelli advocated the need for strong government, notably in The Prince and Discourse (written between 1513 and 1521). His work has been most influential in political science, but a number of sociologists have also been intrigued by his theory of statecraft, for example Stanford M. Lyman and and Marvin B. Scott (see A Sociology of the Absurd, 1970)

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