Machiavelli, Niccolò 1469–1527 Italian Statesman and Political Philosopher

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Machiavelli, Niccolò
Italian statesman and
political philosopher

Niccolò Machiavelli was a keen observer of political affairs, with experience both as a participant in government and as a writer of books on politics. He held various positions in the government of Florence, which allowed him to meet powerful rulers and study their behavior. An accomplished writer, he produced histories, plays, and poems as well as political works. In his most widely read book, The Prince, he described how rulers should act to gain and keep power. Machiavelli's ideas attracted considerable attention in his own day and have continued to influence political theorists in modern times.

Early Life and Political Career. Niccolò Machiavelli grew up in Florence at a time when Lorenzo de' Medici (also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) ruled the city. Niccolò was a friend of Lorenzo's youngest son, Giuliano. Machiavelli received a humanist* education and probably met some of the great intellectual and literary figures active in Florence.

In 1498 Machiavelli began a political career. He was appointed to coordinate Florence's relations with its possessions, visiting cities and towns and advising the government on various problems. In addition, Machiavelli served as secretary to the foreign policy office of one of Florence's ruling councils. In this position, he represented the city on missions throughout Europe. During the next 14 years, Machiavelli spent much of his time negotiating agreements, delivering messages, gathering information, and reporting his observations to the members of the council.

Machiavelli's official travels took him to many regions that were experiencing political crises. He visited the city of Pisa, which rebelled against Florentine rule in 1494, and Imola and Cesena, where Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) struggled to maintain control. The Borgia government made a particularly vivid impression on Machiavelli, who later wrote about Cesare's characteristics as a ruler. In the early 1500s, Machiavelli was sent to the papal* court of Julius II and to the courts of Louis XII of France and Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor*.

Machiavelli's reports to the Florentine government sometimes caused controversy. Instead of just gathering information, he often expressed his own opinions. For example, he criticized Florence's reliance on foreign mercenaries* rather than a homegrown military force. Yet Machiavelli had the support of Florence's political leader, Piero Soderini, who placed him in charge of planning, recruiting, and training an army to put down the rebellion in Pisa. When the Florentine forces reconquered Pisa in 1509, Machiavelli's political reputation reached its peak.

From Politics to Writing. After the triumph in Pisa, Machiavelli's political career began to decline. In 1512 Spain joined with the pope against Florence, and Machiavelli's forces proved no match for the Spanish troops. Soderini resigned and the Medici returned to power. Because of his close association with Soderini, Machiavelli lost his government position, had to pay a heavy fine, and was not allowed to travel outside Florence or its territories for a year. Then, in early 1513 he was accused of plotting against the Medici and arrested. Machiavelli appealed to his friend Giuliano de' Medici for help. However, he did not gain his freedom until a large number of prisoners were released in celebration of the election of another Medici family member as Pope Leo X.

By the middle of 1513 Machiavelli's political career was finished. He retreated to his family's country home outside Florence and corresponded with his friend Francesco Vettori, the Florentine ambassador to the papal court. From their letters emerged many of the themes found in The Prince, which Machiavelli wrote in the second half of 1513. He dedicated the work to Giuliano de' Medici's nephew (Lorenzo), the new ruler of Florence, probably in an attempt to regain favor with the Medici. However, the Medici made it clear that they had no intention of employing him.

Over the next decade Machiavelli completed a remarkable number of projects. Between 1515 and 1517 he wrote a book about the work of the ancient Roman historian Livy. He also completed a theatrical comedy, The Mandrake Root (ca. 1518), which was modeled partly on ancient Roman plays. In addition, Machiavelli wrote poetry, other plays, and various political texts.

Between 1520 and 1524 Machiavelli produced his greatest historical work, Florentine Histories. This project helped him regain the support of the Medici and opened the door to opportunities for public service. In 1526, Pope Clement VII (the former Giulio de' Medici) appointed Machiavelli to a new position in which he traveled around central Italy inspecting fortifications and troops. However, the following year, the Florentine people drove out the Medici and restored the republic*. Machiavelli's connections with the Medici now worked against him and led the new leaders of Florence to mistrust him. Before he could clear his name, he fell ill and died.

Political Philosophy. During his years of public service, Machiavelli showed interest in a number of philosophical issues related to politics and government. One of his basic ideas involved the link between people's actions and the times. He argued that nature provides each person with a different temperament and imagination. While these never change, times and circumstances vary. Machiavelli believed that success depends on matching actions to the needs of the times and that failure results when a person's behavior does not fit the circumstances.

Machiavelli was especially concerned with military strength. He urged the Florentine government to recruit and train its own troops instead of depending on foreign mercenaries. He also declared that citizens could not be expected to remain loyal to a government that was unable either to defend or to punish them.

Machiavelli expressed his political theories most fully and clearly in The Prince. In the early chapters of the book, he reviews different types of principalities and the qualities of great rulers. He argues that the most successful princes possess a quality known as virtù, the ability to act effectively and to inspire others with spirit and discipline. This quality gives princes the power they need to secure their positions and to take major steps, such as carrying out reforms.

Machiavelli used the career of Cesare Borgia as an example in his discussion. Borgia, the ruler of the region of Romagna in central Italy, gained power through the influence of his father, Pope Alexander VI. Cesare then worked to consolidate his power—he brought peace to a lawless region, ruthlessly eliminated his rivals, and shifted the blame for his harsh rule onto others. Nevertheless, despite his skillful attempts to strengthen his position, he eventually lost control of his territory. In Machiavelli's view, Borgia's failure occurred because he had relied on his father's influence rather than on his own virtù to seize power. In addition, Borgia did not have a large military force under his control to defend his state. Machiavelli repeatedly points out that a homegrown military is essential to a prince's power. He emphasizes that strong states must have their own armies and that successful princes must devote all their attention and energy to the art of war and to organizing and training their troops.

Machiavelli goes on to discuss the ways in which a prince should conduct himself with regard to his subjects, advisers, and other princes. This portion of The Prince is very controversial because Machiavelli argues that a prince may use any means to maintain his power. If necessary, a prince should be ruthless, cruel, cunning, and willing to disregard accepted standards of behavior and morality. While a reputation for a good character may be useful, it is less important, according to Machiavelli, than maintaining power.

The conclusion of The Prince is a call to action. Machiavelli declares that the time is ripe for a "new prince" to emerge in Italy. This prince would provide the necessary virtù to drive out the foreigners occupying the country and to introduce reforms. He goes on to suggest that this new prince might come from the House of Medici, who could win the gratitude of all Italians by accomplishing this great task.

Machiavelli's Influence. Machiavelli ranks as one of the most influential Western political writers. He raised many important issues about the relationship between politics, religion, and morality and revived political debates that originated in ancient times and continue today.

Machiavelli made politics more secular* by separating it from Christian thought and values. He claimed that the goal of politics was the foundation and maintenance of a powerful state. Moreover, he argued that it was not possible for a person to be successful in politics without giving up traditional Christian and moral principles.

Machiavelli also influenced the nature of political writing. He analyzed historical examples to discover how political forces operate. Using ancient Rome as a model, he defended the republic as the form of government best suited to protecting citizens' liberties and preserving the state. Although some writers objected to Machiavelli's ideas, many others have come to value the clarity of his observations and his analysis.

(See alsoMedici, House of; Political Thought; Princes and Princedoms. )

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* mercenary

hired soldier

* republic

form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

Swirl of Controversy

Machiavelli's The Prince became one of the most controversial political works ever written. Debates about the book erupted even before its publication in 1532, several years after Machiavelli's death. In 1559 Pope Paul IV placed The Prince on the Index of Prohibited Books, which nearly ended further publication of the work in many Catholic countries. Responses to the text were overwhelmingly negative, and by the late 1500s the term Machiavellian had taken on a sinister meaning. Today, the term continues to mean crafty, deceitful, ruthless, and willing to do anything to gain power.