Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527)

views updated May 17 2018


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

Machiavelli, NiccolÓ

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

Machiavelli, Niccolò

views updated May 14 2018


Political theorist and historian; b, Florence, Italy, May 3, 1469; d. there, June 2, 1527. The Machiavelli family belonged to the old rural nobility, which, on taking up residence in the city, gave the Commune numerous magistrates, priors, and gonfaloniers. Despite Machiavelli's distinguished lineage, Niccolò's own father counted among the poorest members of the family. He was an attorney, forbidden to practice law in the city of florence, because he had been for a time imprisoned as a debtor. His father eked out a living in genteel poverty on the city's outskirts, administering the few lands that he had and furtively practicing the law. These straightened circumstances affected Niccolò Machiavelli's early years. Although he was educated, he was never trained as a humanist, nor could he read or speak Greek, one of the chief signs of social and educational distinction in late fifteenth-century Florence.

Life. Niccolò's life may be divided into three periods: the first, the time of study and preparation that ended in 1494 when he entered public office of the Republic; the second (14941512), a period of political activity; the third, from 1512 to his death. In the last period he devoted himself to intense literary activity, apart from the last two years of his life, when he was again occupied with affairs of state.

First Two Periods. No reliable information is available for his first period. His works contain very little autobiographical data, and his letters do not refer to the years of his youth. From 1494 he emerges as an official of the Republic of Florence. In 1498, Niccolò Machiavelli was made head of Florence's second chancery, an important office for one who was then only 29 years old. The town's second chancery was concerned with foreign policy, military organization and in part with internal affairs (e.g. police matters). Machiavelli made more than 30 diplomatic missions while serving in this capacity. His associations with the first chancery were also important: it was headed by the learned humanist Marcello Virgilio Adriana, who perhaps exercised some influence on Machiavelli's cultural formation.

In the midst of political events and intrigues, Machiavelli reflected on them and derived inspiration for his future thought. He was constant in his devotion to experience as an effective teacher and in his daily observation of men and things, a habit he was still to retain even at San Casciano after his political disgrace. All this is clear from a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori (Dec. 10, 1513): "Then I betake myself to the street and go to the inns. I talk with those who pass, asking them for news about their localities. I hear various things and I note the different tastes and diverse thoughts of men" (Letter 137).

Some of the embassies exercised a decisive influence on Machiavelli's mind, such as the two (June and October 1502) to Cesare Borgia (Il Valentino), the astute and unscrupulous prince in whom the young secretary saw the type of statesman needed in a divided Italy over-run by foreigners, or the two missions to the Court of Rome (1503, 1506), which gave him an opportunity to study the temporal government of the Church. When entrusted with a mission to Pisa, that rebellious city within the Tuscan state, he conceived the plan of establishing a citizen militia that would replace Florence's untrustworthy mercenary troops. He began to enroll soldiers throughout the territory of Florence, and in 1506 he obtained the establishment of a special magistracy, the Nove di Milizia, and became its secretary. In 1509, in the final phase of the siege of Pisa, Machiavelli himself employed the first detachments of his ordinanza, or new militia. During these years Machiavelli also appears to have been involved with the artist Leonardo da Vinci in an illfated plan to divert Tuscany's Arno River away from the restive city of Pisa.

New matter for observation and meditation was offered to Machiavelli by his missions outside of Italy to Louis XII of France (1500, 1504, 1510) and to the Emperor Maximilian I in the Tyrol (1507). For this intense activity as a functionary, diplomat, and penetrating observer, there is copious documentation extant in the form of official correspondence and of reports.

Third Period. When the Republic of Soderini fell in 1512 and the Medici reentered Florence with the aid of the forces of the Holy League, Machiavelli, the devoted functionary and republican at heart, was put aside. He was exiled in the territory of the state and condemned to forced leisure at San Casciano, precisely in the country (the "four houses") of Sant'Andrea in Perussina. For his life in this period there is extant correspondence with his friend Francesco Vittori, the Florentine orator close to Pope leo x (de' medici). It is especially important for an understanding of the origins and value of Machiavelli's major works and for his judgments on the particular events of the time. He was born for political actionor so at least he believedand did not resign himself to the role of an idle spectator, even if his writings are owed to this period of political inactivity. He entertained the false hope that his friend could influence the pope so that he might be recalled to Florence and enter the service of the Medici. But his republican past stood in the way. There was nothing left for him to do except to unbosom his angry despair to Vettori, play practical jokes with his friends in the shop of Donato Del Corno, or find consolation in good dinnersalthough his means were limited. Machiavelli himself describes his day in detail in the letter to Vettori cited above.

In 1520 came the first sign of benevolence from the Medici. Cardinal Giulio (the future Pope clement vii) requested Machiavelli to write a history of Florence, but he was not given any position of even modest importance before 1525, when, at the request of Clement VII and Medicean Florence, he was entrusted with two missions to his friend Francesco Guicciardini, lieutenant general of the papal army in the war against the Spaniards. After the pope had decided to strengthen the defenses of Florence, Machiavelli was asked to work out a plan for the fortifications and was appointed chancellor of the five procurators for the walls. This was a modest post, in which he experimented again with his citizen militia (ordinanza ), entrusted to the command of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.

Events, however, took a rapid and disastrous turn. The German mercenaries (lanzichenecchi ), under the command of the Lutheran Georg Frundsberg, invaded and sacked Rome. Clement VII shut himself up in the Castel Sant' Angelo; Florence rebelled against the Medici, and they were forced to leave. Machiavelli, who had come to intimate terms with them, found himself again put aside. He did not survive long following this second embarrassment. His son wrote to Nelli that "he confessed his sins to Friar Matteo, who stayed with him until his death" ("lasciossi confessare le sue peccata da un frate Matteo"). His remains lie in S. Croce in Florence near those of Galileo, Alfieri, and Foscolo. His monument bears the inscription "tanto nomini nullum par elogium"; it was erected only in 1787 on the initiative of the Englishman Lord Cooper.

Works. The first significant work was Descrizione del modo tenuto dal Duca Valentino nell' ammazzarre Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, il signor Paolo e il duca di Gavina Orsini (written perhaps 1509). It describes with cold and penetrating observation the massacre at Senigallia that was skillfully prepared and carried out with deliberate ferocity by Cesare borgia. As Norsa has noted [ Machiavelli (Milan 1948) 47], this short piece exhibits one of Machiavelli's characteristic procedures: "his tendency to transform reality by interpreting and evaluating it according to the principles of his political doctrine. History has value in so far as it furnishes experimental confirmation of these principles." His most famous work, Il Principe, a brief treatise in 26 chapters, was composed between the second half of 1513 and the first days of 1514. The author delineates with artistic power the figure of the prince, resolved without any scruple whatever to attain his end, i.e., to rescue Italy from ruin and even to unify the peninsula politically. The Prince is completed by the Discorsi sulla prima Deca di Tito Livio, in three books. Begun in this period and continued to the end of 1517, it is a free political commentary on certain passages of Livy and of other ancient historians, an unsystematic but effective exposition of the political thought of its author. The fundamental importance that Machiavelli attached to the army in relation to the government of the state is revealed, especially by the systematic exposition and the very careful form in which he presents his ideas, in the treatise L'arte della guerra, written between 1516 and 1520. The Vita di Castruccio Castracani (1520) is a kind of historical novel, representing as an ideal warrior prince a condottiere of Lucca. But Machiavelli wrote genuine historical works. His Istorie florentine, composed between 1520 and 1525 in eight books, covers the city's history from its beginning to the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1492). Even here Machiavelli applies his political doctrines to historical facts in such a way that the latter serve to demonstrate the former.

In these works he already reveals himself also as a powerful and original writer, taking a high place among the great prose artists of the Italian tongue. His artistic propensities and qualities are more prominent in works more explicitly literary. II Decennale primo and II Decennale secondo (incomplete) are chronicles in terza rima dealing with Florentine events from 1494 to 1504 and from 1504 to 1509. These and other verse compositions, e.g., I Canti Carnascialeschi, give him no claim to be called a poet. His I Capitoli morali have little interest as compared with his incomplete L'Asino d'Oro, written between 1516 and 1517. His authorship of II Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua is dubious. The Favola del demonio che prese moglie, better known as Novella di Belfagor Arcidiavolo, is a mordant satire on women, but a reworking of a traditional story. His La mandragola, the masterpiece of Cinquecento comedy, was first played at Florence, perhaps in 1520, and often elsewhere, with great success, and continues to live. His other comedy, La Clizia, is an imitation, being a verse translation of Terence's Andria; its influence was marked. Except for L'arte della guerra and Mandragola, all his works were published posthumously; during his lifetime the principal works circulated in MSS among friends.

Thought. In 1531 and 1532 the printers Baldi at Rome and Giusti at Florence published II Principe and the I Discorsi respectively, the two basic texts containing the political thought of Machiavelli, "the first theorist on the interests of the state," as Meinecke calls him, and the founder of modern political science. Machiavelli establishes this science in its own autonomous domain, free from all moral implications and religious influence. His method relies upon historical and empirical observation of political events, either those he is familiar with from contemporary Europe or stories drawn from the works of the ancients. From these events he attempts to derive universal scientific observations about politics. He thus reduces politics to a series of technical problems, to the essential theory of power that is obedient to certain perennial laws that either ensures failure or success in the exercise of power. This is the originality of Machiavelli's concept of politics. Even if it has its limits by what it excludes (all moral and religious implication) and what it includes, politics is regarded as the body of practical rules and immutable laws to be applied coldly to obtain or preserve power, for affirming one's own will to power and for achieving success, and all this "technically" and "scientifically."

Corruption of Nature. Human nature has always been and is, immutably, corrupt and turned toward evil, Machiavelli affirms, in accordance with a Christian tradition of original sin. Man is ruthless in seeking what he regards as useful to him, but is never satisfied. He abandons himself blindly to the most insane passions, to the lust for riches, pleasures, power, and success. He follows the blind determinism of his natural instinct (and this permits us to make use of "the experience of the ancients" for understanding modern affairs and for providing for the present and, in some measure, even for the future), which is turned not only to cupidity, but also to meanness, cowardice, duplicity, etc. Christianity has not redeemed humanity; on the contrary, it has promoted man's decline by its glorification of humble and contemplative men: "And if our religion demands that you have fortitude in you, it means that you should be able to suffer bravely rather than to do anything bravely. This manner of life, therefore, seems to have made the world weak and to have given it only as a prey to wicked men" (Discorsi 2.2).

On the one hand, the remedy lies in the few good menexceptions to the rule of human wickednesswho think of the common good and not of themselves alone; on the other, it lies in the state, understood as a power of dominion and coercion. This power should be employed in such a way that the ruler takes no thought about the means he uses to enforce order. Machiavelli understands order as a superior end that justifies the use of political power. In this way of thinking, religion is only an instrument of rule, a means to an end. It is not privileged among all means at a prince's disposal, but only one means on the level of all the others.

Fortune and virtù. Thus the effective prince imposes his will over the human passions so that he can curb and govern them. Machiavelli defines "fortune" as all that is unforeseeable and irrational, all that is chaotic and contingent in human experience. By contrast those things that fall within the sphere of human actionwhatever is knowable, foreseeable and controllableis what he identifies as virtù. Virtù, he also defines as vigor and physical health, heroic fortitude of spirit, astuteness and ability, the capability of foreseeing events and of controlling them through one's will. These allow the prince to establish order in chaos and in evil. Fortune "shows its power where there is no ordered virtù to resist it and it turns its force where it knows that no embankments or barriers have been made to hold it" (Principe ch. 25).

Decline of States. But order is always partial and temporal; as soon as the master loosens his grip, the chaos of the passions reassumes its sovereignty. The iron and ruthless will of the statesman can restrain, control, and build an order by fear and force, but it cannot educate and redeem corrupt humanity. States, created by the virtù of a few men and by the purpose of virtù itself, are a temporal triumph of superior wills over the chaos of the unbridled mass. However, because of the irreparable corruption of man, states are destined to decline and decay. Hence the necessity for other dominating wills to put the blind forces of fortune back into their proper channelsand to this end any and every means is legitimateand thus bring them under the laws of order. The study of the means best adapted to achieve this purpose is precisely what constitutes "technical politics," or the totality of the maxims that the statesman ought to follow and that, basically for Machiavelli, are suggested by the practice of his age and of all ages. It would be better if men were good, but this is not possible. Therefore, "men are so far removed in how they live from how they ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done will soon learn to bring about his own ruin rather than his preservation. Accordingly, a man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in all respects, invites his own ruin since he is among so many who are not good" (Principe ch. 15).

It has been said that to understand fully the Machiavellian principle that every means is legitimate to secure order, it is necessary to keep in mind the Italy of Machiavelli's time, with its attendant strains caused by political disunity and foreign invasion. It must also be remembered that Machiavelli wrote The Prince in part to rehabilitate his fortunes with the medici following the collapse of Florence's republic. Scholars have long debated whether II principe represents an ironic document, one in which Machiavelli subsumed his republicanism to curry favor with the Medici. Whatever the source of the ideas in Machiavelli's Principe whether they derived from his deep concern about the course of Italian politics or from his exile from the center of power in Florencethe ideas of that work have long been seen as one of the most troubling products of early-modern European political theory. When they are viewed from one direction, Machiavelli helped to establish the modern science of political theory, a science that emphasized observed political behavior and eventually natural law. Yet seen from another, his works gave birth to a tradition of Machiavellianism in which the ends of political order and stability were to be justified with any and all means.

Bibliography: Works. A complete critical ed. and a comprehensive systematic bibliog. do not exist. Opere, ed. p. fanfani et al., 6 v. (Florence 187577), contains the Legazioni and other official correspondence; Lettere familiari, ed. e. alvisi (Florence 1883); ed. g. lesca (Florence 1929); ed. f. gaeta (Milan 1961); Tutte le opere storiche e letteraria, ed. g. mazzoni and m. casella (Florence 1928); Opere, ed. a. panella, 2 v. (Milan 1939); Tutte le opere, ed. f. flora and c. cordie (Milan 1949); Opere, ed. m. bonfantini (Milan 1954); Istorie florentine, ed. p. carli, 2 v. (Florence 1927); Dell' arte della guerra, ed. p. pieri (Rome 1937); II Principe, ed. l. a. burd (Oxford 1891), with full commentary; ed. m. casella (Rome 1929); ed. f. chabod (Turin 1924; new ed. l. firpo 1961); Discorses, ed. and tr. l. j. walker, 2 v. (London 1950), with English tr. and full, accurate commentary. Literature. a. norsa, II principio della forza nel pensiero di Niccolò Machiavelli (Milan 1936), a bibliog. of 2,113 items. l. russo, Machiavelli (4th ed. Bari 1957). a. h. gilbert, Machiavelli's Prince and Its Forerunners (Durham, NC 1938). h. butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (New York 1956). a. renaudet, Machiavel (new ed. Paris 1955). u. spirito, Machiavelli e Guicciardini (2d ed. Rome 1945). g. sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli: Storia del suo pensiero politico (Naples 1958). j. namer, Machiavel (Paris 1961). f. gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini (Princeton 1965). j. h. hexter, "The Loom of Language and the Fabric of Imperatives: The Case of II Principe and Utopia, " American Historical Review 69.4 (1964) 945968. p. godman, From Poliziano to Machiavelli (Princeton 1998). j. hexter, The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation (New York 1973). j. najemy, Between Friends: Discourses of Power in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 15131515 (Princeton 1993). j. g. a. pocock, The Machiavellian Movement (Princeton 1975). r. ridolfi, Vita di Niccoli Machiavelli (Florence 1969). q. skinner, Machiavelli (New York 1981).

[m. f. sciacca]

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527)

views updated May 21 2018


Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian politician and political thinker, is famous for his treatise on princeship titled The Prince (Il principe ) and for a discussion of how to establish a good republican government, The Discourses (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio ). Machiavelli also wrote poems and comedies (including the Mandragola ), a History of Florence, and a book titled Art of War. They contain many original ideas and were widely read, but today these writings arouse interest mainly because their author was the man who, with The Prince and The Discourses, inaugurated a new stage in the development of political thought.

When Machiavelli wrote The Prince and The Discourses, he was aware that he was saying things about politics that had not been expressed before; in the introduction to The Discourses he stated that he was resolved "to open a new route which has not yet been followed by anyone." Nevertheless, Machiavelli would not have claimed to be a systematic political philosopher. The Prince was written in 15121513; the date of The Discourses is less certain, but it was certainly completed by 1517. Machiavelli was then in his forties and, in the preceding years of his life, he had been a practical politician who had never shown interest in becoming a political writer or in embarking on a literary career.

In 1498, after the expulsion of the Medici from Florence and the fall of Girolamo Savonarola, Machiavelli had entered the Florentine chancellery, where his special function was to serve as the secretary of The Ten, a group of magistrates charged with the conduct of diplomatic negotiations and the supervision of military operations in wartime. In this position Machiavelli carried out a number of diplomatic missions in Italy, France, and Germany. His ability attracted the attention of Gonfalonier Piero Soderini, the official head of the Florentine government, and Machiavelli became Soderini's confidanthis "lackey," according to Soderini's enemies. Machiavelli's close relationship with Soderini became a serious handicap when, in 1512, the republican regime was overthrown and the Medici returned to Florence. Other members of the chancellery were permitted to continue in office, but Machiavelli was dismissed and forced to withdraw to a small estate near Florence, where he lived in straitened economic circumstances.

It was at this time that Machiavelli turned to literary work in the hope that through his writings he would gain the favor of influential men who might help him to regain a position in the Florentine government. The Prince was dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, a nephew of Pope Leo X and the actual ruler of Florence. The Discourses was dedicated to members of the Florentine ruling group, and his History of Florence was written at the suggestion of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, who in 1523 became Pope Clement VII. In the 1520s Machiavelli's efforts began to bear fruit. Clement VII entrusted him with a number of minor political commissions, and Machiavelli devoted himself to this kind of work, relegating the completion of his literary projects to the background. However, in 1527, before Machiavelli had been firmly reestablished in a political positionactually, at a moment when his future had again become uncertain because the Medici had once more been driven from Florencehe died.

Thus, Machiavelli's attitude in composing The Prince and The Discourses was not that of a disinterested scholar; his aims were practical and personal. He wanted to give advice that would prove his political usefulness, and he wanted to impress those who read his treatises. Therefore, Machiavelli was inclined to make numerous startling statements and extreme formulations. A characteristic example is his saying that the prince "must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony" (The Prince, Ch. 17).

Arts of War

Machiavelli's statements were startling not only because of their form of presentation but also because of their content. One aspect of political affairs with which Machiavelli had been particularly concerned and in which he was especially interested was the conduct of military affairs. He thought deeply about the reasons why the French had so easily triumphed over the Italians in 1494 and had marched from the north to the south of Italy without meeting serious resistance. Machiavelli's explanation was that the governments of the various Italian states, whether they were republican regimes or principalities, had used mercenary soldiers led by hired condottieri. He therefore recommended that in case of war the prince should lead his troops himself and that his army should be composed of his own men; that is, the Italian governments should introduce conscription. Moreover, Machiavelli polemicized against other favorite notions of his time on military affairs; for instance, he denied that artillery was decisive in battle or that fortresses could offer a strong defense against an invading army.

Morals and Politics

Machiavelli's rejection of traditional political ideas emerged most clearly in his discussions of the relation between morals and politics. The most revolutionary statements on these issues are found in chapters 1519 of The Prince, which deal with the qualities a prince ought to possess. In the Mirror of Princes literature of the ancient world and of the Middle Ages, a prince was supposed to be the embodiment of human virtues; he was expected to be just, magnanimous, merciful, and faithful to his obligations, and to do everything that might make him loved by his subjects. Machiavelli objected to such demands. According to him, a prince "must not mind incurring the scandal of those vices without which it would be difficult to save the state, and if one considers well, it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one's ruin and that some others which appear vices result in one's greater security and well-being." This sentence and chapters 1519 have frequently been understood as meaning that instead of being mild a prince ought to be cruel; instead of being loyal, treacherous; instead of aiming to be loved, he should aim to be feared. But this is a misunderstanding. A closer reading shows that Machiavelli admonishes a prince to disregard the question whether his actions would be called virtuous or vicious. A ruler ought to do whatever is appropriate to the situation in which he finds himself and may lead most quickly and efficiently to success. Sometimes cruelty, sometimes leniency, sometimes loyalty, sometimes villainy might be the right course. The choice depends on circumstances. To illustrate his point of view Machiavelli used as an example the career of Cesare Borgia, which he outlined in chapter 7 of The Prince.

Machiavelli's views have frequently been interpreted as meaning that wickedness is more effective than goodness. This distortion of his views has been regarded as the essence of Machiavelli's teaching, as identical with what later centuries called Machiavellism. It should be stated that Machiavelli was not concerned with good or evil; he was concerned only with political efficiency. His rejection of the communis opinio whether in the special area of military affairs or in the general field of ethicswas a reflection of a new and comprehensive vision of politics. Before Machiavelli, the prevailing view had been that the task of government was distribution and maintenance of justice. Machiavelli believed that the law of life under which every political organization existed was growth and expansion. Thus, force was an integral, and a most essential, element in politics.

Machiavelli's interest in military affairs had its basis in his conviction that possession of a powerful and disciplined military force was a requisite for the preservation of political independence. Moreover, because political life was a struggle, the conduct of life according to Christian virtues could endanger political effectiveness; Christianity, by preaching meekness and selflessness, might soften men and weaken a political society. Machiavelli directed some very strong passages against the effeminacy to which Christianity had led. Political man needed not virtues but virtù, "vitality." The possession of virtù was the quality most necessary for a political leader, but according to Machiavelli both individuals and entire social bodies could and should possess virtù. That is why, in The Prince, Machiavelli could write a "handbook for tyrants," while in The Discourses he could advocate a free republican regime. Every well-organized, effective political organization must be permeated by one and the same spirit and must form an organic unit. There are few if any passages in Machiavelli in which he uses the word state (stato ) in the modern sense of an organic unit embracing individuals and institutions. However, there can be no doubt that his concept of an organized society producing virtù among its members comes very close to the modern concept of state.

Method of Argument

The new vision of the character of politics required a new method of political argumentation. Rules for the conduct of politics could not be formulated on the basis of theoretical or philosophical assumptions about the nature of a good society; successful political behavior could be learned only through experience. Machiavelli stated in his dedication of The Prince that he wanted to tell others what he had "acquired through a long experience of modern events and a constant study of the past." Thus, experience was not limited to those events in which a person participated but embraced the entire field of history. To Machiavelli the most instructive period of the past was that of republican Rome. Machiavelli thought that, because the Romans succeeded in extending their power over the entire world, no better guide for the conduct of policy could be imagined than that of Roman history. It is indeed true that previous writers on politics, particularly the humanists, had used historical examples, but to rely exclusively on historical experience in establishing political laws was an innovation; Machiavelli's writings implied that every true political science ought to be based on history.

It has been said that, in rejecting the validity of the doctrines of theology and moral philosophy for the conduct of politics, Machiavelli established politics as an autonomous field. He could do so because he regarded political bodies not as creations of human reason but as natural phenomena. In Machiavelli's opinion all political organizations, like animals, plants, and human beings, are subject to the laws of nature. They are born, they grow to maturity, they become old, and they die. Well-organized political bodies might live longer than others, but even the best-constructed political society, even Rome, could not escape decline and death. This view of the instability and impermanence of all things gives Machiavelli's recommendations their particular tenor. Men or political bodies are entitled to use all possible means and weapons because the moments when they can flourish and triumph are brief and fleeting. Despite Machiavelli's claim that political success depended on acting according to the political laws he established in his writings, he was always conscious of the role of accident and fortune in human affairs.


It is of some importance to distinguish between the shocking novelty of Machiavelli's particular recommendations and his general concepts of politics, from which his practical counsels arose. Such a distinction helps to explain the contradictory reception his ideas found in the following centuries. Machiavelli's writings soon became known in Italy and then in other European countries, particularly France and England, although in 1559 his works were placed on the Index. Generally he was considered an adviser of cruel tyrants, an advocate of evil; Cardinal Reginald Pole said that Machiavelli wrote "with the finger of the Devil." Although nobody in the sixteenth century dared publicly to express anything but abhorrence, a school of political writers arose in Italy who explained that the criteria of a statesman's or ruler's actions were the interests of the state. These advocates of the doctrine of "reason of state"even if they did not acknowledge their obligations to Machiavellifollowed the course Machiavelli had charted. The Enlightenment, with its belief in the harmony of morality and progress, could only condemn Machiavelli's view that political necessity permitted the neglect of ethical norms. An example is the Anti-Machiavel that Frederick II of Prussia composed as a young man. Some eighteenth-century thinkers, however, recognized truth in Machiavelli's approach to politics. For instance, Gabriel Bonnot de Mably and Jean-Jacques Rousseau admired Machiavelli because he had realized that the strength of a political organization depends on the existence of a collective spirit that is more than a summation of individual wills.

In the nineteenth century, students of Machiavelli, following the interpretation that the German historian Leopold von Ranke had given, did not believe that Machiavelli had wanted to separate ethics and politics. Because the last chapter of The Prince contains an appeal for the liberation of Italy from the barbarians, they assumed that Machiavelli had permitted the violation of moral rules only for the purpose of a higher ethical goal; that his purpose had been to point the way toward the foundation of a unified Italy. Thus, in the nineteenth century Machiavelli became respectable as the prophet of the idea of the national state. In the later part of the century Machiavelli was also referred to by those who wanted to free man from the oppressive shackles of traditional morality and believed that man's faculties could be fully developed only if he placed himself "beyond good and evil." Friedrich Nietzsche's superman was supposed to have "virtue in the style of the Renaissance, virtù, virtue free from morality."

See also Enlightenment; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Peace, War, and Philosophy; Political Philosophy, History of; Religion and Politics; Social and Political Philosophy; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


The literature on Machiavelli is very extensive. A more recent critical edition of his works is that edited by Sergio Bertelli and Franco Gaeta and published by Feltrinelli in its Biblioteca di classici italiani. So far four volumes containing Machiavelli's literary works and three volumes containing his Legazioni e commissarie have appeared (19601964). This edition provides a critical discussion of the Machiavelli literature. The best recent translation is Allan Gilbert, Chief Works, and Others, 3 vols. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1965).

Older biographies have become obsolete since the appearance of Roberto Ridolfi's Vita di Niccolò Machiavelli (Rome, 1954), translated by Cecil Grayson as The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963). Machiavelli's intellectual development is well analyzed by Gennaro Sasso in his Niccolò Machiavelli: Storia del suo pensiero politico (Naples: Nella sede dell'Istituto, 1958). For the relation of Machiavelli's thought to that of his contemporaries, see Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965). The main lines of the influence of Machiavelli's ideas on the political thought of later centuries are traced in Friedrich Meinecke, Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neueren Geschichte (Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1924), translated by Douglas Scott as Machiavellism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957). For Machiavelli's impact on English political thought, see Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation 15001700 (London: Routledge and Paul, 1964).

Felix Gilbert (1967)

Machiavelli, Niccolò

views updated May 14 2018

Machiavelli, Niccolò


Born May 3, 1469, in Florence, Florentine Republic (now Italy); died June 21, 1527, in Florence, Florentine Republic; son of a lawyer; married Marietta Corsini, 1501; children: four sons, two daughters. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Statesman, political theorist, and author. Republic of Florence, head of Second Chancery, 1498, secretary of diplomatic/military agency, 1498-1512; helped organize standing militia, 1509; writer, beginning c. 1513.


Decennale Primo (poetry), 1504.

Discorso dell'ordinare lo stato di Firenze alle armi, c. 1507, translation published in Discourses, 1970.

Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio, c. 1518, translated by Edward Dacres as Machiavelli's Discourses upon the First Decade of T. Livius, Thomas Paine (London, England), 1636, translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella as Discourses on Livy, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.

La Mandragola (play; produced in Florence, 1518; also see below), [Florence], c. 1518-1524, published with an introduction by Giorgio Inglese, Mulino (Bologna, Italy), 1997, translated as Mandragola, 1927, translated as The Mandrake in The Comedies, 1985.

Dell'arte della guerra, 1521, translated by Peter Whithorn as The Art of War, [London, England], c. 1550, reprinted in Edizione nazionale delle opere di Niccolò Machiavelli, Volume 3, 2001, translated by Christopher Lynch as Art of War, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.

La Clizia (play; produced in Florence, 1525; also see below), [Florence], 1532, translation published as Clizia in The Literary Works of Niccolò Machiavelli, 1961.

Discourso o dialogo intorno a la nostra lingua, c. 1531, translated as A Dialogue on Language in The Literary Works, 1961.

Il principe, [Florence, Italy], 1532, published with La vita die Castruccio castracani da Lucca, Aldus (Florence, 1540, edited by Piero Melograni, Rizzoli (Milan, Italy), 1999, translated as The Prince, 1560 and subsequently translated by George Bull, Penguin (Harmonsworth, England), 1968, translated by Anthony Grafton, Penguin (New York, NY), 2003, translated by Rufus Goodwin, Dante University Press (Boston, MA), 2003.

Istorie Fiorentine, 1532, translated by Thomas Bedingfield as The Florentine History, William Ponsonby (London, England), 1595, translated as The Florentine History in Eight Books, C. Harper (London, England), 1674, portions translated by Judith A. Rawson as The History of Florence, Washington Square Press (New York, NY), 1970.

La vita die Castruccio castracani da Lucca (also see below), published with Il principe, Aldus (Florence), 1540, translated as The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca, [London, England], 1729.

Novella di Belfagor arcidiavolo (fiction), [Florence], 1545, translated by John Wilson as Belphegor; or, The Marriage of the Devil, J. Leake (London, England), 1691, translated as The Marriage of Belphegor, J. Watts (London, England), 1729, published in The Literary Works, 1961.

Tutte le opere de Nicolo Machiavelli (collected works), [Florence, Italy], c. 1550.

The Works of the Famous Nicolas Machiavel, Citizen and Secretary of Florence, translation by Henry Neville, J. Starkey (London, England), 1675, translated by Ellis Farneworth as The Works of Nicholas Machiavel (includes Examen du Prince, or Anti-Machiave, by Frederick II, King of Prussia), T. Davies (London, England), 1762.

Opere (includes Il principe, Il modo che tenne il duca Valentio, and I cinque primi libri delle historie fiorentine), 1726.

(Adaptor) Andria (play; based on a drama by Terence; also see below), published in Opere inedited in prose e in verso, [Florence], 1763, translated as The Woman from Andros in The Comedies, 1985.

The Living Thoughts of Machiavelli, edited by Carlo Sforza, Longmans Green (New York, NY), 1940.

Opere, eight volumes, Feltrinelli (Milan, Italy, 1961-1968.

The Letters of Machiavelli: A Selection, edited by Allan H. Gilbert, Capricorn Books (New York, NY), 1961.

Lust and Liberty: The Poems of Machiavelli, translated by Joseph Tusiani, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1963.

Opere letterarie, edited by Luigi Blasucci, Adelphi (Milan, Italy), 1964.

Chief Works and Others, three volumes, translated by Allan Gilbert, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1965.

Opere (collected works), four volumes, 1968-1989.

The Discourses, edited by Bernar Crick, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1970.

Tutte le opere (collected works), edited by Mario Martelli, Sansoni (Florence, Italy), 1971.

Legazioni, commissarie, scritti di governo, edited by Fredi Chiappelli, 1971.

Teatro (plays: includes Mandragola, Clizia, and Andria), edited by G. Davico Bonino, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1979.

The Comedies (plays; bilingual edition; includes The Woman from Andros, The Mandrake, and Clizia), edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1985.

Edizione nazionale delle opere di Niccolò Machiavelli, ten volumes, Salerno (Rome, Italy), 1997—.

The Other Machiavelli: Republican Writings by the Author of The Prince, edited by Quentin P. Taylor, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1998.

Mandragola; Seguita da Clizia e Andria, edited by Alessandro Capata, Grandi Tascabili Economici Newton (Rome, Italy), 2003.

The Prince and Other Writings, translated by Wayne Rebhorn, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York, NY), 2003.

Works published in numerous anthologies, including The Ruthless Leader: Three Classics of Strategy and Power, edited by Alistair McAlpine, Wiley (New York, NY), 2000.

Several of Machiavelli's early works were published in Latin. Works have been translated into numerous languages.


Best known for his works The Prince and The Art of War, fifteenth-century Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli remains influential centuries after his death as the first writer to break with the tradition of Aristotle and disentangle the art of politics from an ethical code based on an idealized vision of human nature. Grounded in Renaissance humanism, with its Greek and Roman foundations, Machiavelli's works reflect the spirit of the age in their anticlericalism and their rejection of God as the guiding force behind human events. Perhaps best summarized in the statement "the ends justify the means," Machiavelli's political philosophy shocked his contemporaries and cast him into the role of intellectual arch-villain for several centuries.

The Age of Nation-States

While Machiavelli was born into an aristocratic Florentine family, his family's social standing was not matched by financial wealth. Although the events of his childhood remain shrouded in mystery, he was most likely aware of the political events occurring in his native city during his upbringing. One of four city-states in modern-day Italy, Florence had been ruled since 1434 by the Medici, a wealthy family with roots in banking and close ties to the Vatican. Like the rest of Italy, Florence was threatened by an ongoing battle for control of Naples between France and Spain, both of which had eyes on the Italian peninsula. Supported by the French, the reformist Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola wrested control of Florence from Piero de'Medici in 1493 and established a new republic. A moral zealot determined to purify Florence from the corrupting influences of the Renaissance, Savonarola was eventually removed from power and burned at the stake as a heretic; some historians believe that Machiavelli may have played a small part in this insurrection.

In 1498, after the fanatical Savonarola's execution and the establishment of a Florentine Republic under Pier Soderini, twenty-nine-year-old Machiavelli gained a public appointment as secretary that brought with it much prestige. Widely read in the classics—particularly the histories of Tacitus and Livy—the young civil servant now supplemented his classical studies of politics with personal observation through his active role in the diplomatic negotiations of his native Florence. In 1502 he married Marietta Corsini, with whom he would have four sons and two daughters.

Machiavelli's first political post was as diplomat and secretary of the republic's second chancellery under Florentine gonfalonier Soderini. In this capacity he was assigned to implement the policies of his superiors, carrying on diplomatic correspondence, writing reports, and serving as Florentine ambassador at the courts of France and Rome. He became familiar with the political maneuverings and intrigues of his day, including those of Pope Julius II and Spain's notorious Borgia family, which included Lucretia Borgia and her brother Cesare, an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who was able to forge a new state in Romagna while his father occupied the papal throne. Although he was a fair ruler, Soderini was viewed by Machiavelli as weak and indecisive in contrast to the ambitious and ruthless Cesare Borgia. Borgia's efforts to gain control over much of central Italy despite several attempts to unseat him, and his ability to retain power through intimidation and cruelty prior to his death in 1507 presented a study in contrasts and inspired Machiavelli to theorize on the qualities that made a leader truly effective and led to much of his later writing.

Writing Career Inspired by Difficulties

Inspired by his classical studies, in 1510 Machiavelli helped to organize a Florentine citizen's militia; two years later, when Spanish troops overran the nearby city of Prato, Machiavelli reportedly ordered his militia to join what proved to be a successful effort to depose Soderini. The Medicis, led by Giovanni Medici, quickly filled the void and took control of Florence, but with Giovanni's election to the papacy as Leo X in 1513, brother Giuliano was given control of Florence. By now dismissed as chancellor, and with his loyalty to the Medici family suspect, Machiavelli was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, then exiled to his estate at San Casciano. Obviously, it was clear that his political career was in jeopardy and that steps needed to be taken in order to ingratiate himself with the new political leaders of the region.

Machiavelli had already determined that, in the event his political career ended, he had sufficient talent that the writing life could provide him with a suitable living: he had already publishing his first book, a collection of verse, in 1504, and had begun to synthesize his views on politics in the 1507 volume Discorso dell'ordinare lo stato di Firenze alle armi. Optimistic that the Medici family would prove to be the uniting force of his beloved Catholic Italy due to their control over both Florence and the papacy, and recognizing the potential in aiding such a government, Machiavelli now set about outlining his theories about what made rulers able to hold political power in Il principe, or The Prince.

Completed in 1513, Il principe is informed by Machiavelli's study of the political writings of Plato, Cicero, and St. Augustine, as well as by his observations of Cesare Borgia. In Machiavelli's opinion the only way to unite the four Italian states into a political entity strong enough to repel the incursions of France or Spain was by following the model of the Roman Republic as set forth by Livy and Tacitus. Expounding at great length on the importance of a strong and loyal military, he also maintained, unlike political theorists before him, that politics must be detached from morality; it is not the job of a prince to serve as a moral example for his people. As he wrote, "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." In the budding scientific spirit that would, centuries later, come to full flower in the Enlightenment, Machiavelli viewed the state as an organism subject to natural laws of growth and decay. He defined the goal of a politician as the acquisition and retention of political power, and the expansion of that power through conquest. Ironically, only by conquest abroad could peace be preserved at home; once the state ceased to grow, entropy would cause it to decay, with social and political turmoil the result.

In keeping with the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, Machiavelli believed that, although circumstances might help or hinder the process, every man is capable of determining his own destiny. A contrast to the medieval notion of divine will as well as to the classical legacy—that humans suffer whimsical fates at the hands of ancient acts perpetrated by the gods—this notion is also in contrast to the teachings of Christianity, which combined fatalism with the imperative to care for one's fellow man or woman as one's self. Combining this new notion of self-determination with his belief that all men are basically self-serving and corrupt, Machiavelli's central argument in The Prince is that it takes an evil man to know and battle evil: a powerful prince must act like "a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion in order to frighten off wolves." A prince—a politician capable of gaining and holding political power—must consequently be ruthless and cruel in order to preserve the health of the state. Like a fox, he must publically exhibit the virtues of honesty, mercy, uprightness, piousness, and humaneness, and when circumstances force him to be deceitful, his dishonesty should be hidden. Machiavelli goes on to argue that a successful leader must instill fear rather than admiration in his subjects in order to retain allegiance, yet he should also avoid being hated.

From Political Theorist to Playwright

While The Prince was submitted to Lorenzo Medici in 1513, its advice fell upon deaf ears. Published in Italy decades later, the book shocked the reading public and angered the Church; almost five centuries later the term "Machiavellian" still has negative connotations in its reference to an amoral, ruthless, calculating, and exclusively self-serving individual. While he had hoped that a career in the Medici government might be his, this was not to be, and Machiavelli was forced to fall back on his decision to write professionally.

In addition to other books of political theory and history, such as The Art of War, The Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520), and Istorie fiorentine (1526), he also wrote a short novel and three plays: Mandragola (1518), La Clizia (1525), and Andria. Considered one of the finest examples of the commedia erudita popular during the Italian Renaissance, Mandragola reflects its author's political writings and his astute knowledge of psychology through its intricately plotted comedy about a foolish husband, the lawyer Nicia, who is manipulated into ordering his virtuous wife, the beautiful Lucrezia, into the bed of a lustful young man. Less popular with contemporary audiences than Mandragola, La Clizia is based on Casina by Plautus, and satirizes the elderly playwright in its story of an old man who lusts after his young ward.

Written during the same period as The Prince, Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy, which many scholars argue are more reflective of the author's personal views, present a humanistic commentary on a classical text, while also promoting the goal of a united Italy. In this work, which is longer and more rambling than The Prince, he examines political liberty among a state's citizenry and questions whether self-government is not more beneficial than a monarchy. He also chastizes the Catholic Church for preventing the unification of the Italian states due to fear of eroding its own waning power base.

Apart from a 1526 commission from Pope Clement VII to inspect the fortifications of Florence and two minor diplomatic missions early the following year, Machiavelli never again returned to the political realm. His hopes for Florence also came to naught: following Florentine governor Guilio Medici's rise to the papacy his replacement proved inept and the family lost its hold on the region in favor of a third republic. Hopeful to gain a position in this new government, he was rejected in the spring of 1527 due to his long relationship with the now-vanquished Medici family. Machiavelli died in Florence only months later, in June of 1527. Three years later Florence was crushed by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was crowned king of Italy by Pope Clement VII and founded the Habsburg dynasty.

From Villain to Visionary

Following his death, Machiavelli was reviled by scholars who misinterpreted his pragmatic approach to political theory, and he was also poorly served by translators such as Simon Patericke and French writer Gentillet who preferred a sensationalist interpretation to intellectual accuracy as a way of gaining readers. His central caveat—that the political amorality of princes is exclusive to nation builders and is not a model for public servants or ordinary citizens—was ignored in the wave of denigration that followed his death, and in the first Index, published by Pope Clement VIII in 1559, his books were banned by the Church. On the Elizabethan stage and in English literature of the period, playgoers and readers quickly came to recognize the diabolical stereotypical Machiavelli, as well as such adherents as Iago in Shakespeare's Othello. A 1573 poem by Gabriel Harvey attributes to Machiavelli the crimes of poison, murder, fraud, and violence, while the play The Jew of Malta (1588) by Christopher Marlowe introduces a corrupt figure named Machiavel.

If you enjoy the works of Niccolo Machiavelli

If you enjoy the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, you might want to check out the following books:

Aristotle, The Politics, 1985.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651.

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

Peter Paret, editor, Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, 1986.

As the Enlightenment and the political shifts throughout the Modern age altered the perspective of both historians and political and social theorists, Machiavelli's reputation improved. The liberalism of the nineteenth century incorporated several tenets that have roots in Machiavelli's works, among them the supremacy of civil over religious power and the preference for republican rather than monarchical government. The realpolitik philosophy that guided some modernizing governments toward longevity by rejecting lofty ideals and instead stressing their own nation's needs rather than those of other countries, is also based on Machiavelli's work. The Prince ends 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." While this exhortation fell on deaf ears in 1513, it would inspire the nineteenth-century nationalist Risorgimento to revise their view of Machiavelli and hail him as a political visionary.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bock, Gisela, and others, editors, Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1990.

de Grazia, Sebastian, Machiavelli in Hell, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1989.

Prezzolini, Guiseppe, Niccolò Machiavelli—The Florentine, Brentano's (New York, NY), 1928, reprinted, 1966.

Ridolfi, Roberto, Machiavel, Sansoni (Florence, Italy), translated by Cecil Grayson as The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1963.

Skinner, Quentin, Machiavelli, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1981.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2001), "Nicolo Machiavelli."*

Machiavelli, Niccolò

views updated May 17 2018

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

Machiavelli, Niccolò

views updated May 11 2018

Niccolò Machiavelli

BORN: 1469, Florence, Italy

DIED: 1527, Florence, Italy


GENRE: Political theory, drama

Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513–1517)
The Prince (1513)
Mandragola (1518)
The Art of War (1520)
The Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520)


As a Florentine statesman, political philosopher, theorist, and playwright of the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli addressed a wide range of political and historical topics while embracing strictly literary forms in his various publications. He came to be identified almost exclusively with the realist political theory that he described in The Prince (1513), which is basically a pragmatic guidebook for obtaining, and preserving, political power. Critics have long pointed out the incongruities between the republican philosophy that Machiavelli professed in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513–1517)—that nations should be republics guided by the principles of liberty, rule of law, and civic virtue—and the philosophy he described in The Prince, which has been variously hailed, denounced, and distorted as advocating an ends-justify-the-means approach to politics. His perspective in The Prince, in particular, 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 and Greeks. During this time, an interest in classical subjects and 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 centuries the 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 well-known republican sentiments. He was finally banished to his country residence in Percussina, Italy. Machiavelli spent his 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 a monetary 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, Machiavelli fell 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.

Until Machiavelli, writers, thinkers, and philosophers typically had a Christian view of history, attributing political actions 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 virtù. 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, virtù 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 Tour-neur, 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, Georges Sorel, and Robert Michels. While The Prince receives by far 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 the emergence of liberal ideas of freedom and civic virtue in England 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.

Works in Critical Context

Throughout the centuries, Machiavelli has been loathed by some critics and loved by others. His works leave plenty of room for personal interpretation, inviting multiple perspectives. Most often, criticism of Machiavelli's ideas are bound up with criticism of the actions of people or characters who hold them, and they are not necessarily always the same thing.

Reaction to The Prince was initially—but only briefly—favorable. Catherine de' Medici was said to have enthusiastically included it, among others of Machiavelli's writings, in the education of her children, but the book quickly fell into widespread disfavor, becoming viewed as a handbook for atheistic tyranny. The Prince, and Machiavelli's other writings, were placed on the pope's Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Toward the close of the sixteenth century, the influential Innocenzo Gentillet held The Prince responsible for French political corruption and for widespread contribution to any number of political and moral vices. Gentillet's interpretation of The Prince circulated throughout Britain and influenced Shakespeare and Marlowe. In the prologue to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (circa 1589), “Machevil” addresses the audience at length, at one point typifying the Elizabethan perception of Machiavelli by saying, “I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” Here, and in the works of Marlowe's contemporaries, Machiavelli was depicted as an agent of all that Protestant England despised in Catholic Italy.

One seventeenth-century commentator, philosopher Pierre Bayle, went against the trend and found it strange that “there are so many people, who believe, that Machiavel teaches princes dangerous politics; for on the contrary princes have taught Machiavelli what he has written.” Since Bayle's time, further analysis has prompted the most prolonged and animated discussion relating to the work: the true intent of its creator. Was the treatise, as Bayle suggested, a faithful representation of unethical princely conduct that might justify its historian as a simple truth-teller? Or had Machiavelli, in his manner of lively presentation, written the book to promote his own opinions? A single conclusion about the author's motive has not been drawn, although patterns have certainly emerged in the history of Machiavelli criticism.

For sheer volume and intensity, studies of The Prince have far exceeded those directed at Machiavelli's Discourses, though the latter work has been acknowledged as an essential companion piece to the former. All of the author's subsequent studies treating history, political science, and military theory stem from this voluminous dissertation containing his most original thoughts. Less flamboyant than The Prince and narrower in its margin for interpretation, the Discourses contains Machiavelli's undisguised admiration for ancient governmental forms, and his most eloquent, thoroughly explicated republicanism.


Machiavelli's famous contemporaries include:

Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492): This diplomat, politician, and patron of scholars, artists, and poets was a leading member of the ruling Medici family in Florence, Italy, during the Italian Renaissance.

Vasco da Gama (1469–1524): This Portuguese explorer was among the most successful in the European Age of Discovery. He commanded the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India.

Michelangelo (1475–1564): A famous Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer best known for his sculpture of the biblical king David, his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and his paintings on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): This scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician, and writer was also one of the greatest painters of all time (most famous for the Mona Lisa) and is often considered to have been the model “Renaissance man”: someone who can do many different kinds of things with equal excellence.

Christopher Columbus (1451–1506): Italian navigator, colonizer, and explorer who was instrumental in the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510): Italian painter of the Florentine school during the early Renaissance and best known for his masterpieces The Birth of Venus and Primavera.

So long as the means and ends of politics are seen to be at odds, people will be discussing Machiavelli. By and large, commentators have come to weigh the integrity of Machiavelli's controversial thought against the pressing political conditions that formed it. Some scholars, like Roberto Ridolfi, have endeavored to dislodge the longstanding perception of Machiavelli as a ruthless character: “In judging Machiavelli one must … take account of his anguished despair of virtue and his tragic sense of evil. … [On] the basis of sentences taken out of context and of outward appearances he was judged a cold and cynical man, a sneerer at religion and virtue; but in fact there is hardly a page of his writing and certainly no action of life that does not show him to be passionate, generous, ardent and basically religious.”

Responses to Literature

  1. How can Machiavelli's concept of war be understood as an art?
  2. Where do you draw the ethical line when it comes to attaining power and maintaining it? Do the ends always justify the means?
  3. Describe the ideal qualities of Machiavelli's leader as represented in The Prince. Are many, few, or all of these ideals shared by successful politicians today?
  4. What are the stereotypes that have been assigned to Machiavelli, and what are their sources and motivations?


Machiavelli will forever be associated with political maneuvering. Here are some other works that deal with power politics.

Arthashastra (most likely the fourth century bce), a political treatise by Chanakya. This is an ancient treatise of political realism on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy, disclosing to a king what calculating and sometimes brutal measures he must carry out to preserve the state and the common good. The author was known as the Indian Machiavelli.

Richard III (1597), a play by William Shakespeare. In this powerful drama, Shakespeare's Richard III stops at nothing to gain the throne.

Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (2005), a memoir by Otto von Bismarck. This multivolume collection of nineteenth-century German chancellor Bismarck's writings reveal a political mind as subtle and hard as Machiavelli's.



Bing, Stanley. What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Constantine, Peter. The Essential Writings of Machiavelli. New York: Random House Modern Library, 2007.

Donaldson, Peter S. Machiavelli and Mystery of State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Grazia, Sebastian de. Machiavelli in Hell. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

King, Ross. Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Soll, Jacob. Publishing “The Prince”: History, Reading and the Birth of Political Criticism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelli's Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. De Kalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Sullivan, Vickie B., ed. The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.

Machiavelli, Niccolò

views updated Jun 08 2018

Niccolò Machiavelli

May 3, 1469
Florence, Italy
May 22, 1527
Florence, Italy

Statesman, author

" … 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."

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.

The Italian author and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince (Il principe), in which he described how a ruler must do whatever is necessary to stay in power. Over the centuries Machiavelli became famous as a sinister and ruthless politician because of this philosophy. Many historians suggest that this reputation is largely undeserved. They point out that Machiavelli lived by his own ideals as a loyal and self-sacrificing servant of government. Furthermore, he never suggested that the political dealings of princes should be a model for day-to-day interactions among ordinary citizens.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born into an aristocratic family in Florence, Italy. Though the Machiavellis came from the upper class, they were by no means wealthy. Little is known about the first half of Machiavelli's life prior to his first appointment to public office. His writings show, however, that he was well educated in the classics (works by ancient Greek and Roman writers). Scholars believe he probably knew these works in translations from the original Greek and Latin into his native Italian. They also theorize that his father, who was a lawyer, had connections in the city that enabled young Machiavelli to meet the important Florentine humanists and literary figures of the time. (Humanists were scholars that promoted the human-centered literary and intellectual movement based on the revival of classical culture that started the Renaissance.) The few known facts of Machiavelli's early life include his friendship with Giulianio de' Medici (1479–1516), brother of the duke of Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492; see entry).

Political fortunes rise and fall

In 1498 Machiavelli was named chancellor (head) and secretary of the second chancellery (administrative council) of the Florentine Republic. (A republic is a form of government that is run by representatives of the people and based on a constitution, a document that specifies the rights of citizens and laws of the state.) His duties consisted chiefly of executing the policy decisions of others, conducting diplomatic correspondence, reading and composing reports, and compiling minutes (written records of meetings.) He also undertook some twenty-three missions to states under Florentine rule. He was sent to Pisa, which had rebelled against Florence in 1494, and to the courts of rulers in the unstable Romagna region of north-central Italy. He was twice sent to Imola and Cesena, which were under the leadership of the ruthless military and political leader Cesare Borgia (c. 1475–1507).

In 1503, while on one of these missions, Machiavelli wrote a report titled "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," in which he detailed a series of political murders ordered by Borgia. Machiavelli's later writings reveal that encounters with Borgia made a particularly vivid impression on him. His reports to the Florentine government sometimes caused controversy because he did not hesitate to express his own opinions instead of just presenting the facts of his meetings. Examples include his support of an alliance between Florence and the Borgias and his criticism of the Florentine Republic's lack of a local military force. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, his direct approach, Machiavelli won the confidence of Piero Soderini, who was elected gonfalionier (head political leader) of Florence in 1502. With Soderini's support, and against the objections of the upper-class families, Machiavelli planned and trained a militia (citizens' army) that played an important role in the reconquest of Pisa in 1509. Also of note from this period were his four diplomatic trips to the French court and two to the court of Rome. In 1502 he married Marietta Corsini, with whom he had four sons and two daughters.

In August 1512 a Spanish army entered Tuscany and raided Prato, a town in the Florentine Republic. Machiavelli's army was no match for the invading forces. Soderini was removed from office and the Medici family was returned to power. (The Medicis had been forced out of Florence when Soderini was elected to office.) The Lorenzo Medici's son, also named Lorenzo and known as Lorenzo the Younger, assumed command of the regime in Florence. On November 7 Machiavelli was dismissed from his post because he had collaborated with Soderini. Machiavelli was ordered to pay a heavy fine and forbidden to travel outside Florentine areas for a full year. The worst came in February 1513, when he was arrested for suspected involvement in a plot against the Medicis. Although there was no evidence that he was involved, he was imprisoned and tortured by Medici supporters who tried to gain incriminating information from him. Machiavelli begged for help from Giuliano de'Medici in a pair of sonnets (type of Italian poetry). Machiavelli was released in March, not through the efforts of Giuliano, but because of a general amnesty (freedom from arrest or criminal charges) declared in celebration of the election of Guiliano's brother, Giovanni (1475–1521), as Pope Leo X (reigned 1513–21). The pope is the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time the pope not only controlled the church but he also had great political power.

Turns to writing

Machiavelli's diplomatic career was now finished. He spent much of the next few years in seclusion at his family's country home at Sant'Andrea in Percussina, a few miles south of Florence. His major contact with the outside world was Francesco Vettori, a longtime friend and Florentine diplomat who had been appointed ambassador to the papal (pope's) court. From their correspondence came many of the themes of The Prince, which Machiavelli wrote in the second half of 1513. (Many scholars believe the text was significantly changed and expanded in either 1515 to 1516 or 1518.) In 1513 and 1514 he hoped that The Prince might find favor with the Medicis and pave the way for his return to political service. Perhaps in an effort to promote his case, Machiavelli first dedicated, or "addressed," the work to Lorenzo the Younger in August 1513. Despite these efforts, the Medicis made clear in early 1515 that they had no intention of employing Machiavelli.

Prior to beginning work on The Prince Machiavelli had been writing Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, which he finished in 1517. Certain passages in this work set forth Machiavelli's quarrel with the church. Here he claimed that the corrupt papal court in Rome had set a bad example and caused Italy to lose its devotion and religion. The Italian states were weak and divided, Machiavelli wrote, because the church was too feeble politically to dominate them, but prevented any one state from uniting them. He suggested that the church might have been completely destroyed by its own corruption had not the Italian priest Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226) and the Spanish preacher Saint Dominic (c. 1170–1221) restored it to its original spiritual principles by founding new orders (organizations for religious men and women). Machiavelli's other works include The Art of War and the Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520); three plays, The Mandrake (1518), Clizia (c. 1525), and Andria (date uncertain); History of Florence (1526); a short story, Belfagor (date uncertain); and several minor works in verse and prose.

In History of Florence Machiavelli told the story of the Florentine Republic from Lorenzo the Elder's death in 1492 until 1526. Scholars consider it an advance over earlier histories because Machiavelli identified underlying social and political causes rather than merely reporting events. The work was also influential to Machiavelli's political career because he wrote it under a contract from the University of Florence that was approved by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (1478–1534), soon to be Pope Clement VII (reigned 1523–34). Machiavelli dedicated the work to the pope, perhaps for political reasons. Whether a conscience decision or not, the move worked and opened the door to other opportunities for occasional employment and minor public service, as well as to the publication of the Art of War in 1521. During these years Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540), Papal Commissary of War in Lombardy, became friends and exchanged some memorable letters. In 1526 Machiavelli was commissioned by Pope Clement VII to inspect the fortifications of Florence. Later that year and in early 1527 Guicciardini employed him in two minor diplomatic missions. In 1527 the Florentines drove the Medicis out one last time and restored the republican constitution, which had been written in 1494 and disbanded 1512. Ironically, Machiavelli's recent involvement with the Medicis made him suspect to the republicans, even though his writings gave the greatest support to republicanism during the Renaissance. Machiavelli died in Florence in 1527, receiving the last rites (ceremony performed upon a person's death) of the church that he had bitterly criticized.

Defined field of politics

Machiavelli is now remembered for the contributions to political theory that he made in The Prince. He shared with Renaissance humanists a passion for the revival of ancient literary and spiritual values. To their efforts he added a fierce desire for political and moral renewal on the model of the Roman Republic as depicted by the Roman historians Livy (59 b.c.–a.d. 17) and Tacitus (c. a.d. 56–c. 120). Though a republican at heart, Machiavelli saw the need for a strong political and military leader who could forge a unified state in northern Italy to eliminate French and Spanish domination. Since 1494 France and Spain had been involved in a conflict called the Italian Wars (1494–1559) for control of Italy. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince he envisioned the possibility of a strong state while the restored Medicis ruled both Florence, under Lorenzo de' Medici the Younger, and the papacy, under Pope Leo X. Machiavelli had admired Cesare Borgia's energetic creation of a new state in Romagna in the few brief years while Borgia's father, Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503; reigned 1492–1503), occupied the papal throne. The final chapter of The Prince is a ringing plea to the Medicis to set Italy free from the French and Spanish "barbarians" (those who lack refinement and culture). It concludes with a quotation from the Italian poet Petrarch's patriotic poem Italia mia (My Italy): "Virtue will take arms against fury, and the battle will be brief; for the ancient valor in Italian hearts is not yet dead." His call fell on deaf ears in 1513 but was to play a role three centuries later.

Machiavelli wrote the twenty-six chapters of The Prince in a direct style, using examples from history and current political situations to explain his points. According to scholars, in this work Machiavelli was the first to define politics as a separate field. Up to that time political writers, from the ancients Plato and Aristotle to the fifteenth-century humanists, had treated politics as a branch of morals. This means that they wrote about political life being a mirror of moral life. How the individual person conducted his or her life was a smaller representation of how the society at large should be conducted. Machiavelli's chief innovation was to break with this long tradition and to say that politics is separate from morality. In chapter fifteen of The Prince he wrote:

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.

In other words, Machiavelli chose to describe the world as it is rather than as people were taught that it should be.

Central to Machiavelli's view of history and politics are the concepts of fortuna (fortune) and virtù (virtue). Abandoning the Christian view of history as providential (that is, dictated by God or "providence"), Machiavelli interpreted events in purely human terms. Often it is fortune that gives, or terminates, a political leader's opportunity for decisive action. Machiavelli said that Cesare Borgia, though a great politician, experienced an "extreme malignity of fortune" by falling ill just as his father died. What Machiavelli meant was that God did not decide that the rule of the Borgias should come to an end and therefore caused Cesare to become ill at the time of his father's death. Instead, Machiavelli argued, the Borgias were merely victims of random fortune. Machiavelli wrote that Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus also received opportunities for leadership from fortune. In drawing comparisons among these religious and political figures, Machiavelli asserted that sacred (religious or biblical) history was influenced by the same forces as secular (nonreligious) history.

Machiavelli's Ideas Misinterpreted

Over the centuries Machiavelli became famous as a sinister and ruthless politician because of the philosophy he expressed in The Prince. Many modern historians have concluded that his ideas were misrepresented by other sixteenth-century writers, and that such a harsh judgment was unfair. The main source of the misrepresentation of Machiavelli's ideas was the English translation, in 1577, of a work called Contre-Machiavel (Contrary to Machiavelli) by the French Huguenot (Protestant) writer Gentillet. Gentillet distorted Machiavelli's teachings, which he blamed for the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the killing of Huguenots in Paris on a church holiday, in 1572. A poem by Gabriel Harvey the following year falsely attributed four principal crimes to Machiavelli: poison, murder, fraud (lying), and violence. The negative image of Machiavelli was popularized by the crafty and greedy villain Machiavel in The Jew of Malta (1588), a play by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe. Machiavellian villains followed in works by other playwrights as well.

In some passages of The Prince Machiavelli seems to suggest that fortune itself hinges upon human actions 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 during Renaissance, Machiavelli believed in the capacity of human beings to determine their own destiny. This was different from the medieval concept of an omnipotent, or almighty, divine will or the ancient Greek belief in a crushing fate. Machiavelli also claimed that virtù in politics, unlike Christian virtue (capacity for doing good), is an effective combination of force and shrewdness with a touch of greatness. Therefore, virtue is not a system of ethical behavior that is outlined in the Scriptures or determined by the church, but instead it is the result of a person's own desire and actions, which then lead to greatness.

The main points of The Prince are found in chapter seventeen titled "On Cruelty and Clemency and Whether It Is Better To Be Loved or Feared," and in chapter eighteen, "How Princes Should Keep Their Word." As Machiavelli frequently says in other works as well, the natural badness of men requires that the prince instill fear rather than love in his subjects. Furthermore, when necessary the prince must break his pledge with other princes, who in any case will be no more honest than he. Moralistic critics of Machiavelli have sometimes forgotten that he was 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, which is subject to laws of growth and decay. He claimed that the health of the state consists in unity, but even in the best of circumstances its longevity is limited.

The influence of The Prince on political developments in Europe, especially during the nineteenth century, cannot be overemphasized. Many of Machiavelli's concepts formed the basis of nineteenth-century liberalism, a political philosophy that advocates change for the good of the state and its citizens. Among these concepts were the supremacy of civil over religious power, requiring men to serve in citizen armies, the preference for republican rather than monarchical government, the Roman republican ideals of honesty and hard work, and people's ultimate responsibility to their community, not simply to themselves. The Prince remains one of the most important political writings of Western (non-Asian) civilization.

For More Information


Skinner, Quentin. Great Political Thinkers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Vergani, Luis. "The Prince." Notes; Including Machiavelli's Life and Works. Lincoln, Nebr.: Cliff's Notes, 1967.

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

Web Sites

"Machiavelli, Nicolo." Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

"Machiavelli, Nicolo," MSN Encarta. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

Niccolò Machiavelli

views updated May 17 2018

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). □

Machiavelli, Niccolò

views updated Jun 27 2018

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.