NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI (May 3rd, 1469 – June 21st, 1527)
Italian political philosopher, playwright, and diplomat. Father of modern political theory.
- Writer of several poems, plays, fictional novels, and historical accounts, but better known for his political non-fiction works, including his masterpiece The Prince (first circulated in 1513, not published until 1532), as well as Discourses On Livy (1517).
- Named as an influence on such figures as Sir Francis Bacon and Adam Smith, as well as the founding fathers of the United States; John Adams praised Machiavelli’s works in his writing, and it is believed that the other founding fathers were influenced by Machiavelli when writing the Federalist Papers.
- One of the earliest advocates of “realpolitik,” the separation of politics from morality in which practicality trumps moral ethics. Later followers of this design would include Otto von Bismarck, Alexander III, and Henry Kissinger.
Little is known of Niccolo Machiavelli’s life outside of his career, though he almost certainly had a thorough university education. He was born in Florence on May 3, 1469, in the middle of the Renaissance—both chronologically and geographically, as Florence was the central city-state involved in that cultural flourishing, and it was from here that new and revived ideas were spread. When Niccolo was born, the Medici family had recently come to power in Florence, displacing the Albizzi family, and would remain in control for the next three hundred years. Lorenzo de Medici, who took charge of the city in 1469, was the first of the family to receive a humanist education at university, and became a patron of the city’s arts—as well as the subject of an unsuccessful assassination plot carried out by the Catholic Church.
When Lorenzo died, he was succeeded by his bungling son Piero II, under whose reign the family was expelled from Florence from 1498 to 1512. It was during that time that Machiavelli first came to prominence, working for Florence’s ruling council as a diplomat. In the course of this career, he traveled among the courts of Ferdinand II of Aragon, Louis VII of France, and the Pope in Rome, and became familiar with Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI and a deeply ambitious, charismatic military leader. In his pursuit of power, Borgia had become the first Cardinal in history to resign from the Church, in order to accept his appointment as Duke of Valentinois. Machiavelli served at Borgia’s court as a representative of Florence from 1502 to 1503, a brief period that made an enormous impact on the diplomat.
WORK AS A WRITER
The Medicis returned to power in 1512, and as a member of the interim government, Machiavelli was arrested and tortured on the rack on charges of conspiracy. He was eventually released, having denied any involvement in the actions that had originally expelled the family from the city. It was at this point that he retired from public life and turned to writing, while constantly asking his friends to use their political connections to help him win the favor of the Medicis and return to court.
In this exile, he wrote The Prince, his first major work. Inspired directly by Cesare Borgia and informed by Machiavelli’s experiences in the noble courts of Europe, The Prince was written quickly in his first year away from court, and was intended as a gift for the Medicis. It was not actually published for the public until after his death, so although it is now his best-known work, it had little effect on his reputation in life. The Prince emphasizes the need for stability in the domain overseen by a prince (or duke, or king, or any other ruler); Machiavelli had come of political age in an unstable time filled with backstabbing and intricate plots, and so focused on pure political survival to a degree little seen in political theory. Because of this, The Prince explicitly approves of cruelty and betrayal, so long as the stability and health of the state is preserved—for that is the greater moral good.
“Many have imagined republics or principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality,” Machiavelli says in Chapter 15, in reference to the many works of philosophy which discuss hypothetical states. The Prince, in contrast, deals with concrete reality, but generalizes from the specific—it is not simply a book about Italian politics. “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise,” Machiavelli says in Chapter 18, summing up much of the book’s ethos.
The book is a study of power, and was offered to the Medicis in no small part to make up for his participation in Florence’s government during their exile—as though Machiavelli was saying, not only am I glad to see you back, but here’s a guidebook on how to increase and preserve your power. Rather than praise them for being merciful or kind, he says quite clearly that no good prince should be those things—they should only appear to be since a reputation for mercy can be a useful thing. A good prince needs to avoid being hated, but must retain respect by keeping enough of the right people intimidated.
He would never have called himself a philosopher, and, in fact, was disdainful of the philosophers of his generation and ignored the standards that would have been expected of philosophical writing—but Niccolo Machiavelli nevertheless stands as one of the most significant writers of political philosophy, of his era or any other. Certainly, Locke and Rousseau, the giants of the field, were heavily influenced by him, and just as importantly, he popularized political philosophy among people outside philosophy’s usual audience.
Machiavelli’s disdain for philosophy may have been a dislike of the abstract. His writings were much more concrete, dealing not with hypothetical societies or the “state of nature” but the world around him. Often, as with his best-known work, The Prince, his work was written as instructions, with his on human behavior only implicit in them.
The Prince was widely circulated after Machiavelli’s death, even in places where it was illegal, like Shakespeare’s England. The Bard read the book and used it as the basis for the characters of such infamous villains as Iago and Richard III, who epitomize the amoral genius Machiavelli commended.
Nevertheless, Machiavelli never returned to his diplomatic career, and it’s not clear if the Medicis even bothered to read his gift. They chose to employ him as a writer instead of as a diplomat, commissioning a history of Florence from him. He wrote a number of plays, comedies, and poems, and died in 1527 outside of Florence.