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||Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)|
Italian political thinker and historical figure at the turning point of the Middle Ages and the Modern World. Machiavelli formulated in his treatise Il Principe (The Prince), the then revolutionary and prophetic idea, that theological and moral imperatives have no place in the political arena. "Men are always wicked at bottom unless they are made good by some compulsion." With Hobbes (1588-1679) Machiavelli is considered one of the great early modern analyzers of political power. However, considerable disagreement exists about how to interpret his opinions.
"Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer." (in The Prince, 1515)
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy. Little is known of
his early life, although he once described his background: "I was born
in poverty and at an early age learned how to endure hardship rather
than flourish." Niccolò's father, Bernardo di Niccolò di Buoninsegna,
belonged to an impoverished branch of an influential old Florentine
family. Bernardo was a lawyer and he had a small personal library that
included books by Greek and Roman philosophers and volumes of Italian
history. Bernardo died in 1500, Machiavelli's mother, Bartolomea de'
Nelli, had died in 1496. Machiavelli married in 1501 Marietta Corsini.
They had several children who died young or in infancy. One daughter
and four sons reached adulthood. Machiavelli
also had affairs with other women. A courtesan called la Riccia was his
mistress for almost a decade. In his mid-fifties he entered into an
adulterous relationship with Barbara Raffacani Salutati, a singer and
"Machiavelli went on to read the ancient philosophers and, especially, historians: Thucydides, who told of the war between Sparta and Athens that tore Greece apart; Plutarch, who told of the lives of the great statesmen, generals, and lawmakers of ancient Greece and Rome; Tacitus, who recounted the corruption and perfidy of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero; and above all, the work by Livy..." (in Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli, 2000)
Machiavelli might have been involved in overthrowing the
Savonarolist government in 1498 – Girolamo Savonarola was executed just
outside his office. In The Prince Savonarola was remembered as a prophet without arms. At twenty-nine, Machiavelli was appointed chancellor of the new
government's Second Chancery, and shortly after that he became secretary of an agency concerned with
warfare and diplomacy.
On several missions, as a de facto ambassador for Florence, Machiavelli travelled to many areas, visiting Cesare Borgia (1502), Rome (1503, 1506), France (1504) and Germany (1507-08). "Remember to come back home," wrote Machiavelli's wife after his first son was born. Among Machiavelli's achievements was helping to set up a militia from the dominion territories, which reconquered Pisa in June 1509. Proud of the troops, he said that they were "the finest thing that had ever been arranged for Florence."
mission to the court of Cesare Borgia (1476-1507), the most villaneous member of his family, Machiavelli
met Leonardo da Vinci. They do not mention
each other in their writings or letters, but it has been suggested that
they even became friends. Cesare Borgia was one of the main characters in The Prince.
admired Cesare, an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI – he was
treacherous in war but a patron of artists. We do not know what
Leonardo thought of him. He mentioned "Il Valentino" in his notebooks
only briefly, querying his whereabouts.
At that time Leonardo was serving as Borgia's architect and military engineer. Although Leonardo hated war, all kinds of mechanical devices, including machines of warfare, fascinated him. On paper, he designed a rapid-firing catapult, a cannon fired by steam, an early prototype of a tank, flame-throwers, bombards or mortars ("very practical and easy to transport"), and other weapons. Many of his inventions went beyond the technology of his era. Roger D. Masters has argued in Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power (1996) that parallels between Leonardo's and Machiavelli's innovations in the military sphere suggest perhaps a direct influence that has escaped prior attention.
Machiavelli's Arte della guerra
(The Art of War), written in the form of a dialogue, came out after
Leonardo's death. The major sources of the book were the Stratagemata of Frontinus and the fourth-century De re militari (On the Military Quedtion) of Vegetius. Noteworthy,
Machiavelli himself had somewhat limited war experience, but over the
course of his career in Florence, he acquired a deep knowledge of
military matters. The Art of War, along with Sun Tzu's Sunzi bingfa (The Art of War), an ancient Chinese military treatise, and Clausewitz's Vom Kriege
(1832, On War), is considered a classic work on the on the nature of
war. The French essayist Montaigne named Machiavelli next to Caesar,
Polybius, and Commynes as an authority on military affairs.
Committed to the revival of the wisdom of the ancients, Machiavelli put his emphasis is on Roman and Greek ideals of war: "And judging by what I have seen and read that it is not impossible to bring [the military] back to the ancient modes and give it some form of past virtue, I decided, so as not to pass these my idle times without doing anything, to write what I understand about the art of war for the satisfaction of those who are lovers of ancient actions." (The Art of War, translated by Christopher Lynch, 2003, p. 4). In his scheme for an army of his day, Machiavelli gave gunpowder weapons a secondary role. He had a low opinion of the role of artillery ("the invention of artillery is no reason, in my opinion, why we should not imitate the ancients in their military discipline and institutions"), but with his eyes open to important innovations, he would train young men in the use of the arquebus "a new instrument . . . and a necessary one." Moreover, arquebusiers are good for terrorizing peasants; one arquebusier "will frighten them more than twenty other armed men."
When the Medici family returned to power, it meant the end of the Florentine Republic. A pro-Medici parfty took over, and Machiavelli, the Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Signoria, was fired. Suspected of plotting against the Medici, he was jailed and tortured six times with the strappado – the victim was hoisted high into the air by a rope that tied his hands behind his back, and then dropped toward the floor. In his vermin-infested cell in Le Stinche, he wrote in a sonnet addressed to Giuliano de' Medici: "I have, Giuliano, on my legs a set of fetters, / with six pulls of the cord on my shoulders; my other miseries / I do not intend to recount on you, since so the poets are treated!" After 14 years of patriotic service, exiled to his farm in the village of Sant'Andrea in Percussina, Machiavelli found himself out of job. Most of his remaining years he spent on the small estate where he produced his major writings and quarreled with his neighbors.
As a thinker Machiavelli belonged to an entire school of Florentine intellectuals concerned with the examination of political and historical problems. His important writings were composed after 1512. Machiavelli achieved some fame as a historian and playwright, but with The Prince he hoped to regain political favor, to make himself "useful to our Medici lords, even if they begin by making me toll a stone," as he said in a letter.
Machiavelli had abandoned any further hopes of a diplomatic career, but he was partly reconciled with the Medici in 1519, and given various duties, including writing a history of Florence. He also participated in the meetings at Cosimo Rucellai's family gardens, held by a group of humanists and literati. His friends from the Rucellai circle, Zanobi Buondelmonti and Luigi Alamanni, played a leading part in a plot to assassinate Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (later Pope Clement VII), but Machiavelli was not implicated in the affair. In his The Art of War Buondelmonti and Alamanni were the chief interlocutors. When the Medici were deposed in 1527 Machiavelli hoped for a new government post. Now, however, he was distrusted by the republican government for previous association with the Medici.
Machiavelli died of a stomach ailment in Florence on June 21, 1527. He was buried in Santa Croce, a Franciscan church. The epitaph on his tomb reads, "Tanto nomini nullum par elogium" (To such a name no eulogy is equal.) Just a few weeks before his death, Rome fell to the poorly armed Spanish infantry. Machiavelli had foretold how such tragedy could be avoided but no one had listened to him.
political writings became more widely known in the second half of the
16th century. In 1564, when considered dangerous, they were placed on
the Church Index of officially banned books. Othello's ensign Iago in
Shakespeare's famous drama was partly based on the common misconception
of Machiavelli as a cynical defender of fraud in statecraft. In the
play Henry VI, Part III,
Richard III claims: "I can add colours to the chameleon; / Change
shapes with Proteus for advantages; / And set the murdrous Machiavel to
school. / Can I do this and cannot get a crown?"
Although Machiavelli's songs and poems often expressed feelings of loss and sorrow, his plays reveal his humorous side. Many critics regard La Mandragola, a big hit at its time, as the best comedy of the Italian Renaissance. Popes and princes requested its performances at their courts. Shortly after its initial run at the Orti Oricellari, La Mandragola was staged for Pope Leo X and his cardinals in the Vatican in the spring of 1520. The storyline, which revolves around a slow-witted husband, young wife, lover, and love potion, was mostly borrowed from Boccaccio's Decameron. La Clizia, adopted from Plautus's Casina, did not gain similar popularity.
Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531) and Il Principe (1532, The Prince), which were not published during Machiavelli's life, are his best known works. Their main theme is that all means may be used in order to maintain authority, and that the worst acts of the ruler are justified by the treachery of the government. "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." (in The Prince) Discorsi was written in direct opposition to Dante's De Monarchia, which defended the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. Dante argued for unity, but Machiavelli saw that conflicts are the key to a state's succees. His model was the republican Rome, or his image of it, not the contemporary Christian Rome.
Many of Machiavelli's thoughts, as "it is much more secure to be feared, than to be loved" or "it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two", have lived for centuries as slogans. And his notion "All armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed" could be approved by contemporary fanatical religious leaders.
A Jesuit scholar, Antonius Possevinus (Antonio Possevino), who most likely had not read Machiavelli, attacked him in his 1592 Iudicum. Counter Reformation writers drew connections between Machiavelli and Luther. Moreover, he was presented as a teacher of atheism and vice. Il Principe was condemned by the pope, but its viewpoints gave rise to the well-known adjective machiavellian, synonym for political maneuvers marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith. Machiavelli draws upon examples from both ancient and more recent history and also uses his own insight gained during his observation of the Italian city-states and France. He advocated the values of the ancient world, but instead referring to Aristotle and Platon, he brought up ideas from Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust. There is no clear evidence that Machiavelli had taught himself Greek (Machiavelli’s Art of Politics by Alejandro Barcenas, 2015, p. 20). He read the Greek authors in Latin translation.
Machiavelli's manual from other such works, beginning from Cicero's
essay De officiis (On
Duties, 44 BC), is the originality and practicality of his thinking.
The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce regarded Macchiavelli as
the first political scientist, who
divorced politics from ethics. ('Historical Reception of Machiavelli' by Mary Walsh, in Seeking Real Truths: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Machiavelli, edited by Patricia Vilches and Gerald Seaman, 2007, p. 290) Machiavelli
argued that all states are either republics or principalities, but the
dichotomy had no moral meaning. In this he
differed from Aristotle (among others) – Aristotle divided governments
six types, three good and three bad –
and from Cicero's consideration of just or unjust. Raison d'état (reason of state) is seen as superior to personal morality. "It is frequently necessary for the
upholding of the state," Machiavelli wrote, "to go to work against
charity, against humanity, against religion, and a new prince cannot
observe all the things for which men are reckoned good."
A number of influential
critics rejected Machiavelli's political realism as immoral. Moreover,
he was labeled as an atheist due to his stance toward religion, which
he treated as if it had merely instrumental value: Machiavelli's advice
for his price was to keep his faith when it pays to do so.
For the Jesuits Machiavelli represented "the devil's partner in crime".
After studying The Prince,
Frederick the Great confessed to Voltaire, "Thoughts rush round and
round in my head, and divine inspiration is needed to disentangle this
chaos". (Frederick the Great by Theodor Schieder, edited and translated by Sabina Berkeley and H.M. Scott, 2000, p. 76)
Machiavelli argued that Christianity has "glorified humble and
contemplative men rather than active ones. . . . By reason of this
education . . . there are in the world fewer republics than in ancient
times, and, as a result, the people do not have such great love for
freedom as then." According to Isaiah Berlin,
Machiavelli was truly
original, when took for granted the superiority of classical civic
virtue over Christian values as taught by the Church, and did it
seemingly unaware of what kind of impact this would have on our
thinking. (The Proper Study of Mankind by Isaiah Berlin, 1997, pp. 321-323)
Il Principe was not published in English until 1640, but it was known to Elizabethan readers. Shakespeare referred to it in Henry VI, Part I, and in Henry VI, Part III,
Gloucester says: "I can add colours to the chameleon, / Change shapes
with Proteus for afdvantages, / And set the murderous Machiavel tom
school." Innocent Gentillet's collection of maxims from the book,
accompanied with an acerbic discussion, had appeared in English in
1602, and contributed to the distorted view of the work.
in Machiavelli has continued through the centuries. Rousseau was also a
great admirer of Machiavelli, writing for the 1782 edition of The Social Contract,
"Machiavelli was an honourable man and a good citizen; but being
attached to the Medici household, he was forced, during the oppression
of his homeland, to disguise his love of freedom." (Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics by Ruth W. Grant, 1997, p. 5) Nietzsche shared Machiavelli's
belief that Christian morality made men weak
and docile. In addition, he praised the way the Florentine wrote: "But
how could the German language, even in the prose of a Lessing, imitate
the tempo of Machiavelli, who in his Principe lets us breathe the dry, refined air of Florence and cannot help presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegrissimo, perhaps not without a malicious artistic sense of the contrast he risks – long, difficult, hard, dangerous thoughts and the tempo of the gallop and the very best, most capricious humor? (The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory by Diego A. von Vacano, 2007, pp. 88) There is no knowledge that Nietzsche read any other of his books.
When the University
of Bologna awarded Mussolini an honorary degree in jurisprudence, the
dictator proposed to write a theses on Machiavelli to earn a true
doctorate. The Renaissance political thinker has never fallen into oblivion in
the United States, where Machiavellian pragmatism has defined presidential success since Abraham Lincoln. ('Lincoln, Machiavelli, and American Political Thought' by Brian F. Danoff, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2, Jun., 2000, pp. 290-311) In 1999, Dick
Morris, close to President Clinton, published his own version of
The Prince, titled The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century. In the aftermath of Donald Trump's election as President of the
United States, academics, journalists and political commentators started to wonder, whether he is the
American variant of the Machiavellian prince. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter
of Trump's The Art of the Deal, said once that in all his conversations with Trump the term "moral" never came up. (Trump and Political Philosophy: Patriotism, Cosmopolitanism, and Civic Virtue, edited by Marc Benjamin Sable & Angel Jaramillo Torres, 2018, p. 18)