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About Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian historian, philosopher, humanist and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. A founder of modern political science, he was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned in the Italian language. He was Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, after the Medici had recovered power and he no longer held a position of responsibility in Florence.
Machiavelli is most famous for a short political treatise, The Prince, written in 1513, but not published until 1532, five years after his death. Although he privately circulated The Prince among friends, the only theoretical work to be printed in his lifetime was The Art of War, about military science. Since the sixteenth century, generations of politicians remain attracted and repelled by its apparently neutral acceptance, or even positive encouragement, of the immorality of powerful men, described especially in The Prince but also in his other works. Whatever his intentions, which are still debated today, he has become associated with any proposal where "the end justifies the means". For example Leo Strauss (1958, p. 297) wrote:
Machiavelli is the only political thinker whose name has come into common use for designating a kind of politics, which exists and will continue to exist independently of his influence, a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends - its end being the aggrandizement of one's country or fatherland - but also using the fatherland in the service of the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one's party.
His works are sometimes even said to have contributed to the modern negative connotations of the words "politics" and "politician", and within a few generations, "Old Nick" became an English term for the devil and the adjective Machiavellian became a pejorative term describing someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. "Machiavellianism" also remains a popular term used in speeches and journalism; while in psychology, it denotes a personality type.
Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, the first son and third child of attorney, Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family are believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice, one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months, who formed the government, or Signoria. Machiavelli, like many people of Florence, was however not a full citizen of Florence, due to the nature of Florentine citizenship in that time, even under the republican regime.
Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era—popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities might fall from power at any time. Along with the pope and the major cities like Venice and Florence, foreign powers such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Switzerland battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri (mercenary leaders) who changed sides without warning, and short lived governments rising and falling.
Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric, and Latin, and became a prolific writer. It is thought that he did not learn Greek, even though Florence was at the time one of the centers of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494, Florence restored the republic — expelling the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for some sixty years. In June 1498, shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli, at the age of 29, was elected as head of the second chancery. In July 1498, he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace. He was in a diplomatic council responsible for negotiation and military affairs, carrying out, between 1499 and 1512, several diplomatic missions, to the court of Louis XII in France; to that of Ferdinand II of Aragón, in Spain; in Germany; and to the Papacy in Rome, in the Italian states. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503, he witnessed the brutal reality of the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507), and his father Pope Alexander VI, who were then engaged in the process of trying to bring a large part of central Italy under their possession, partly under the pretext of defending Church interests.
Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia, including the City’s defense. He distrusted mercenaries (a distrust he explained in his official reports, and then later in his theoretical works), preferring a politically invested citizen-militia - a philosophy that bore fruit. His command of Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509; yet, in August 1512, the Medici, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato. Piero Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state, and left in exile. The Florentine city-state and the Republic were dissolved. Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512 by the Medici, and, in 1513, was accused of conspiracy, and arrested and imprisoned for a time. Despite torture ("with the rope", where the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body's weight, thus dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released; then, retiring to his estate, at Sant'Andrea in Percussina, near San Casciano in Val di Pesa, he devoted himself to study and writing the political treatises that earned his intellectual place in the development of political philosophy and political conduct. Despairing of the opportunity to remain directly involved in political matters, after a time Machiavelli began to participate in intellectual groups in Florence and wrote several plays that (unlike his works on politics/political theory) were both popular and widely known in his lifetime. Still politics remained his main passion and to satisfy interest he maintained a well-known correspondence with better politically connected friends, attempting to become involved once again in political life. Machiavelli's cenotaph in the Santa Croce Church in Florence
In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:
When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.
Machiavelli died in 1527 at the age of 58. He was buried at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. An epitaph honoring him is inscribed on his monument. The Latin legend reads: TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM ("so great a name (has) no adequate praise" or "no eulogy (would be appropriate to) such a great name").
Machiavelli’s best-known book, "Il Principe," contains a number of maxims concerning politics, but rather than the more traditional subject of a hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a "new prince." To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully maintain the socio-political institutions to which the people are accustomed; whereas a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling, since he must first stabilize his new-found power in order to build an enduring political structure. He believed that social benefits of stability and security could be achieved in the face of moral corruption. Aside from that, Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be separate in order to rule. To do this required that the prince be concerned not only with reputation but that he be also willing to act immorally. As a political scientist, Machiavelli emphasizes the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force, deceit, and so on.
Scholars often note that Machiavelli glorifies instrumentality in statebuilding - an approach embodied by the saying that "the ends justify the means." Violence may be necessary for the successful transfer of power and introduction of new legal institutions. Force may be used to eliminate political rivals, to coerce resistant populations, and to purge previous rulers who will inevitably attempt to regain their power. Machiavelli has become infamous for this political advice, ensuring that he would be remembered in history as an adjective, "Machiavellian."
Notwithstanding some mitigating themes, the Catholic Church banned The Prince, registering it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and humanists also viewed the book negatively — among them, Erasmus of Rotterdam. As a treatise, its primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is the fundamental break between political Realism and political Idealism — thus, The Prince is a manual to acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society is not the model for a prince to orient himself by.
Concerning the differences and similarities in Machiavelli's advice to ruthless and tyrannical princes in The Prince and his more republican exhortations in Discourses on Livy, many have concluded that The Prince although written in the form of advice for a monarchical prince, contains arguments for the superiority of republican regimes, similar to those found in the Discourses. In the 18th century the work was even called a satire, for example by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. More recently, commentators such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield have agreed that the Prince can be read as having a deliberate comical irony. Other commentators have not seen the irony as deliberate comedy, but most commentators agree that the Prince is in any case republican to some extent.
Antonio Gramsci argued that Machiavelli's audience for this work was not even the ruling class but the common people because the rulers already knew these methods through their education.
Discourses on Livy
The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (Discorsi) nominally discuss a classical history of early Ancient Rome. Machiavelli presents it as a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured. It is a larger work than the Prince, and it more openly explains the advantages of republics. It includes early versions of the concept of checks and balances, and asserts the superiority of a republic over a principality. It became one of the central texts of republicanism.
Peter Withorne’s 1573 translation of the Art of War
Besides being a statesman and political scientist, Machiavelli also translated classical works, and was a dramaturge (Clizia, Mandragola), a poet (Sonetti, Canzoni, Ottave, Canti carnascialeschi), and a novelist (Belfagor arcidiavolo).
Some of his other work:
- Discorso sopra le cose di Pisa (1499)
- Del modo di trattare i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati (1502)
- Del modo tenuto dal duca Valentino nell’ ammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, etc. (1502) — A Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino when Murdering Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, the Signor Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina Orsini
- Discorso sopra la provisione del danaro (1502) — A discourse about the provision of money.
- Decennale primo (1506), a poem in terza rima.
- Ritratti delle cose dell’ Alemagna (1508–1512) - Portrait of the affairs of Germany.
- Decennale secondo (1509), a poem.
- Ritratti delle cose di Francia (1510) — Portrait of the affairs of France.
- Andria or The Woman of Andros (1517), a Classical comedy, translated from Terence.
- Mandragola (1518) — The Mandrake, a five-act prose comedy, with a verse prologue.
- Della lingua (1514), a dialogue about the language.
- Clizia (1525), a prose comedy.
- Belfagor arcidiavolo (1515), a novel.
- Asino d’oro (1517) — The Golden Ass is a terza rima poem, a new version of the Classic work by Apuleius.
- Dell’arte della guerra (1519–1520) — The Art of War, high military science.
- Discorso sopra il riformare lo stato di Firenze (1520) — A discourse about the reforming of Florence.
- Sommario delle cose della citta di Lucca (1520) — A summary of the affairs of the city of Lucca.
- The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca(1520) — Vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, a short biography.
- Istorie fiorentine (1520–1525) — Florentine Histories, an eight-volume history book of the city-state, Florence, commissioned by Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII.
- Frammenti storici (1525) — Fragments of stories.
Machiavelli's literary executor, Giuliano de'Ricci, also reported having seen that Machiavelli, his grandfather, made a comedy in the style of Aristophanes which included living Florentines as characters, and to be titled Le Maschere. It has been suggested that due to such things as this and his style of writing to his superiors generally, there was very likely some animosity to Machiavelli even before the return of the Medici.
The influence of Machiavelli
To quote Bireley (1990:14):-
...there were in circulation approximately fifteen editions of the Prince and nineteen of the Discourses and French translations of each before they were placed on the Index of Paul IV in 1559, a measure which nearly stopped publication in Catholic areas except in France. Three principal writers took the field against Machiavelli between the publication of his works and their condemnation in 1559 and again by the Tridentine Index in 1564. These were the English cardinal Reginald Pole and the Portuguese bishop Jeronymo Osorio, both of whome lived for many years in Italy, and the Italian humanist and later bishop, Ambrogio Caterino Politi.
Machiavelli's ideas had a profound impact on political leaders throughout the modern west, helped by the new technology of the printing press. Pole reported that it was spoken of highly by Thomas Cromwell in England and had influenced Henry VIII in his turn towards Protestantism, and in his tactics, for example during the Pilgrimage of Grace. A copy was also possessed by the Catholic king and emperor Charles V. In France, after an initially mixed reaction, Machiavelli came to be associated with Catherine de Medici and the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. As Bireley (1990:17) reports, in the 16th century, Catholic writers "associated Machiavelli with the Protestants, whereas Protestant authors saw him as Italian and Catholic". In fact, he was apparently influencing both Catholic and Protestant kings.
During the first generations after Machiavelli, his main influence was upon princes. One of the most important early works dedicated to criticism of Machiavelli, especially The Prince, was that of the Huguenot, Innocent Gentillet, whose work commonly referred to as Discourse against Machiavelli or Anti Machiavel was published in Geneva in 1576. He accused Machiavelli of being an atheist and accused politicians of his time by saying that his works were the "Koran of the courtiers", that "he is of no reputation in the court of France which hath not Machiavel's writings at the fingers ends". Another theme of Gentillet was more in the spirit of Machiavelli himself: he questioned the effectiveness of immoral strategies (just as Machiavelli had himself done, despite also explaining how they could sometimes work). This became the theme of much future political discourse in Europe during the 17th century. This includes the Catholic Counter Reformation writers summarised by Bireley: Giovanni Botero, Justus Lipsius, Carlo Scribani, Adam Contzen, Pedro de Ribadeneira, and Diego Saavedra Fajardo. These authors criticized Machiavelli, but also followed him in many ways. They accepted the need for a prince to be concerned with reputation, and even a need for cunning and deceit, but compared to Machiavelli, and like later modernist writers, they emphasized economic progress much more than the riskier ventures of war. These authors tended to cite Tacitus as their source for realist political advice, rather than Machiavelli, and this pretense came to be known as "Tacitism". "Black tacitism" was in support of princely rule, but "red tacitism" arguing the case for republics, more in the original spirit of Machiavelli himself, became increasingly important.
Francis Bacon argued the case for what would become modern science which would be based more upon real experience and experimentation, free from assumptions about metaphysics, and aimed at increasing control of nature. He named Machiavelli as a predecessor.
Modern materialist philosophy developed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, starting in the generations after Machiavelli. The importance of Machiavelli's realism was noted by many important figures in this endeavor, for example Bodin, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Harrington, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, and Adam Smith. Although he was not always mentioned by name as an inspiration, due to his controversy, he is also thought to have been a major influence on other major influence for example upon Hobbes, and Montesquieu.
In the seventeenth century it was in England that Machiavelli's ideas were most substantially developed and adapted, and that republicanism came once more to life; and out of seventeenth-century English republicanism there were to emerge in the next century not only a theme of English political and historical reflection - of the writings of the Bolingbroke circle and of Gibbon and of early parliamentary radicals - but a stimulus to the Enlightenment in Scotland, on the Continent, and in America.
Scholars have argued that James Madison followed Machiavelli's republicanism when he (and Jefferson) set up the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1790s to oppose what they saw as the emerging aristocracy that they feared Alexander Hamilton was creating with the Federalist Party. Conservative historians likewise conclude that Thomas Jefferson's republicanism was "deeply in debt" to Machiavelli, whom he praised. However, the Founding Father who perhaps most studied and valued Machiavelli as a political philosopher was John Adams, who profusely commented on the Italian's thought in his work, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.
In his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, John Adams praised Machiavelli, with Algernon Sidney and Montesquieu, as a philosophic defender of mixed government. For Adams, Machiavelli restored empirical reason to politics, while his analysis of factions was commendable. Adams likewise agreed with the Florentine that human nature was immutable and driven by passions. He also accepted Machiavelli's belief that all societies were subject to cyclical periods of growth and decay. For Adams, Machiavelli lacked only a clear understanding of the institutions necessary for good government.
The 20th century Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci drew great inspiration from Machiavelli's writings on ethics, morals, and how they relate to the State and revolution in his writings on Passive Revolution, and how a society can be manipulated by controlling popular notions of morality.
Revival of interest in the comedies
In the 20th century there was also renewed interest in Machiavelli's La Mandragola (1518), which received numerous stagings, including several in New York, at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976 and the Riverside Shakespeare Company in 1979, and at London's National Theatre in 1984.