Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527) was an Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician, poet and playwright. Machiavelli was a figure of the Italian Renaissance, and a servant of the Florentine republic. In June of 1498, following the ouster and execution of Savonarola, the Great Council elected Machiavelli as the Secretary to the second Chancery of the Republic of Florence.
He is most famous — or notorious — for one of his shorter works, The Prince, sometimes described as a work of realist political theory. However, both that text and the more substantial republican Discourses on Livy — as well as History of Florence (commissioned by the Medici family) — were printed only after his death, all appearing in the early 1530s. In his own lifetime, while he circulated The Prince among friends, the only work Machiavelli promoted through printing was his dialogue on The Art of War. But generations from the sixteenth century onwards were most attracted and repelled by the cynical approach to power on display in The Prince, Discourses and History. Whatever Machiavelli's own intentions (and they remain a matter of hot debate), his name became synonymous with ruthless politics, deceit and the pursuit of power by any means.
Machiavelli was born into a tumultuous era in which Popes were leading armies, and wealthy city-states of Italy would fall one after another into the hands of foreign powers — France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was a time of constantly shifting alliances, condottieri who changed sides without warning, and governments rising and falling in the space of weeks. Perhaps most significant during this erratic upheaval was the sack of Rome in 1527 by rampaging soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, the first time that Rome had been sacked by a Germanic army in nearly twelve centuries. Rich cities such as Florence and Genoa suffered a similar fate during these years.
Machiavelli, trained as a man with severe rigor by his father, was educated to be skilled in Latin, but had little Greek. He entered governmental service as a clerk and ambassador in 1494; that same year, Florence had restored the republic and expelled the Medici family, rulers of the city for nearly sixty years. Machiavelli was placed as a member of a Council responsible for diplomatic negotiations and military matters. Between 1499 and 1512, he undertook a number of diplomatic missions to the court of Louis XII in France, Ferdinand II of Aragón, and the Papacy in Rome. From 1502 to 1503, he was a witness to the effective statebuilding methods of the soldier/churchman Cesare Borgia, who was at that time enlarging his territories in central Italy through a mixture of audacity, prudence, self-reliance, firmness and, not infrequently, cruelty.
Between 1503 to 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia including the defense of the city. He distrusted mercenaries (a sentiment he explained in the Discourses and in the Prince) and much preferred a citizen militia. This philosophy bore fruit when, in 1509, Florence's citizen forces defeated Pisa under Machiavelli's direction. However, in August 1512, the Medici with the help of Pope Julius II used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentine forces at Prato. The Florentine head of state, Piero Soderini, resigned and went into exile, and Florence and the republic was subsequently dissolved. Machiavelli, having played a significant role in the republic's anti-Medici government, was removed from office and in 1513 he was accused of conspiracy and arrested. Although tortured "by the rope" (a practice wherein one's hands were bound behind one's back and connected to a pulley which would lift the victim off the ground, dislocating one's shoulders), he denied his involvement and was eventually released. He retired to his estate at Sant'Andrea in Percussina near Florence and began writing the treatises that would ensure his place in the development of political philosophy and conduct.
In a famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, he described how he spent his days in exile:
When evening comes, I return home [from work and from the local tavern] and go to my study. On the threshold I strip naked, taking off my muddy, sweaty workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.
Machiavelli himself identified a unifying theme in The Prince and the Discorsi:
All cities that ever at any time have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence, because the latter is not enough alone, and the first either does not produce things, or when they are produced, does not maintain them. Force and prudence, then, are the might of all the governments that ever have been or will be in the world.
Machiavelli died in San Casciano, a few miles outside of Florence, in 1527. His resting place is unknown; however a cenotaph in his honor was placed at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. The Latin sentence on the tomb — TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM — is translated as either 'for so great a name, no praise is adequate' or 'No elegy is equal to such a name'
Machiavelli's best known book is The Prince, in which he describes the arts by which a Prince (a ruler), can retain control of his realm. He focuses primarily on what he calls the "new prince", under the assumption that a hereditary prince has an easier task since the people are accustomed to him. All a hereditary prince needs to do is carefully maintain the institutions that the people are used to; a new prince has a much more difficult task since he must stabilize his newfound power and build a structure that will endure. This task requires the Prince to be publicly above reproach but privately may require him to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals.
Machiavelli explains through examples which princes are the most successful in obtaining and maintaining power. He draws his examples from personal observations made while he was on diplomatic missions for Florence and from his readings in ancient history. He periodically uses Latin phrases, and many examples are drawn from Classical sources.
Machiavelli does not dispense entirely with morality nor advocate wholesale selfishness or degeneracy. Instead he outlines his definition of, for example, the criteria for acceptable cruel actions (it must be swift, effective, and short-lived). Machiavelli also does not miss the irony in the fact that good can come from evil actions. Notwithstanding the mitigating themes in The Prince, the Catholic Church put the work in its Index Librorum Prohibitorum and it was viewed in a negative light by many Humanists such as Erasmus.
The primary contribution of The Prince to the history of political thought is its fundamental break between realism and idealism. The Prince is a guide to acquiring and keeping power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, the ideal society is not the aim. In fact, Machiavelli emphasizes the need for the exercise of brute power when necessary and rewards, patron-clientelism etc. to preserve the status quo.
The term "Machiavellian" was adopted by some of Machiavelli's contemporaries, often used in the introductions of political tracts of the sixteenth century that offered more 'just' reasons of state, most notably those of Jean Bodin and Giovanni Botero. The pejorative term Machiavellian as it is used today (or anti-Machiavellism as it was used from the sixteenth century) is thus a misnomer, as it describes one who deceives and manipulates others for gain; whether the gain is personal or not is of no relevance, only that any actions taken are only important insofar as they affect the results. It fails to include some of the more moderating themes found in Machiavelli's works and the name is now associated with the extreme viewpoint.
From The Discourses:
Machiavelli also wrote plays (Clizia, Mandragola), poetry (Sonetti, Canzoni, Ottave, Canti carnascialeschi) and novels (Belfagor arcidiavolo) as well as translating classical works.