Niccolò Machiavelli

I         Early Life
II       The Florentine Republic
III     The Medici
IV      The Prince
V        Quotations From The Prince


Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

            I.     Early life

While his early life is relatively obscure, Machiavelli's family had been among the wealthy and prominent houses of Florence, often holding important offices. His father, a lawyer, was nevertheless among the poorest members of the family, and he lived frugally, administering his property near the city and supplementing his meager income from it with small earnings from the restricted exercise of his profession, since he was barred from public office as a debtor of Florence. What remains of his father's memoirs show Niccolò working at Latin under obscure teachers: he learned more by himself in the books that were the only luxury of his home than he did at school. This education may have saved him from the faults of Humanist teachings popular in his day and perhaps contributed to the originality of his thought and force of his style, which are reflected in much of his extant writing.

II.     The Florentine Republic

In 1498, after the change in government in Florence following the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli was made head of the second chancery. The office to which he was appointed, though not as powerful as that of First Chancellor, was nonetheless an important one. Originally it dealt only with internal affairs of the republic, but it was later merged with the secretariat of The Ten, Florence’s executive council. Machiavelli was moreover secretary to the Signoria, the governing council, and he directed Florentine foreign and military affairs. Chancellors were often entrusted with diplomatic missions to Italian and foreign courts when it was not desirable to send ambassadors, and  Machiavelli's first important mission was to the French court in 1500. This five month tour of duty introduced Machiavelli to the people and customs of a strong nation united under the rule of a single prince.

On his return to Florence, Machiavelli found much to do, as the republic was on the verge of being ruined by the ambitions of Cesare Borgia.. He was sent twice to Borgia, who was then in the midst of attempting to create a principality for himself in central Italy’s Romagna; he was a witness to the bloody vengeance taken by Borgia on his mutinous commanders at the town of Sinigaglia, of which Machiavelli  wrote a famous account, On the Manner Adopted by the Duke Valentino to Kill Vitellozzo.  Borgia caught the imagination of the Florentine statesman with his natural bent for abstraction and theory. Implacable, resolute, ferocious and cunning, Cesare Borgia had carved a dominion for himself in a few months. Machiavelli saw in Borgia’s qualities and methods his own ideal of the "new prince," one who could prescribe a desperate remedy for what Machiavelli viewed as the desperate ills of civilization in Renaissance Italy. When Pope Alexander VI, the father of Cesare Borgia, died in 1503 and his successor, Pius III, also died shortly afterward, Machiavelli was sent to Rome for the duration of the conclave that elected Julius II, himself an implacable enemy of the Borgias. There, with ever-increasing scorn, Machiavelli witnessed the decline of his hero and finally celebrated Borgia’s imprisonment, "which he deserved as a rebel against Christ."

In Florence, meanwhile, Piero Soderini had been elected gonfalonier (chief magistrate) for life, and Machiavelli was immediately able to win his favor and become indispensable to the new Florentine ruler. The remarkable influence he had over the head of state enabled Machiavelli to realize his military ideas. For centuries the states of Italy had used mercenary troops in their wars, and Machiavelli had seen in practice their lack of discipline, their faithlessness, and their dangerous arrogance. Inspired both by the military enterprises of ancient Rome and by his own observations in France (where he went on a second mission early in 1504) and in the Romagna (where Cesare Borgia had replaced mercenaries with troops levied from his own territory), Machiavelli ardently pursued the idea of giving the Florentine state a militia of its own, recruited from the citizens under its control. Age-old family rivalries had to be overcome, as well as the reluctance of suspicious townsmen, to arm men from the country districts around Florence. Having set to work immediately after his return from his mission to Rome, he succeeded in persuading the gonfalonier to himself establish a militia. In 1506, as the importance of the new militia increased, the Council of the Nine was created to control it, and Machiavelli was made secretary of this body. The territory of the Florence was divided into districts, and Machiavelli himself went out to see to conscription and to carry out military inspections.  He alternated these military tasks with those of the chancery and with a further mission to Julius II, whose own armies, moving to free the Papal States from various enemies, soon entered the city of Bologna in triumph.

In December 1507 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I was preparing an invasion of Italy from Germany. Florence's gonfalonier, who did not trust his own ambassador at the imperial court, accordingly sent Machiavelli on another journey beyond the Alps. On his return from Germany, as the Florentines were showing new strength in an effort to recapture the city of Pisa, which had temporarily freed itself from Florentine rule, Machiavelli was able to test the militia that he had created. He went to command his troops at the front and Pisa capitulated in June of 1509.

After a mission to Mantua in connection with yet another invasion by Maximilian Machiavelli went again to France in July 1510 to persuade Florence's ally Louis XII to make peace with Pope Julius II, or at least not to drag Florence into a war that would ruin the republic. The French however, "who knew nothing about statecraft," were not influenced by what Machiavelli had to tell them. At the end of the summer of 1511 he went once more to France to persuade Louis XII to remove the schismatic council that he was sponsoring in Pisa, since this had brought upon the Florentines the rage of Julius II. Unsuccessful in this mission, as soon as he was back from France, Machiavelli himself went to Pisa and disbanded this council without ceremony. For the free republic, however, the last hour had already come: the army of the pope's Holy League was already on its way to punish Florence. The gonfalonier Soderini was deposed, and in 1512 the Medici returned as masters of the city.

III.     The Medici.

With the Medici again in power, Machiavelli lost his position and when a conspiracy against the Medici was uncovered early in 1513 Machiavelli was accused of complicity. Imprisoned, he maintained his innocence even under torture, despite the fact that his name was on a list taken from the real conspirators. During this period Julius II had died, and Giovanni de' Medici had become Pope Leo X. Machiavelli, at length freed from imprisonment, sought in vain to get into the good graces of the Medici.  Reduced to poverty, in 1513 Machiavelli retired to property near Florence that he had inherited from his father. There he employed his time writing his most famous works, The Prince, much of Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, and a play entitled The Mandrake.

In April 1526 Machiavelli was elected secretary of a five-man body constituted to superintend the fortification of Florence. The Pope having formed an army against the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, Machiavelli joined Francesco Guicciardini, the Pope's lieutenant, working closely with him until the sack of Rome by Charles V’s forces brought the war to an end in May of 1527. Florence having regained its freedom by casting off the Medici, Machiavelli hoped to be restored to his old post in the chancery; but the few favors that the Medici had doled out to him caused the supporters of the new free republic to forget the loyalty he always had for his native city, and he was excluded from any official post. It was the last of his disappointments and perhaps the greatest, for Machiavelli fell ill and died within a month.

 IV.     The Prince

In the world of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, there exist two kinds of people-­--idealists and realists. The idealist of Machiavelli's day, and even down to the present, moves ahead hoping for the best; he nods at good fortune, and copes with difficulties as best he can, but feels the true course of events runs basically even. Machiavelli's realist, however, responds to things as they are, instead of wishing them to be as they should. Such a realist was an opportunist who extracted the greatest amount from good fortune, even going so far as trying to turn misfortune into advantage.

Machiavelli chose to write about what he called "contemporary affairs" and claimed to have blazed a new trail in laying bare the bones of statecraft. As a writer of discourses then, he wears two hats---that of the general moralist, concern­ed with the substance of human affairs, and that of the political scientist, focusing more narrowly on the relationships of government to subject and government to government.

Perhaps it seems surprising to see the author of The Prince, the patriarch of pessimism about human dependability and the prescriptor of ruthless cunning in dealing with it, described as a moralist.  But at the core of his political advice lies a conception of how men ought to live together. They should be self-reliant, respectful of laws, and good neighbors. They should, in short, display those qualities which supposedly characterized the inhabitants of the ancient Roman Republic: civitas, gravitas et probitas. From his wide reading knowledge of ancient writers, Machiavelli detected a spirit of decency sorely lacking in the so-called Renaissance of civilization. No longer were the people of his day respectful of laws; no longer were they willing to take up arms to defend their homeland, preferring instead to leave the task to hirelings and mercenaries. And in Christianity civilization had adopted a strange religion: not national in any respect, as were pagan religions, but a supranational religion of converts which teaches the virtues of meekness, rather than those of strident independence.

His attitude toward the Christian faith was ambivalent, to say the least. For while he despised the basic tenet that the meek shall inherit the earth, and deplored contemporary church corruption, he nonetheless admired Jesus as the giver of a system of laws---as he did Moses, Lycurgus, Solon and the writers of the Twelve Tables of Roman law---and he admired also such popes as Julius II, who managed to ride the tide of an extraordinary run of luck in the conduct of the diplomatic and military affairs of the Papal States.

For Machiavelli, the first step out of the moral chaos of his time is to produce a leader with the prowess and moral equipment to do unsavory deeds, enforce laws and perhaps above all, to be willing to be feared rather than loved. Such a feared but capable leader, Machiavelli hoped, Lorenzo De’ Medici would turn out to be, and The Prince details for Lorenzo the precepts of firm government. In general, one who seeks to maintain his rule should acquire a reputation for piety, sobriety and probity. Keep faith as long as you are able, he says, but if reason of state demands that you break a treaty, be certain to appear to keep it, throwing the burden of bad faith on the other party.

Reason of State.  This phrase epitomizes the innovative nature of Machiavelli’s political thought. Christian Europe of the Renaissance abounded with advice books for rulers, but they addressed the issues inherent in leadership in patently Christian terms, and more precisely, in the context of Catholic dogma. And these pamphlets frequently assumed a philosophically consistent citizenry---an ideal of which Machiavelli knew reality often fell short. In contrast, Machiavelli declared that morals as they were practiced were the real standard of the prince, and that to expect men to be anything but treacherous, greedy, and vain was to live very dangerously indeed.

This is political advice of a new breed. It states, as none had stated before, that politics is a specialized profession, much like medicine. For Machiavelli the standards of political intercourse are sui generis, and are no part of the morality governing everyday relationships. He frequently compares politics with medicine, an art which by nature is diagnostic and prognostic, rather than normative. A doctor versed only in abstract principles of health would, in Machiavelli's terms, be as able to treat a patient as a prince conversant only in high-level morality would be able to effectively administer a state---both would be set on a course for disaster unless carried along completely by fortune. And "reason of state" is a weapon to be used after, not before the action which only the prince’s judgment of the situation will tell him is necessary. And just as Hippocrates says the patient sometimes cannot be told the truth for the sake of his health, so too must the prince use the health of the state as his guiding principle---suiting action to needs, however unorthodox.

Machiavelli's morality is in the end quite in step with his political recommendations. For him, what distinguishes a prince is not his character, but what his office demands of him. He sees the human animal as a creature ruled by circumstance, able to decide his future half of the time, ruled by fortune the other half. He fit the pagan goddess Fortuna neatly into the construct of his basic moral beliefs. She is treacherous, opposing inflexibly planned projects. If she assists man at all, it is as a whim, and neither to be expected nor relied upon. Faced with this, what is man to do? He may choose to let Fortuna take him where she will, but this is neither wise nor safe. As an alternative, he might stubbornly oppose her, hewing adamantly to a premeditated plan. But this too is unsatisfactory, sharing the same defect as the first: it does not take into account changing circumstance, and so prevents one from shaping circumstance to one's own end.

The solution to this basic problem as presented by Niccolò  Machiavelli is flexibility: a constant, rational grasping for signs of things to come. Think, he says, prepare in advance, and when the flood comes, keep your head above water, watching whom Fortuna favors. Be ready to decide quickly whether to bide your time, or to strike at once, taking full advantage of the situation, for despite his worship of the prudent prince, Machiavelli has an unfettered admiration for he who strikes decisively, seizing Fortuna before she outruns him.

For Machiavelli this is the sum of political virtue. In a world of changing and shifting circumstance, in which there are no safe harbors, no certain words of God, one has only a few precious precepts arising from human experience, best treated as the fallible and provisional guidelines they are. According to Niccolò  Machiavelli, those who yearn for or claim to have better are either in---or preparing for---life in eternity.

V.     Quotes from The Prince:

Ï    A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline, for that is the only art for one who commands…it not only maintains those who are born princes, but often enables men of private fortune to attain that rank.  And one sees, on the other hand, that when princes think more of luxury than of arms, they lose their state…

Ï    In taking a state the conqueror  must arrange to commit all his cruelties at once, so as not to have to recur to them every day, and by not making fresh changes, to reassure people and win them over by benefiting them…Injuries should be done all together, so that being less tasted, they will give less offense.  Benefits should be granted little by little, so that they may be better enjoyed.

Ï    Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and if any one supports his state by the arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure, as they are disunited and ambitious, without discipline, faithless, bold among friends, cowardly among enemies…and keep no faith with men.
The question arises whether it is better to be loved more than feared or feared more than loved.  The reply is that one ought to be both…but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved…For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain;  as long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours…but when necessity approaches, they revolt…Love is held by a chain of obligation which…is broken whenever it serves [men’s] purpose…but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment  which never fails.

Ï    When [the prince] is obliged to take the life of any one, let him do so when there is proper justification and manifest reason for it…above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Ï    How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity…Still, the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation.
You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by the law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second…A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion  cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot protect himself from wolves.  One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.

Ï    [The prince] is rendered despicable by being thought changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid and irresolute; this a prince must guard against a rock of danger, and so contrive that his actions show grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude…and let him adhere to his decisions so that no one may think of deceiving or cozening him.

 Contributed by Woodrow Asbel

(Thanks to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Encyclopedia Britannica (1995 ed.), Britannica Great Books (1956 ed.) and  --WA)