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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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
to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Encyclopedia Britannica (1995 ed.),
Britannica Great Books (1956 ed.) and Epistemelinks.com