Biographical Information on Machiavelli, Niccolò

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Biographical Information on Machiavelli

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469-1527), Italian political philosopher, historian, playwright, and poet. The great Florentine political thinker was the first to develop the idea that political morality differs from and is not bounded by the usual ethical norms and to insist that power is the decisive factor in political life.

Many who stress the differences between the Middle Ages and the modern world regard Machiavelli as a symbol of a break between the two periods. They consider his approach to politics characteristic of modern times.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, on May 3, 1469. His father was poor, though of a locally prominent family. Political events in Florence and throughout Europe during Machiavelli's lifetime were conducive to a reexamination of traditional political thought. Machiavelli was 25 years old when, in 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and thereby opened an era of wars between France, Spain, and the Austrian Habsburgs for the possession of the Italian peninsula. By the time of Machiavelli's death, in 1527, all western and central Europe had been sucked into this conflict, and an interconnected state system, revolving around the struggle between the Habsburg ruler of Austria and Spain and the French king, had emerged. Florence, an important factor in Italian politics at the beginning of this era, had become a pawn in the rivalry between pope, emperor, and French king and was reduced to a purely nominal independence. The decline of Florentine power was sharply felt by the inhabitants of a city proud of its long tradition of republican freedom. An economically active, wealthy city, Florence had developed a rich cultural life and claimed to be the intellectual center of Europe. A passion for speculation and a search for rational explanations were natural in this kind of atmosphere.

Thus Machiavelli belonged to an entire school of Florentine writers concerned with examining political and historical problems. If his works alone have been of general and lasting importance, this is due chiefly to the extraordinary brilliance of his intellect. However, the external circumstances of his life and career had their part in fitting him for the role that he played in the development of political thought.

Machiavelli's life was divided between a period of public activity and one of retirement. All his important writings were composed after 1512, when, following the return of the Medici from exile, he had been relieved of his official functions.
Machiavelli's removal from political activity, which he regarded as the great tragedy of his life, was actually fortunate because it forced him to enter the career of a political writer, on which his claim to lasting fame is based. However, the realism that distinguished Machiavelli's political thought owes much to his experience as an official of the Florentine republic.

Machiavelli in Public Life
From 1498 until the Medici returned to Florence in 1512, Machiavelli served in the chancellery of the Florentine republic. We have no information about his earlier life, about his training and education, but this much seems certain—and is confirmed by his writings—that he was educated in the classics, as this was a prerequisite for employment in the chancellery. The head of the chancellery was a well-known humanist. Machiavelli was the second in command and in addition was secretary of the Ten of Balìa, an important government committee in charge of diplomatic negotiations and, in case of war, entrusted with the supervision of military operations. As committee secretary he was involved in administrative tasks and diplomatic missions.
Throughout this period the prime object of Florentine policy was the reconquest of Pisa. Machiavelli frequently was sent to the Florentine army camp outside Pisa and gained firsthand knowledge of the ways military affairs were handled. His diplomatic missions brought him in contact with many of the Italian rulers of the Renaissance period. He spent long weeks with Cesare Borgia and became an eyewitness of the unscrupulous manner in which Cesare got rid of the small rulers of the Romagna who stood in his way. Diplomatic missions led him also to other parts of Europe—to France (1500, 1504, 1510, 1511) and to Germany (1507–1508). Machiavelli's reports about Germany and France have been preserved and show keen understanding of the relation between political institutions and political strength.

Machiavelli's most discussed political activity developed from the initiative he took to introduce a new military organization in Florence. The disadvantages of the system of mercenary armies, which prevailed in Renaissance Italy, were obvious. The armies represented a continuous drain on the treasury. Their leaders, the condottiere, were unreliable, willing to serve whoever paid them most. Machiavelli's suggestion that Florence introduce conscription was accepted. He was instrumental in organizing this new military force, which made up part of the Florentine army that unsuccessfully opposed the emperor in 1512 when imperial troops returned to Florence to reinstall the Medici.

The role that Machiavelli had played in the Florentine republic was his undoing when the republic was overthrown and the Medici returned to Florence. Machiavelli was dismissed. Furthermore, suspected of participation in a conspiracy against the new rulers, he was tortured and, for a year, was ordered not to enter the city of Florence.

Machiavelli in Retirement
Barred from practical politics, Machiavelli settled in San Casciano on a small estate a few miles outside Florence and embarked on a literary career. He remained there until he was restored to favor by the Medicean pope Clement VII in 1525–1526. Shortly after the Medici had once again been expelled from Florence, Machiavelli died there in June 1527.
Machiavelli's important literary productions in this period were of a political and historical nature. These were The Prince (Il principe), written in 1513; The Discourses (Discorsi), completed by 1519; The Art of War (Dell'arte della guerra), written between 1519 and 1520; and The Florentine History (Istorie florentine), completed in 1525. Of these four, The Art of War and The Florentine History are less significant. The Art of War advocates his favorite idea of a national army based on conscription. But he accepts the military organization of the ancient Romans so completely as the ideal to be imitated in all details that the book has a somewhat unreal and romantic flavor. His Florentine History, which presents the history of Florence from its foundation to the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492, follows rather uncritically the well-known narrative sources. He embellishes his account, in typically humanist fashion, with elaborate battle scenes and long speeches. However, the book has interest because of the attention given to domestic affairs and because of some specifically Machiavellian ideas inserted in the speeches.

Machiavelli's Political Thought
The gist of Machiavelli's political thought is found in The Prince and The Discourses. In form, these two writings are quite different. The Prince gives advice to a new ruler on how to found a state and how to maintain himself in power; The Discourses are commentaries on the first ten books of Livy's History of Rome. But both books are similar in endeavoring to discover the laws of political behavior that lead to success in political action. Such laws, Machiavelli believes, cannot be found outside the realm of politics, as, for instance, in ethics. They must be abstracted from political practice—that is, from the political practice of his own time as well as from the experiences of history. What Machiavelli has seen in his own time—whether the successful ruthlessness of a Cesare Borgia or the indecisive founderings of his own government—enters into his presentation.

In Machiavelli's view, the most perfect example of successful political action is to be found in the history of Rome, an approach that leads him to idealizing everything the Romans did. Contemporary politics and Roman history are the material out of which he forms those generalizations that by their neglect of customary morality have shocked the world. For example: "to be feared gives more security than to be loved"; "a prudent ruler cannot and should not observe faith when such observance is to his disadvantage."

Although the amoral aspects of his doctrines have attracted the greatest attention, they do not exhaust the content of his political thought. He was aware that success in politics needed more than precise rational calculations. He knew that all clever planning could come to naught if it lacked an irrational element—namely, willpower. In Machiavelli's own terms, politics is a struggle between fortuna and virtù (fortune and virtue, the latter in the sense of strength rather than Christian virtue), and one of his chief concerns was how to produce political virtue. It could be possessed by an individual (thus Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia, whom he believed represented political virtue in action), but he was mainly interested in the conditions that produced political virtue in an entire state. He believed the institutions of Rome had been ideally designed to produce virtue in the Roman people and advocated a constitution for Florence that might achieve the same end. Although The Prince was a handbook for tyrants, Machiavelli's ideal was a free republic. See also Prince, The.

Critical Reception
Few writers have been as passionately discussed as Niccolò Machiavelli. In the 16th and 17th centuries, not many persons would have openly admitted being his followers. But the importance of his influence can be deduced from the vehemence with which he was attacked. There was, for example, a whole school of anti-Machiavellian political writers. With the rise of political absolutism in the 17th and 18th centuries, the importance and validity of his doctrines were frankly recognized.

His views gained even wider attention in the 19th century, particularly in Germany and Italy. According to sympathetic critics of the day, Machiavelli did not mean that politics has no morality, but rather that it has a morality of its own. Such a doctrine seemed justified and almost prophetic in a period in which the achievement of national unity and of a national state was regarded as the highest aim, to which everything else must be subordinated. Although contemporary scholarship may have reservations about this 19th century transformation of Machiavelli into a prophet of the modern national state, interest in his writings has continued and increased because, with the spread of totalitarianism, the problems he raised have gained a new relevance.

Gilbert, Felix. "Machiavelli, Niccolò." Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 7 Oct. 2008 <>.
The Prince by Machiavelli

Prince, The: A famous treatise by the Renaissance Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. In the 15th chapter of The Prince (Il Principe in Italian), Machiavelli provides a key to his purpose in writing the work. He blames earlier political writers for having discussed "republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in reality," and for concerning themselves with "how men ought to live." For Machiavelli, rules for the guidance of a political leader must be based on how men actually behave.

These views reflect the deep chasm that had opened between the theological concepts of politics in the Middle Ages and the ruthless pursuit of power in the Renaissance. Instead of a hierarchical society, with pope and emperor at its head, large independent political units had emerged in northern and western Europe. However, Italy, which lacked a unifying power, saw continuous conflicts between kingdoms and republics, and hereditary rulers and despots.

The Prince was written in 1513, a year after the Medicis returned to Florence, and the book is dedicated to a Medici ruler, clearly to curry favor. Machiavelli explains that the work "ought to be welcome to a prince and particularly to a new prince." This emphasis is important. Questions of legitimacy and heredity, of divine right and legal justification do not concern Machiavelli. His only interest is how power can be acquired and maintained.

One of the most important chapters of The Prince discusses the career of Cesare Borgia, who is presented as a model for a new ruler who wants to carve out a kingdom. The ruthlessness with which Cesare trapped and killed the small lords of the Romagna and the savagery with which he got rid of his own servants when they showed signs of independence are indications of his greatness—"stimulating examples" for other rulers.

The essence of Machiavellianism in The Prince is often considered to be the unscrupulous use of force and evil. Indeed, Machiavelli states that "a good man must come to ruin among so many who are not good." The first task of a prince who wishes to maintain himself is to learn "how to be not good.""To be feared gives more security than to be loved." The political ideas of The Prince are not exhausted, however, in the recommendation of an unscrupulous use of force. According to Machiavelli, political behavior demands flexibility. Under certain circumstances, reliance on love of one's subjects or observance of one's obligations might be the appropriate action. As Machiavelli says, a ruler must know how to be both a lion and a fox. The decisive aspect of Machiavelli's political theories is that, in discussing the measures a prince should take, ethical value—whether morally good or bad—is never considered. The only criterion is whether the methods adopted promise success.

The shocking theories of The Prince immediately made it well known, and historical developments contributed to its fame. The Prince seemed a justification of the rise of absolutism that was the decisive political development in the centuries to follow. Few rulers would openly admit their indebtedness to Machiavelli, and Frederick the Great even wrote a refutation of The Prince. However, many people believed that the absolute rulers learned from Machiavelli the secret of their policies.

The Prince maintained its popularity in the 19th century, when liberalism and nationalism had become the dominating political tendencies. Machiavelli had recommended in The Prince that a ruler should not rely on mercenary soldiers but on indigenous forces, and the treatise concluded with "an exhortation to liberate Italy from the Barbarians." In the 19th century it was believed that this statement represented the key to understanding the entire work. Machiavelli's true aim had been the creation of a unified Italy, and the evil means that he had recommended were subordinated to this goal. Consequently, to the 19th century mind, Machiavelli appeared as the prophet of the modern national state.

Although every century since The Prince was written seems to have found a special meaning in the work, its importance transcends the question of the particular applicability of its doctrines. In presenting politics as an autonomous field that has its own methods and rules of action; The Prince has been a landmark in the development of modern political science.


Gilbert, Felix. "Prince, The." Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 7 Oct. 2008 <>.

A Child's Machiavelli

1. View "A Child's Machiavelli: As If Le Petit Prince was written by Machiavelli".

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