Machiavelli, Niccolo


Machiavelli, Niccolo
(1469-1527)
   Florentine political theorist, statesman, and historian, commonly regarded as the greatest political thinker of the Renaissance. His keen analysis of the realities of power and the foundations of political success was so often denounced as immoral that the term "Machiavellian" still implies ruthlessness in the pursuit of power and unscrupulousness in the means adopted. The real Machiavelli was a far more subtle and nuanced thinker than the modern term implies, though his system of political thought, based on his insider's view of the workings of Italian state-craft, began with the assumption that unless a political leader can gain office and keep it, no gentler political virtues are of any account. Although often depicted as an apologist for tyranny and violence, Machiavelli preferred a republican form of government in which an elite of well-born and prosperous leaders shared authority with representatives of the lower (but not the very lowest) orders of society— essentially the system of government that he believed to have ruled the ancient Roman republic.
   Machiavelli received an excellent humanistic education under the supervision of his father, who himself was an admirer of ancient literature. The son came of political age just as Medicean dominance of Florence collapsed and new leaders tried to devise political reforms that would provide a strong executive authority while preventing any one faction or family from becoming as powerful as the Medici had been. He witnessed the radical and unstable phase of this reform effort when the Dominican friar Savonarola dominated the city. After the fall of Savonarola in 1498, Machiavelli was appointed to an important civic office as head of the second chancery. He also became secretary to the government commission that managed foreign policy and accompanied several embassies abroad. After 1502 he became close to Piero Soderini, a moderate aristocrat who was elected gonfaloniere (head of the central governing council, the Signoria) for life.
   Even before Soderini's rise to power, Machiavelli had agitated for the creation of a local militia made up of citizens, arguing that reliance on mercenary troops had been the source of the inability of the Italian states to cope with the invasions by French and Spanish rulers. Soderini authorized him to organize such a militia, which was successful in restoring Florentine rule over Pisa in 1509 but proved no match for the powerful army, mostly Spanish troops, sent by Pope Julius II and King Ferdinand I of Spain in 1512 to conquer Florence, oust Soderini and restore the Medici to power. Unlike most civil servants under Soderini, Machiavelli was summarily dismissed from office, fined heavily, and forbidden to leave Florentine territory for a year. In 1513, when a plot against the Medici was discovered, he was arrested and tortured, but apparently there was no evidence that he had been involved.
   The fall of Soderini's regime was essentially the end of Machiavelli's political career. He was perfectly willing to accept the restored Medicean leadership, but his known republican sympathies made the new rulers mistrust him. He was commissioned indirectly by the Medici to write a History of Florence, a work that he completed in 1525 and dedicated to the Medici pope, Clement VII. His work on this project brought about a partial reconciliation with the Medici but never led to a significant political appointment. In 1527, when the army of the Emperor Charles V plundered Rome and held the pope himself captive, the Florentine people, still loyal to their republican constitution, again overthrew the Medici. Machiavelli offered his services to the revolutionary regime, but his recent association with the Medici made him mistrusted, and his offer was declined. He died a few weeks later.
   Politics was life to Machiavelli. Despite his fine humanistic education, he was interested in action, not in literature. After his release from imprisonment in 1513, he had nothing better to do than think and write, mostly about his own personal experience and the thing that interested him most, political power. In the last 14 years of his life, he turned out a brilliant collection of literary works, mostly about politics but also including comedies, poems, a novella, and his Florentine Histories. His two comedies, Mandragola (1518) and Clizia (1525) are among the principal achievements of the early Renaissance Italian theater. His Florentine Histories provide a well-informed and thoughtful analysis of the background of the political instability that afflicted contemporary Italy. His The Art of War (1519-1520) pre-sented his case for a citizen army and also sought to adapt to modern conditions the military wisdom of the ancient Romans.
   But his most important works are The Prince (ca. 1513; first published in 1532) and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (usually dated 1514-1517), a pair of tracts in which he put forward his ideas on politics, based primarily on his own experience of Italian political reality, and secondarily on his reading and ruminations on the history of ancient Rome. The Prince is often taken to be a cynical and self-serving endorsement of tyrannical government. In reality, especially when read in the light of the Discourses, it is nothing of the kind. Rather, it seeks to define those policies that will enable a ruler to gain and hold onto political power, even in the most adverse circumstances. While its underlying view of human nature and human political behavior is bleak and cynical, Machiavelli is aware that the real basis of any successful political system is the support of the common people. Since the people expect very little from government, Machiavelli argues that it is very easy for an intelligent ruler to win the loyalty of the people. Machiavelli urges his ideal ruler to develop and rely on the military resources of his own populace, who in a crisis will fight for him (and themselves) with a determination unknown to even the most skilled mercenary troops. He evaluates religion exclusively as a political force and warns that the ruler must manipulate that force by seeming to be pious even if he personally is not. At the end of a coldly rational dissection of the secrets of political success, Machiavelli concludes with a passionate appeal to the Medici princes to take advantage of Italy's desperate condition by placing themselves at the head of the whole Italian nation and leading the nation to throw off the yoke of foreign conquest.
   While a cursory reading of The Prince may make it seem incompatible with Machiavelli's lifelong devotion to a moderate republican government, the Discourses suggest an underlying unity of thought.
   Of special importance is the concept of historical cycles enunciated in the Discourses. All human societies, he argues, eventually pass through three stages of political organization, and no human institution endures forever. Like ancient Rome, they begin as monarchies, eventually overthrow their kings under aristocratic leadership when royal government becomes oppressive, and finally drive out the aristocrats when they become corrupt, ending with a popular government (a democracy, in modern terminology but not in Machiavelli's). Each of the three fundamental types of constitution (as defined by Aristotle) eventually declines into a degenerate form: monarchy becomes tyranny, aristocracy (rule of the best and most public-spirited citizens) becomes oligarchy (rule by the rich, who exploit the community for personal gain), and popular government degenerates into what Machiavelli calls "democracy," or mob rule. Since the final state, rule by an undisciplined mob, leads to unbearable social disorder, ultimately a strong man will take power and restore order, thus founding a new monarchy and initiating the next cycle of political change. This cycle will be repeated, over and over again, as long as the community remains independent. The underlying cause of this endless cycle of political forms is the inherent wickedness of human nature and the resulting propensity of rulers to exploit those whom they rule.
   Yet it is possible for a wise "lawgiver" (the monarch who brings to an end each phase of mob rule and restores strong government) to erect safeguards that may delay (but never permanently prevent) the inevitable ruin. The secret of political longevity is the creation of a "balanced" government in which an authoritarian ruler, a powerful aristocracy of the rich and well-born, and the common people share authority so that each of the three social elements acts to restrain misuse of power by the other two. This concept of a mixed government, combining monarchical, aristocratic, and popular elements, implies a system of checks and balances similar to the idealized (and largely mythical) Roman republic described by the Hellenistic historian Polybius (whose works were one of the rediscoveries of 15th-century humanistic scholarship). Polybius' history of Rome, written to explain how the single city of Rome could have come to rule the whole Mediterranean world, is a major source of the idea of cyclical rise and fall of political systems that is at the heart of Machiavelli's Discourses.
   Machiavelli also believed that the third stage of his cycle, a republic ruled by its own citizens, could avoid mob rule and endure only if the people themselves had "virtue," a term implying public-spiritedness and willingness to put the general interest of society ahead of the interest of any one class, clan, or faction. This idea of the need for "virtue" in the people explains why Machiavelli in The Prince was willing to encourage the emergence of an authoritarian leader despite his personal preference for a republican constitution. Not all societies have the virtue required for stable, workable republican government. Looking at the chaotic Italian society of his time and the recent conquest of the Florentine republic by foreign troops, Machiavelli concluded that Florentine society was too morally corrupt to rule itself and that for the present crisis, acceptance of rule by a powerful leader might be necessary as a short-term expedient in order to get rid of foreign conquerors and provide internal stability. Viewed in the light of his cyclical theory of political change and his view of human nature, The Prince seems to represent not a betrayal of Machiavelli's republican principles but an expedient required by the realities of a harsh age. Neither The Prince nor the Discourses endorses the unrestrained power of a tyrant as a permanent solution to the problems of human society.
   These two political works constitute the most powerful defense of a limited republican constitution written in the Renaissance. Machiavelli was not, however, addressing the masses of Italy. All of his works were written in the Tuscan vernacular, but they were intended to circulate privately among people with enough experience and judgment to find the correct lessons in his writings. None of his political or historical writings was published in his lifetime. Only The Art of War, a practical manual on how to organize for war under the guidance of Roman examples, was published while he lived.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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