Niccolo Machiavelli

The 'father of modern political science', renaissance diplomat and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli is often associated with immoral methods of power politics. His realist views regarding practical politics and leadership gained him a controversial reputation during his time. Although some still view Machiavelli's work as unethical and corrupt, his significant contribution to the field of politics and international relations cannot be disputed. 

Niccolo Machiavelli Niccolo Machiavelli

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    Niccolò Machiavelli biography

    Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy. His father was a lawyer, allowing Machiavelli to received a comprehensive formal education in Latin, articulation and grammar. No records determine exactly what further education Machiavelli received however, due to the proficiency and excellence of his publications which portrayed a deep understanding of Italian and Latin literature, it is widely presumed that he attended the University of Florence.

    At the time, Italy was separated into city-states. The Medici family had ruled Florence for sixty years until Charles VIII, the King of France, invaded the state in 1494, seeking passage to Naples. After an embarrassing series of concessions to the French king's demands, Piero Medici, 'the unfortunate', was forced out of power by enraged Florentine citizens. As a result, Florence returned to republicanism from 1494 to 1512. During this period, Machiavelli experienced the height of his career as a politician and married his wife, Marietta Corsini, in 1502.

    Niccolò Machiavelli, Niccolò Machiavelli Biography, StudySmarter Fig. 1, Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli

    Machiavelli was initially employed as a clerk under the new republic and drafted official political documents. Under the rule of Florence's first gonfalonier (ruler for life), Piero Soderini, Machiavelli was promoted to second Chancellor. His duties included serving the Florentine council in charge of warfare and diplomacy (Dieci di libertà e pace). He made diplomatic visits to France, Germany and other Italian City-states such as Rome and Pisa. These travels significantly shaped Machiavelli's political philosophy; by observing the behaviour of states, rulers and governments, Machiavelli acquired talent in the art of diplomacy and gained insights into what made states influential and successful. He developed a particular fascination for Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, after being sent to observe him in 1502.

    Cesare Borgia

    Borgia was the son of Pope Alexander VI, who ruled the Papal States from 1492 to 1503 whilst also being the head of the Catholic Church. After retiring as a cardinal, Cesare became the captain-general of the Church's army and, with the help of French troops, attempted to establish a Borgia state by bringing multiple Italian states back under the control of his father's papacy through brutal military invasions. Despite his reputation as a cruel leader, Machiavelli admired Cesare's leadership style, which allowed him to bring unity and stability to the papacy by being cunning and confident. Cesare became a significant inspiration for Machiavelli's greatest work, The Prince, and helped form the basis of Machiavelli's political ideology regarding effective leadership.

    Machiavelli also made significant changes to the structure of the Florentine military.

    Originally, the military consisted mainly of 'mercenaries' or professional soldiers. However, most of these soldiers were from various regions, often lacking loyalty and disregarding orders. This was problematic for the republic as the Italian wars progressed. Taking inspiration from the Romans, through the work of Roman historian Titus Livius, Machiavelli suggested recruiting citizens as soldiers to establish a national standing Florentine army. With Soderini in favour, Machiavelli constructed the transition and the plan was implemented in 1506, leading to the establishment of a new department of state titled 'Nine of the Militia' (Nove di ordinanza e milizia), with Machiavelli as its secretary.

    As the Italian wars raged on, eventually, with the help of Spanish troops, the Medici family helped expel the French from Italy and took back power in Florence in 1512. Machiavelli's Florentine militia failed to hold back the advances of the Medici household, and once defeated, Machiavelli was stripped of all his posts and exiled to a confined space for a year, with his army dissolved. A year later, he was falsely imprisoned and tortured on charges of conspiring to overthrow the Medici. After his release, Machiavelli resigned to a quiet life on a farm where, unbeknownst to him, he would produce his most famous and influential works, such as The Prince and Discourses on Livy. He also took on several minor missions for the government. Whilst working on the History of Florence as commissioned to him by a member of the Medici family, Machiavelli passed away in 1527 at the age of 58.

    Niccolò Machiavelli, Niccolò Machiavelli Biography, StudySmarter Fig. 2 Tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence, Italy

    Niccolò Machiavelli Books

    Machiavelli's greatest accomplishments are his two books, Discourses on Livy and The Prince. Machiavelli wrote the former work for approximately four to five years, and finished the latter work within this period as well. It is suspected that he began work on Discourses on Livy in late 1513 and partially completed it in 1518 or 1519, whilst The Prince was written in 1513. Both would not be published until after his death, with the Discourses published in 1531 and The Prince in 1532. This was due to the controversial nature surrounding the books as a result of Machiavelli's unrelenting realism and pragmatism, which historian James Johnson believes compelled readers

    to confront, in the starkest terms possible, the most important questions about politics and morality.1

    Both works were renounced as immoral during the 16th Century, with 'The Prince' being banned by the Catholic Church under its 'Index of Prohibited books'.

    Discourse on Livy is essentially a review of the history of Rome, based on the work of Titus Livius titled 'From the Founding of the City. Through his commentary, Machiavelli addresses Rome's rise to power through a republican governmental system and suggests that Rome achieved this status due to the tensions and hostilities between its people and its government. He believed that a balance of tolerance and severity is needed to ensure that a government remains powerful, allowing its rulers to govern reasonably so as not to turn the populace against them. He reprimands his peers for not addressing the realities of what it takes for a republic to prosper and discusses the effects of ideals, religions and culture on the populace and the state. Machiavelli's trademark pragmatism is present throughout the work, as he proposes how republics might be able to best deal with inevitable conflict and occupation and how they can best assimilate newly captured states into their republic.

    The Prince Niccolò Machiavelli

    The Prince is, by far, Machiavelli's most notable work. The book consists of a series of essays which advise 'princes' on how to maintain their principalities. The treatise was dedicated to Lorenzo Medici, with some assuming that Machiavelli was attempting to gain the trust of the Medici family after he was wrongly accused of conspiracy against them. Lorenzo Medici did not read the treatise.

    Throughout the book, Machiavelli touches on the types of principalities such as hereditary or mixed principalities and suggests how these princes can gain the trust and loyalty of their subjects. He also outlines various issues a prince must manage, such as his duties regarding military matters, how he must keep his word and how to avoid flattery and being hated, using Cesare Borgia as his inspiration for his exemplary prince in the treatise.

     Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince Niccolò Machiavelli, StudySmarter Fig. 3, Portrait of Cesare Borgia

    The Prince offers practical and realistic solutions for rulers, stating that if a prince wishes to remain in power and protect his state, he must learn to do good and evil. This is because, in the real world of politics, morality does not always result in the security of the people, the state and the ruler. Machiavelli explains this through his most famous quote from the book

    It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both ... men worry less about doing injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared.2

    Machiavelli argues the right of a ruler to be cruel to his subjects in certain instances to protect the stability of his authority and, by extension, the state, as he believes that prosperity and progress can only coexist in a politically stable state. He explains this by stating

    A prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine. 3

    In short, by upholding the state's rules to a strict standard and punishing those who are disloyal and dubious, the Prince is feared enough to maintain order and stability but not hated by his people. Machiavelli warns that if a prince acts in a way that causes his people to hate him, he will be in danger of conspiracy and uprisings. This could lead not only to the demise of the Prince but of the whole state as it becomes unstable and weak, resulting in conflict, death and the possible destruction of the entire state.

    Niccolò Machiavelli Importance

    The importance of Machiavelli's work cannot be overstated. Many contemporary political scientists credit Machiavelli for producing the earliest scientific study of power politics by separating morals from practical and pragmatic political leadership. Machiavelli was far ahead of his time with his analysis of power politics and realist statesmanship, and his work remains relevant today. World leaders continue to debate how and when it is justified for governments to be ruthless, with Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff stating that Machiavelli's guidelines

    look like cynicism only if we fail to see [their] deep realism.4

    Machiavelli is also awarded the title of 'father of realism' with his insistence that politics be viewed and accepted as it is truly practiced in the real world, often void of common moral considerations. Despite his name and philosophy often being associated with ruthless and immoral power politics, some academics such as Philip Bobbit label him an 'intense moralist' as he sought the stability and prosperity of states by giving princes pragmatic methods of maintaining their power and protecting the state. Although contemporary politicians such as Robert S. Strauss label Machiavelli's teaching as 'immoral and irreligious', it cannot be denied that Machiavelli focused on real-life issues facing governments and rulers and that he is

    Scandalous because he is so difficult to refute.5

    Niccolo Machiavelli - Key takeaways

    • Machiavelli was a renaissance era diplomat and philosopher.

    • He is important as he has been accredit with providing the earliest study of power politics by separating morals from practical and pragmatic political leadership.

    • Machiavelli is most famous for his political treatise' titled Discourse on Livy and The Prince

    • Machiavelli argues the right of a ruler to be cruel to his subjects in certain instances to protect the stability of his authority and, by extension, the state, as he believes that prosperity and progress can only coexist in a politically stable state.

    • Machiavelli is awarded the title of 'father of realism' with his insistence that politics be viewed and accepted as it is truly practiced in the real world, often void of common moral considerations.


    References

    1. Johnson as quoted in O’Rourke, J. (2013), Machiavelli’s The Prince: Still Relevant after All These Years. BU Today. http://www.bu.edu/articles/2013/machiavelli-the-prince-still-relevant-after-all-these-years/
    2. Machiavelli, N. (C., 1532). The Prince. (2004 ed) Translated by George Bull. Penguin Books P71
    3. Machiavelli, N. (C., 1532). The Prince. (2004 ed) Translated by George Bull. Penguin Books P70
    4. Ignatieff, M. (2013) Machiavelli Was Right. The Atlantic. Accessed at https://www.theatlan- tic.com/magazine/archive/2013/12/machiavelli-was-right/354672/
    5. Mead, W.R. (2011) Stratblog: The Virtues of Machiavelli. The American Interest, Accessed at https://www.the-american-interest.com/2011/04/02/stratblog-the-virtues-of-machiavelli/
    6. Fig. 1, Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli.jpg) by Santi di Tito is in the Public Domain
    7. Fig. 2 Tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence, Italy (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grab_Niccolo_Machiavelli_Santa_Croce_Florenz-1.jpg) by Rufus46 is licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0
    8. Fig. 3, Portrait of Cesare Borgia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ritratto_di_Cesare_Borgia,_Sebastiano_del_Piombo.jpg) by Sebastiano del Piombo is in the Public Domain
    Frequently Asked Questions about Niccolo Machiavelli

    Who is Machiavelli and why is he important?


    Machiavelli is a renaissance era diplomat and philosopher. He is important as he has been accredit with providing the earliest study of power politics by separating morals from practical and pragmatic political leadership.

    What is Machiavelli most famous for?


    Machiavelli is most famous for his political treatise titled 'The Prince' which was meant as a handbook for leaders. 

    What was Machiavelli's view on politics?


    Machiavelli was a realist and pragmatist who believed that politics be viewed and accepted as it is truly practiced in the real world, often void of common moral considerations.

    What famous quote is attached to Machiavelli and his book the prince?


    'It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both'

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