Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was an Italian diplomat, politician, philosopher and writer. Machiavelli is best known for his book “The Prince” which offers a realistic guide to those seeking to increase and maintain their power by all means necessary. It is a controversial book as it suggests an amoral approach to keeping power. On the one hand, it is has been viewed as a template for dictators, on the other hand, Machiavelli is seen as an influential philosopher for Republican government and political enlightenment. Macchiavelian has become a pejorative term meaning one who schemes and plots with underhand methods.
Machiavelli was born 3 May 1469 in Florence, Italy (then the Republic of Florence.) He gained a basic humanist education and may have studied at the University of Florence.
For the first 23 years of his life, Florence was ruled by the Medici family – and the ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo was noted for his generous patronage of the arts, which helped Florence became a centre for Renaissance art. However, in 1494, after the death of Lorenzo, Florence became a Republic, and the ruling Medici family were expelled.
In the new Republic, Machiavelli was given an important administrative post and served as a diplomat, travelling around Europe and frequently to the Vatican. Machiavelli was well-suited to his career as a diplomat due to his skills in analysing the character and motives of the people he dealt with. On his travels, he became acquainted with the brutal methods of Cesare Borgia an Italian cardinal who was trying to forge his own power in Italy. Borgia was an inspiration for Machiavelli’s ‘Prince.’ Machiavelli was also responsible for the Florentine militia. He included more citizens in the army, distrusting foreign mercenaries. In 1509, Machiavelli led his citizen’s army to victory over Pisa. Though in 1512, his military reputation suffered when his citizen’s army was decisively beaten by Spanish forces in nearby Prato.
He married Marietta Corsini in 1502. They had four sons and two daughters.
In 1512, the Florentine Republic fell as the Medici – with aid from Pope Julius II and Spanish troops retook the city. Machiavelli was arrested and accused of conspiracy against the Medici. Despite being tortured (being hanged from his bound wrists behind his back) he refused to confess, and after a few weeks he was released.
After his release, he retired to his farm and estate near San Casciano in Val di Pesa, where he concentrated on writing. He maintained a connection with politics by writing to his politically connected friends.
His most famous books were The Prince (1513), Discourse Upon the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (published 1531), and The Art of War (1521)
The Prince was written in haste, at a time when Machiavelli was keen to regain political influence. In The Prince Machiavelli writes about how a prince may gain and retain power, he writes free from constraints about theology and moral constraints, arguing that to retain power a rule may need to lie, cheat, steal and even murder.
“one can say this in general of men: they are ungrateful, disloyal, insincere and deceitful, timid of danger and avid of profit…. Love is a bond of obligation which these miserable creatures break whenever it suits them to do so; but fear holds them fast by a dread of punishment that never passes.” (The Prince)
The Prince also emphasised the importance of a state being well armed, with a reliable military – not relying on mercenaries but employing citizens who felt a loyalty to the state. Machiavelli also felt the need for a strong leader. He used the term virtu – which at first glance could be translated into English as virtue, but Machiavelli didn’t mean it in a moral context. To Machiavelli, the ideal leader’s virtu was his ability to maintain his power and achieve great things.
The Prince has been seen as revolutionary for promoting modern political philosophy rooted in realism and not idealism. It was a a discussion of how people behave – rather than how they should behave. Famously he stated that it is better for a ruler to be feared rather than loved.
“It would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.”
Taken on its own, The Prince, seems a handy guide for dictators, and Machiavelli’s writings have been much criticised for its perceived tolerance and acceptance of totalitarian methods. Mussolini was one of the few rulers who publically praised the book. Napoleon is said to have kept a copy under his pillow and taken it very seriously.
However, in his other writings, such as Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli is more supportive of the Republican government. In fact, an important feature of Machiavelli’s writings is their inconsistency and lack of coherence. This in part reflected his life experiences and the conflict between idealism and the reality of life in 16th Century Italy. In truth, the writings of Machiavelli are left open to interpretation. For example, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued the great merit of ‘The Prince’ was to warn readers of the sly nature of most political rulers. To others, Machiavelli was the supreme satirist – puncturing the pretensions of rulers who claimed a ‘divine right’ but were deeply immoral. Others criticised him for the promotion of evil.
“So far as he is able, a prince should stick to the path of good but, if the necessity arises, he should know how to follow evil.”
Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince)
On a personal note, it seems Machiavelli was far from Machiavellian himself. In Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy, Machiavelli expresses greater hope for a Republican government where there are basic liberties for individual citizens, Machiavelli expresses faith that ordinary citizens may have better judgement than a powerful ruler.
“A people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a prince” (Discourses)
“the people can never be persuaded that it is good to appoint to an office a man of infamous or corrupt habits, whereas a prince may easily and in a vast variety of ways be persuaded to do this. (Discourses)
Religious views of Machiavelli
Machiavelli was deeply critical of the established church and the behaviour of priests, cardinals and popes. To Machiavelli, he only saw the church as an extension of the political battlefield and a way to maintain control. Machiavelli supported the Republican politics of the Dominican preacher Savonarola, who replaced the Medici as ruler. However, he criticised Savonarola’s religious views – feeling his piety was based on lies and dishonesty. His own religious views are more difficult to ascertain; he was not an atheist and may have supported a version of Christianity which strengthened individual liberty.
Death of Machiavelli
Machiavelli died in 1527 at 58 after receiving his last rites. Two weeks he was in good health, but developed severe abdominal pains after taking a medicine. His son wrote about his father’s death.
“I can only weep in telling you that our father, Niccolò, died…from pains in the stomach caused by medication, he took on the 20th. He confessed his sins to Brother Matteo, who kept him company until his death. Our father has left us in the deepest poverty, as you know” (Unger 2011, 332)
His body was interned at the family crypt at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. In the eighteenth century, when Machiavelli’s writings became famous, his body was moved.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Niccolo Machiavelli Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 30 June 2019.
Machiavelli – The Prince
Machiavelli – The Prince at Amazon
Machiavelli – Discourses
Machiavelli – The Prince at Amazon
100 most influential people – A list of 100 most influential people as chosen by Michael H. Hart, from his book 100 most influential people in the world. Includes; Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Lord Buddha, Confucius, St Paul and Johann Gutenberg.
Famous Italians – Italian composers, artists, politicians and authors. Includes Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, St Francis of Assisi, Michelangelo, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Catherine of Sienna.
People of the Renaissance (1350s to 1650s) The Renaissance covers the flowering of art and culture in Europe. Primarily in art, but also in science. Includes Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Famous Philosophers – Some of the world’s greatest philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza and David Hume.
Writers and authors – Famous authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.