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Summary Article: Niccolò Machiavelli
from World History Encyclopedia

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian historian, statesman, and political philosopher. His political theory, as presented in his works The Prince (1532) and The Discourses (1534), has turned his name into a synonym for amoral deception and cunning in pursuing one's goals.

Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. He began his influential career in politics when he became a clerk for the newly proclaimed Florentine Republic in 1498. In the new republic Machiavelli served as secretary of the ten-man council that conducted diplomatic negotiations and supervised the military operations of the republic. Machiavelli's duties included, among other things, missions to the French king (1504, 1510-1511), the Holy See (1506), and the German emperor (1507-1508). While Machiavelli was involved with these diplomatic missions, he became acquainted with many rulers and was able to study the methods they used in governing. The most significant such ruler whom Machiavelli studied was Cesare Borgia.

In 1512 when the Medici, a Florentine family, regained power in Florence and the republic was dissolved, Machiavelli was removed from office, and the Medicis temporarily arrested him for allegedly conspiring against them. Once he was released from prison, Machiavelli spent much of the rest of his life on his estate near Florence. It was during this period that he wrote his most important works, including The Prince (published in 1532) and The Discourses (published in 1534). Machiavelli was never able to curry political favor with the Medicis, and consequently he never regained his former prominent place in the political life of Florence. To make matters worse, when the Florentine Republic was temporarily reinstated in 1527, Machiavelli was suspected of being too closely allied with the Medicis to regain his former post. On June 21 of the same year, Machiavelli died in Florence.

Machiavelli is considered by many to be the father of modern political theory. In his book The Prince he argued that a ruler is justified in using whatever means necessary to secure power. A ruler should not be too tyrannical, for this might enflame the hatred of the governed. Yet the ruler should not seek to be too kind or beneficent, for without fearing the prince, the governed may pursue selfish ends that are ultimately to the detriment of the state and the prince. Within these parameters, however, Machiavelli claimed that the most successful rulers (rulers he studied while on diplomatic missions) were those who could, through deception and cunning, foster the love, respect, and fear of the citizens. Some have interpreted The Prince to be a satire that should be read as a critique of absolutist rulers such as the Borgias. This reading would emphasize the importance of liberty and the role of government in protecting the liberties and rights of its citizens, hence the reason that Machiavelli is often cited as the initiator of modern political theory, for much of modern political theory is concerned precisely with detailing the manner in which a government or ruler is legitimate only if the government or ruler protects the rights and liberties of the governed. However, this reading of Machiavelli fell largely into doubt in 1810 when a letter by Machiavelli was discovered in which he reveals that he wrote The Prince to endear himself to the ruling Medici family of Florence. Read in light of this letter, The Prince emerges as a justification for strong governments, even absolutist if necessary, as a means of reducing the influence and threat of foreign powers.

Although Machiavelli's name has become a pejorative term, these associations should not lead one to minimize the importance of Machiavelli as a political theorist. Regardless of the motives that led him to write The Prince, many of Machiavelli's observations and analyses of political tactics, the role that chance plays in restricting political policy, and many other points stand on their own as important contributions to the theoretical study of political strategy and tactics. Machiavelli is also an important figure in the resurgence of humanism and the Italian Renaissance. Since Machiavelli's time, political theorists have turned their attention to the human condition, to human nature, and to structuring a government that is based on conclusions regarding these issues; Hobbes is a case in point. This is in direct contrast to the ancient and medieval tradition of imposing an ideal form on human beings and molding and raising people who are best accommodated to this form. It is this turn to humanism in political theory that is perhaps Machiavelli's greatest contribution to Western culture.

  • de Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • King, Ross. Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
  • Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  • Ridolfi, R. The Life of Niccolo Machiavelli. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.
Jeffrey A. Bell
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

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