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BIOGRAPHY: Niccolo Machiavelli

BIOGRAPHY: Niccolo Machiavelli

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Niccolo Machiavelli
Statesman and Political Philosopher, 1469 - 1527
Niccolo Machiavelli
was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence,Italy. Machiavelli was a political philosopher and diplomatduring theRenaissance,and is most famous for his politicaltreatise,
 (1513), that has become acornerstone of modern political philosophy.In The Prince, Machiavelli offered a monarchical ruleradvice designed to keep that ruler in power. Herecommended policies that would discourage mass politicalactivism, and channel subjects'energies 
into privatepursuits. Machiavelli wanted to persuade the monarch thathe could best preserve his power by the judicious use of violence, by respecting privateproperty
and the traditionsof his subjects, and by promoting material prosperity.Machiavelli held that political life cannot be governed by asingle set of moral or religious absolutes, and that themonarch may sometimes be excused for performing acts of violence and deception that would be ethically indefensiblein private life.During the Renaissance Italy was a scene of intensepolitical conflict involving the dominant city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples, plus the Papacy,France, Spain, and the HolyRoman Empire
. Each cityattempted to protect itself by playing the larger powers off against each other. The result was massive politicalintrigue, blackmail, and violence. The Prince was writtenagainst this backdrop, and in its conclusion Machiavelliissued an impassioned call forItalianunity, and an end toforeign intervention.Machiavelli’s other major work,
 (1513-21), was mainlyconcerned with “republics,” defined as states controlled bya politically active citizenry. In “Discourses” he emphasizedthat for a republic to survive, it needed to foster a spirit of patriotism and civic virtue among its citizens. Machiavelliargued that a republic would be strengthened by theconflicts generated through open political participation anddebate.Partly because Machiavelli’s pragmatic view of therelationship between ethics andpolitics
,he has beenwidely misinterpreted. The adjective “Machiavellian” hasbecome a pejorative used to describe a politician whomanipulates others in an opportunistic and deceptive way.It is a common misconception that Machiavelli faked hisown death. There is no historical evidence that he did.RE #2Historian and statesman, b. atFlorence, 3 May, 1469; d.there, 22 June, 1527. Hisfamily
is said to have beendescended from the old marquesses of  Tuscany, and tohave given Florence thirteen gonfaloniers of  justice
. Hisfather, Bernardo, was a lawyer, and acted as treasurer of the Marches, but was far from wealthy. Of Nicolò's studieswe onlyknowthat he was a pupil of Marcello Virgilio. In1498 he was elected secretary of the Lower Chancery of the Signory, and in later years he held the same post underthe Ten. Thus it chanced that for fourteen years he hadcharge of the home and foreign correspondence of therepublic, the registration of trials, the keeping of theminutes of the councils, and the drafting of agreements withother states. Moreover he was sent in various capacities toone or other locality within the State of  
, and ontwenty-three occasions he acted aslegate 
on importantembassies to foreign princes, e.g.to Catherine Sforza (1499), toFrance(1500, 1510, 1511), tothe emperor (1507, 1509), toRome(1503, 1506),to Cæsar
Borgia (1502), to Gian Paolo Baglione atPerugia,tothe Petrucci atSiena, and to Piombino. On these embassieshe gave evidence of wonderful keenness of observation andinsight into the hidden thoughts of the men he was dealingwith, rather than of any great diplomatic skill. After thedefeat of FranceinItaly
(1512) theMedicionce moreobtained control of Florence; the secretary was dismissedand exiled for one year from the city. On the discovery of the Capponi and Boscoli plot againstCardinal Giovanni de'Medici,Machiavelli was accused as an accomplice, andtortured, but he was set free whenthecardinalbecamePope Leo X.Thereupon he retired to someproperty
he had at Strada near San Casciano, wherehe gave himself up to the study of the classics, especiallyLivy, and to the writing of his political and literary histories.BothLeo XandClement VIIsought his advice in political matters, and he was often employed on particular missionsaffecting matters of state, as, for instance, when he wassent to Francesco Guiccardini, thepapal
leader in theRomagna and general of the army of the League, concerningthe fortification of Florence. He made vain efforts to securea public post under theMedici, being ready evento sacrifice his political opinions for the purpose. Hereturned home after the sack of Rome(12 May, 1527) whenthe power of theMedicihad been once more overthrown,but his old political party turned against him as onewho fawned on tyrants. He died soon afterwards.Machiavelli's writings consist of the following works:
: "Storie Fiorentine", which goes from the fall of the Empire to 1492, dedicated toClement VII, at whoserequest it had been written. "Descrizione delmodo tenuto dal duca Valentino nelloammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, etc."; "Vita di CastruccioCastracane"; "Discorsi sopra laprima deca di TitoLivio";"Descrizione della peste di Firenze dell' anno 1527"; to thisgroup belong also his letters from his embassies as well ashis minor writings concerning the affairsof Pisa,Lucca,France,Germany.
"Il Principe", "Discorso sopra il Riformare lo Stato diFirenze"; "Dell'arte della guerra", and other military works.
"Dialogo sulle lingue"; five comedies:"Mandragola"; "Clizia"; a comedy in prose; "The Andria" of  Terence, a translation; a comedy in verse; "I Decennati" (ametrical history of the years 1495-1504); "Dell' Asino d'oro",writings on moral subjects; "La serenata"; "Canti Carnascialesehi"; a novel, "Belfagor", etc.Machiavelli's character
as a man and a writer has beenwidely discussed, and on both heads his meritsand demeritshave been exaggerated, but in such a way that his demeritshave preponderated to the detriment of his memory. Machiavellism has become synonymous withtreachery, intrigue, subterfuge, and tyranny. It has beeneven said that "Old Nick", the popular name of theDevilamong Anglo-Saxonraces, derives its origin fromthat of Nicolò Machiavelli. This dubious fame he has won byhis book the "Principe", and the theories therein exploited
were further elaborated in his "Discorsi sopra Livio". Tounderstand the "Principe" right it must be borne in mind thatthe work is not a treatise on foreign politics. It aims solelyat examining how a kingdom may be best built up andestablished; nor is it a mere abstract discussion, but it iscarried on in the light of an ideal long held by Machiavelli,that aUnitedItaly
was possible and in the last chapter of thework he exhorts theMediciof Florence(Giulianoand Lorenzo) to its realization. His aim was to point out thebest way for bringing it about; he did not deal with abstractprinciples and arguments, but collected examples fromclassical antiquity and from recent events, especially fromthe career of Cæsar Borgia. So that the "Principe" is apolitical tract with a definite aim and intended for aparticular locality. To gain the end in view results are to bethe only criteria of the methods employed, and even theteachings of the moral law must give way to secure the endin view.Good faith,clemency, and moderation are not castoverboard, but he teaches that the interests of the state areabove all individual virtues. These virtues may be useful,and when they are a prince ought to exercise them, butmore often in dealing with an opponent they are ahindrance, not in themselves, but by reason of thecrookedness of others.Whosoever would prevail against the treachery, crime, andcruelty of others, must himself be beforehand in misleadingand deceiving his opponent and even in getting rid of him,as Cæsar
Borgiahad done. While on the other hand GianPaolo Baglione made a mistake, by omitting to imprisonor 
put to deathJulius II, in 1506, on the occasion of hisunprotected entry toPerugia
(Discorsi sopra Livio, I, xxvii).Again, a prince must keep clear of crime not only when it ishurtful to his interests but when it is useless. He should tryto win theloveof his subjects, by simulating virtue if hedoes not possess it; he ought to encourage trade so that hispeople, busied in getting rich, may have no time for politics;he ought to show concern for religion, because it is a potentmeans for keeping his people submissive and obedient.Such is the general teaching of the "Principe", which hasbeen often refuted. As a theory Machiavellism may perhapsbe called an innovation; but as a practice it is as old aspoliticalsociety
.It was a most immoral work, in that it cutspolitics adrift from all morality, and it was rightly put onthe Index in 1559. It is worth noting that the "Principe" withits glorification of absolutism is totally opposed to itsauthor'sideasof democracy, which led to his ruin. Toexplain the difficulty it is notnecessaryto claim that thebook is a satire, nor that it is evidence of how easily thewriter could change his political views provided he couldstand well with theMedici. Much as Machiavellilovedliberty and Florence he dreamed of a "larger
Italy" of theItalians.  As a practical man he saw that hisdream could be realizedonly through a prince of character
and energy who wouldwalk in the steps ofCæsar
Borgia, and he conceded thatthe individual good must give way to the general well-being.As a historian Machiavelli is an excellent source when hedeals with what happened under his eyes at the variousembassies; but it should be remembered that he giveseverything a more or less unconscious twist to bring it intoconformity with his generalizations. This is more markedeven in his accounts of what he had heard or read, andserves to explain the discrepancies in the letters he wroteduring his embassies to Cæsar
Borgia, the "Descrizione",etc., the ideal picture he drew of affairs inGermany
,and hislife of Castruccio Castracane, which is ratheran historical romance modelled on the character
of Agathocles in Plutarch. Heknewnothing of historicalcriticism, yet he showed how events in history movein obedience to certain generallaws;and this is hisgreat merit as an historian. His natural bent was politics, butin his dealings with military matters he showed such skill aswouldamaze us even if we did notknowhe had never beena soldier. He recognized that to be strong a state must haveits standing army, and he upholds this not only in the"Principe" and the "Discorsi" but in his various militarywritings. The broad and stablelawsof military tactics helays down in masterly fashion; yet it is curious to note thathe lays no great stress on firearms.His style is always clear and crisp and his reasoning closeand orderly. What poetry he has left gives noproof  
of poetictalent; rather, the comedies are clever and successful ascompositions and only too often bear undisguised traces of the moral laxity of the author (this is shown also in hisletters to his friends) and of the age in which he lived. His"Mandragola" and "Clizia" are nothing more or lessthan
and lose no opportunity of scoringagainst religion. Machiavelli did not disguise his dislikeforChristianity
which by exaltinghumility
,meekness, andpatience had, he said, weakenedthe social andpatrioticinstinctsof mankind. Hence, he mocked atSavonarolathough he wasthe saviour ofdemocracy, and he had a special dislike fortheHoly See 
as a temporal power, as he saw in it thegreatest obstacle to Italian unity; to use his own expression,it was too weak to control the whole peninsula, but toostrong to allow of any other state bringing about unity. Thisexplains why he has no words of praise for
andhis Italian policy. It was merely as an opportunist that hecourted the favour of Leo XandClement VII. On the other hand, when death came his way he remembered that hewas aChristianand he died aChristiandeath, though his life, habits, and ideals had beenpagan,and himself a typical representative of theItalianRenaissance.RE# 3Among the most original thinkers of the Renaissance is abrilliant and slightly tragic figure, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,his name would be synonymous with deviousness, cruelty,and willfully destructive rationality; no thinker was every sodemonized or misunderstood than Machiavelli. The sourceof this misunderstanding is his most influential and widelyread treatise on government,
The Prince
, a remarkablyshort book that attempts to lay out methods to secure andmaintain political power.His life spanned the greatest period of culturalachievement in Florence to its ultimate downfall. Thisperiod was marked by political instability, fear,invasion, intrigue, and high cultural achievement asthe tiny states of Italy, including the Papal States,were pulled into the politics and wars of Europe by theimmense gravity of two large states, Spain andFrance. His life began at the very start of this process:in 1469, when Ferdinand and Isabella married andthrough this marriage created a new, large kingdomof Spain composed of Castile and Aragon, Machiavelliwas born to a wealthy Florentine lawyer. In hislifetime, he would see the efflorescence of Florentineculture and political power under the brilliant politicalgenius of Lorenzo de'Medici. He would also see thetwilight of the Medici power as Lorenzo's son andsuccessor, Piero de'Medici, was thrown from power bythe Dominican monk, Savonarola, who set up a trueFlorentine Republic. When Savonarola, fanatic aboutreform, was himself thrown from power and burned, asecond Republic was set up under Soderini in 1498.Machiavelli was the secretary of this new Republic, animportant and distinguished position. The Republic,however, was crushed in 1512 by the Spanish whoinstalled the Medici's as rulers of Florence onceagain.
It seems that Machiavelli really had no politicalcommitments or political stripe: he seems to havebeen on nobody's side politically. For when the Medicicame to power, he began to work overtime to get ingood with them. It seems that either he was ruthlesslyambitious or believed in serving in government nomatter what political group or party was in charge. The Medici, however, never fully trusted him since hehad been an important official in the Republic. Theyimprisoned and tortured him in 1513 and eventuallybanished him to his country estate at San Casciano(all this torture and imprisonment, however, didn'tstop him from trying to get in good with the Medicis).It was during his exile in San Casciano, when he wasdesparate to get back into government, that he wrotehis principle works: the
Discourse onLivy 
The Prince
The History of Florence
, and twoplays. Many of these works, such as
The Prince
, werewritten for the express purpose of getting a job in theMedici government. The tremendous innovation of both the
Discourseson Livy 
The Prince
was Machiavelli's uncouplingof political theory from ethics. Throughout theWestern tradition, as in the Chinese tradition, politicaltheory and policy was closely linked to ethics.Aristotle summed up this connection when he definedpolitics as merely an extension of ethics. Throughoutthe Western tradition, then, politics had beenunderstood in terms of right and wrong, just andunjust, temperate and intemperate, and so on. Themoral terms used to evaluate human actions wereemployed to evaluate political actions.Machiavelli was the first to discuss politics andsocial phenomena in their own terms without recourseto ethics or jurisprudence. In many ways you couldconsider Machiavelli to be the first major Westernthinker to apply the strictly scientific method of Aristotle and Averroes to politics. He did so byobserving the phenomena of politics, reading all that'sbeen written on the subject, and describing politicalsystems in their own terms. For Machiavelli, politicswas about one and only one thing: getting andkeeping power or authority. Everything else—religion,morality, etc—that people associate with politics hasnothing to do with this fundamental aspect of politics—unles being moral helps one get and keep power. The only skill that counts in getting and maintainingpower is
; the successful politician knowswhat to do or what to say for every situation.With this insight, Machiavelli in
The Prince
simplydescribes the means by which individuals have triedto seize and to maintain power. Most of the exampleshe gives are failures; the entire book is suffused withtragedy for at any moment, if the ruler makes onemiscalculation, all the authority he has so assiduouslycultivated will dry up like the morning dew. The socialand political world of the
The Prince
is monstrouslyunpredictable and volatile; only the most superhumancalculative mind can overcome this social and politicalvolatility. Throughout
The Prince
and the
, it'sclear that Machiavelli has praise only for the winners.For this reason, he admires figures such as AlexanderVI and Julius II, universally hated throughout Europeas ungodly popes, for thei astonishing military andpolitical success. His refusal to allow ethical judgements enter into political theory branded himthroughout the Renaissance as a kind of anti-Christ. Inchapters such as "Whether a Prince Should Be True tohis Word," Machiavelli argues that any moral judgment should be secondary to getting, increasingand maintaining power. The answer to the abovequestion, for instance, is "it's good to be true to yourword, but you should lie whenever it advances yourpower or security—not only that, it's necessary."It might help to understand Machiavelli to imaginethat he's not talking about the state so much inethical terms but in medical terms. For Machiavellibelieved that the Italian situation was desparate andthat the Florentine state was in grave danger. Ratherthan approach the question from an ethical point of view, Machiavelli was genuinely concerned withhealing the state to make it stronger. For instance, intalking about seditious points of view, Machiavellidoesn't make an ethical argument, but rather amedical one—"seditious people should be amputatedbefore they infect the whole state." The single most articulated value in the work of Machiavelli is
), which is related toour word, "virtue." Machiavelli means it more in itsLatin sense of "manly," but individuals with virtú areprimarily marked by their ability to enforce their willon volatile social situations. They do this through acombination of strong will, strength, and brilliant andstrategic calculation. In one of the most famouspassages from
The Prince
, Machiavelli describes theproper orientation towards the volatility of the world,or Fortune, by comparing Fortune to a lady: "lafortuna é donna," or "Fortune is a Lady." Machiavelli isreferring to the courtly love tradition, where the ladythat constitutes the object of desire is approachedand entreated and begged. The ideal Prince, however,for Machiavelli does not entreat or beg Lady Fortune,but rather physically grabs her and takes whatever hewants. This was a scandalous passage and still istoday, but it represents a powerful translation of theRenaissance idea of human potential to the area of politics. For if, according to Pico della Mirandola, ahuman being can self-transform into anything itwants, then it must be possible for a single, strong-willed individual to order the chaos of political life.Despite his hopes that the Medicis might proveto be those ideal rulers that could unite Italy, theydid not remain in power for long. When Guiliode'Medici left Firenze to become Pope Clement VII,the subalterns that he left in charge of the citymanaged it very poorly. The people soonoverthrew the Medici rule and established the Third Republic of Firenze in 1527. Machiavelli sawhis chance and tried to get a position in the newrepublic, but the new rulers distrusted himbecause of his long association with the Medici. Soon June 22, 1527, only a few months after theestablishment of the Third Republic, Machiavellidied. That same year, Rome was sacked byEmperor Charles VII and the pope was forced toally with Charles. In 1530, the pope and Charlesled a punitive expedition against Firenze andcrushed it as an independent state. Three yearsafter the death of Machiavelli and two years beforethe publication of 
The Prince
, , the state thatMachiavelli worked so hard to help and believed somuch in blinked out of existence.
Medieval Sourcebook:Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince [excerpts], 1513

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