Good ol’ Nick – A Niccolo Machiavelli Biography

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Niccolo Machiavelli and business go together like peanut butter and jelly – or do they? Whether you like him, hate him, the fact is that he is widely misunderstood and misread. Dubbed as devious, cunning, and evil, Niccolo has influenced men and women tremendously. Get an insight into the one and only, the notorious, Machiavelli.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527) was an Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician, poet and playwright. Machiavelli was a figure of the Italian Renaissance, and a central figure of its political scene. In June of 1498, following the ouster and execution of Savonarola, the Great Council elected Machiavelli as the Secretary to the second Chancery of the Republic of Florence.[1]

He is best known for his treatises on realist political theory (The Prince, which he considered his Magnum opus) on the one hand and republicanism (Discourses on Livy) on the other. These two written works, in addition to his History of Florence (which was commissioned by the Medici family), were published posthumously in 1531.[2] His philosophical views on politics were such that his surname has since passed into common dialect, referring to any political move that is devious or cunning in nature.

Machiavelli was born in Florence, the second son of Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, a lawyer, and of Bartolommea di Stefano Nelli. His family were believed to be descendants of the old marquesses of Tuscany, and to have included 13 Florentine gonfaloniers of justice.[3]

His education left him with a thorough knowledge of the Latin and Italian classics. Machiavelli was born into a tumultuous era in which Popes were leading armies, and wealthy city-states of Italy would fall one after another into the hands of foreign powers — France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was a time of constantly shifting alliances, condottieri who changed sides without warning, and governments rising and falling in the space of weeks. Perhaps most significant during this erratic upheaval was the sack of Rome in 1527 by rampaging soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, the first time that Rome had been sacked by a Germanic army in nearly twelve centuries. Rich cities such as Florence and Genoa suffered a similar fate during these years.

Machiavelli, trained as a man with great nobility and severe rigor from his father, entered governmental service as a clerk and ambassador in 1494; that same year, Florence had restored the republic and expelled the Medici family, rulers of the city for nearly sixty years. Machiavelli was placed as a member of a Council responsible for diplomatic negotiations and military matters. Between 1499 and 1512, he undertook a number of diplomatic missions to the court of Louis XII in France, Ferdinand II of Aragón, and the Papacy in Rome. From 1502 to 1503, he was a witness to the effective statebuilding methods of the soldier/churchman Cesare Borgia, who was at that time enlarging his territories in central Italy through a mixture of audacity, prudence, self-reliance, firmness and, not infrequently, cruelty.

Between 1503 to 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia including the defense of the city. He distrusted mercenaries (a philosophy expounded at length in the Discorsi and in Il Principe) and much preferred a citizen militia. This philosophy bore fruit when, in 1509, Florence’s citizen forces defeated Pisa under Machiavelli’s direction. However, in August 1512, the Medici with the help of Pope Julius II used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentine forces at Prato. The Florentine head of state, Piero Soderini, resigned and went into exile, and Florence and the republic was subsequently dissolved. Machiavelli, having played a significant role in the republic’s anti-Medici government, was removed from office and in 1513 he was accused of conspiracy and arrested. Although tortured “by the rope” (a practice wherein one’s hands were bound behind one’s back and connected to a pulley which would lift the victim off the ground, dislocating one’s shoulders), he denied his involvement and was eventually released. He retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea in Percussina near Florence and began writing the treatises that would ensure his place in the development of political philosophy and conduct. [4]

In a famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, he described how he spent his days in exile:

When evening comes, I return home [from work and from the local tavern] and go to my study. On the threshold I strip naked, taking off my muddy, sweaty workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.[5]

Machiavelli himself identified a unifying theme in The Prince and the Discorsi:

All cities that ever at any time have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence, because the latter is not enough alone, and the first either does not produce things, or when they are produced, does not maintain them. Force and prudence, then, are the might of all the governments that ever have been or will be in the world.[6]

Machiavelli died in San Casciano, a few miles outside of Florence, in 1527. His resting place is unknown; however a cenotaph in his honor was placed at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. The Latin sentence on the tomb — TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM — is translated as either ‘for so great a name, no praise is adequate’ or ‘No elegy is equal to such a name’

Machiavelli’s best known book is The Prince, in which he describes the arts by which a Prince (a ruler) can retain control of his realm. He focuses primarily on what he calls the “new prince”, under the assumption that a hereditary prince has an easier task since the people are accustomed to him. All a hereditary prince needs to do is carefully maintain the institutions that the people are used to; a new prince has a much more difficult task since he must stabilize his newfound power and build a structure that will endure. This task requires the Prince to be publicly above reproach but privately may require him to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals.

Machiavelli explains through examples which princes are the most successful in obtaining and maintaining power. He draws his examples from personal observations made while he was on diplomatic missions for Florence and from his readings in ancient history. He periodically uses Latin phrases, and many examples are drawn from Classical sources.

Machiavelli does not dispense entirely with morality nor advocate wholesale selfishness or degeneracy. Instead he outlines his definition of, for example, the criteria for acceptable cruel actions (it must be swift, effective, and short-lived). Machiavelli also does not miss the irony in the fact that good can come from evil actions. Notwithstanding the mitigating themes in The Prince, the Catholic Church put the work in its Index Librorum Prohibitorum and it was viewed in a negative light by many Humanists such as Erasmus.
Machiavelli (center right) depicted with: (from left to right) Cesare Borgia, Pedro Luis de Borja Lanzol de Romaní, and Don Micheletto Corella
Machiavelli (center right) depicted with: (from left to right) Cesare Borgia, Pedro Luis de Borja Lanzol de Romaní, and Don Micheletto Corella

The primary contribution of The Prince to the history of political thought is its fundamental break between realism and idealism. “The end justifies the means,” though never directly stated in the book, is often quoted as indicative of the pragmatism that can be said to undergird Machiavelli’s philosophy.[citation needed] The Prince should be read strictly as a guidebook on getting to and preserving power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, the ideal society is not the aim. In fact, Machiavelli emphasizes the need for the exercise of brute power where necessary and rewards, patron-clientelism etc. to preserve the status quo.

The term “Machiavellian” was adopted by some of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, often used in the introductions of political tracts of the sixteenth century that offered more ‘just’ reasons of state, most notably those of Jean Bodin and Giovanni Botero. The pejorative term Machiavellian as it is used today (or anti-Machiavellism as it was used from the sixteenth century) is thus a misnomer, as it describes one who deceives and manipulates others for gain; whether the gain is personal or not is of no relevance, only that any actions taken are only important insofar as they affect the results. It fails to include some of the more moderating themes found in Machiavelli’s works and the name is now associated with the extreme viewpoint.[7]

Main article: Discourses on Livy

Machiavelli’s Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy comprises the early history of Rome. It constitutes a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured, including the concept of checks and balances, the strength of a tripartite structure and the superiority of a republic over a principality.

From The Discourses:

* “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.” Book I, Chapter II
* “Doubtless these means [of attaining power] are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian nor even human, and should be avoided by every one. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings.” Book I, Chapter XXVI
* “Now in a well-ordered republic it should never be necessary to resort to extra-constitutional measures….” Book I, Chapter XXXIV
* “…the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII
* “…if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious.” Book I, Chapter LVIII
* “For government consists mainly in so keeping your subjects that they shall be neither able nor disposed to injure you….” Book II, Chapter XXIII
* “…no prince is ever benefited by making himself hated.” Book III, Chapter XIX
* “Let not princes complain of the faults committed by the people subjected to their authority, for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example.” Book III, Chapter XXIX[8]

Machiavelli also wrote plays (Clizia, Mandragola), poetry (Sonetti, Canzoni, Ottave, Canti carnascialeschi) and novels (Belfagor arcidiavolo) as well as translating classical works.

* Discorso sopra le cose di Pisa (1499)
* Del modo di trattare i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati (1502)
* Del modo tenuto dal duca Valentino nell’ ammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, etc. (Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino when Murdering Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, the Signor Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina Orsini, 1502)
* Discorso sopra la provisione del danaro (1502)
* Decennale primo (1506, poem in terza rima)
* Ritratti delle cose dell’Alemagna (1508-1512)
* Decennale secondo (1509)
* Ritratti delle cose di Francia (1510)
* Andria (1517, comedy translated from Terence)
* Mandragola (The Mandrake – 1518, prose comedy in five acts, with prologue in verse)
* Della lingua (1514, dialogue)
* Clizia (1525, comedy in prose)
* Belfagor arcidiavolo (1515, novel)
* Asino d’oro (The Golden Ass – 1517, poem in terza rima, a new version of the classic work by Apuleius)
* Dell’arte della guerra (The Art of War, 1519-1520)
* Discorso sopra il riformare lo stato di Firenze (1520)
* Sommario delle cose della citta di Lucca (1520)
* Vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca (The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca, 1520)
* Istorie fiorentine (Florentine Histories – 8 books, 1520-1525, commissioned by Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici who went on to become Pope Clement VII).
* Frammenti storici (1525)

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