BORN: 1469, Florence, Italy
DIED: 1527, Florence, Italy
GENRE: Political theory, drama
Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513-1517)
The Prince (1513)
The Art of War (1520)
The Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520)
Niccolo Machiavelli. Imagno / Getty Images
As a Florentine statesman, political philosopher, theorist, and playwright of the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli addressed a wide range of political and historical topics while embracing strictly literary forms in his various publications. He came to be identified almost exclusively with the realist political theory that he described in The Prince (1513), which is basically a pragmatic guidebook for obtaining, and preserving, political power. Critics have long pointed out the incongruities between the republican philosophy that Machiavelli professed in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513-1517)—that nations should be republics guided by the principles of liberty, rule of law, and civic virtue—and the philosophy he described in The Prince, which has been variously hailed, denounced, and distorted as advocating an ends-justify-the-means approach to politics. His perspective in The Prince, in particular, quickly gave rise to the term Machiavellian: deceiving and manipulating others for personal gain.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, to an established middle-class family whose members had traditionally filled responsible positions in local government. While little of the author’s early life has been documented, it is known that as a boy he learned Latin and quickly became a dedicated reader of the ancient classics.
Machiavelli lived during the height of the Italian Renaissance, a ‘‘rebirth’’ of the arts and sciences that rivaled the accomplishments of the ancient Romans and Greeks. During this time, an interest in classical subjects and techniques became popular, as shown in the art of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This interest in classical ideas is also reflected in the work of Machiavelli, who wrote much in support of the idea of republican government first developed by Plato.
Machiavelli’s first recorded involvement in the complicated political scene in Florence occurred in 1498, when he helped the political faction that replaced the dominant religious and political figures in Florence at the time. That same year, Machiavelli began acting as secretary to a sensitive government agency that dealt chiefly with warfare and foreign affairs. Machiavelli participated both in Italian politics and in diplomatic missions to foreign governments. He quickly gained political prominence and influence, so that by 1502 he had become a well-respected assistant to the republican head of state. His posts afforded him many opportunities over the next fourteen years to closely examine the inner workings of government and to meet prominent individuals, including Cesare Borgia, who became Machiavelli’s major model for leadership in The Prince.
Imprisonment and the Medici Family. In 1512, Spanish forces invaded Italy, and the Florentine political climate changed abruptly. The Medici family—for centuries the rulers of Florence but exiled since 1494—seized the opportunity to depose the head of state and replace the elected government with their own regime. Machiavelli was removed from office, jailed, and tortured for his well-known republican sentiments. He was finally banished to his country residence in Percussina, Italy. Machiavelli spent his forced retirement writing the small body of political works that would ensure his literary immortality. Between 1513 and 1517, he completed Discourses upon the First Ten Books of Titus Livius and The Prince, neither of which was published until after Machiavelli’s death.
Around 1518, Machiavelli turned from nonfiction to drama, writing Mandragola (1518). The play was popular with audiences throughout much of Italy for several years. His next effort, a military treatise published in 1521 and titled The Art of War, was the only historical or political work published during his lifetime. Meanwhile, Machiavelli had made several attempts to gain favor with the Medici, including dedicating The Prince to Lorenzo. In 1520 he was appointed official historian of Florence and entrusted with minor governmental duties. His prodigious History of Florence (1532) carefully dilutes his republican platform with the Medicean bias expected of him. In 1525 Pope Clement VII recognized his achievements with a monetary stipend. Two years later, the Medicis were again ousted, but Machiavelli’s hopes for advancement under the revived republic were frustrated, for the new government was suspicious of his ties to the former ruling family. Disheartened by his country’s internal strife, Machiavelli fell ill in 1527 and died a disillusioned man, his dream of an operational republic unrealized.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Machiavelli's famous contemporaries include:
Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492): This diplomat, politician, and patron of scholars, artists, and poets was a leading member of the ruling Medici family in Florence, Italy, during the Italian Renaissance.
Vasco da Gama (1469-1524): This Portuguese explorer was among the most successful in the European Age of Discovery. He commanded the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India.
Michelangelo (1475-1564): A famous Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer best known for his sculpture of the biblical king David, his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and his paintings on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): This scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician, and writer was also one of the greatest painters of all time (most famous for the Mona Lisa) and is often considered to have been the model "Renaissance man'': someone who can do many different kinds of things with equal excellence.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506): Italian navigator, colonizer, and explorer who was instrumental in the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510): Italian painter of the Florentine school during the early Renaissance and best known for his masterpieces The Birth of Venus and Primavera.
Works in Literary Context
Up to Machiavelli’s time, other political theorists had masked issues of leadership in vague diplomatic terms in their writings. Machiavelli presented his theses in direct, candid, and often passionate speech, using metaphors and examples that readers could easily understand. He was, in many ways, a superb propagandist, convincing others to accept his perspectives through well-turned exaggerated phrases, polished language, and masterly composition.
Pragmatism and the Nature of Mankind. Two philosophical perspectives guided almost all of Machiavelli’s writings: political pragmatism—or real-world practicality, free of wishful thinking—and the idea that people are fundamentally flawed with selfishness. Unlike what so many detractors have claimed, however, Machiavelli’s plans for obtaining and maintaining power were not wholly evil. He placed some limited restrictions on bad actions, including the idea that cruelty must be swift, effective, and short-lived.
Until Machiavelli, writers, thinkers, and philosophers typically had a Christian view of history, attributing political actions to an omnipotent divine power. Machiavelli had a much more worldly perspective, believing in humanity’s capacity for determining its own destiny. Fundamental to his understanding of history and politics, therefore, were concepts that had nothing to do with religion: fortuna and virtu. Fortuna, or fortune, gave or took away a political leader’s opportunity for decisive action. Bad luck, Machiavelli thought, could sometimes undermine even the most brilliant leaders. Similarly, virtu in politics was nothing like Christian virtue. For Machiavelli, it meant having an effective combination of force and cleverness, as well as a touch of greatness. Leaders who had this characteristic and who were also smiled on by fortuna, Machiavelli argued, had the best chance of remaining in power.
It is not clear precisely when or how Machiavelli developed his notions about politics, but it is assumed that he was influenced in his youth primarily by his reading of Livy’s history of the Roman Republic and later by his own observations. What is better known, however, is the extensive influence his work had on later writers. Some 395 direct references can be found to Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature, including the work of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and the literature of the 1600s is steeped in his philosophy and what his philosophy came to represent. The authors and playwrights John Webster, Philip Massinger, John Ford, John Marston, Cyril Tourneur, and Thomas Middleton are all so heavily indebted to him, either in the form of revulsion or delight, that they could be called the children of Machiavelli.
Influence on Political Science. Primarily on the strength of the Discourses and The Prince, Machiavelli has been called the founder of empirical (observation- based) political science, having a noticeable influence on the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon and on the thought of such modern political theorists as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, and Robert Michels. While The Prince receives by far the majority of attention from scholars and critics,
Machiavelli’s Discourses, in particular, had an influence and significance as an early treatise on republicanism. But precisely how significant Machiavelli’s political thinking was for the development of modern republicanism remains controversial. Some contemporary scholars nevertheless argue that he was an important contributor to the emergence of liberal ideas of freedom and civic virtue in England and the United States through his influence on such thinkers as Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington, John Locke, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, David Hume, the baron de Montesquieu, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Machiavelli will forever be associated with political maneuvering.
Here are some other works that deal with power politics.
Arthashastra (most likely the fourth century BCE), a political treatise by Chanakya. This is an ancient treatise of political realism on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy, disclosing to a king what calculating and sometimes brutal measures he must carry out to preserve the state and the common good. The author was known as the Indian Machiavelli.
Richard III (1597), a play by William Shakespeare. In this powerful drama, Shakespeare's Richard III stops at nothing to gain the throne.
Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (2005), a memoir by Otto von Bismarck. This multivolume collection of nineteenth-century German chancellor Bismarck's writings reveal a political mind as subtle and hard as Machiavelli's.
Works in Critical Context
Throughout the centuries, Machiavelli has been loathed by some critics and loved by others. His works leave plenty of room for personal interpretation, inviting multiple perspectives. Most often, criticism of Machiavelli’s ideas are bound up with criticism of the actions of people or characters who hold them, and they are not necessarily always the same thing.
Reaction to The Prince was initially—but only briefly— favorable. Catherine de' Medici was said to have enthusiastically included it, among others of Machiavelli’s writings, in the education of her children, but the book quickly fell into widespread disfavor, becoming viewed as a handbook for atheistic tyranny. The Prince, and Machiavelli's other writings, were placed on the pope’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Toward the close of the sixteenth century, the influential Innocenzo Gentillet held The Prince responsible for French political corruption and for widespread contribution to any number of political and moral vices. Gentillet’s interpretation of The Prince circulated throughout Britain and influenced Shakespeare and Marlowe. In the prologue to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (circa 1589), ‘‘Machevil’’ addresses the audience at length, at one point typifying the Elizabethan perception of Machiavelli by saying, ‘‘I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance.’’ Here, and in the works of Marlowe’s contemporaries, Machiavelli was depicted as an agent of all that Protestant England despised in Catholic Italy.
One seventeenth-century commentator, philosopher Pierre Bayle, went against the trend and found it strange that ‘‘there are so many people, who believe, that Machiavel teaches princes dangerous politics; for on the contrary princes have taught Machiavelli what he has written.’’ Since Bayle’s time, further analysis has prompted the most prolonged and animated discussion relating to the work: the true intent of its creator. Was the treatise, as Bayle suggested, a faithful representation of unethical princely conduct that might justify its historian as a simple truth-teller? Or had Machiavelli, in his manner of lively presentation, written the book to promote his own opinions? A single conclusion about the author's motive has not been drawn, although patterns have certainly emerged in the history of Machiavelli criticism.
For sheer volume and intensity, studies of The Prince have far exceeded those directed at Machiavelli’s Discourses, though the latter work has been acknowledged as an essential companion piece to the former. All of the author's subsequent studies treating history, political science, and military theory stem from this voluminous dissertation containing his most original thoughts. Less flamboyant than The Prince and narrower in its margin for interpretation, the Discourses contains Machiavelli's undisguised admiration for ancient governmental forms, and his most eloquent, thoroughly explicated republicanism.
So long as the means and ends of politics are seen to be at odds, people will be discussing Machiavelli. By and large, commentators have come to weigh the integrity of Machiavelli's controversial thought against the pressing political conditions that formed it. Some scholars, like Roberto Ridolfi, have endeavored to dislodge the longstanding perception of Machiavelli as a ruthless character: ‘‘In judging Machiavelli one must... take account of his anguished despair of virtue and his tragic sense of evil.... [On] the basis of sentences taken out of context and of outward appearances he was judged a cold and cynical man, a sneerer at religion and virtue; but in fact there is hardly a page of his writing and certainly no action of life that does not show him to be passionate, generous, ardent and basically religious.’’
Responses to Literature
1. How can Machiavelli’s concept of war be understood as an art?
2. Where do you draw the ethical line when it comes to attaining power and maintaining it? Do the ends always justify the means?
3. Describe the ideal qualities of Machiavelli’s leader as represented in The Prince. Are many, few, or all of these ideals shared by successful politicians today?
4. What are the stereotypes that have been assigned to Machiavelli, and what are their sources and motivations?
Bing, Stanley. What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Constantine, Peter. The Essential Writings of Machiavelli. New York: Random House Modern Library, 2007.
Donaldson, Peter S. Machiavelli and Mystery of State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Grazia, Sebastian de. Machiavelli in Hell. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
King, Ross. Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Soll, Jacob. Publishing ‘‘The Prince’’: History, Reading and the Birth of Political Criticism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. De Kalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Sullivan, Vickie B., ed. The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.