Key thinker: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, into a prominent but not exactly prosperous family (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n14/erin-maglaque/free-from-humbug). Machiavelli’s father was a small landowner, who had little interest in advancing his career and focused instead on living a scholarly life and studying classical texts (https://iep.utm.edu/machiave/). We know little about Machiavelli’s early education, but it is speculated that he gained a classical humanist education at the University of Florence (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/). In 1498, Machiavelli entered public service; it was a tumultuous time in Florence as the ruling Medici family had just been expelled from the city in 1494 and replaced by a republican regime. The republican government was initially headed by Savonarola, a Dominican friar who had come to Florence in 1491 (https://iep.utm.edu/machiave/). But in 1498, Savonarola was overthrown, excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and eventually burned at the stake for his heretical beliefs (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n14/erin-maglaque/free-from-humbug).
After Savonarola’s death in 1498, Machiavelli was appointed Second Chancellor and given two key government offices (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/). As second chancellor, Machiavelli was responsible for domestic and diplomatic tasks, including managing the correspondence between Florence and subject territories, and communicating with foreign powers (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/machiavelli-alexander-lee-review-lauro-martines/). For the next fourteen years, Machiavelli served the Florentine Republic and distinguished himself as one of its finest political minds and statesmen. During his tenure, Machiavelli closely followed the rise of Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, whose diplomatic and military skill he greatly admired. They met for the first time in 1502 (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n14/erin-maglaque/free-from-humbug). From 1502 to 1507, Machiavelli collaborated on various projects with Leonardo da Vinci, including an attempt to connect the Arno River to the sea; to irrigate the Arno valley; and to cut off the water supply to Pisa, which Florence hoped to reconquer (https://iep.utm.edu/machiave/).
Like most Italian city states, however, Florence remained vulnerable to the great-power politics of the time, especially to the ambitions of France and the papacy. In 1512, Florence again fell to the Medici army, who defeated the republic’s forces and dissolved the government with the help of papal troops (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/). Machiavelli, who had been falsely accused of conspiring against the Medici, was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually exiled from the city state (see Machiavelli’s Life and Times). In the following years, Machiavelli tried in vain to win favour with the Medici family. He retired to a farm outside of Florence, where he wrote most of his famous texts (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/). Towards the end of his life, Machiavelli began to reconnect with the Medici family, but he died before he could be fully rehabilitated (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/). Machiavelli died on 21 June 1527 and was buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. He was 58 years old.
Machiavelli is best known for The Prince (1532), which was written in 1513 but never published during his lifetime (see Machiavelli’s Life and Times). The book was written to show that he should hold a political office under the Medici family, but the advice it contains could apply to any aspiring ruler at the time. Machiavelli opens The Prince by explaining how a prince can maintain power vis-à-vis other political actors, like the grandi, the poplo (see Box: The Grandi and the Popolo), or the church. Building from practical examples from history, especially the career of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli advances his thesis that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved (see Power). Unlike Hobbes (see Chapter 5 on Hobbes), Machiavelli doesn’t offer a clear definition of power; rather, he suggests that power is a practical category that refers to a person’s ability to influence the actions of others by employing a variety of tactics, including violence, wealth, reputation, or personal networks (see Power). Because of such moral ambiguity, some readers have misinterpreted Machiavelli as a conniving, cruel, or opportunist political thinker (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/11/books/review-machiavelli-patrick-boucheron.html).
Virtù (often translated as ‘virtue’) is a key concept in Machiavelli’s political thought and refers to the skill or competence with which one navigates the political terrain. It does not, then, coincide with moral virtue as commonly understood. For Machiavelli, human beings make history but are constrained by unpredictable or volatile conditions that are out of their control. He uses the concept of fortuna (see Fortuna) to describe the uncertainty, contingency, chance, and danger that limit human’s ability to impact politics and social life as they wish, and is therefore a threat to the stability of the political order. This practical conception of politics put Machiavelli at odds with the moral teachings of the Catholic Church; he was later branded a heretic and his books were placed on the Index, a list of books banned by the Church (see Introduction). As the neo-conservative academic Leo Strauss has noted, Machiavelli’s break with prevailing religious and moral doctrines makes him a distinctively modern political philosopher (Strauss, 1958). But Machiavelli did not set out to encourage rulers to behave immorally; instead, he merely recognized that rulers could only stay in power in an insecure world if they were prepared to dispense with the prevailing morality when the occasion demanded it (see Virtue and Fortune).
In The Prince, Machiavelli explores the dynamics of power and the state through an assessment of principalities and republics, which he views as the only legitimate forms of government (see Principalities and Republics). Machiavelli himself favoured a Republican form of government, run by educated citizens, like himself, in the interest of the general public. He developed such ideas in his republican treatise, Discourses (1531), which comments on Republican Rome and the texts of Titus Livius (see Box: Livy), as well as 16th century Florence (see The Roman Republic). Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators, like John Milton, Baruch Spinoza, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, read Machiavelli as a dedicated but clandestine republican, who is simply sharing the secrets of statecraft with his readers (see Introduction). Machiavelli was more candid about the inner workings of power than most of his contemporaries; in a sense, he foreshadowed the theories of Karl Marx (see Chapter 13), Friedrich Nietzsche (see Chapter 14), Frantz Fanon (see Chapter 27), C.L.R. James (see Chapter 16), or Catherine MacKinnon with their emphasis on how power and violence are constitutive parts of any society or relationship based on domination (see Power).
The many controversies around how to read and interpret Machiavelli’s work testify to the subtlety of Machiavelli’s writing. While the term ‘Machiavellian’ has taken on a life of its own, it could be argued that Machiavelli himself was decidedly ‘un-Machiavellian’ (Boucheron, 2021). What, then, is his legacy as a political thinker? His writing teaches us about the contingency of politics; his criticism of abstract principles led him to develop a new approach to politics, which was more attuned to political action and historical context (see Conclusion). In this sense, The Prince is a foundational text for realist political theory (see Box: Realism), a theoretical approach which begins its analysis with what is and not what ought to be.
Lee, Alexander, Machiavelli: His Life and Times, London: Pan Macmillan, 2021.
Boucheron, Patrick, The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, London: Pushkin Press, 2021.
Erin Maglaque, “Free from Humbug”, London Review of Books, 16 July 2020.
Tim Parks, “Whatever it Takes”, New York Review of Books, 22 October 2020.