Niccolo Machiavelli


Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, Italy. Machiavelli was a political philosopher and diplomat during the Renaissance, and is most famous for his political treatise, The Prince, which he finished in 1513. Today we know him as one of the founders of philosophy of history and one of the first to create a political science based on the studying of historical actions. Machiavelli is also remembered for his historical and political writings, short stories, and comedies. Today we describe those who do bad deeds for the sake of political power as Machiavellian and their views as Machiavellianism, both words coming originally from the French.

Machiavelli obtained a position in the government as a clerk and quickly rose through the government ranks, soon being made head of the second chancery. A chancery is a public office, consisting of a committee in charge of some the city-state's policies. Machiavelli was also secretary of the magistracy which directed foreign and defensive affairs. In 1500, Machiavelli was sent on his first diplomatic mission, to arrange different matters with the French court. While in France, Machiavelli observed the effect of having one prince ruling a united country.

When Machiavelli came home to Florence, he found it on the verge of collapse as Cesare Borgia attempted to create a principality for himself south of Florence in central Italy. Borgia was the son of Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli twice paid visits to Cesare Borgia for the Florentine government during this time. When Borgia avenged himself by killing his captains in Sinigaglia, Machiavelli was a witness and wrote an account of it titled On the Manner Adopted by the Duke Valentino to Kill Vitellozzo. The actions of Cesare Borgia were admired by Machiavelli who believed Borgia's different qualities should be found in the perfect prince that would someday unite all of the city-states in Italy. Cesare provided Machiavelli an ideal historical example of a crafty prince. Though, Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia, he was glad when Borgia was imprisoned by the Pope Julius II, about which Machiavelli said "he deserved as a rebel against Christ."

When Piero Soderini was elected chief magistrate of Florence, Machiavelli quickly earned his favor, and was able to achieve his military goals with his influence over the leader of Florence. One goal Machiavelli pushed for was the formation of a state militia because he believed that troops from your own land serve you better than common mercenary troops. A council in charge of the militia was formed, with Machiavelli as its head. In 1508, Machiavelli got an opportunity to test his new militia. Florence decided to recapture Pisa and Machiavelli went to the front lines to command his troops. In June 1509, the city of Pisa was recaptured with success primarily owed to Machiavelli's militia.

In 1512, with the assistance of Pope Julius II, Soderini was repudiated in September of 1512, as Cardinal Giovanni de Medici captured Florence with Papal troopers during the War of the League of Cambrai, restoring Medici rule to the Italian city-state which also resulted in the removal of Machiavelli from his position. In early 1513, an anti-Medici conspiracy was found and Machiavelli was accused of being an accomplice. He claimed innocence throughout prison and eventually he was released though restrictions were imposed upon him. Machiavelli then went to live outside of Florence at the house he had inherited from his father. This epoch would mark the period when Machiavelli wrote The Prince (Il Principe) and another famous work, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy.

As shown by his letter of dedication, Machiavelli's work eventually came to be dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, grandson of "Lorenzo the Magnificent", and a member of the ruling Florentine Medici family, whose uncle Giovanni became pope Leo X in 1513. It is known from his personal correspondence that it was written during 1513, the year after the Medici took control of Florence, and a few months after Machiavelli's arrest, torture, and banishment by the in-coming Medici regime. It was discussed for a long time with Francesco Vettori, a friend of Machiavelli who he wanted to pass it and commend it to the Medici. The book had originally been intended for Giuliano di Lorenzo de' Medici, young Lorenzo's uncle, who however died in 1516. It is not certain that the work was ever read by any of the Medici before it was printed. Machiavelli describes the contents as being an un-embellished summary of his knowledge about the nature of princes and "the actions of great men", based not only on reading but also, unusually, on real experience.

Machiavelli intended The Prince to serve as a guide to creating and holding on to a principality, in ways that often benefited the people, though perhaps indirectly. Machiavelli remembered how well off the French were because they were one principality united under one prince, and he wanted the same for Italy for he was patriotic and prized his freedom. Machiavelli also intended the book to bring him back into favor with the Medici family, so he might regain his government posts and begin to enact some of his ideas. Duke Lorenzo de' Medici, who did not favor him died, and Cardinal Giulio de' Medici came to rule Florence, the Cardinal had Machiavelli elected official historian of Florence, after five years he presented the now-Pope Giulio de' Medici with his eight-volume work Istorie Fiorentine, for which he received 120 florins. In 1526, he joined the Pope's army in the attack of the Holy Roman empire until its end in 1527. He then returned to Florence where he found the republic formed again, after failing to gain his old post in the government, he fell ill and died.

In The Prince, Machiavelli offered a monarchical ruler advice designed to keep that ruler in power. He recommended policies that would discourage mass political activism, and channel subjects' energies into private pursuits. Machiavelli wanted to persuade the monarch that he could best preserve his power by the judicious use of violence, by respecting private property and the traditions of his subjects, and by promoting material prosperity. Machiavelli held that political life cannot be governed by a single set of moral or religious absolutes, and that the monarch may sometimes be excused for performing acts of violence and deception that would be ethically indefensible in private life.

During the Renaissance Italy was a scene of intense political conflict involving the dominant city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples, plus the Papacy, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Each city attempted to protect itself by playing the larger powers off against each other. The result was massive political intrigue, blackmail, and violence. The Prince was written against this backdrop, and in its conclusion Machiavelli issued an impassioned call for Italian unity, and an end to foreign intervention.

Machiavelli’s other major work, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius was mainly concerned with “republics,” defined as states controlled by a politically active citizenry. In Discourses he emphasized that for a republic to survive, it needed to foster a spirit of patriotism and civic virtue among its citizens. Machiavelli argued that a republic would be strengthened by the conflicts generated through open political participation and debate.

According to legend, just before his death on 21 June 1527, Niccolò Machiavelli told the faithful friends who had stayed with him to the very end about a dream he had had, a dream that over the centuries became renowned as "Machiavelli's dream." In his dream, he had seen a band of poorly dressed men, ragged and miserable in appearance. He asked them who they were. They replied, "We are the saintly and the blessed; we are on our way to Heaven." Then he saw a crowd of solemnly attired men, noble and grave in appearance, speaking seriously of important political matters. In their midst he recognized the great philosophers and historians of antiquity who had written fundamental works on politics and the state, such as Plato, Plutarch, and Tacitus. Again, he asked them who they were and where they were going. "We are the damned of Hell" was their answer. After telling his friends of his dream, Machiavelli remarked that he would be far happier in Hell, where he could discuss politics with the great men of the ancient world, than in Heaven, where he would languish in boredom among the blessed and the saintly.

It is a common misconception that Machiavelli faked his own death. There is no historical evidence that he did.


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