Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
Written by Richard K. Hines
Among the most original thinkers of the Renaissance is a brilliant 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 ever so demonized or misunderstood than Machiavelli. The source of this misunderstanding is his most influential and widely read treatise on government, The Prince, a remarkably short book that attempts to lay out methods to secure and maintain political power.
His life spanned the greatest period of cultural achievement in Florence to its ultimate downfall. This period was marked by political instability, fear, invasion, intrigue, and high cultural achievement as the tiny states of Italy, including the Papal States, were pulled into the politics and wars of Europe by the immense gravity of two large states, Spain and France. His life began at the very start of this process: in 1469, when Ferdinand and Isabella married and through this marriage created a new, large kingdom of Spain composed of Castile and Aragon, Machiavelli was born to a wealthy Florentine lawyer. In his lifetime, he would see the efflorescence of Florentine culture and political power under the brilliant political genius of Lorenzo de'Medici. He would also see the twilight of the Medici power as Lorenzo's son and successor, Piero de'Medici, was thrown from power by the Dominican monk, Savonarola, who with the aid of his followers, nicknamed "the Weepers" set up a true Florentine Republic. When Savonarola, fanatic about reform, was himself thrown from power and burned, a second Republic was set up under Soderini in 1498. Machiavelli was the secretary of this new Republic, an important and distinguished position. The Republic, however, was crushed in 1512 by the Spanish who installed the Medici's as rulers of Florence once again.
It seems that Machiavelli really had no political commitments or political stripe: he seems to have been on nobody's side politically. For when the Medici came to power, he began to work overtime to get in good with them. It seems that either he was ruthlessly ambitious or believed in serving in government no matter what political group or party was in charge. The Medici, however, never fully trusted him since he had been an important official in the Republic. They imprisoned and tortured him in 1513 and eventually banished him to his country estate at San Casciano (all this torture and imprisonment, however, didn't stop him from trying to get in good with the Medicis). It was during his exile in San Casciano, when he was desparate to get back into government, that he wrote his principle works: the Discourse on Livy , The Prince , The History of Florence , and two plays. Many of these works, such as The Prince , were written for the express purpose of getting a job in the Medici government.
The tremendous innovation of both the Discourses on Livy and The Prince was Machiavelli's uncoupling of political theory from ethics. Throughout the Western tradition, as in the Chinese tradition, political theory and policy was closely linked to ethics. Aristotle summed up this connection when he defined politics as merely an extension of ethics. Throughout the Western tradition, then, politics had been understood in terms of right and wrong, just and unjust, temperate and intemperate, and so on. The moral terms used to evaluate human actions were employed to evaluate political actions.
Machiavelli was the first to discuss politics and social phenomena in their own terms without recourse to ethics or jurisprudence. In many ways you could consider Machiavelli to be the first major Western thinker to apply the strictly scientific method of Aristotle and Averroes to politics. He did so by observing the phenomena of politics, reading all that's been written on the subject, and describing political systems in their own terms. For Machiavelli, politics was about one and only one thing: getting and keeping power or authority.
Everything else-religion, morality, etc-that people associate with politics has nothing 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 maintaining power is calculation; the successful politician knows what to do or what to say for every situation.
With this insight, Machiavelli in The Prince simply describes the means by which individuals have tried to seize and to maintain power. Most of the examples he gives are failures; the entire book is suffused with tragedy for at any moment, if the ruler makes one miscalculation, all the authority he has so assiduously cultivated will dry up like the morning dew. The social and political world of the The Prince is monstrously unpredictable and volatile; only the most superhuman calculative mind can overcome this social and political volatility.
Throughout The Prince and the Discourses , it's clear that Machiavelli has praise only for the winners. For this reason, he admires figures such as Alexander VI and Julius II, universally hated throughout Europe as ungodly popes, for thei astonishing military and political success. His refusal to allow ethical judgements enter into political theory branded him throughout the Renaissance as a kind of anti-Christ. In chapters such as "Whether a Prince Should Be True to his Word," Machiavelli argues that any moral judgment should be secondary to getting, increasing and maintaining power. The answer to the above question, for instance, is "it's good to be true to your word, but you should lie whenever it advances your power or security-not only that, it's necessary."
It might help to understand Machiavelli to imagine that he's not talking about the state so much in ethical terms but in medical terms. For Machiavelli believed that the Italian situation was desparate and that the Florentine state was in grave danger. Rather than approach the question from an ethical point of view,Machiavelli was genuinely concerned with healing the state to make it stronger. For instance, in talking about seditious points of view, Machiavelli doesn't make an ethical argument, but rather a medical one-"seditious people should be amputated before they infect the whole state."
The single most articulated value in the work of Machiavelli is virtú (Latin virtus), which is related to our word, "virtue." Machiavelli means it more in its Latin sense of "manly," but individuals with virtú are primarily marked by their ability to enforce their will on volatile social situations. They do this through a combination of strong will, strength, and brilliant and strategic calculation. In one of the most famous passages from The Prince , Machiavelli describes the proper orientation towards the volatility of the world, or Fortune, by comparing Fortune to a lady: "la fortuna é donna," or "Fortune is a Lady." Machiavelli is referring to the courtly love tradition, where the lady that constitutes the object of desire is approached and entreated and begged. The ideal Prince, however, for Machiavelli does not entreat or beg Lady Fortune, but rather physically grabs her and takes whatever he wants. This was a scandalous passage and still is today, but it represents a powerful translation of the Renaissance idea of human potential to the area of politics. For if, according to Pico della Mirandola, a human being can self-transform into anything it wants, then it must be possible for a single, strong-willed individual to order the chaos of political life.
Despite his hopes that the Medici's might prove to be those ideal rulers that could unite Italy, they did not remain in power for long. When Guilio de'Medici left Firenze to become Pope Clement VII, the subalterns that he left in charge of the city managed it very poorly. The people soon overthrew the Medici rule and established the Third Republic of Firenze in 1527. Machiavelli saw his chance and tried to get a position in the new republic, but the new rulers distrusted him because of his long association with the Medici. So on June 22, 1527, only a few months after the establishment of the Third Republic, Machiavelli died. That same year, Rome was sacked by Emperor Charles VII and the pope was forced to ally with Charles.
© 1996 Richard K. Hines, Department of History Washington State University
Reproduced with the kind permission of Dr Liana Cheney, Professor of Art History