Niccolò Machiavelli - Biography
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469 and died in Florence on June 21, 1527. He was a philosopher, statesman, and political theorist and is often referred to as the “father of modern political theory”.
Not much is known about Niccolò Machiavelli’s early life. Born into a wealthy and very influential family, Niccolò Machiavelli received a rigorous educational training and entered the Florentine government as a clerk in 1494. In the same year the Medici family lost its power and was forced into exile after having ruled Florence for the previous 60 years. Soon Niccolò Machiavelli began a career as diplomat, undertaking missions to the major cities in Italy as well as to France and Spain, where he, among many others, met Louis XII, Ferdinand II and Pope Julius II. Between 1502 and 1503 he came into contact with the son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia, an ambitious and cruel commander. Niccolò Machiavelli witnessed this virile son expand his power throughout central Italy and this experience had a lasting effect on the young Machiavelli. Over the next few years Niccolò Machiavelli took charge of the Florentine militia and was responsible for the reorganization of the republic´s military defense.
Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his first work in 1499 entitled, Discorso sopra le cose di Pisa (Discourse on Pisa), and in 1502, Discorso sopra la provisione del danaro (Discourse about the Provision of Money). In the same year as the latter treatise, Niccolò Machiavelli also completed the short treatise Del modo di trattare i sudditi della Valdichiana ribellati (On the Way to Deal with the Rebel Subjects of the Valdichiana). Here he begins to develop many of his larger and ongoing themes, for example his use of the Romans as an example of how to address rebellion. Other early works of Niccolò Machiavelli include the political analyses Ritratti delle cose dell’ Alemagna (Portrait of the affairs of Germany, 1508–1512) and Ritratti delle cose di Francia (Portrait of the affairs of France, 1510).
The year 1512 marks an important period for Machiavelli; the Medici family came back into power and, as a consequence, the Florentine republic ceased to exist. Having been dismissed from his post as diplomat and suspected of conspiracy, in which he was arrested and tortured, Niccolò Machiavelli had to retire to his father’s estate outside of Florence. Nonetheless, he desperately tried to regain a governmental position and this attempt marks his most famous piece Il Principe (The Prince), written in 1513, but not published until after his death. It was with this treatise that Niccolò Machiavelli hoped to return to service under the Medicis. Yet, and even though he had purposely dedicated the work to Lorenzo de' Medici, he did not manage to regain a position. Instead, the book caused a great controversy, as it was “simply” a study on how to acquire and maintain power.
Yet, perhaps more than that, the main aim of the Il Principe is a critique of traditional moral norms and ideologies regarding the exercise of power. Niccolò Machiavelli argues that a ruler should not care about these norms (or laws in general) and should only be concerned with authority and power, which are equal, and war:
A prince should therefore have no other aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study but war and it organization and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands.
The only rules for a prince are those that lead to the insurance and preservation of power, for it is the stable state that is the highest good. Power is intrinsically linked to politics, and there is no stability without power. Thus, it is not surprising that the term “Machiavellian” has come to describe the astute and immoral execution of power.
All this must be seen through the historical context of the Florentine and Roman Republics. It was a time where conflicts dominated political life and each city needed to protect itself. Niccolò Machiavelli argues in favour of a unified Italy, similar to the Roman Republic. While this aspect went more or less unnoticed during his lifetime, it gained greater importance much later during the Risorgimento. While Niccolò Machiavelli was truly Republican, he evidently believed that only the strength of a singular leader could install such a strong Italian state as he conceived. His subsequent texts, known as Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) and regarded as expressions of his more personal beliefs, are considered to be the most important early modern treatise on republicanism, the book aims to elaborate on how a republic should be built and maintained. In the book, Niccolò Machiavelli highly praises the French monarchy and differentiates between a “minimal,” a strong government balanced by legal mechanisms and a “full,” the freedom of community, vivere libero, conception of constitutional order. Only in a republic can there be liberty. A commentary on Titus Livius’ work and early Roman history, the book also contains observations of other political systems and thereby attempts to discover universal laws. The text is somewhat radical in that it is not only highly critical of his contemporaries, but of Christianity, and maintains a distrust of humanity in general:
The people resemble a wild beast, which, naturally fierce, and accustomed to live in the woods, has been brought up, as it were, in a prison and in servitude, and having by accident got its liberty, not being accustomed to search for its food, and not knowing where to conceal itself, easily becomes the prey of the first who seeks to incarcerate it again.
Machiavelli’s Dell'arte della guerra (The Art of War), written between 1519 and 1520, continues with many of his “republican” ideas. In this work, the only political work published during his lifetime, he essentially gives instructions on how to acquire and maintain military force and argues that the liberty of a state (and of its citizens) requires the military preparedness of the citizens. He was furthermore convinced that people are more likely to defend liberty than those in power.
No proceeding is better than that which you have concealed from the enemy until the time you have executed it. To know how to recognize an opportunity in war, and take it, benefits you more than anything else. Nature creates few men brave, industry and training makes many.
Niccolò Machiavelli strongly believed in the capacity and responsibility of men towards their own destiny and was consequently greatly distrustful of the common mercenary armies. Instead, Niccolò Machiavelli advocated for a citizen-militia evidenced by him in the Roman army, which seemed to have fulfilled his ideals:
For if no commonwealth has ever been found to grow like the Roman, it is because none was ever found so well fitted by its institutions to make that growth. For by the valour of her armies she spread her empire, while by her conduct of affairs, and by other methods peculiar to herself and devised by her first founder, she was able to keep what she acquired.
Niccolò Machiavelli also worked as a translator and wrote a novel Belfagor arcidiavolo (1527), several poems, and three plays: Mandragola (1518; The Mandrake, 1518), Clizia (1525), and Andria (1517). Mandragola, the most famous, is a comedy that bears some of Machiavelli’s “ethics” while caricaturing Italian society. When in Lucca in 1520, he wrote a few pieces La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca (The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca), a comical biography of the medieval duke of Lucca, incarnating Machiavelli’s ideas of a victorious prince, and the Sommario delle cose della citta di Lucca, a summary on the affaire of the city of Lucca.
In that same year, Niccolò Machiavelli was also made the official historian of Florence by Pope Leo X and was commissioned to write the Istorie fiorentine (History of Florence). Five years later it was completed and he presented the work to Pope Clement VII in 1525 who rewarded him with a stipend. In 1526, he obtained a post as a superintendent of the Procuratori delle Mura di Firenza, responsible for the inspection of the Florentine fortifications. His success, however, was short-lived, as the Medici lost power again in 1527. Disillusioned, Niccolò Machiavelli died in the same year.
Though relatively unrecognised during his lifetime, his influence on political science can hardly be overestimated. He influenced such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon and Antonio Gramsci. Amongst philosophers, Baruch Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were his biggest defenders.