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Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian philosopher/writer, and is considered one of the main founders of modern political science. He was a diplomat, political philosopher, musician, and playwright, but, foremost, he was a civil servant of the Florentine Republicmarker. In June of 1498, after the ouster and execution of Girolamo Savonarola, the Great Council elected Machiavelli as Secretary to the second Chancery of the Republic of Florence.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli is considered a typical example of the Renaissance Man. He is most famous for a short political treatise, The Prince, written in 1513, but not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli's death. Although he privately circulated The Prince among friends, the only work he published in his lifetime was The Art of War, about high-military science. Since the sixteenth century, generations of politicians remain attracted and repelled by the cynical approach to power posited in The Prince and his other works. Whatever his personal intentions, which are still debated today, his surname yielded the modern political word Machiavellianism—the use of cunning and deceitful tactics in politics.


Machiavelli was born in Florencemarker, Italymarker, the third son of attorney Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, and his wife, Bartolommea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family are believed descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany, and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice., one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months, who formed the government, or Signoria.
Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era — Popes waged war, and the wealthy Italian city-states might anytime fall, piecemeal, to foreign powers — Francemarker, Spainmarker, the Holy Roman Empire — and political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri who changed sides without warning, and weeks-long governments rising and falling.

Rigorously trained to manhood by his father, Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric and Latin. He did not learn Greek, even though Florence was at the time one of the centers of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494, he entered Florentine government service as a clerk and as an ambassador; later that year, Florence restored the republic — expelling the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for some sixty years. He was in a diplomatic council responsible for negotiation and military affairs, undertaking, between 1499 and 1512, diplomatic missions to the courts of Louis XII in France, Ferdinand II of Aragón, in Spain, and the Papacy in Rome, in Italy proper. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503, he witnessed the effective state-building methods of soldier-churchman Cesare Borgia(1475 – 1507), who was then enlarging his central Italian territories.

Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia, including the City’s defence. He distrusted mercenaries (cf. Discourses, The Prince), preferring a politically-invested citizen-militia, a philosophy that bore fruit — his command of Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509; yet, in August of 1512, the Medici, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato; Piero Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state, and left in exile; then, the Florentine city-state and the Republic were dissolved. For his significant role in the republic's anti-Medici government, Niccolò Machiavelli was deposed from office, and, in 1513, was accused of conspiracy, and arrested. Despite torture "with the rope" (the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body's weight, thus dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released; then, retiring to his estate, at Sant'Andrea in Percussinamarker, near Florence, he wrote the political treatises that earned his intellectual place in the development of political philosophy and political conduct.

In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:

As a writer, Machiavelli identified the unifying theme in The Prince and the Discorsi:

Machiavelli died in 1527. His grave site is unknown, but a cenotaphmarker honouring him was erected at the Church of Santa Crocemarker, in Florence. The Latin legend reads: TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM (No eulogy would be adequate to praise so great a name).


Il Principe

The Prince's contribution to the history of political thought is the fundamental break between political Realism and political Idealism. Niccolò Machiavelli’s best-known book exposits and describes the arts with which a ruling prince can maintain control of his realm. It concentrates on the "new prince", under the presumption that a hereditary prince has an easier task in ruling, since the people are accustomed to him. To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully maintain the socio-political institutions to which the people are accustomed; whereas a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling, since he must first stabilize his new-found power in order to build an enduring political structure. That requires the prince being a public figure above reproach, whilst privately acting amorally to achieve State goals. The examples are those princes who most successfully obtain and maintain power, drawn from his observations as a Florentine diplomat, and his ancient history readings; thus, the Latin phrases and Classic examples.

The Prince does not dismiss morality, instead, it politically defines “Morality” — as in the criteria for acceptable cruel action — it must be decisive: swift, effective, and short-lived. Machiavelli is aware of the irony of good results coming from evil actions; notwithstanding some mitigating themes, the Catholic Church proscribed The Prince, registering it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, moreover, the Humanists also viewed the book negatively, among them, Erasmus of Rotterdam. As a treatise, its primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is the fundamental break between political Realism and political Idealism — thus, The Prince is a manual to acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, a Classical ideal society is not the aim of the prince’s will to power. As a political scientist, Machiavelli emphasises necessary, methodical exercise of brute force punishment-and-reward (patronage, clientelism, et cetera) to preserve the status quo.

As there seems to be a huge difference between Machiavelli's advice to ruthless and tyrannical princes in The Prince and his more republican exhortations in Discorsi, many have concluded that The Prince is actually only a satire. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, admired Machiavelli the republican and consequently argued that The Prince is a book for the republicans as it exposes the methods used by princes. If the book was only intended as a manual for tyrannical rulers, it contains a paradox: it would apparently be more effective if the secrets it contains would not be made publicly available. Also Antonio Gramsci argued that Machiavelli's audience was the common people because the rulers already knew these methods through their education. This interpretation is supported by the fact that Machiavelli wrote in Italian, not in Latin (which would have been the language of the ruling elite). Although Machiavelli is supposed to be a realist, many of his heroes in The Prince are in fact mythical or semi-mythical, and his goal (i.e. the unification of Italy) essentially utopian at the time of writing.

Etymologically, his sixteenth-century contemporaries adopted and used the adjective Machiavellian (elaborately cunning), often in the introductions of political tracts offering more than government by “Reasons of State”, most notably those of Jean Bodin and Giovanni Botero; while contemporary, pejorative usage of Machiavellian (anti-Machiavellism in the 16th C.) is a misnomer describing someone who deceives and manipulates others for gain; (personal or not, the gain is immaterial, only action matters, insofar as it effects results). The Prince hasn’t the moderating themes of his other works; politically, “Machiavelli” denotes someone of politically-extreme perspective; however Machiavellianism remains a popular speech and journalism usage; while in psychology, it denotes a personality type.


The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy comprises the early history of Rome. It is a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured, including the concept of checks and balances, the strength of a tri-partite political structure, and the superiority of a republic over a principality.

From The Discourses:

  • “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check”. Book I, Chapter II
  • “Doubtless these means [of attaining power] are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian, nor even human, and should be avoided by every one. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings”. Book I, Chapter XXVI
  • “Now, in a well-ordered republic, it should never be necessary to resort to extra-constitutional measures. . . . ” Book I, Chapter XXXIV
  • “. . . the governments of the people are better than those of princes”. Book I, Chapter LVIII
  • “. . . if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious”. Book I, Chapter LVIII
  • “For government consists mainly in so keeping your subjects that they shall be neither able, nor disposed to injure you. . . . ” Book II, Chapter XXIII
  • “. . . no prince is ever benefited by making himself hated”. Book III, Chapter XIX
  • “Let not princes complain of the faults committed by the people subjected to their authority, for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example”. Book III, Chapter XXIX

Other works

Peter Withorne’s 1573 translation of the Art of War

Besides being a statesman (political scientist), Machiavelli also translated classical works, and was a dramaturge (Clizia, Mandragola), a poet (Sonetti, Canzoni, Ottave, Canti carnascialeschi), and a novelist (Belfagor arcidiavolo).

Some of his other works:

Revival of interest in the 19th and 20th centuries

Despite remaining a politically-influential writer in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the 19th and 20th centuries that rediscovered his political science for its intellectual and practical applications. The most reliable guide to this renewed interest is the Introduction to the 1953 (Mentor Books) edition of Il Principe, wherein Christian Gauss, the Dean of Princeton University, discusses, with pertinent historical context, the commentaries on The Prince made by the German historians Ranke (19th c.) and Meineke (20th c.), the Briton Lord Acton, and others. Citing the consensus that Machiavelli was the first political theorist with a practical, scientific approach to statecraft, considering him “the first Modern Man”. The commentators view the political scientist Machiavelli positively — because he viewed the world realistically, thus, such statecraft leads to (generally)constructive results.

See also


  1. Moschovitis Group Inc, Christian D. Von Dehsen and Scott L. Harris, Philosophers and religious leaders, (The Oryx Press, 1999), 117.
  2. S. Anglo, Machiavelli: the first century (Oxford, 2005)
  3. Donna, Daniel, in the introduction to the Bantam Classic edition of The Prince, Bantam, 1966
  4. In one scholar's assessment, mistakenly so. Writes Anthony Parel: "The authentic Machiavelli is one who subordinates personal interests for the common good . . . If one is to speak of a Machiavellian personality one should mention Moses and Romulus (to use [M's] own examples)." For more on the three sources of historical anti-Machiavellism, see Further Reading, Parel, pp. 14-24, and (in far greater detail): Sydney Anglo, Machiavelli - the First Century: Studies in Enthusiasm, Hostility, and Irrelevance, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0199267766, 9780199267767.
  5. The Modern Library, New York, 1950, translated by Christian E. Detmold.


  • Machiavelli, Niccolò (1531). The Discourses. Translated by Leslie J. Walker, S.J, revisions by Brian Richardson (2003). London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-140-44428-9

Further reading

  • Anglo, Sydney, Machiavelli - the First Century: Studies in Enthusiasm, Hostility, and Irrelevance, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0199267766, 9780199267767
  • Hoeges, Dirk. Niccolò Machiavelli. Dichter-Poeta. Mit sämtlichen Gedichten, deutsch/italienisch. Con tutte le poesie, tedesco/italiano, Reihe: Dialoghi/Dialogues: Literatur und Kultur Italiens und Frankreichs, Band 10, Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt/M. u.a. 2006, ISBN 3-631-54669-6.
  • ISBN 978-0-934941-003
  • Seung, T. K. (1993). Intuition and Construction: The Foundation of Normative Theory, New Haven: Yale University Press. See pp. 133–43.
  • Stefano Zen, Veritas ecclesiastica e Machiavelli, in Monarchia della verità. Modelli culturali e pedagogia della Controriforma, Napoli, Vivarium, 2002 (La Ricerca Umanistica, 4), pp. 73–111.
  • von Vacano, Diego, "The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory," Lanham MD: Lexington: 2007.
  • Mascia Ferri, L'opinione pubblica e il sovrano in Machiavelli, in «The Lab's Quarterly»,n.2 aprile-giugno,Università di Pisa,2008, pp. 420–433.
  • Giuseppe Leone,"Silone e Machiavelli: una scuola... che non crea prìncipi", Prefazione di Vittoriano Esposito, Centro Studi Ignazio Silone, Pescina, 2003.

External links

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