Nicollò Machiavelli Essay - Critical Essays

Machiavelli, Nicollò


Nicollò Machiavelli 1469–1527

(Full name Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli.) Italian essayist, dramatist, historian, biographer, novella writer, and poet.

The following entry provides critical discussion of Machiavelli's writings on political theory.

A Florentine statesman and political theorist, Machiavelli remains one of the most controversial figures of political history. Although his writings address a wide range of political and historical topics, he has come to be identified almost exclusively with his highly controversial manual of state Il principe (1532; The Prince). This straightforward, pragmatic treatise on political conduct and the application of power has, over the centuries, been variously hailed, denounced, and distorted to such an extent that Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with ruthless and unscrupulous political tactics. Seldom has a single work generated such divergent and fierce commentary from such a wide assortment of writers. Commenting on Machiavelli's colorful critical heritage, T. S. Eliot has remarked that "no great man has been so completely misunderstood."

Biographical Information

Machiavelli was born in Florence, in what is present-day Italy, to an established, though not particularly affluent, middle-class family whose members had traditionally filled responsible positions in local government. While little of the author's early life has been documented, it is known that as a boy he learned Latin and that he quickly became an assiduous reader of the classics. Among these, he highly prized his copy of Livy's history of the Roman Republic. Machiavelli's first recorded involvement in the volatile Florentine political scene occurred in 1498, when he joined the political faction that deposed Girolamo Savonarola, then the dominant religious and political figure in Florence. Machiavelli was subsequently appointed to the second chancery of the republic. As chancellor and secretary to the Ten of Liberty and Peace, a sensitive government agency dealing chiefly with warfare and foreign affairs, Machiavelli participated both in domestic politics and in diplomatic missions to foreign governments. These posts afforded him innumerable opportunities over the next fourteen years to closely examine the inner

workings of government and to meet prominent individuals, among them Cesare Borgia, who furnished the young diplomat with the major profile in leadership for The Prince. Machiavelli's political stature and influence increased quickly and by 1502 he was a well-respected assistant to the republican gonfalonier, or head of state, Piero Soderini. In 1512, however, the Florentine political climate changed abruptly when Spanish forces invaded Italy. The Medici—for centuries the rulers of Florence, but exiled since 1494—seized the opportunity to depose Soderini and replace the republican government with their own autocratic regime. Machiavelli was jailed and tortured for his well-known republican sentiments, and finally banished to his country residence in Percussina, where he spent his enforced retirement writing the small body of political writings that insured his literary immortality. Completed between 1513 and 1519, Discorsi … sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531; Discourses on Livy) and The Prince were not published until after Machiavelli's death, though both works circulated in manuscript. Around 1518 he turned from discursive prose to drama. Like the author's other writings, Comedia di Callimaco: E di Lucretia (1518; The Mandrake Root) is firmly predicated on an astute, unsentimental awareness of human nature as flawed and given to self-centeredness. The play was popular with audiences throughout much of Italy for several years. His next effort, a military treatise entitled Libro della arte della guerra (1521; The Art of War), was the only historical or political work published during Machiavelli's lifetime. After several attempts to gain favor with the Medici (including dedicating The Prince to Lorenzo), Machiavelli was appointed official historian of Florence in 1520 and subsequently entrusted with minor governmental duties. His prodigious Historie di Nicolo Machiavegli (1532; The History of Florence) carefully dilutes his republican platform with the Medicean bias expected of him. In 1525 Pope Clement VII recognized his achievement with a monetary stipend. Two years later, the Medici were again ousted, and Machiavelli's hopes for advancement under the revived republic were frustrated, for the new government was suspicious of his ties to the Medici. Disheartened by his country's internal strife, Machiavelli fell gravely ill and died, his dream of an operational republic still unrealized.

Major Works

Commentators have found it ironic that the fiercely republican Machiavelli should have written a handbook advising an autocratic leader how best to acquire and maintain power and security. Machiavelli was acutely aware of foreign threats to Italian autonomy and thus deemed it necessary for a strong prince to thwart French and Spanish hegemony. Hence The Prince, addressed to the ruling Medici. Machiavelli believed that a shrewd head of state, exemplified by Borgia, was essential to sublimating self-interest to common welfare. Since handbooks of conduct meeting monarchal needs had become immensely popular by the 1400s, the external form of The Prince was neither startling nor particularly remarkable to Machiavelli's contemporaries. Yet, from its initial appearance, The Prince proved no mere manual of protocol nor, for that matter, of even conventional strategy. In its chapters, Machiavelli delineated a typology of sovereignties and the deployment of available forces—military, political, or psychological—necessary to acquire and retain them. Many of the ideas contained in The Prince were and continue to be quite shocking. For example, Machiavelli suggested that a prince should not categorically omit murder as an option if it serves his purposes; that a prince only needed to appear virtuous; and that a leader need only keep promises and alliances as long as these served the interests of the state. The Prince is the first political treatise to divorce statecraft from ethics. As Machiavelli wrote: "How one lives is so far removed from how one ought to live that he who abandons what one does for what one ought to do, learns rather his own ruin than his preservation." Adding to his unflinching realism the common Renaissance belief in humanity's capacity for determining its own destiny, Machiavelli posited two fundamentals necessary for effective political leadership: virtu and fortuna. Virtu refers to the prince's own abilities (ideally a combination of force and cunning), and fortuna to the unpredictable influence of fortune, or luck. In a significant departure from previous political thought, the designs of God play no part in Machiavelli's scheme. On issues of leadership hitherto masked by other political theorists in vague diplomatic terms, Machiavelli presented his theses in a direct, candid, and often passionate manner, employing easily grasped metaphors and structuring the whole in an aphoristic that which lends it a compelling authority. For sheer volume and intensity, studies of The Prince have far exceeded those directed at Machiavelli's Discourses, though the latter work has been acknowledged an essential companion piece to the former. All of the author's subsequent studies treating history, political science, and military theory stem from this voluminous dissertation containing the most original thought of Machiavelli. Less flamboyant than The Prince and narrower in its margin for interpretation, the Discourses contains Machiavelli's undisguised admiration for ancient governmental forms, and his most eloquent, thoroughly explicated defense of freedom and republicanism, sentiments which would not have been popular among the many monarchical, absolutist rulers of the Renaissance period. Commentators have noted the presence of a gravity and skillful rhetoric that at times punctuate The Prince but are in full evidence only in that work's final chapter, constituting a memorable exhortation to the Medicis to resist foreign tyranny. The Discourses also presents that methodical extrapolation of political theory from historical documentation which is only intermittent in The Prince. Max Lerner has observed that, "if The Prince is great because it gives us the grammar of power for a government, The Discourses are great because they give us the philosophy of organic unity not in a government but in a state, and the conditions under which alone a culture can survive."

Critical Reception

Reaction to The Prince was initially—but only briefly—favorable; Catherine de Medici is said to have enthusiastically included it among other of Machiavelli's writings in the educational curriculum of her children. But within a short time the book fell into widespread disfavor, becoming viewed as a handbook for atheistic tyranny. The Prince, and Machiavelli's other writings as well, were placed in the Papal Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Further denigrated toward the close of the sixteenth century in Discours sur les moyens de bien gouverner et maintenir en paix un royause, ou autre principaute. Contre Nicolas Machiavel, florentin, by Innocenzo Gentillet in France, The Prince was held responsible for French political corruption and for widespread contribution to any number of political and moral vices. Gentillet's interpretation of The Prince as advocating statecraft by ruthlessness and amoral duplicity was disseminated throughout Britain through the works of such popular, highly influential dramatists as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. In the Prologue to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589?), "Machevil" addresses the audience at length, at one point encapsulating the Elizabethan perception of Machiavelli by saying, "I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance." Here and in the works of Marlowe's contemporaries, Machiavelli was depicted as an agent of all that Protestant England despised in Catholic, High-Renaissance Italy. Hostile English interpreters so effectively typified Machiavelli as an amalgam of various evils, which they described with the still-used term "Machiavellian," that fact and fabrication still mingle today. Rarely, until the nineteenth century, did mention of The Prince elicit anyting other than unfounded and largely unexamined repugnance, much less encourage objective scrutiny of its actual issues. As Fredi Chiappelli has aptly summarized: "Centuries had to elapse before the distinction between moral moment and political moment, between technical approach and moralistic generalities, and even between the subject matter of the book and the author's person were finally achieved." Modern critics, noting these crucial distinctions, have engaged in a prolonged and animated discussion concerning Machiavelli's intent in The Prince. A seventeenth-century commentator, philosopher Pierre Bayle, found it "strange" that "there are so many people, who believe, that Machiavel teaches princes dangerous politics; for on the contrary princes have taught Machiavel what he has written." Since Bayle's time, further analysis has prompted prolonged and animated discussion relating to Machiavelli's purpose in writing the work. Was the treatise, as Bayle suggested, a faithful representation of princely conduct which might justifiably incriminate its subjects but not its chronicler? Or had Machiavelli, in his manner of presentation, devised the volume as a vehicle for his own commentary? A single conclusion concerning the author's motive has not been drawn, though patterns of conjecture have certainly appeared within Machiavelli's critical heritage. Lord Macaulay, in emphasizing the writer's republican zeal and those privations he suffered in its behalf, has contended that it is "inconceivable that the martyr of freedom should have designedly acted as the apostle of tyranny," and that "the peculiar immorality which has rendered The Prince unpopular … belonged rather to the age than to the man." Others have echoed this suggestion, examining the work in its historical context. Many have urged that Machiavelli intended the treatise as a veiled satiric attack on the methods of Italian tyranny or, by abstruse methods, its converse—a paean to patriotism and sensible government, grounded in a clear-sighted knowledge of the corrupt human condition. While ultimately unable to agree on the underlying purpose of The Prince, nearly all critics have nonetheless been persuaded of its masterful composition, even when unwilling to endorse its precepts. Macaulay has affirmed that the "judicious and candid mind of Machiavelli shows itself in his luminous, manly, and polished language." And Francesco De Sanctis has determined that "where he was quite unconscious of form, he was a master of form. Without looking for Italian prose he found it." A decided influence on the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Sir Francis Bacon and on the thought of such modern political theorists as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, and Robert Michels, Machiavelli has been called the founder of empirical political science, primarily on the strength of the Discourses and The Prince. Taken in historical perspective, it is understandable that The Prince should have dwarfed Machiavelli's other works. For with this slim treatise the author confronted the ramifications of power when its procurement and exercise were notably peremptory—not only in his own country but throughout Europe as well. Commentators have come to weigh the integrity of Machiavelli's controversial thought against the pressing political conditions which formed it. Some, like Roberto Ridolfi, have endeavored through their studies to dislodge the long-standing perception of Machiavelli as a ruthless character: "In judging Machiavelli one must… take account of his anguished despair of virtue and his tragic sense of evil…. [On] the basis of sentences taken out of context and of outward appearances he was judged a cold and cynical man, a sneerer at religion and virtue; but in fact there is hardly a page of his writing and certainly no action of life that does not show him to be passionate, generous, ardent and basically religious."

Principal Works

Comedia di Callimaco: E di Lucretia [The Mandrake Root] (drama) c. 1518

Libro della arte della guerra [The Art of War] (essay) 1521

La clizia [Clizia] (drama) 1525

*Discorsi di Nicolo Machiavelli … sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, a Zanobi Buondelmonte, et a Cosimo Rucellai [Discourses on Livy] (essay) 1531

Historie di Nicolo Machiavegli [The History of Florence] (history) 1532

Il principe di Niccholo Machivello [The Prince] (essay) 1532

§La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca … Il modo che tenne il Duca...

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M. D. Petre (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "Machiavelli and Modern Statecraft," in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. 226, No. 461, July, 1917, pp. 93–112.

[Below, Petre presents an overview of the main characteristics of Machiavelli's thoughts on dipolmacy and government as exhibited in The Prince.]

The work by which Nicholas Machiavelli is best known is Il Principe: a treatise popularly regarded as the standard manual of unscrupulous diplomacy. The word Machiavellism, like its counterpart Jesuitism, is a current term with a definite meaning: the former may be employed by an admirer of Machiavelli, as the latter by a lover of the Jesuits. It signifies a philosophy of pure expediency; the subordination...

(The entire section is 7940 words.)

Leo Strauss (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Machiavelli's Intention: The Prince," in Thoughts on Machiavelli, 1958. Reprint by The University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 54–84.

[In the following excerpt, Strauss carefully analyzes The Prince's structure and themes, discussing how the work relates to Machiavelli's other works, particularly Discourses upon the First Decade of T. Livius.]

Many writers have attempted to describe the intention of the Prince by using the term "scientific." This description is defensible and even helpful provided it is properly meant. Let us return once more to the beginning. In the Epistle Dedicatory Machiavelli gives three indications of the...

(The entire section is 15624 words.)

John Plamenatz (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "In Search of Machiavellian 'Virtu'," in The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli's Philosophy, edited by Anthony Parel, University of Toronto Press, 1972, pp. 157–78.

[In the essay below, Plamenatz examines Machiavelli's concept of virtue, put forth in The Prince and Discourses upon the First Decade of T. Livius. The critic argues that Machiavelli approaches a philosophical understanding of humankind, but he exalts heroic qualities at the expense of important human traits.]

The most vilified of political thinkers is also the one of whom it has been said that he 'concentrated all his real and supreme values in what he called...

(The entire section is 8503 words.)

Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. vii–xxiv.

[In the following essay, Mansfield provides an overview of The Prince, describing the work as "the most famous book on politics when politics is thought to be carried on for its own sake, unlimited by anything above it."]

Anyone who picks up Machiavelli's The Prince holds in his hands the most famous book on politics ever written. Its closest rival might be Plato's Republic, but that book discusses politics in the context of things above politics, and politics turns out to have a limited and...

(The entire section is 6133 words.)

A. J. Parel (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Question of Machiavelli's Modernity," in The Review of Politics, Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 320–39.

[In the essay below, Parel contends that the arguments which support Machiavelli's "new" ideas, are "based on premodern cosmology and anthropology"]

That Machiavelli is an innovator of political philosophy is universally acknowledged. The program of innovation is outlined in The Prince, chapter 15: he wants to depart from the orders of his predecessors. The goal of the new philosophy is "effectual truth," and not the imagination of it. Actual states, not "imagined republics and kingdoms" are its real concerns. The...

(The entire section is 8145 words.)