Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2350
Article abstract: Machiavelli’s posthumous reputation rests primarily on his having initiated a pragmatic mode of political discourse that is entirely independent of ethical considerations derived from traditional sources of moral authority, such as classical philosophy and Christian theology.
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The year 1469 has a dual significance in the historical annals of Florence, since it marks both the date of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ascension to power and that of Niccolò Machiavelli’s birth. The boy was reared in a household consisting of his parents, Bernardo and Bartolomea, along with two older sisters and a younger brother. Bernardo, a tax lawyer and petty landowner of modest means, was a man of pronounced scholarly proclivities with a genuine passion for Roman literature. Machiavelli’s own schooling in the principles of Latin grammar and rhetoric began at the age of seven. The study of arithmetic, however, was deferred until several years later. Although the family was too poor to own many books, it did possess a copy of the first three decades of Livy’s survey of ancient Roman history. This work must have been a favorite of both father and son, since it was eventually sent to the bindery when Niccolò was seventeen years of age. Little is known for certain about the next decade in Machiavelli’s life. There is some evidence which indicates that he may have spent most of the years between 1487 and 1495 in Rome working for a prominent Florence banker.
The political climate in Florence had altered drastically in the years immediately preceding Machiavelli’s return from Rome. Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492 and had been succeeded by his eldest son, Piero, an inept youth barely twenty years of age. Piero was soon confronted with a major crisis when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 to lay claim to Naples, and Piero’s feckless conduct vis-à-vis the French monarch met with such revulsion on the part of his fellow citizens that they resolved to banish the entire Medici clan from the city forever. Soon thereafter, control of the Florentine republic fell into the hands of an austere Dominican friar from Ferrara, Girolamo Savonarola.
While Savonarola made considerable headway in mitigating the dissolute moral conditions that pervaded Florence, he had considerably less success with his self-imposed mission to restore Christian virtue to the Roman Catholic church. His adversary in this struggle was the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia, whose reign as Alexander VI is generally conceded to represent the moral nadir in the history of the Papacy during the Renaissance. Savonarola’s persistent challenges to papal authority led to his being formally excommunicated by the Roman pontiff; this event emboldened the friar’s political adversaries into taking direct action to destroy him. The climax of this struggle occurred on May 23, 1498, when Savonarola and his two closest confederates in the Dominican Order were escorted to the main square in Florence and hanged atop a pile of brush and logs that was thereupon promptly set ablaze by the hangman. Several hours later, the charred remains of the three men were tossed into the Arno River. Machiavelli witnessed Savonarola’s rise and fall at first hand and viewed the episode as an object lesson as to the danger of being “an unarmed prophet.”
Savonarola’s demise turned out to be highly beneficial with respect to Machiavelli’s own personal fortune, for a few months thereafter he was called upon to serve in the newly reconstituted municipal government in several important posts. Its chief executive, Piero Soderini, appointed him both head of the Second Chancery and secretary to the Council of Ten for War. It remains unclear why an inexperienced young man of twenty-nine from an impoverished family should have been elevated to these key offices. Most likely, it was his keen intelligence which recommended him to Soderini, for each of the artists for whom Machiavelli chose to pose has fully captured this character trait. In addition to the bemused cynicism manifested in his facial expression, Machiavelli is depicted as a slender man with thin lips and penetrating eyes. He was, in short, a man whose crafty countenance must have caused others to be on their guard while conducting official business with him.
Despite his initial lack of diplomatic experience, Machiavelli was routinely commissioned to undertake sensitive missions to other Italian states as well as to the courts of Louis XII in France and Maximilian I in Germany. Diplomatic activities such as these played a vital role in Machiavelli’s development as an uncompromising exponent of political pragmatism. Most instructive of all in this context were his extensive contacts with Cesare Borgia in Romagna during 1502-1503. It was this illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who best exemplified the quality of manliness (virtù) that Machiavelli most admired in a political and military leader. Cesare Borgia’s meteoric career was, however, terminated abruptly as a result of the death of his father in 1503. The new pope, Julius II, was an inveterate enemy of the entire Borgia clan and soon sent Borgia into exile, where he later died.
Julius was also responsible for terminating Machiavelli’s career as a civil servant. When Louis XII of France invaded Italy and succeeded in establishing control over the Duchy of Milan, Julius proceeded to form a political coalition known as the Holy League, whose aim was to drive the invader from Italian soil. Soderini, despite Machiavelli’s advice, refused to permit Florence to join the coalition and insisted on its maintaining strict neutrality throughout the entire conflict. After the expulsion of the French, Julius decided to punish the Florentine republic and compelled its citizenry to accept the return of the Medicis. Both Soderini and Machiavelli were immediately dismissed from office. On February 23, 1513, moreover, Machiavelli was falsely accused of being part of a conspiracy to reestablish the republic and put to torture on the rack. Though lack of evidence compelled the authorities to release him, he feared rearrest and decided to retire to his ancestral villa at Sant’ Andrea, near Florence, together with his wife, Marietta Corsini, and their six children.
His premature retirement from public life at age forty-three enabled Machiavelli to study Roman literature and to compose many original works. His major political treatises are Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640) and Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio (wr. c. 1513-1517, pb. 1531; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, 1636). Since Machiavelli focuses upon issues pertaining to the governance of principalities in The Prince and of republics in the Discourses, these works constitute, in effect, a unified exposition of the author’s political theories and should therefore be studied in conjunction with each other. The title of the Discourses is, however, misleading to the extent that this work is not really a commentary on Livy’s history of ancient Rome. Machiavelli subscribed to a cyclical view of history based on the theories propounded by the Greek historian Polybius, and he used the Discourses to draw parallels between the events depicted by Livy and the political situation of his own time. He next tried his hand at writing comedies for a brief period. The most celebrated of his works in this genre is La Mandragola (c. 1519; The Mandrake, 1911), the other two being adaptations of plays by Terence. Foremost among the other books that Machiavelli wrote at Sant’ Andrea are Libro della arte guerra (1521; The Art of War, 1560) and Istorie fiorentine (wr. 1520, pb. 1525; The Florentine History, 1595). In The Art of War, Machiavelli argues strongly in favor of the greater efficacy of native militias as opposed to mercenary armies, and in The Florentine History he chronicles the city’s fortune from the fall of the Roman Empire to the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Even though Machiavelli had been an ardent supporter of the republic headed by Soderini, he considered himself to be a professional civil servant above all else and burned with a desire to be of service to his native city. Machiavelli, in fact, wrote The Prince for the express purpose of getting the Medici family to recognize his political sagacity and offer him employment in the new regime. Within a few years, the responsibility of governing Florence passed into the lands of Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom Machiavelli decided to dedicate The Prince. Lorenzo, however, showed no interest in the treatise. Lorenzo died prematurely in 1519 at the age of twenty-seven and was succeeded by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, under whose administration of the city’s affairs Machiavelli’s personal fortunes improved somewhat. He was entrusted with a few minor diplomatic missions on behalf of the Medicis. More important, it was Giulio who commissioned Machiavelli to write The Florentine History.
Giulio de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII in 1521 when the immediate successor to Pope Leo died after a brief reign of twenty months. A series of diplomatic missteps on the part of Clement led to the horrendous sack of Rome in 1527 by mercenaries in the service of the German Emperor Charles V. The citizens of Florence took advantage of the occasion and expelled the Medicis from their own city for the sake of reestablishing the republic. Machiavelli expected to be reinstated in the posts that he had held under Soderini. The Florentines, however, took a dim view of Machiavelli’s previous association with the Medicis and declined to entrust him with any posts in the new regime. Bitterly disappointed, Machiavelli died in Florence a scant few months after the city had regained its liberty. The eclipse of the Medicis turned out to be a short one since Pope Clement and Emperor Charles were quick to reconcile their differences. The Medicis returned to Florence in 1530, but this time they did so as a hereditary nobility. The city’s days as an independent republic were thus ended forever.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s political writings have elicited an unusual number of disparate reactions over the course of time. The negative viewpoint was initiated by the Roman Catholic church when it decided to ban open dissemination of Machiavelli’s works by placing his entire oeuvre on its Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Oddly enough, even though an English translation of The Prince did not appear until 1640, it was the frequent allusions to Machiavelli which occur in plays by Elizabethan dramatists such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare that did most to popularize his image as an evil counselor. It is generally assumed that the Elizabethan public had already derived a measure of familiarity with the contents of The Prince from earlier French translations of the work. Sir Francis Bacon, on the other hand, took a more favorable view of Machiavelli and hailed him as a fellow empiricist who described “what men do, and not what they ought to do.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau went even further in vindicating Machiavelli by contending that the real purpose of The Prince was to expose the modus operandi of tyrants and thereby to advance the cause of democracy. In modern times, however, The Prince has frequently been called “a handbook for dictators.”
Whatever may be said for and against Machiavelli’s political doctrines, it is necessary to recognize that he himself was deeply committed to a republican form of government. Even after one concedes Machiavelli’s genuine patriotism and his deeply held commitment to republican virtues, there are a number of disquieting elements in his political philosophy that cannot easily be dismissed. There is, for example, his excessive taste for violent and cruel solutions to political problems as reflected in his unabashed admiration for the bloody deeds of Cesare Borgia. Similarly, he held the view that morally reprehensible actions in terms of Christian standards are fully justifiable if perpetrated for what has come to be known as “reasons of state.” For these and other reasons, Machiavelli continues to be a disturbing figure in the cultural pantheon of Western culture.
Bondanella, Peter E. Machiavelli and the Art of Renaissance History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. This astute study constitutes a chronological survey of Machiavelli’s development as a literary stylist. Focuses on the compositional techniques that he employed in depicting the character and conduct of heroic personages. Lacks a formal bibliography, but there are copious endnotes for each chapter.
Hale, John Rigby. Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Hale’s primary objective is to demonstrate the extent to which Machiavelli’s writings are a reflection of the political events that were unfolding in Italy during his own lifetime. Generally viewed as the best introduction to the study of Machiavelli and his age. Contains two maps and a brief annotated bibliography.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others. Edited and translated by Allan Gilbert. 3 vols. Durham: Duke University Press, 1965. The most extensive collection of Machiavelli’s writings currently available in English translation. Although textual annotations are dispensed with, there are succinct introductions to the individual selections as well as an outstanding index to the entire corpus.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. This pioneering study of gender as a factor in political theory depicts Machiavelli as a misogynistic authoritarian. It is particularly useful in clarifying the manner in which Machiavelli employs the concepts of fortuna and virtù. The text is extensively annotated and supplemented by a highly detailed index and a useful bibliography of works cited.
Ridolfi, Roberto. The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli. Translated by Cecil Grayson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. This biography is generally regarded as superior to the earlier efforts of Pasquale Villari and Oreste Tommassini by virtue of its focus on the course of Machiavelli’s life rather than on his ideas or his cultural and historical milieu. Exhaustive documentation of sources.
Strauss, Leo. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958. The author, one of the most renowned political scientists of the modern age, argues that Machiavelli was a teacher of wickedness. This work is especially helpful in evaluating the relationship between the ideological content of The Prince and the Discourses. Minimal index, but each chapter is accompanied by extensive endnotes.