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  • 6/19/2004
Niccolo Machiavelli
(5/3/1469- 6/21/1527)

Italian political thinker and historical figure at the turning point of the Middle Ages and the Modern World. Machiavelli stated inThe Prince, the then revolutionary and prophetic idea, that theological and moral imperatives have no place in the political arena. "Men are always wicked at bottom unless they are made good by some compulsion." With Hobbes (1588-1679) Machiavelli is considered one of the great early modern analyzers of political power.

"Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer" (FromThe Prince, 1515) .

Niccolَ Machiavelli was born inFlorence, Italy. Little is known of his early life, although he once described his background: "I was born in poverty and at an early age learned how to endure hardship rather than flourish." Niccolٍ's father, Bernardo di Niccolٍ di Buoninsegna, belonged to an impoverished branch of an influential old Florentine family. Bernardo was a lawyer and he had a small personal library that included books by Greek and Roman philosophers and volumes of Italian history. Bernardo died in 1500, Machiavelli's mother, Bartolomea de' Nelli, had died in 1496.

"Machiavelli went on to read the ancient philosophers and, especially, historians: Thucydides, who told of the war between Sparta and Athens that tore Greece apart; Plutarch, who told of the lives of the great statesmen, generals, and lawmakers of ancient Greece and Rome; Tacitus, who recounted the corruption and perfidy of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero; and above all, the work by Livy..." (FromNiccolٍ's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelliby Maurizipo Viroli, 2000).

Machiavelli might have been involved in overthrowing the Savonarolist government in 1498 - Girolamo Savonarola was executed just outside his office. Machiavelli was appointed head of the new government's Second Chancery, and secretary of an agency concerned with warfare and diplomacy (1498-1512). During these years he travelled on several missions inEurope for theRepublic of Florence visiting Cesare Borgia (1502),Rome (1503, 1506),France (1504) and Germany (1507-08). Among his achievement was helping to set up a standing army, which reconquered Pisa in 1509.
As a thinker Machiavelli belonged to an entire school of Florentine intellectuals concerned with the examination of political and historical problems. His important writings, however, were composed after 1512 when he was accused of conspiracy in 1513. The Medici family had returned to power and had ended a year before the Florentine Republic. Lorenzo de' Medici fired Machiavelli, the Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Signoria. He was suspected of plotting against the Medici, jailed, even tortured, and exiled to Sant'Andrea in Percussina. He found himself out of job after 14 years of patriotic service, and spent most of his remaining years on a small estate where he produced his major writings. He achieved some fame as a historian and playwright, but withThe Prince he hoped to regain political favor. It tells how to gain, maintain, and centralize power.
In 1519 Machiavelli was partly reconciled with the Medici and was given various duties, including writing a history of Florence. When the Medici were deposed in 1527 Machiavelli hoped for a new government post. Now, however, he was distrusted by the republican government for previous association with the Medici.
Machiavelli died inFlorence onJune 21, 1527. Just a few weeks before his death,Rome fell to the poorly armed Spanish infantry. Machiavelli had foretold how such tragedy could be avoided but no one had listened to him.
Machiavelli's political writings became more widely known in the second half of the 16th century. In 1564, when considered dangerous, they were placed on the Church Index of officially banned books. Othello's ensign Iago in Shakespeare's play was partly based on the common misconception of Machiavelli as a cynical defender of fraud in statecraft. Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia (1476-1507), an able ruler, who was ruthless and treacherous in war but a patron of artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.
Machiavelli's best known works are DISCORSI SOPRA LA PRIMA DECA DI TITO LIVIO (1531) and IL PRINCIPE (1532), whose main theme is that all means may be used in order to maintain authority, and that the worst acts of the ruler are justified by the treachery of the government. "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." (fromThe Prince, 1532) Many of Machiavelli's thoughts, as "it is much more secure to be feared, than to be loved" or "it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two", have lived for centuries as slogans. And his notion "All armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed" could be approved by contemporary fanatical religious leaders.Il Principe was condemned by the pope, but its viewpoints gave rise to the well-known adjectivemachiavellian, synonym for political maneuvers marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith. Machiavelli draws upon examples from both ancient and more recent history and also uses his own insight gained during his observation of the Italian city-states andFrance. What distinguishes Machiavelli's manual from other such works, is the originality and practicality of his thinking. Neither the attempts to interpret Machiavelli's ideas as first steps to democratic thought nor as examples of evil reflect a balanced view of his writing.
The interest in Machiavelli has continued, although contemporary scholarship may have its reservations about transforming his writings into prophecy or a manual of modern politics. However, in the United States Machiavelli's pragmatism has not been forgotten and Dick Morris, close to President Clinton, has written his own version ofThe Prince.

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