Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavegli
(1469-1527) was a Florentine writer, philosopher, and political theorist active at a time of great chaos and turmoil throughout Italy. He is best-known for writing The Prince
, a handbook for the ruling Medici family on how to most effectively run a principality. Due to The Prince
being his best-known work, coupled with the fact that few who quote it have actually read it
, Machiavelli's name has become a byword for being a ruthless, manipulative, backstabbing bastard; so much so that in Christopher Marlowe
's Doctor Faustus
, Machiavelli is presented as one who has made a Deal with the Devil
, and the term Old Nick
to refer to The Devil
may also be derived from his forename.
This reputation is perhaps undeserved as some of his other works, notably Discourses on Livy
, are all about successfully running republics, and even in The Prince
he states that a republic is the best form of government. In the eighteenth century the view that the book was actually an elaborate parody
became fashionable given both the nature of Machiavelli's other works and the fact that The Prince
was written just after he was stripped of his power, imprisoned, and tortured by the Medicis. In early nineteenth century Germany it became fashionable to suggest that The Prince
needed to be judged relatively. Though the tradition began even earlier than that.
Already in the 18th Century, it was fashionable among Enlightenment philosophers to regard Machiavelli as their inspiration. Jean Jacques Rousseau was a major admirer of his works and was among the first to suggest that The Prince
need not be taken at face value and he regarded Machiavelli as a republican. The founding fathers of the United States were also familiar with his writings.
Hegel argued that it was written for a certain time and certain locale and to judge it based on contemporary morality and from the perspective of someone living in a unified nation state was unfair. Since the mid-twentieth century, the most common interpretation of The Prince
is that it simply describes as Francis Bacon said, "what men do, and not what they ought to do" and that it is the first true work to deal with politics as a branch of science and not ethics. Another unfair misinterpretation of Machiavelli is seeing him as someone who wrote for the benefit of [insert favorite mass murdering tyrant here]. This is unfair to Machiavelli considering that someone like Hitler doesn't need a centuries dead philosopher to give him permission to go on a murderous rampage, whereas a democratic leader with a strong moral compass like Abe Lincoln or Winston Churchill might have doubts about what their duties as a leader are. And, for that matter, Machiavelli would probably have approved of pragmatic democratic statesmen like Nixon
or Disraeli more than insane ideologues like Hitler or Stalin.
However, one must be careful not to assume that Machiavelli was truly pro-democracy. In Discourses on Livy
, he takes the time to state that pure democracy isn't a great idea either, and the best form of government is one that combines democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy so that the different social classes can keep each other in check. On the other hand, the liberal movement which (openly or otherwise) adopted Machiavelli's philosophy more or less took the same opinion. Indeed, modern representative democracy would rather please Machiavelli, as it more or less reflects his ideals (a popularly-elected legislature is not
a democracy as he understood it, but close enough to serve in the position in his three-in-one system;note
the modern investment of a great deal of power in directly-elected presidents
and indirectly-elected prime ministers
is a pretty good approximation of his idea of "monarchy"; and both the role of less-representative upper legislative houses—like the US Senate and British Lords—and small, well-educated judicial courts are close to his concept of "aristocracy").
Like many of that era, Machiavelli believed that Ancient Rome
was the peak of human civilisation, particularly the Roman Republic, and he often uses its example to illustrate political points. Indeed, he can be seen as rejecting "Christian" ideas of thinkers like Augustine —-politics must be understood through a higher form of knowledge, private and public morals should be consistent, history is linear and purposeful etc——for "pagan" ones of thinkers like Aristotle—-history is cyclical, politics must be understood on its own terms, states and leaders behave differently from private citizens. Interesting enough, this is a dichotomy that is still relevant today: compare the Clash of Civilizations and the End of History with Greco-Roman and Christian political thought, respectively.
As well as his political works, Machiavelli wrote several books of history and a number of poems and satirical
novels and plays.
His works include, but are not limited to:
- Description of the Manner in which Duke Valentino put Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, Lord Pagola and the Duke of Gravina to Death (1502)
- On the method of dealing with the Rebellious Peoples of Valdichiana (1502)
- The Prince (1513)
- Discourses on Livy (1517)
- Discourse of Reforming the Government of Florence (1520)
- The Art of War (1519) No, not that one, although some of the sentiments are the same. However, much of the work is devoted to how awful mercenaries are and why you should never, ever, ever use them.
- Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520)
- Florentine Histories (published 1532)
- The Golden Ass (1517): Not an original work, but a translation of a novel by the Roman Apuleius.
- The Mandrake (1524): An original comedy, his greatest popular success.
- Belfagor arcidiavolo (published 1549)
Tropes related to the actual man
- Admiring the Abomination: Machiavelli's admiration for Cesare Borgia may count as this.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!: He's quoted as saying that it's better for a ruler to be feared rather than loved in The Prince. To be fair he did say that, but only if you couldn't be both; it's best if you are feared and loved. Above all, you should make sure you're not hated, as hatred overcomes fear of punishment.
- The actual point of the quote was to let the reader know that a Prince who is loved, but not feared, will be more readily betrayed by his subjects than a Prince who is feared, but not loved. Thus, fear without inspiring hatred is important to a Prince.
- Others mistakenly believe he said never to hire mercenaries. What he actually said was not to rely on mercenaries to protect your kingdom. This would not preclude hiring them to carry out small, covert missions on your behalf where deniability is an important consideration.
- Born in the Wrong Century: He shared the Renaissance mentality of being several centuries ahead of his time and of wanting to live in Ancient Rome, and sometimes dressed up in a toga.
- Interesting because he is born either before his time or ahead of it—-or both.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: He suffered this when the Medici had retaken Florence. He was put in the strapado, a device which led to his body being hoisted by his joints and ankles from the ceiling where they tried to make him confess to some made up crime or another. Machiavelli refused. For the rest of his life, Machiavelli suffered from pains in his joints and it was with severe pain in both his hands that he wrote the later works, including The Prince.
- Deadpan Snarker: A common way of portraying Machiavelli in fiction but also Truth in Television. This can be seen in his account of a dream he had where he saw all the saints in Heaven and philosophers like Plato in Hell. When he told this dream to his friends, Machiavelli said that he'd rather be in Hell with interesting people than in Heaven where everyone was boring and good.
- There is also another story that when he found out his father had been buried in the same grave as some other people, he replied, "Well at least he will have company".
- The Exile: Was ultimately kicked out of Florence and had to live in the outskirts, a period of forced retirement during which he composed The Prince, The Florentine Histories and other works, in the hopes of being allowed back to his hometown.
- The Good Chancellor/Evil Chancellor: Machiavelli was Chancellor of the Florentine Republic. YMMV on which one you believe he was.
- According to historians, his tenure in Florence was a rare instance of corruption free governance during the Renaissance and his creation of the Florence standing army was regarded as a great achievement. Unfortunately the Medici returned.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Perhaps undeservedly.
- The Man Behind the Man: Machiavelli is often portrayed this way with respect to both Cesare Borgia and the Florentine Republic. In actual fact, he never had much influence over the affairs of his idol or his city, something he often lamented, since he thought he could do it better.
- My Country, Right or Wrong: Machiavelli was a patriot who wanted a united Italy at a time when no one else particularly thought it was possible. This may explain why he wrote a book about how a dastardly, wickedly cunning, violent man would be a good ruler.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: After his death his son found an unfinished play that Machiavelli had been working on that contained several thinly-veiled and quite cynical parodies of several important men in Florence.
- Also in The Mandrake, there is a particularly idiotic character who is clearly based on Piero Soderini.
- Private Military Contractors: In The Prince, Machiavelli blamed Italy's dominance by foreign powers on the fact that the Italian states all tended to rely on hired mercenaries in war. They tended to get slaughtered, when they didn't turn out to be Dirty Cowards. Armies with more direct loyalty to their prince or their state tended to do much better.
- So much so that he devoted an entire chapter to why one should not rely on mercenaries, and put reminders in the other two chapters on warfare.
- And Discourses is rather critical of them as well.
- Renaissance Man: Amongst other things, Niccolo Machiavelli was a poet, a playwright, a musician, a statesman, a diplomat, a writer, a philosopher, a humanist, a historian and a patron of the arts.
- Self-Deprecation: Somewhat bizarrely. According to his friends, Francesco Vettori and Francesco Guicciardini, Machiavelli frequently put himself at the butt of other people's jokes. A sort of self-imposed Butt Monkey.
- Tall, Dark and Snarky
- Troll: A possible interpretation of his most well-known work, The Prince, is that it was not only meant as satire, but was meant to screw with Prince Lorenzo. There are two ways this could work: 1) Machiavelli was making fun of the Prince by using the same flawed logic he believed tyrants used to subjugate their people; or 2) he was trying to convince the Prince to follow the book to the letter knowing that it would lead to a riot that would lead to his death. However, there is no proof that any of the Medicis actually read the book and Machiavelli didn't leave much behind that could clear up the matter. Therefore, there's no way to tell what his intent was when he wrote the treatise.
- Worthy Opponent: He considered Caterina Sforza, the Countess of Forli, to be one of these. The Countess managed to hold out much longer than any of Cesare Borgia's other (male) opponents and Machiavelli, who acted as the go-between, witnessed her forceful personality first-hand.
- Write What You Know: Before he wrote The Prince, Machiavelli had served in a number of governmental positions in the city of Florence (in fact, part of the reason he dedicated The Prince to the Medici might have been as a way to work his way into their good graces, as he lost his post when they came to power). Among those posts was head of the city militia, which gave him plenty of firsthand opportunities to develop his distrust of mercenaries.