Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine writer, philosopher, and political theorist active at a time of great chaos and turmoil throughout Renaissance 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 The Jew of Malta, Machiavelli is presented on stage as the narrator of the prologue, 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; James Madison in particular was deeply interested in Machiavelli's theories, and may have had them in mind both in his drafts for the Virginia Plan (which, heavily modified, became the United States Constitution) and in his contributions to the Federalist Papers.
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)
Machiavelli in Fiction.
- Christopher Marlowe's famous prologue from The Jew of Malta has Machiavel introduce the action with a stereotyped invocation of his political philosophy.
- Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence is a magical realist merge of Mughal and Florentine Golden Age and Machiavelli is one of the many Historical-Domain Character, albeit one that is more sympathetic and well-researched than others.
- He appears in The Borgias as The Consigliere for Cesare Borgia.
- He appears in Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood as a prominent figure within the Assassin Order. His secretive nature drives prominent Assassins La Volpe to suspect him of being a traitor in Brotherhood.
- He is the main character in the (rather long) Norwegian play Towards Carnival, written in 1915, telling the story of Machiavelli and his contemporaries from the death of Savonarola to the time he wrote The Prince.
- In The Time Tunnel episode "The Death Merchant", he's transported to The American Civil War (specifically, the battle of Gettysburg) due to a technical fluke. He's depicted as a murderous sadist who regards war as a thrilling spectator sport as long as both sides are equally matched, so he tries to give the Confederates a large cache of gunpowder because they're the weaker opponent.
- He is Leonardo da Vinci's young apprentice in Da Vinci's Demons.
Tropes related to the actual man
- 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 after his time or ahead of it—or both. Centuries later, Maximilien Robespierre said that "The plan of the French Revolution was written large in the books of Machiavelli."
- 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.
- Cuckold: The plot of his comedy The Mandrake revolves around convincing the hapless Messer Nicia to let the Anti-Hero Callimaco to willingly sleep with his wife.
- 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: Many historical fictional works often portray his philosophical beliefs as very malicious, as evident in the late Renaissance works from Shakespeare and Marlowe; and one of Sherlock Holmes's antagonists, James Moriarty, is loosely based on some of Machiavelli's principles. Modern portrayals of him, however, are more sympathetic due to Dated History, and many historians agree that his known work, The Prince is either more of a satire or highlighting the realities of Italian politics at his time.
- Mal Mariée: The comedy play La Mandragola (The Mandrake) revolves around Callimaco, a wealthy playboy, and his desire to seduce Lucrezia, the beautiful young wife of Nicia, an elderly citizen of Florence who fancies himself a scholar but is really a conceited fool who (for whatever reason) is also unable to get Lucrezia pregnant. While Lucrezia's virtue is a serious hindrance to Callimaco's desire at first, eventually she is persuaded to sleep with him under pretense that this is necessary to cure her of infertility. Even though Callimaco confesses that the "cure" was a scam, her first night with Callimaco changes Lucrezia's mind and she takes an active role in fooling Nicia so she can enjoy her adulterous relationship with Callimaco.
- 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 proto-patriot who wanted a united Italy at a time when no one else particularly thought it was possible. He hated the fact that the Feuding Families of the various city states and their reliance on Private Military Contractors had left Italy open to plunder from neighbouring kingdoms. One reason why historians feel that Machiavelli was so forgiving to Cesare Borgia was that the latter at least mounted an attempt to unify Italy under the Papal States. Hence why, he wrote a book about how a dastardly, wickedly cunning, violent man would be a good ruler. Of course Machiavelli would have ideally preferred a Republic, built on a civilian army, like the one that he had built for the Florence, which succeeded in keeping the city Medici-Free until 1512. The fact was that a Republic in the 1500s could not have united a large area of land, and Machiavelli knew that. It wouldn't become a possibility until The Enlightenment and the Wars of Italian Independence that followed the former.
- 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.
- The Plan: While Machiavelli was in the government of republican Florence, Pisa was in revolt. Machiavelli concocted a ploy to divert the Arno River away from Pisa and consulted none other than Leonardo da Vinci for the purpose. The engineering of the day was not up to par for the project, however, and the plan was scrapped.
- 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; 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. He pointed out that a soldier's purpose is to protect; a mercenary's is to damage at the least risk to themselves, which made them most dangerous to their allies and civilians, and least dangerous to the enemy. In battle they tended to get slaughtered, in the unlikely event they turned up at all. Armies with more direct loyalty to their prince or their state tended to do much better.
- 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.
- Sympathetic Adulterer: Lucretia, the wife of the Magister, in his play The Mandrake is slowly convinced that her constant assignations are condoned by God.
- Tall, Dark, and Snarky: How he's usually depicted in Historical Fiction. Letters from his friends do however confirm that there was truth in this.
- 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 Forlì, 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.