Niccolo (di Bernardo) Machiavelli
Place of Birth: Florence, Italy
Place of Death: Florence, Italy
Table of Contents:
Personal Information: PERSONAL: (Also Nicolo, Niccholo, and Nicolas; also Machiavegli, Machiavello, and Machiavel) Italian essayist, dramatist, historian, sketch writer, biographer, dialogist, writer of novellas, and poet. Some sources cite first name as Nicolo, Niccholo, and Nicolas; surname as Machiavegli, Machiavello, and Machiavel. Born May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy; died of illness; June 21, 1527, in Florence, Italy; son of a doctor of laws; married Marietta Corsini, 1501; children: five.
EDUCATION: Studied Latin under various tutors.
CAREER: Essayist, dramatist, historian, sketch writer, biographer, dialogist, writer of novellas, and poet. Statesman and political theorist. Assisted in deposition of Girolamo Savonarola, 1498; appointed to the second chancery of the republic, beginning in 1498; Ten of Liberty and Peace (government agency), chancellor and secretary; removed from office, jailed, and tortured by the Medici family when Spanish forces invaded Italy in 1512; appointed official historian of Florence, 1520.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
A Florentine statesman and political theorist, Machiavelli remains one of the most controversial figures of political history. While addressing a wide range of political and historical topics, as well as embracing strictly literary forms, he has come to be identified almost exclusively with his highly controversial manual of state Il principe (The Prince). This straightforward, pragmatic treatise on political conduct and the application of power has, over the centuries, been variously hailed, denounced, and distorted. 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.
Machiavelli was born in Florence 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 ancient 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 helped the political faction that deposed Girolamo Savonarola, then the dominant religious and political figure in Florence. In the same year Machiavelli was 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 quickly gained political prominence and influence; by 1502 he was a well-respected assistant to the republican gonfalonier, or head of state, Piero Soderini.
In 1512, Spanish forces invaded Italy and the Florentine political climate changed abruptly. 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 purged from office, jailed and tortured for his well-known republican sentiments, and finally banished to his country residence in Percussina. Machiavelli spent the enforced retirement writing the small body of political writings that insured his literary immortality. Completed between 1513 and 1517, Discorsi ... sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses upon the First Decade of T. Livius) and The Prince were not published until after Machiavelli's death, in 1531 and 1532 respectively. Around 1518 he turned from discursive prose to drama in La mandragola (Mandragola); it, like the author's other writings, 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 published in 1521 and entitled Libro della arte della guerra (The Art of War), was the only historical or political work published during the author's lifetime. Meanwhile, Machiavelli had made several attempts to gain favor with the Medici (including dedicating The Prince to Lorenzo). In 1520 he was appointed official historian of Florence and was subsequently entrusted with minor governmental duties. His prodigious Istorie fiorentine (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, a disillusioned man, his dream of an operational republic unrealized.
Critics 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, however, 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. He 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 to acquire and retain them. 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 leonine force and vulpine cunning); fortuna to the unpredictable influence of fortune. In a significant departure from previous political thought, the designs of Providence 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 direct, candid, and often passionate speech, employing easily grasped metaphors and structuring the whole in an aphoristic vein which lends it a compelling authority.
Reaction to The Prince was initially but only briefly favorable, with Catherine de' Medici 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?), Machevilli 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 coexist today. Rarely, until the nineteenth century, did mention of The Prince elicit 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 true intent in The Prince. An anomalous 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 the most prolonged and animated discussion relating to the work: the true intent of its creator. 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? Still more calculatedly, had the author superseded description in ably providing a legacy for despots? 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: John Addington Symonds has deemed it "simply a handbook of princecraft, as that art was commonly received in Italy, where the principles of public morality had been translated into terms of material aggrandisement, glory, gain, and greatness." 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. According to Harold J. Laski, The Prince "is a text-book for the house of Medici set out in the terms their own history would make them appreciate and, so set out, that its author might hope for their realization of his insight into the business of government." 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."
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 republicanism. 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, 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 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." It has been deemed not at all incongruous that an intellect immersed in historical circumstance and political impetus should so naturally embrace comedy as well. For Machiavelli regarded comedy exactly as he conceived history: an interplay of forces leading unavoidably to a given result. Machiavelli's Mandragola, his only work in the comedic genre, clearly reflected this parallel. De Sanctis has remarked that "under the frivolous surface [of Mandragola] are hidden the profoundest complexities of the inner life, and the action is propelled by spiritual forces as inevitable as fate. It is enough to know the characters to guess the end." The drama's scenario concerns Callimaco's desire to bed Lucrezia, the beautiful young wife of a doddering fool, Nicia, who is obsessed with begetting a son. Masquerading as a doctor, Callimaco advises Nicia to administer a potion of mandrake to Lucrezia to render her fertile, but also warns that the drug will have fatal implications for the first man to have intercourse with her. He slyly suggests to Nicio that a dupe be found for this purpose. Persuaded by her confessor, a knavish cleric, to comply with her husband's wishes, the virtuous Lucrezia at last allows Callimaco into her bed, where he has no difficulty convincing her to accept him as her lover on a more permanent basis. Tales of this sort" replete with transparent devices, mistaken identities, and cynical, often anticlerical overtones" were already commonplace throughout Europe by the Middle Ages, though critics have remarked that Machiavelli lent freshness to even this hackneyed material. Sydney Anglo has commended his "clear, crisp repartee" and ability "to nudge our ribs at improprieties and double-meanings," despite characterization that is "rudimentary, haphazard, and inconsistent, with even protagonists going through their motions like automata." Macaulay, on the other hand, has applauded the play's "correct and vigorous delineation of human nature."
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." "Far from banishing religion or ethics from politics," Peter Bondanella has stated in European Writers, "Machiavelli created a new religion out of politics, with all its fateful implications for modern intellectual history."
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