Portrait: The diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, humanist, writer, playwright and poet Niccolò Machiavelli

Wednesday, 22 May 2019 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait
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Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, humanist, writer, playwright and poet of the Renaissance period. He has often been called the father of modern political science. For many years he was a senior official in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned by Italian scholars. He was secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his best-known work The Prince (Il Principe) in 1513, having been exiled from city affairs (Works by Niccolò Machiavelli).

Machiavellianism is widely used as a negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described most famously in The Prince. Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and the killing of innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even encouraged it in some situations. The book gained notoriety due to claims that it teaches “evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power”. The term Machiavellian is often associated with political deceit, deviousness, and realpolitik. On the other hand, many commentators, such as Baruch Spinoza, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, have argued that Machiavelli was actually a republican, even when writing The Prince, and his writings were an inspiration to Enlightenment proponents of modern democratic political philosophy. In one place, for example, he noted his admiration for the selfless Roman dictator Cincinnatus.

Machiavelli’s best-known book Il Principe contains several maxims concerning politics. Instead of the more traditional target audience of a hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince”. To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully balance the interests of a variety of institutions to which the people are accustomed. By contrast, a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling: He must first stabilise his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. Machiavelli suggests that the social benefits of stability and security can be achieved in the face of moral corruption. Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. As a result, a ruler must be concerned not only with reputation, but also must be positively willing to act immorally at the right times. Machiavelli believed as a ruler, it was better to be widely feared than to be greatly loved; A loved ruler retains authority by obligation while a feared leader rules by fear of punishment. As a political theorist, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force or deceit including extermination of entire noble families to head off any chance of a challenge to the prince’s authority. Scholars often note that Machiavelli glorifies instrumentality in state building, an approach embodied by the saying “The ends justify the means.” This quote has been disputed and may not come from Niccolò Machiavelli or his writings. Violence may be necessary for the successful stabilisation of power and introduction of new legal institutions. Force may be used to eliminate political rivals, to coerce resistant populations, and to purge the community of other men strong enough of a character to rule, who will inevitably attempt to replace the ruler. Machiavelli has become infamous for such political advice, ensuring that he would be remembered in history through the adjective, “Machiavellian”. Due to the treatise’s controversial analysis on politics, the Catholic Church banned The Prince, putting it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Humanists also viewed the book negatively, including Erasmus of Rotterdam. As a treatise, its primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is the fundamental break between political realism and political idealism, due to it being a manual on acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society is not a model by which a prince should orient himself. Concerning the differences and similarities in Machiavelli’s advice to ruthless and tyrannical princes in The Prince and his more republican exhortations in Discourses on Livy, many have concluded that The Prince, although written as advice for a monarchical prince, contains arguments for the superiority of republican regimes, similar to those found in the Discourses. In the 18th century, the work was even called a satire, for example by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. More recently, commentators such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield have agreed that The Prince can be read as having a deliberate comical irony. However, this is not to say that they thought it was a joke. Other interpretations include for example that of Antonio Gramsci, who argued that Machiavelli’s audience for this work was not even the ruling class but the common people because the rulers already knew these methods through their education.

Memorial plate to Niccolò Machiavelli, Via Guiccardini, Florence © JohannMöller/cc-by-sa-3.0 Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito Tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli in the Basilica Santa Croce, Florence © Jebulon Casa di Machiavelli in Val di Pesa © Sailko/cc-by-3.0
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Memorial plate to Niccolò Machiavelli, Via Guiccardini, Florence © JohannMöller/cc-by-sa-3.0
The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, published in 1531, written 1517, often referred to simply as the “Discourses” or Discorsi, is nominally a discussion regarding the classical history of early Ancient Rome although it strays very far from this subject matter and also uses contemporary political examples to illustrate points. Machiavelli presents it as a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured. It is a larger work than The Prince, and while it more openly explains the advantages of republics, it also contains many similar themes. Commentators disagree about how much the two works agree with each other, frequently referring to leaders of democracies as “princes”. It includes early versions of the concept of checks and balances and asserts the superiority of a republic over a principality. It became one of the central texts of republicanism, and has often been argued to be a superior work to The Prince. From The Discourses:

  • “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.” Book I, Chapter II
  • “Doubtless these means [of attaining power] are cruel and destructive of all civilised life, and neither Christian, nor even human, and should be avoided by everyone. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings.” Book I, Chapter XXVI
  • “Now, in a well-ordered republic, it should never be necessary to resort to extra-constitutional measures. …” Book I, Chapter XXXIV
  • “… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII
  • “… if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious”. Book I, Chapter LVIII
  • “For government consists mainly in so keeping your subjects that they shall be neither able nor disposed to injure you. …” Book II, Chapter XXIII
  • “… no prince is ever benefited by making himself hated.” Book III, Chapter XIX
  • “Let not princes complain of the faults committed by the people subjected to their authority, for they result entirely from their own negligence or bad example.” Book III, Chapter XXIX

Other political and historical works:

Besides being a statesman and political scientist, Machiavelli also translated classical works, and was a playwright (Clizia, Mandragola), a poet (Sonetti, Canzoni, Ottave, Canti carnascialeschi), and a novelist (Belfagor arcidiavolo). Some of his other work:

Read more on Wikipedia Niccolò Machiavelli (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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