Machiavelli's beloved Florence.

Machiavelli’s Misunderstood Brilliance

History has not been particularly kind to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), author, diplomat and statesman of the Italian Renaissance, most famous for his book Il Principe (The Prince). He was looked upon with contempt by later generations and his name has become synonymous with unscrupulous, deceptive tactics.

Statue of Machiavelli at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.

Fig.1: Statue of Machiavelli at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.

Machiavelli Vilified

Did he really deserve to be treated with such scorn for his work? It is not difficult to see how he came to be labeled as unethical and a supporter of crafty politics. The Prince is indeed a book about just such unscrupulous behavior among rulers, analyzing the most effective methods of obtaining and keeping power. (If you’d care to take a look for yourself, you can find a translation at Project Gutenberg.) One of the most infamous chapters deals with whether rulers should make good on their word. Machiavelli finds that doing so is not always the wisest course of action:

‘It must be evident to every one that it is more praiseworthy for a prince always to maintain good faith, and practice integrity rather than craft and deceit. And yet the experience of our own times has shown that those princes have achieved great things who made little account of good faith, and who understood by cunning to circumvent the intelligence of others (…)

A sagacious prince then cannot and should not fulfill his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interests.’Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. 18

To the dismay of many, perhaps even Machiavelli himself, his conclusions about the reality of the paths to power is that they aren’t usually strewn with rose petals. Nice guys tend to finish last.

But does that mean Machiavelli thought these paths were the right and just ones to follow? It seems unlikely, but more importantly, the book simply doesn’t give us any hints. Machiavelli is very careful to put aside any and all moral reflections, including his own opinions, and focus completely on the facts. He certainly doesn’t vilify the kind of behavior he is describing, but he also doesn’t praise it. He simply recommends it as effective to any aspiring rulers, leaving the ethical considerations to their own consciences.

In writing The Prince, Machiavelli broke with a tradition of political writing that was centered on morality and religion, authored by e.g. Thomas Aquinas. Machiavelli put aside such lofty conceptions as God’s will and divine law and just wrote about what successful rulers actually did. By doing so he produced the first secular work on politics.

This in itself might have been enough for many to turn away from Machiavelli, but it was really a sign of the times. Machiavelli wrote in an era when the secularization of many facets of life was gaining momentum, a process that has greatly influenced what the world today looks like. Like Machiavelli, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that influence has been positive or negative.

Was Machiavelli Serious?

Today we are a bit less squeamish about the kind of ideas put forward in The Prince. Still, there are some who believe there is more to it than I am able to discover. Some, though not despising him, think Machiavelli wrote the book in jest or ironically, subtly taking a stab at contemporary politics; especially at the Medici family, whose return to power in Florence cost him his position in the Florentine government. Another interpretation is that Machiavelli wrote the opposite of what he thought would work, hoping the Medici would take his advice and set themselves up for a fall.

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici.

Fig. 2: Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici (not The Magnificent but the Duke of Urbino; Lorenzo the Magnificent was his grandfather), to whom Machiavelli fairly blatantly tries to ingratiate himself, hoping to obtain a position in the Medici government. The interpretation adhered to by some readers is that this is all meant to be tongue-in-cheek or part of some secret agenda, that Machiavelli is actually trying to poke fun at the Medici or trying to bring them down. This sounds like a stretch, a foolish course of action a brilliant mind like Machiavelli seems unlikely to have taken. The Medici were not stupid or illiterate and it would have been a trifle for them to get rid of Machiavelli if he made a nuisance of himself.

It’s interesting to take a short trip through history to see what was actually going on. Florence had de facto been ruled by the Medici family (unofficially, through stooges on the Republic’s councils, bribes, etc.) for decades when, at the end of the 15th century, they were exiled and Florence became a republic in a truer sense. Under the republican government, Machiavelli rose to prominence, representing the republic on diplomatic missions and eventually gaining charge of the republic’s armies.

When the Medici reestablished themselves in Florence in 1512, they overturned the republican government they found occupying their seats and Machiavelli lost his position. He retired to his estate, impoverished, where he dedicated himself to his writing; but he yearned to be a statesman again, feeling that his talents were going to waste.

A year later, Machiavelli was accused of partaking in a conspiracy against the Medici, his name being found on a list carried by one of the conspirators, who probably thought of him at least as a possible future partner in their plot. He was imprisoned and tortured, but, maintaining his innocence, he was set free after some three weeks.

Map of Italy ca. 1500.

Fig. 3: Map of Italy ca. 1490. Florence is indicated with a yellow star.

All in all, Machiavelli probably wasn’t particularly happy about the Medici, but it wasn’t in his interest to attack them. He wasn’t in any position to affront them, having lost his influence and income. Besides, they were his only ticket back into government, which is what he ultimately longed for. Most likely, The Prince is exactly what it seems to be: a secular, almost scientific analysis of statecraft, presented to the Medici rulers as a means to gain their favor.

Machiavelli's Tomb in the Santa Croce in Florence.

Fig. 4: Machiavelli’s Tomb in the Santa Croce in Florence. He never won a position in the Medici government, but he did make his way into the hearts of the Florentines. The epitaph reads, “For so great a name, no praise (is) adequate.”

In Machiavelli’s Own Words

Perhaps most convincing are Machiavelli’s own words. In a letter to his friend Francesco Vittori, Machiavelli writes in 1513 about his life on his farm. He isn’t very happy there, both because he would love to be back in government, but also because without any income, his wealth is dwindling. He tells Vittori about his work on The Prince and his intention of dedicating it to the Medici. (The letter can also be found online.)

`The giving of [The Prince] is forced on me by the necessity that drives me, because I am using up my money, and I cannot remain as I am a long time without becoming despised through poverty. In addition, there is my wish that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone; (…) and through this thing, if it were read, they would see that for the fifteen years while I have been studying the art of the state, I have not slept or been playing.’Machiavelli, Letter to Vittori

The words seem sincere enough and strongly indicate that Machiavelli was genuine in the intentions he put forward. In the end, I think it’s an injury done to Machiavelli either to vilify him for stating the truth about the nature of statecraft, or to paint his work with a veneer of sarcasm or subterfuge. The Prince is an admirable achievement by an author who certainly seemed to be intimately familiar with the topics he was analyzing. It’s an interesting, impartial work, too anecdotal to be considered scientific but carefully thought out nonetheless, which shines at its brightest when read as just that, and nothing more.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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