Niccolò Machiavelli: Political Philosophy, Beliefs, Notable Works, Facts & Accomplishments
Niccolò Machiavelli was an early 16th-century statesman who wrote many works on political philosophy, military philosophy, drama, comedy, and history. His political essay The Prince is what allowed him etch his name into history as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Machiavelli’s main focus was on power: how to acquire it and how to maintain it. However, there was more to this Florentine diplomat and statesman.
Below, World History Edu explores the life, major works and contributions, and other significant accomplishments of Niccolò Machiavelli.
Summary: Niccolò Machiavelli
Most known for his two groundbreaking political works and treatises the Discourses on Livy (1531) and The Prince (1532), Niccolò Machiavelli was a renowned Italian political philosopher, historian and author who lived in the Florentine Republic of the Renaissance era. Following the demise of the Girolamo Savonarola government in 1498, he rose to acclaim and established himself as a very important statesman for almost a decade and half in Florence, Italy.
With the powerful Medici family back at the helm in Florence around 1512, Machiavelli’s power dwindled drastically. He found himself imprisoned and perhaps even tortured by the authorities. From then onward, he was never able to regain the influence he had had before. He did however spend those years out of politics very productively, writing brilliant political works, most famous of them all, The Prince and Discourses on Livy. Many historians consider the former, a brilliantly written handbook for politicians and rulers. It ranks as one of the most famous political philosophy works of the Renaissance era, if not of all time.
From his years of interacting with many influential political figures in Europe of the early 16th century, he was able to form several political theories that encouraged Florence rulers to adopt in order to stay in power as well as maintain a thriving and peaceful republic.
Birth and early life
Machiavelli hailed from a relatively wealthy and powerful family, whose members held a number of public offices in Florence, Italy. His parents were Bernardo di Niccolo Machiavelli and Bartolomea de Stefano Nelli. He had three siblings – two older sisters and a younger brother.
His father Bernardo was lawyer who as a result of his unscrupulous practices was prevented from holding any public office in the republic. As a result, Bernardo did not make as much money as his other family members.
Machiavelli grew up in a slightly turbulent time in Florence, when the Catholic Popes in Rome waged war against many Italian city-states. Those conflicts exacerbated the political turmoil in Florence, which frequently resulted in governments and rulers not lasting for long in power. Florence at the time was basically the battle ground for European powers such as France, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, all of who vied for control and influence in Florence.
Education and philosophers that influenced him in his early life
Growing up, Machiavelli derived immense joy from reading the numerous books that were kept in his father’s library. Although not much is known about the details of his early life, we could say that he benefited a lot from the fact that the city of Florence was at the time the hub of philosophical studies and scholarship in Europe. For someone of his social stature, he learned Latin, grammar, rhetoric, and Greek. It is also likely that he was tutored in a number of areas in humanist subjects.
Growing up he read quite a number of ancient classic works, most famous among them was Livy’s History of the Roman Republic.
Historians have also noted that Machiavelli’s formative philosophy was partly influenced by the many lectures by Marcello Virgilio Adriani, the head of the Studio Fiorentino. The Dominican friar and later ruler of Florence Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was also one of the notable people that had an influence on the young mind of Machiavelli. He often attended lectures and sermons given by Savonarola. Machiavelli even made mention of Savonarola in The Prince, tagging the Dominican friar as an “unarmed prophet” with very good rhetorical skills.
Rise to power
Following the execution of Florence ruler Girolmo Savonarola in 1498, Machiavelli began to ascend the political ladder. Only around 29 years old by then, Machiavelli was appointed as head of the second chancery of the republic. In that position, which is almost the equivalent of the Lord Chancellor, he was the caretaker of public deeds, contracts, and other official documents of the ruler of Florence. What this meant was that he was in charge of seals and official documents and correspondences of the republic.
Machiavelli was the chief advisor on foreign affairs of the republic. Although he had no earlier experience in that position, he distinguished himself brilliantly in that position. Historians to this day are left scratching their heads as to how Machiavelli rose to such lofty position in the republic, considering the fact that he was still very young and relatively inexperienced.
Machiavelli and Piero Soderini
Machiavelli’s rise to power and prominence in Florence was enhanced by his association with Piiero Soderini (1452-1522), a powerful Italian statesman and the gonfalonier for life in Florence. A known associate of Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, Soderini was elected gonfalonier in 1502. As the formal head of the civil administration, Soderini aided Machiavelli’s political career. The two men introduced a number of reforms in the military apparatus of Florence, replacing foreign mercenaries with a state militia in 1505. Machiavelli was then placed in charge of the militia, thereby further enhancing his influence in the republic.
Diplomatic missions abroad
He was an influential diplomat of the republic who led several delegations to many places in Europe, including meeting with several high-ranking officials of the French court and the papacy. In 1502, he met with Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. He noticed how Cesare, a member of the Borgias, kept power by willing to act in a corrupt, manipulative and treacherous manner, provided the outcomes were beneficial to people he ruled. As we shall see below, Machiavelli cites the Borgias as an exemplification of the ideal rulers, i.e. Prince.
He also went on diplomatic missions to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I’s court and Pope Julius II. Machiavelli was part of the delegation from Florence that attended the 1503 conclave that elected Pope Julius II.
In his almost one and half decade time in in the ruling class of Florence, he is said to have gone on more than three dozen military and diplomatic missions abroad.
The traits that make up an effective and strong politician
According to the Florentine diplomat and civil servant Machiavelli politicians are not immoral and bad because they lie and use cunning maneuvers to achieve a goal. Rather he noted that an effective politician/ruler is capable because he knows when to use immoral actions to attain the common good for the people.
Machiavelli noted that a good politician is not someone who is friendly, honest and just. Instead a good and effective politician is one who uses all means to gain and hold on to power in order to promote the greater good of the society. That kind of politician/ruler uses immoral maneuvers to defend and enrich the state. To Machiavelli being nice and good were virtues incompatible with being an effective politician.
He cautions leaders to be mindful of what he called virtù (virtue) and fortuna (fortune). The former is based on one’s own abilities, often times requiring the use of force and cunning; while the latter talks about the unpredictable influence of fortune. The Italian philosopher states that fortune needs to be controlled and sometimes dominated if the leader is to be successful.
In spelling out the traits necessary for an effective leader, his works call on leaders to avoid being the “nice guy” politician. Good people fail to be effective leaders because they are incapable of taking immoral actions to maintain order and stability. He goes further to state in that it is impossible to be a good politician and still have moral virtues in the traditional Christian sense.
Machiavelli’s advice to rulers on how to deal with rebellions
In 1503, Niccolò Machiavelli came out with a short work that explained how rulers could properly deal with rebellions in their kingdom. The short work, which was titled On the Way to Deal with the Rebel Subjects of the Valdichiana (Del modo di trattare i sudditi della Val di Chiana ribellati), provided two possible recourse on how to handle rebels. The first is to quickly and decisively get rid of them, while the second is to reward them as a means to draw them to one’s side.
Spain’s invasion of Florence and Machiavelli’s loss of power
After close to a decade and a half among the ruling class in Florence, Machiavelli fell from grace and found himself behind bars. In 1512, many of his political friends, including the gonfalonier Soderini, were removed from power Pope Julius II with the help of the Spanish army. With Soderini deposed, the Medici family, under the leadership of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, returned to power in Florence. Although he still had links with the Medici family, Machiavelli could not avoid going to prison on the charge of conspiracy. After enduring a humiliating experience, including torture, he was exiled out of Florence and sent to live in San Casciano. It was during his exile that he produced two of his most brilliant works – The Prince and Discourses on Livy.
Official historian of Florence and his push for reforms in government
After a few years in exile, he tried to regain some bit of power in Florence. He did this by associating himself with Lorenzo Strozzi (1488-1538), a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Florence at the time. Strozzi’s strong connections with the ruler of Florence Cardinal Giulo de’ Medici (1449-1492) helped facilitate Machiavelli’s ascent back to reasonable prominence.
In 1520, he was employed by Cardinal Giulo to the position of official historian of the republic. Around that same period, Pope Leo X tasked him to write a treatise that explained how the Florentine government operated. To the surprise of the ruling Medici family, Machiavelli leveled a number of criticisms on the new government and its officials. His discourse appealed to Pope Leo X to bring back the system that had existed in the previous republic.
He had to tow a very fine line when writing his discourses so as not make the Medici family his enemies. He still managed to convince the ruler of Florence Cardinal Giulio to introduce a host of reforms to rectify the shortfalls of the city’s government. With Giulio getting elected Pope Clement VII in 1523, Machiavelli began burying himself deeper into his works, particularly working to come out with an official history of Florence. After completing his work Florentine Histories (Istorie Fiorentine), he received about 1200 ducats from Pope Clement VII.
Did you know: Machiavelli’s two most famous works – The Prince and Discourses on Livy – were published after his death in 1527? The two works were published in 1532 and 1531 respectively.
Machiavelli’s failed attempt to win the favor of Lorenzo de’ Medici
Machiavelli dedicated his political masterpiece The Prince to then ruler of Florence Lorenzo de’ Medici. He did this in order to be in the good books of the powerful Italian ruler. However, his efforts proved futile as Lorenzo did not return the favor.
The Prince (Il Principe)
Many have described the political philosophy handbook The Prince as a guideline to deceitfully holding gaining and holding on to power. The political handbook was Machiavelli way of communicating what actually takes place in a political environment.
He was of the view that at the core of human beings was their natural inclination to be self-serving and venal. Therefore, rulers ought to act in a very hardened and decisive manner if they are to maintain their power. Machiavelli entreats a prince to be adaptable, using his knowledge, or in some cases not using his knowledge. To the political author, it was not about what had to be done, but instead the ruler or prince had to view themselves as if they were looking in a mirror. The prince must do what is necessary regardless of how amoral or deceitful the action appears to be.
Over the centuries since its publication in 1532, Machiavelli’s The Prince has received a wide range of reviews; however, there is no doubting its brilliance. Some historians and commentators have described the book as the outright unethical and at best a dishonorable way of staying in power. It is for this reason that the adjective “Machiavellian” emerged to be synonymous with adjectives like manipulative, cunning, deceitful, and among others.
In The Prince, Machiavelli states that the level of difficulty in acquiring control over a principality is in inverse proportion to ease of holding on to that control. In other words, rulers that struggle to acquire control have an easier time maintaining that control.
Princes must be feared instead of loved
The handbook further distinguishes between principalities that are inherited and those that are acquired by a new prince or ruler. According to Machiavelli, the a new ruler that has just brought a principality under his control instills a fear greater the love the people have for a hereditary prince. The latter type of ruler, since he did not struggle that much to acquire control, would have a far more difficult time maintaining control than a new ruler that fought tooth and nail to acquire control over a state. Machiavelli goes further by stating that the use of punishment and the fear of punishment have far greater potency when it comes to maintaining control than a prince who relies on his subjects to keep their promises. The latter prince often finds themselves frustrated, and more often than not those princes quickly lose control over the state.
In other words every prince or ruler must perpetually see themselves as a new prince who relies heavily on instilling fear in his subjects rather than expecting some sort of goodwill from those subjects.
A new prince must see virtue and glory as necessities
Niccolò Machiavelli was not so much concerned with the kind of virtue and glory that the prince seeks. To Machiavelli all that matters is how virtue and glory translates into maintaining control over state for the prince. Virtues that promote peace can be subjugated to virtues that help the prince attain and maintain control over the state, Machiavelli further stated. In this vein, the prince should as must avoid being liberal, for liberality often times spells doom for anyone trying to control a principality. Machiavelli’s The Prince argues that the ruled tend to be ungrateful when the ruler acts in a liberal manner.
Security should not be the only thing that is attained from war or a conflict, rather the prince should go a step further and pursue glory. To Machiavelli, glory was as necessary, if not more important, than anything else in maintaining the prince’s reputation and control over the state.
Rulers, be frugal with your subjects!
Machiavelli’s The Prince, a handbook which in so many ways make Machiavelli the founder of modern political science, espouses a number of things that in any liberal environment would be considered anything but deceitful. One such vice that the author recommends is using frugality as a form of manipulation technique. The Italian philosopher noted that an extravagant prince would have no option other than to tax his subjects heavily in order to sustain his lavish lifestyle. That in turn often leads to the people feeling a lot of contempt towards him, which in turn is a recipe for rebellion and ultimately the loss of control. Machiavelli recommends that the ruler should carry himself as frugal, for that is how the ruler would be able to maintain control over the people.
Machiavelli on the use of fortune
He cautions rulers to be very careful with fortune. In some cases fortune as he puts it is powerful tool that allows the ruler to control the lives of his subject. On the flip side, fortune, if not well handled, could make the ruler act in a hotheaded and reckless manner. To avoid becoming a victim of those pitfalls, the prince should have the virtue of mastery, which would allow him to use his fortune in a manipulative way that auger well for the control that he seeks. A prince who has virtue of mastery is one that does not completely discard traditional moral virtue; instead he uses it when and where it fits his needs.
A wealthy subject is bad news for a ruler who seeks control
His years working as a senior advisor to the rulers of Florence thought him one thing: leaders should not be afraid to in a cruel manner, provided that they use those harsh behaviors in a strategic manner. For example, he advises rulers to try as much as possible, even to the extent of using immoral means, to keep his subjects from coming into contact with fortune, for a wealthy subject is one who increasingly strays farther and farther away from the control of the ruler.
Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy
Like The Prince, Discourse on Livy was published (in 1531) after the death of Machiavelli. However, unlike The Prince that is much clearer to read and understand, Livy is a bit laborious and difficult read. The book, which Machiavelli dedicates to two of his friends that he admires, basically explains how republics can be preserved. In the book, it doesn’t mince words in his support of republicanism and the virtues that are needed to keep a republic thriving. For example, he explains how those virtues can keep at bay corruption.
Maintaining and reforming a republic
In maintaining a republic, Machiavelli doesn’t champion the democratic systems that keep power in the hands of many, i.e. separation of power as we see many modern democracies. Instead, the Italian philosopher believes that a republic can be maintained even if power is concentrated in the hands of one person or body. For example, he casts no blame at the legendary founder of Rome Romulus for eliminating his brother and co-founder of Rome Remus. To Machiavelli, it was absolutely crucial for Romulus take those drastic measures in order to successfully create the republic that he wanted. In other words, the leader of a republic should only be concerned with the end. That leader should adopt the traits similar to the kind that were espoused in The Prince.
A bad man is needed to maintain and reform a republic
According to Machiavelli, a republic could experience serious difficulties if the leader is guided by justice and fairness. The author explains in Livy that justice creates a situation where the people who benefit from those systems become less obligated in promoting the common good of the republic. He goes on to say that princes could use immoral actions to punish people who seek to harm the republic. A corrupt system of governance can be reformed by a good man; however, good men rarely ever secure power, according to Machiavelli. The kind of prince that he describes as capable of maintaining a republic is a bad man.
Assuming a good man rises to power in a republic, Machiavelli states that in almost every case, the republic descends into decadence and corruption because the people are not governed with fear. In the Livy, the author maintains that fear among the people should never be lost least disobedience and chaos becomes the order of the day. Leaders of a republic must have the habit of jogging the people’s memory of the severe punishments that would be meted out to them when they disobey.
History and deeds over philosophy
Contrary to what many philosophers of his era and before thought about the Roman republic, Machiavelli states in the Discourses on Livy that the deeds and political maneuvers of leaders of the Roman republic should be credited for keeping the republic mighty and strong. Philosophers and historians that cite the political philosophies of ancient Rome as the reason why the republic maintained are gravely mistaken, according to Machiavelli. A leader of republic can learn more from the actual history of the Roman republic than from the philosophies that were espoused by ancient Roman philosophers and jurists.
The Florentine Histories – Machiavelli’s longest work written
Tasked by Pope Leo X to write a treatise that explained how the Florentine government operated, Machiavelli came out with the Florentine Histories. The treatise, which was presented to Leo’s successor Pope Clement VII in 1525, was first published in 1532. In writing the history of Florence, Machiavelli talks about how Florence’s system of government created a breathing ground for corruption, which in turn made the city weak. The discourse appealed to Pope Leo X to bring back the system that had existed in the previous republic.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s motivations
Machiavelli’s The Prince can be seen as an advice to current and future monarchs. The political philosopher was not the first to come out with a political essay or handbook for rulers. For centuries, Princes and rulers across Europe used works called Mirrors for Princes to help them become effective leaders.
He did not try to describe what an ideal government or republic looks like. Neither did he entreat rulers/princes to rule justly and virtuously.
Machiavelli was primarily motivated by presenting the realities of the political environment in a very unsentimental manner. His political essays offer an in-depth look at how capable rulers and leaders use unscrupulous means to attain peace and stability. To Machiavelli, the greater good of a republic’s stability is worth every deceitful tactics used by the leader to attain it.
Machiavelli’s works were scorned by the established order back then because he placed the glory the state above the Christian ideal of individual salvation.
From a different angle, his work The Prince does not defend deceitful and cunning rulers; instead it offers a scathing description of how they ruled, i.e. how rulers gained and maintained power. This is why some scholars have noted that the Machiavelli’s works were sort of a warning to the public, revealing to them the various ways in which rulers subjugate the people.
Machiavelli’s criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church
In the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli claims that modern philosophers pale in comparison to philosophers of ancient times. The weakness of modern philosophers, according to Machiavelli, is caused as a result of those philosophers deriving their frameworks from Christianity and the Roman Catholic church.
Machiavelli also levels criticism on the Catholic Church for causing a great deal of division in Italy. He calls out the papacy for its unproductive maneuverings and corruption. He blamed Christianity for making suffering and hardship noble things that ought to be glorified. He was perhaps referring to how Christianity has adored the selfless acts that were taken by their redeemer Jesus Christ.
Defending the state from external and internal threats
Machiavelli states in his Discourses of Livy that an effective leader should at all times defend the state from external and internal threats, least he risk plunging his government into instability. The leader should not only know how to fight, but he should also be prepared to fight, and fight in an immoral way to attain to protect his people at all times.
The leader’s reputation is dependent on his ability to accomplish the above things. To do this, Machiavelli called on rulers to manage the people around him properly. His subjects shouldn’t think of him as soft, as this leads to disobedience and ultimately the depletion of one’s power. Neither should the leader be thought of as cruel. A leader who is cruel or hated in the eyes of his/her people would be despised, allowing room for him to be toppled through rebellion.
Machiavelli on the Christian ethics
Machiavelli advocates leaders Shouldn’t be thought of as cruel, which leads to him being despised. On the flip side, if the leader is thought of as compassionate, peaceful, tolerant and generous, that leader risks losing his power. The right approach is to feared and loved at the same time. If the leader cannot be both, then he should be feared.
According to Machiavelli, sometimes a leader should know when to use terror to keep people in check. However, his reign of terror should be quick, decisive and temporary.
Machiavelli criticized the introduction of Christian ethics into governance, stating that such leaders do the society more harm than good. A leader that is merciful and kind all the time is one that is incapable of instilling fear. And without fear, chaotic situations and rebellions cannot be brought under control. To Machiavelli the Christian moral virtue is incompatible with good and effective governance. He notes that good Christians cannot be effective leaders.
Was Machiavelli an atheist?
The author never explicitly states whether or not he was an atheist. Many historians and philosophers have picked on his prioritization of his country above his soul as a statement of him being an atheist. Furthermore, the shots that he took at the Catholic Church can be interpreted to mean that he was an atheist. But the verdict is still out on this one.
Other notable works by Machiavelli
Many of his political works and poems were written while out of office. Only a few of those works were published during his lifetime, for example The Art of War (1521), The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca (1520), and The Mandrake (1518). The latter work talks about how a weak and unwise old jurist secures the services of a young man to impregnate his wife. Although the wife, due to her virtue, is reluctant at first, she is convinced by an immoral priest to go with the plan. In the end, all the parties involved are satisfied. In The Mandrake, Machiavelli shows how immorality can sometimes produce joy. This reinforces the Italian’s notion of the end justifying the means. He described the ideal Prince as the most virtuous of the population because he/she uses unvirtuous means to attain virtuous ends. That leader is driven by a sense of duty and love for one’s homeland (i.e. Patria).
How did Machiavelli die?
The numerous power changes and political turmoil in Florence took tremendous toll on Machiavelli’s health in his final few years. Just as it seemed like Machiavelli was making his way back to prominence in Florence, the Medici family was once again ousted from power in 1527. The new rulers of the republic did provide Machiavelli many opportunities for him to rise. Due to his ties with the ousted Medici family, a cloud of suspicion hanged over him. The political philosopher soon fell into a state of despondency, and with that his health began to deteriorate. He died in 1527 aged 58.
More Niccolò Machiavelli facts
- There were some scholars that blamed Machiavelli’s The Prince for the widespread corruption and moral vices in the French political environment.
- In 1502, he married Marietta Corsini. He had six children with her – four sons and two daughters.
- The Prince is one of the most celebrated and influential books in the history of Western political thought. Even to this day scholars, world leaders and political philosophers have stated the book holds influence on how we conduct politics, sue for peace and discuss issues related to war. It sheds light on the link between public duties and private ethics.
- He is sometimes known as the father of modern political science and political philosophy.
- Both Catholics and Protestants blamed Machiavelli’s works, particularly the Prince, for inspiring leaders to act in a tyrannical and violent manner.
- English playwright and dramatist William Shakespeare was among the first people to use the word Machiavel to mean an immoral and cunning opportunists. This began the usage of Machiavelli’s name as a synonym for deceitful acts.
- During his time as the chancellor of the Procuratori delle Mura, Machiavelli supervised the construction of a number of defensive fortifications around Florence.
- Machiavelli was known in Florence as the “Florentine Secretary”.
- He dedicated his dialogue The Art of War (1521) to Lorenzo Strozzi (1488-1538), a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Florence at the time.
- Some other notable works of Machiavelli include the comedy The Mandrake (completed around 1518), The Art of War (published in 1521), and the The Florentine Histories (completed in the mid-1520s).
What famous political philosophers think about Machiavelli and his political philosophies
Famed English political philosophers Francis Bacon and James Harrington discuss Machiavelli’s ideas. In Harrington’s work The Common-wealth of Oceana (1656) heaps enormous praise on Machiavelli, describing the Italian Renaissance thinker as the “prince of politicians”.
Similarly, Dutch-Jewish political Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) praised Machiavelli for giving insight into how autocrats and tyrannical rulers swept their way to power. In the brilliant political work Social Contract (1762) by renowned French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-177), Machiavelli is praised as a patriotic man who gave honest answers to many political issues. Rousseau describes The Prince as “the book of republicans.”
There have been many politicians that have subconsciously applied many of the principles Machiavelli espouse, even though those same politicians end up criticizing the Italian philosopher.
Did you know?
Due to his unenviable reputation as a teacher of evil and immorality, many of his works were placed on the “Index of Forbidden Books” (Index Librorum Prohibtorum) by the Catholic Church in 1559. For over two hundred years, Machiavelli’s works were banned by the Church. The Prince in particular was viewed by many as a handbook for atheistic tyranny. Regardless of that infamy, many historians and philosophers continued to be intrigued by his works.
Readers of his works shied away from defending it; however, they were quick to praise him for being brave in his writing and in some way describing the reality of the world we live in.
Machiavelli talked about the situation where a republic that is ruled by a very capable ruler. He went to state that republic would then have the ability to rectify the philosophies of the moderns that he so much despised for being too weak.
Machiavelli titled his famous political treatise De Principatibus (Of Principalities). However, that title changed to Il Principe (“The Prince”) when it was published in 1532, five years after the philosopher’s death.
It’s said that German dictator Adolf Hitler was a big admirer of Machiavelli. The Nazi leader constantly had Machiavelli’s works at his bedside.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born about two centuries after Dante Alighieri. Both political thinkers and poets called the Republic of Florence their home.