Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was born into a world of great change and uncertainty. His native Italy in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries was a checkerboard of independent city-states, duchies, and princedoms, all vying against each other for power. Even the pope was not above these squabbles, and wars were fought by and against the Papal States of central Italy. The great powers of France, Germany, and Spain, meanwhile, used Italy as their own battlefield in their unceasing struggles. Time and again, Italy was invaded and occupied by one power or another. Alliances were formed one year and broken the next as city-states raised armies with mercenary soldiers who might desert without warning if offered better pay somewhere else.
Machiavelli was a native of Florence, a preeminent city of the northern Italian region of Tuscany. He came of age as his city was undergoing tremendous political upheaval. The Medici family, one of the foremost noble clans of Italy, had long ruled Florence. This changed when an invading French army drove them from power in 1494. Medici rule was replaced by a republic. For the next four years Florence was under the sway of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498), who was famous for his moral crusades (including book burning) and opposition to the Borgias, the other great Italian noble family.
Savonarola soon fell from favor in Florence, and his enemy, the Borgia pope Alexander VI (1431–1503), saw to it that the friar was burned at the stake for heresy. The young Machiavelli observed these events from afar. After Savonarola’s death, Machiavelli became involved in the Florentine republic’s public affairs. Starting as a secretary, he rose quickly through the ranks of civil service, becoming a traveling ambassador and diplomat. Machiavelli’s travels exposed him to a wide variety of Renaissance courts and politicians, including the Holy Roman emperor and the king of France.
In 1512 the French were driven from Italy and, with Spanish backing, the Medici were returned to power in Florence. As a high-ranking official of the dissolved republic, Machiavelli was arrested on charges of treasonous plotting in 1513. He was tortured, hung by his wrists (which were bound behind his back) until his shoulders dislocated, but maintained his innocence.
Although Machiavelli was eventually released and cleared of charges, his political career was in shambles. He began writing his first manuscript draft of The Prince, the book that was to make him both famous and infamous, in 1513. He dedicated the work to a member of the Medici family. He wanted his book to be discussed at court and ingratiate him with the city’s new rulers.
The Prince is divided into several sections that explore various aspects of what make a successful ruler. The book is written in the style of a genre popular at the time: the mirror of princes. These works were intended to be read by young rulers and were meant to provide guidance and examples to emulate. Machiavelli used the genre to refute the conventional medieval wisdom that emphasized higher moral aspirations over expedient reality.
Machiavelli argued in favor of the opposite: Political reality should always trump lofty, abstract concepts. In the central element of his argument he contrasted “virtue” and “fortune.” By Machiavelli’s definition, virtue is the character of the ruler, and fortune comprises those elements beyond his control. The antihero of Machiavelli’s book is Cesare Borgia (c. 1475–1507), a prince noted for his ruthless and rapid rise to power and his equally dramatic fall. Borgia’s problem, Machiavelli argued, was that he put too much faith in fortune, namely his connections to the court of his father, Pope Alexander VI.
The saying, “The ends justify the means,” is often associated with Machiavelli and his philosophies. Although he never used that precise phrase, it does neatly describe the central thesis of The Prince. A successful ruler, Machiavelli argued, does whatever is necessary to maintain power and control. It is better to rule with fear than with kindness, but ultimately what matters is how subjects perceive their ruler. “One must … be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves,” advised Machiavelli. The successful prince must also develop the ability not only to recognize evil or immoral acts but also the sense of when to employ them in the furtherance of his own goals. In all things, Machiavelli emphasized the use of force to keep subjects and rivals in line.
The book, finally published in 1532 after Machiavelli’s death, has been seen as the first example of modern political theory based on hard reality rather than ideal philosophical concepts. It stood in almost complete opposition to conventional thinking at the time in both religious and academic ranks regarding a ruler’s appropriate values and goals. Notably, it recalls the philosophies of pre-Christian Roman political thinkers. The book caused a sensation upon its publication, finally winding up on the Vatican’s list of proscribed books. Machiavelli quickly earned a posthumous reputation as the most evil man in Europe, the adjectival form of his name becoming a synonym for ruthlessness.
Yet, an examination of Machiavelli’s other writings—which were extensive and included poetry, drama, a history of Florence, and a discussion of the chronicle of the early Roman republic by the ancient writer Livy (59 bce–17 ce)—reveal an enthusiastic supporter of republicanism and an ardent Italian patriot. Machiavelli’s lifelong obsession was to change the prevailing practice of Italian rulers in hiring mercenary armies in preference to raising armies from the local citizenry. Indeed, during his tenure working for the Florentine republic, Machiavelli put his theories into practice, and the city’s citizen army easily defeated a mercenary force raised by neighboring Pisa.
Machiavelli’s name has come to be associated with dishonesty, deceit, immorality, and using any means necessary to achieve an end. The English have a term for the devil, “Old Nick,” that is derived from his first name. Machiavelli is chiefly remembered for authoring a book that teaches evil; it has been called the “Mafia’s Bible.” Yet even his fiercest critics acknowledge Machiavelli was a humanist who believed in and fought for republican virtues. The Prince, published after his death, may even have been intended as a work of satire or as a toolkit for arming the common man with knowledge of how political leaders really operated. Whatever his intentions, Machiavelli’s work has been taken seriously by generations of politicians and political theorists fascinated or repelled by its amoral stance on how to gain and maintain power.
In the nineteenth century, Machiavelli’s reputation underwent something of rehabilitation by Italian patriots. Machiavelli was one of the first to fight for the unification of Italy, they argued, and his ideal tyrant-prince is simply the sort of ruler required to achieve that goal in the cutthroat world of Renaissance politics. Earlier interpretations among Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries went in a different direction. They believed that Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a work of satire. Its seemingly offensive content was meant actually as a critique of the heavy-handed practices of the Medicis and other Italian noble families. “Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country’s oppression,” wrote the great political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) in The Social Contract. “The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim.”
For every Machiavelli apologist, there are many more who take his philosophies at face value. Immediately after its publication, the book began to circulate widely among the courts of Europe. Both the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) and his Protestant nemesis, English king Henry VIII (1491–1547), are known to have owned and read copies. Materialist philosophers of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries owed a heavy debt to Machiavelli, even if they did not always acknowledge it due to the negative connotations that had become attached to his name. Rulers from Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589) to Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) to Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) are known to have closely studied The Prince. Whether Machiavelli was in actuality commenting on, satirizing, or advocating, the off-putting elements of politics are the parts that remain in debate. That his work is a realistic portrait of the harsh realities of politics and successful leadership is universally acknowledged.