Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) – Politician, Diplomat, Writer
Machiavelli was born in a turbulent era where war was the only constant theme in a religious backdrop. 15th century Italy was a barbaric time and place where the Church taught to ‘offer the other cheek’ but acted exactly against its advice (and found excuses to justify itself), where religious dogma reigned supreme and the strength of European powerhouses was waning, where politicians raised raucous over the most trivial issues but the commoner’s problems weren’t one of those. It was an age where backstabbing and deviousness was considered a sin but practiced ruthlessly, sometimes against one’s own kin.
Florence in those days was plagued by the Medicis and the Borgias who fought amongst themselves. In such a drastically dynamic and ever-changing political landscape, the young and nubile ‘Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’ had to learn survival skills pretty hastily.
Machiavelli was the third child of Bernardo Machiavelli and Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. Europe was recovering from the ‘Black Death’ when Machiavelli opened his eyes in the May of 1469. The city-states and the Church were trying to consolidate their powers. Renaissance was in full swing. Being the center of trade and economic activity, Florence enjoyed relative stability, and was the hub where brilliant minds from all over Italy gathered.
Machiavelli was nobility by birth, but not extraordinarily wealthy by any given standard. It is widely believed that he attended school with his brother Totto at the Paolo da Ronciglione where he learned skills such as a handsome command of Latin, both in verse and grammar, and a deep understanding of matters both diplomatic and militaristic. Given the circumstances of his upbringing, little wonder that he studied humanism at college and joined the court of the Medici family.
At the court, he was responsible for writing and drafting legal and governmental papers. Slowly rising through the ranks, he became an adviser to the Republic of Florence in no time. Once there, he put the skills he had learnt so far into practice.
There had been an ongoing war between the city-states of Pisa and Florence for a long time. Florentines tried to stake a claim on the sovereignty of the Pisans and harbored pro-French feelings. Now, most of Italy was against the French because King Charles VIII had invaded the Italian city-states in the late 15th century, and the republican governments being weak and dispersed, could not put up a resistance. Florentines, on the other hand, had welcomed King Charles’ arrival as they sought to subjugate the Pisan revolt that had occurred in the wake of turmoil that gripped Italy as the French advance rumbled on. In the wake of all this in 1494, the ruling Medicis were overthrown and a French government was installed.
Given the talents of the man, it was little surprise that Machiavelli was kept in his office. Under the influence of the French, he continued to work his role as chief administrator. Upon seeing his wit and charisma, he was soon appointed Chancellor to the state of Florence. Furthermore, he was elected as secretary to the Ten of War (La Guerra dei Dieci), the body that managed Florentine military affairs.
For the next fourteen years, Machiavelli would write a series of letters, and receive countless correspondences which would prove him to be an acute reader of human emotion and intellect. During this time he graced the French Imperial court with his presence more than once. These visits were a handful of numerous ventures he undertook on behalf of the City administration, and included such travels as paying a visit to the Papacy in Rome on behalf of the state of Florence!
Carrying on some shrewd business with the generals and advising them on military tactics, he came as close to the court affairs as one could wish. This is when we see his true rise to fame, as an up-and-coming politician gradually matures into the author of The Prince. In 1501, Machiavelli took Marietta Corsini as his wife.
Unfortunately, in 1512, the Medicis rode back in town with the aid of papal forces and dissolved the republican government in place. Found guilty of resisting the advance of the Medici family, Machiavelli was tortured and kept in prison for several weeks. He was adjudged to have tried to establish his Florentine militia during his time as Chancellor. It was the same militia that had brought the Pisans down to their knees under the command of Niccolo!
Once he came out, Machiavelli was then subject to internal exile, whence he resided in a farm outside Florence, and got his literary endeavors in order. The Prince was written during this time, and so was The Discourses on Litany. Soon though, he was to find himself in favor with the Medici family once again, owing in part to some very well-placed friends. Notorious though he was, Machiavelli was tasked with collecting and sorting pieces on the history of Florence. The result was a composition titled The History of Florence completed in 1525.
Machiavelli passed away in 1527. He is buried in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence.
All this premise has been set up to give the reader an idea of how Italy of Medieval Europe carried on its day-to-day business. Alliances were forged and broken, kinsmen tried and executed and the power of the Church was abused without restriction to fool the citizen and deceive the common folk. To beat the subjects into submission, any combination of fear, force, censorship, and subjugation could be applied.
That’s only one side of the story. There’s a different side to it that runs parallel. As mentioned earlier, it was the Renaissance season in Europe. The rebirth of human civilization was in due process, and with it, the thought process was evolving. Previously well-established ideals of right and wrong were being challenged. Art was being appreciated, as it was being patronized. Michelangelo and Da Vinci were creating one masterpiece after another.
Little wonder then that Machiavelli was swept in this wave of refuting old and banal clichés that had been the guiding principles not only in medieval Europe but throughout human history. For instance, the King was ordained by divinity to rule his subjects and was supposed to work in close combination with the Church and implement its will. He was supposed to be one of the most upright individuals and was supposed to act in a particular way.
Not that the kings were always pious and men of god. Stories of treachery and power struggles inside the imperial chambers have been a constant theme throughout history. So much of literature and a gargantuan number of plays, novels, and stories has been dedicated to court affairs of the same ilk. Readers find romance in the idea of rebellion, and princes upsetting the hierarchy of power.
This is why Machiavelli’s work is doubly vital and relevant. The Prince is his most notable work, and is regarded as one of the best books on political philosophy, securing Machiavelli the title of ‘the father of modern political philosophy’. The book and (the rest of his work) is characterized by a total disregard for the established presumptions of right and wrong, ethics and the ideal way of ruling.
Machiavelli’s opinion on this subject is in stark contrast with the trends of his time. He thinks of man as a fiend who would turn on his kin to gain the slightest of advantages. He believes that The Prince should be kind and understanding, but should never shy away from using force or cunning if his judgment deems it necessary.
…it is much safer to be feared than loved because …love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.– The Prince
We can perceive a rather comprehensive view of the man who dared utter such words in a time where the Church enjoyed extraordinary power over European city-states, where its word was considered final, and its judgment sufficient!
Fair to say that The Prince, just like its author, is an extraordinary piece of commentary on what man is capable of, if left unchecked and allowed to implement his will. It is a masterpiece, written by one of the most remarkable brains in all of documented history, and offers unparalleled advice regarding ruling, procurement and consolidation of a position of power, and implementing one’s will on a group of subordinates.