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The Statesman

In The Flying Muse on November 23, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian philosopher and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. He is one of the main founders of modern political science.[1] He was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, poetry, and some of the most well-known personal correspondence in the Italian language. His position in the regime of Florence as Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence lasted from 1498 to 1512, the period in which the de’ Medici were not in power. The period when most of his well-known writing was done was after this.

Machiavelli is most famous for a short political treatise, The Prince, written in 1513, but not published until 1532, five years after his death. Although he privately circulated The Prince among friends, the only theoretical work to be printed in his lifetime was The Art of War, about military science. Since the sixteenth century, generations of politicians remain attracted and repelled by its apparently neutral acceptance, or even positive encouragement, of the immorality of powerful men, described especially in The Prince but also in his other works. Whatever his intentions, which are still debated today, he has become associated with any proposal where “the end justifies the means“. For example Leo Strauss (1958, p. 297) wrote:

Machiavelli is the only political thinker whose name has come into common use for designating a kind of politics, which exists and will continue to exist independently of his influence, a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends – its end being the aggrandizement of one’s country or fatherland – but also using the fatherland in the service of the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s party.

His works are sometimes even said to have contributed to the modern negative connotations of the words “politics” and “politician”, and within a few generations, “Old Nick” became an English term for the devil and the adjective Machiavellian became a pejorative term describing someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. “Machiavellianism” also remains a popular term used in speeches and journalism; while in psychology, it denotes a personality type.

Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, the third son of attorney Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family are believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany, and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice,[3] one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months, who formed the government, or Signoria. Machiavelli, like many people of Florence, was however not a full citizen of Florence, due to the nature of Florentine citizenship in that time, even under the republican regime.

Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era—Popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities might fall from power at any time. Along with the Pope and the major cities like Venice and Florence, foreign powers such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Switzerland battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri who changed sides without warning, and short lived governments rising and falling.

Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric and Latin. It is thought that he did not learn Greek, even though Florence was at the time one of the centres of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494, Florence restored the republic — expelling the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for some sixty years. In June 1498, shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli, at the age of 29, was elected as head of the second chancery. In July 1498, he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace. He was in a diplomatic council responsible for negotiation and military affairs, carrying out, between 1499 and 1512, several diplomatic missions, to the court of Louis XII in France; to that of Ferdinand II of Aragón, in Spain; in Germany; and to the Papacy in Rome, in the Italian states. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503, he witnessed the effective state-building methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507), son of Pope Alexander VI, who was then enlarging his central Italian territories.

Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia, including the City’s defense. He distrusted mercenaries (a distrust he explained in his official reports, and then later in his theoretical works), preferring a politically invested citizen-militia – a philosophy that bore fruit. His command of Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509; yet, in August of 1512, the Medici, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato. Piero Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state, and left in exile. The Florentine city-state and the Republic were dissolved. Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512 by the Medici, and, in 1513, was accused of conspiracy, and arrested and imprisoned for a time. Despite torture (“with the rope“, where the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body’s weight, thus dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released; then, retiring to his estate, at Sant’Andrea in Percussina, near Florence, he wrote the political treatises that earned his intellectual place in the development of political philosophy and political conduct.He also maintained a well-known correspondence with better politically connected friends, attempting to become involved once again in political life.

Machiavelli’s cenotaph in the Santa Croce Church in Florence

In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:

When evening comes, I return home and go to my study. On the threshold, I strip naked, taking off my muddy, sweaty work day clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and, in this graver dress, I enter the courts of the ancients, and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death; I pass indeed into their world.

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