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Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Machiavelli, like any genius, is a man of many questions, many quite funny. He was born in Florence on 3 May 1469. That same year, Piero de’ Medici, who had followed Cosimo as de facto ruler of republican Florence, died leaving two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Having survived the 1478 Pazzi conspiracy and murder of Giuliano, Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” effectively governed Florence during the formative years of Machiavelli’s youth. Niccolò began the study of Latin at age twelve, and five years later his father acquired Livy’s Decades , a book that was to prove central to Machiavelli’s thinking. In his early twenties he would have witnessed the death of Lorenzo, the rise of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola, the 1494 invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France, who took Italy with no more effort than was required to chalk the houses where his troops were to be billeted ( Principe , XII), the flight of Piero de Lorenzo and the fall of the Medici, and the brief ascendancy of Savonarola ( Decennale primo , 1504, 11.11–12).

In 1498, the same year that Savonarola was executed, the republic’s Grand Council elected Machiavelli secretary of the Second Chancery and later secretary of the Ten ( Dieci ) of Liberty and Peace. Though Machiavelli, unlike his father, never became a member of the lawyer’s guild, his study of Roman law, history, and literature provided the kind of education that allowed him to function for the next fourteen years of his life as an observer and analyst of internal and external affairs, as a writer of reports and dispatches, and as a representative of the Florentine republic who set the groundwork for its ambassadors. Until the fall of the republic in 1512, when he was forty-three years of age, Machiavelli was, as he describes himself, a man whose only “arte” or profession was state-craft (letter to Vettori, 9 April 1513). An exile from contemporary state affairs, Machiavelli entered the courts of the ancients, not ashamed to converse with those who, unlike the Medici, welcomed him kindly ( amorevolemente ). To them he posed questions that explored the reason ( ragione ) for their actions (letter to Vettori, 10 December 1513). The very potential for such a dialogue with the ancients was based upon the assumption of an essential unity in human experience, and that dialogue Machiavelli extended to his contemporaries via his “opuscolo De principatibus .” In his dedication of that work to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Machiavelli draws attention to the two voices of this dialogue—his long experience of modern affairs and his continual reading of the ancients.

In 1513, when Machiavelli embarked on an extremely prolific period of writing, he was still attempting to persuade the Medici to reopen the doors to the political world that had so absorbed his energies. During his years as secretary, Machiavelli had worked within a republican government, negotiated with the leaders of an emerging nation-state in France and a loosely organized empire in Germany, observed the charismatic new prince Cesare Borgia, organized a militia in 1506, and composed reports and lengthy dispatches for the Ten on a variety of subjects (“L’ordinanza fiorentina” and “L’esperienza di Ale-magna”). The depth and complexity of his firsthand experience of the political world shaped the kinds of questions he would ask about politics and the way he would ask them.

The dispatches of 1502–3 recording the dramatic rise and fall of Cesare Borgia show us what it was like for Machiavelli to question and be questioned by a contemporary who did not always treat him as humanely as he claims those ancient writers did (Legations X, XI, XII). Amid the dramatic, violent, often confusing events of that year, Machiavelli was obliged to respond to his superiors, to avoid some of the pointed questions Borgia posed regarding the support he desired of the Florentine republic, to summarize dialogues and monologues, and even to interpret gestures, while always attempting to get at the reasons behind words and actions.

A dispatch recounting the execution of Borgia’s lieutenant Rimirro de Orco (an event described vividly in his Principe VII) is dated 26 December. When addressing the Ten, Machiavelli would not be expected to raise questions about the state of Borgia’s soul that Christmas Day in 1502. The “most secret” Borgia must be studied in other ways by the Florentine secretary. However, moral questions are often conspicuous by their absence from works that recast Mach-iavelli’s diplomatic experience for the edification of his contemporaries or future generations, as was the case with his Del modo di trattare i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati (1503) , noteworthy for its use of Livy as a framework for the questioning of contemporary policy. Similarly, in 1506 Machiavelli reported on Pope Julius II’s daring, if foolhardy, expedition to Perugia, an event that he reshaped in Discorsi I, 27 with particular emphasis on Giovampagolo Baglioni’s failure to trap the pope within the city’s walls. Questions regarding individual virtù , the opportunities presented by occasione , and the complexities of fortuna replace the queries that might have formed part of a Christian mirror for princes.

If Bentivogli had seized the occasion offered by fortune and treated Pope Julius in a way that accorded more with Machiavellian virtù than with Christian goodness, things might have gone differently for the Florentine republic. Julius II’s support of the Spanish led to the defeat of the Florentine militia at Prato, which, in turn, caused Soderini to resign as Gonfaloniere in August 1512. Giuliano de’ Medici took control of Florence in September, and Machiavelli was implicated in the anti-Medicean Boscoli conspiracy and arrested in February 1513 and freed only when Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X in March 1513. After Giuliano’s death in 1518 Machiavelli dedicated his Principe to Lorenzo di Piero (d. 1519).

The final eighth of Machiavelli’s life was devoted to the History of Florence (Storia fiorentino) , delivered in sections to the new popes; Clizia , a comedy based on Plautus’ Cosina (1525) and possibly the author’s own lachrimose fling with a singer named Barbara; and several minor works. He died on 21 June 1527, after the signal disappointment of being virtually ignored by the free republic that reigned in Florence after ousting the Medici early in the same year.


The questions Machiavelli posed and the way he answered them influenced those in England who considered him a serious, if mistaken, thinker, as well as those who reacted to the popular image of the duplicitous machiavel (Raab, Kahn). The critical assessment of Machiavelli has always been complicated by the fact that he produced many aphoristic statements that pop easily from the very different genres in which he worked.

The question of deceit has in many ways dominated the response to his work, from the English Renaissance to the present. Preoccupation with this question attaches to the deceptive political practices Machiavelli describes and/or espouses and to the real or assumed duplicity of his writing. The stage Machiavel, as in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta , was perceived as a proponent of deceptive power politics, and Machiavelli himself as one who teaches this new brand of politics in a deceptively seductive manner.

The assessment of what is new in Machiavelli led Leo Strauss to portray the political philosophy of the Florentine secretary as a watershed between the classical tradition and a modern age in which the concern for justice and the opposition to tyranny give way to a philosophy that is normative even in its supposed scientific objectivity. For Strauss and those who follow his approach (H. Mansfield), the deceptive character of Machiavelli’s writing is the result of a rhetorical strategy designed carefully to conceal unorthodox views from the uninitiated reader, while revealing them to those who are alert to meaningful ironies and contradictions.

For others the Machiavelli who is a servant of princes is the Machiavelli not to be trusted, especially by princes, because the true Florentine is a loyal servant of the republic whose commentaries on Livy represent his most important contribution to political philosophy (Pocock). From this critical perspective, the questions raised by Machiavelli’s problematical relationship to princes and, particularly, to the Medici must be answered in the context of his abiding republicanism.

Whether Machiavelli is seen as a student of the classical tradition who subverts its values or as a follower of the ancients, many important questions about the character of his work and its place in intellectual history have focused on Machiavelli as Renaissance humanist (Chabod, Allan H. Gilbert). More recently, Machiavelli has attracted the attention of commentators for whom the way he poses questions is more important than how he answers them. For these scholars Machiavelli emerges as either a tragic figure whose verbal strategies never achieve the promised control of political reality (McCanles, Squarotti) or as an intellectual gamester who plays adroitly or is himself played upon by his wily contemporaries (Najemy, Rebhorn).

There is, certainly, a dark or tragic side of Machiavelli where the verità of the thing questioned reveals ever more variables, contradictions, and unpredictable shifts of fortune that elude analysis and regulation (Pitkin). But whether dressed in his somber curial robes commenting on all things ancient and modern or joking in the garb of a boon companion, Machiavelli never relents in his aggressive pursuit of those serious political questions that drive his discourse. A sense of that drive is what brought a smile to the lips of Nietzsche. Speaking of the tempo of Machiavelli’s prose, he remarks that in his Principe Machiavelli “lets us breathe the dry, refined air of Florence and cannot help presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegrissimo , perhaps not without a malicious artistic sense of the contrast he risks—long, difficult, hard, dangerous thoughts and the tempo of the gallop and the very best, most capricious humor” ( Beyond Good and Evil , 28). What might constitute the malicious or capricious humor of Machiavelli? One might consider Machiavelli’s advice that the prince leave citizens their possessions ( Principe XVII) “because men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance” as a good example of an assessment that brings a smile to the lips of anyone who is ready to ask hard questions about the effective reality of human behavior.

Chapter 17 offers an excellent example of Machiavelli’s tempo. The opening thesis that a prince should desire to be considered merciful ( pietoso ) rather than cruel is immediately qualified—mercy can be poorly used, and cruelty, under certain conditions, may contribute to the greater civic good. This opening, in turn, leads to the question ( disputa ) of whether it is better for a prince to be loved or feared, which is quickly answered—one should be loved and feared, but if one has to choose (and one does), it is better to be feared. This choice rests on a generally negative assessment of human beings, creatures who are essentially untrustworthy ( tristi ), driven by self-interest, and held in check only by fear. Machiavelli moves on to a further qualification, which is that the prince should avoid hatred by respecting the goods of those sorry citizens who care more for property than paternity. Now in full stride, he takes up the question of love and fear with reference to the military commander who may either be severe, like Hannibal, or more humane, like Scipio. The brief conclusion is that fear depends less on the will of others and is to be preferred.

In a chapter of some 970 words, Machiavelli moves quickly from one topic to the next without slighting the grave implications of his discourses; what Nietzsche calls Machiavelli’s malicious sense of humor derives from the clear light his unadorned prose throws on the discussion. The questions are certainly complex, and the rhetorical strategies challenging. From the Renaissance to the present, artists and philosophers have found this unique combination of the allegro style and the grave content both engaging and disturbing. As was the case for writers as diverse as Ascham, Sidney* Greville,* Ralegh*, Marlowe,* Shakespeare,* and Bacon,* the questions raised by Machiavelli and the rich human contexts in which he raised them will continue to make us think and, as we think, smile.

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