Born in Florence on May 3, 1469, Machiavelli entered government service as a clerk and rose to prominence when the Florentine Republic was proclaimed in 1498. Machiavelli was an upright man, a good citizen, and a good father. He was not by any means a faithful husband but lived in affectionate harmony with his wife, Marietta Corsini (whom he had married in the latter part of 1501), and had five children by her. He loved his native city “more than his own soul,” and he was generous, ardent, and basically religious. He was secretary of the ten-man council that conducted the diplomatic negotiations and supervised the military operations of the republic, and his duties included missions to the French king (1504, 1510-11), the Holy See (1506), and the German emperor (1507-8). In the course of his diplomatic missions within Italy he became acquainted with many of the Italian rulers and was able to study their political tactics, particularly those of the ecclesiastic and soldier Cesare Borgia, who was at that time engaged in enlarging his holdings in central Italy. From 1503 to 1506 Machiavelli reorganized the military defense of the republic of Florence. Although mercenary armies were common during this period, he preferred to rely on the conscription of native troops to ensure a permanent and patriotic defense of the commonwealth. In 1512, when the Medici, a Florentine family, regained power in Florence and the republic was dissolved, he was deprived of office and briefly imprisoned for alleged conspiracy against them.
After his release he retired to his estate near Florence, where he wrote his most important works. Despite his attempts to gain favor with the Medici rulers, he was never restored to his prominent government position. When the republic was temporarily reinstated in 1527, he was suspected by many republicans of pro-Medici leanings. Machiavelli’s methodology involved the empirical observation of human nature and behaviour, which he believed to be changeless. His deep feelings about the degradation and corruption of Italy at his time led him to put his hope into the daring and the violence of a great man who would exercise power ruthlessly but with prudence. Power, Machiavelli apparently believed, legitimized the state, if rationally applied, by a man able to manipulate the people and use the army for his own purposes. In his quest for a “new prince” and a new principle of policy he knew that he was opening “a road as yet untrodden by man.” The road led to the absolute sovereign state. Machiavellianism, as a term, has been used to describe the principles of power politics, and the type of person who uses those principles in political or personal life is frequently described as a Machiavellian.
Out of a desire to shock his contemporaries, Machiavelli liked to appear more wicked than he was. This, together with certain blunt maxims in his works, gave him a reputation for immorality. The maxims became a target for attacks by the Catholic Counter-Reformation; and the word “Machiavellianism” was coined as a term of opprobrium by the French, out of hatred for all things Italian. He “was a scapegoat because he was a great man and because he was unfortunate.” Machiavelli’s term umanit (“humanity”) means more than kindness; it is a direct translation of the Latin humanitas. Machiavelli implies that he shared with the ancients a sovereign wisdom of human affairs. He also describes that theory of reading as an active and even aggressive pursuit that was common among humanists. Possessing a text and understanding its words were not enough; analytic ability and a questioning attitude were necessary before a reader could truly enter the councils of the great. These councils, moreover, were not merely serious and ennobling; they held secrets available only to the astute, secrets the knowledge of which could transform life from a chaotic miscellany into a crucially heroic experience. Classical thought offered insight into the heart of things. In addition, the classics suggested methods by which, once known, human reality could be transformed from an accident of history into an artifact of will. Antiquity was rich in examples, actual or poetic, of epic action, victorious eloquence, and applied understanding. Carefully studied and well employed, classical rhetoric could implement enlightened policy, while classical poetics could carry enlightenment into the very souls of men. In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.
Throughout his career Machiavelli sought to establish a state capable of resisting foreign attack. His writings are concerned with the principles on which such a state is founded, and with the means by which they can be implemented and maintained. In his most famous work, The Prince (1532; trans. 1640), he describes the method by which a prince can acquire and maintain political power. This study, which has often been regarded as a defense of the despotism and tyranny of such rulers as Cesare Borgia, is based on Machiavelli’s belief that a ruler is not bound by traditional ethical norms. In his view, a prince should be concerned only with power and be bound only by rules that would lead to success in political actions. Machiavelli believed that these rules could be discovered by deduction from the political practices of the time, as well as from those of earlier periods.
Machiavelli’s formulation of the historical principles inherent in Roman government may be found in his Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1531; trans. 1636), a commentary on the History of Rome by the Roman historian Livy. In this study Machiavelli departs from medieval theocratic concepts of history, ascribing historical events to the demands of human nature and the effects of chance. Among his other works are Dell’arte della guerra (On the Art of War, 1521), which describes the advantages of conscripted over mercenary troops. The Istorie Fiorentine (History of Florence, 1525) interprets the chronicles of the city, in terms of historical causality. Machiavelli was also the author of the biography Vita di Castruccio Castracani (Life of Castruccio Castracani, 1520), a number of poems, and several plays, of which the best known is Mandragola (The Mandrake, 1524), a biting satire on the corruption of contemporary Italian society. Many of his writings anticipated the growth in succeeding periods of strong nationalistic states.
Machiavelli was a great writer because he was a great thinker. He was also a poet; his poetry, however, is to be found not so much in his verse as in his prose, which has no equal in Italian literature. It is also noteworthy that his great gifts showed themselves in nearly all the genres that he attempted: in historical writings, in political treatises, in the short story and, particularly, in comedy.
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