Niccolo' Macchiavelli

Machiavelli, Niccol (1469-1527), Italian historian, statesman, and political philosopher, whose amoral, but influential writings on statecraft have turned his name into a synonym for cunning and duplicity.

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. 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, 1510-1511), the Holy See (1506), and the German emperor (1507-1508). 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 defence 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 defence 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 favour 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. He died in Florence on June 21 of that year.

The Prince 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 defence 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: "Is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? The answer is that it is desirable to be both, but because it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved, if he is to fail in one of the two". 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.

Other Important Works 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 and bawdy satire on the corruption of contemporary Italian society. Many of his writings anticipated the growth in succeeding periods of strong nationalistic states.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.