Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527)


Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, the son of a lawyer and small landowner who was descended from a noble family. Little is known of his education, but he obviously loved reading the histories and literature of Classical Rome. He entered public service in 1498, at a turbulent time for Florence; the ruling Medici family had been expelled in 1494, and replaced by a republican regime initially headed by the fanatical monk Savonarola. After Savonarola’s overthrow in 1498, Machiavelli was appointed to two key government offices, with responsibilities in both domestic and diplomatic affairs. He served the Florentine Republic for 14 years, during which time he observed at close quarters the adventurer Cesare Borgia, and in 1509 masterminded the successful recapture of the Pisa by Florentine.

However, like most Italian city states Florence remained vulnerable to the great-power politics of the time, and particularly to the ambitions of France and the papacy. In 1512, the Republic was overthrown, and the Medici family was restored to power. Accused of involvement in a plot, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured. After his release he tried to win favour with the Medicis in order to return to high office, but these efforts were unsuccessful. Ironically, when the Republic was reinstated in 1526 Machiavelli was suspected because of his attempts to woo the Medicis, and he was not recalled. He died in the following year.


Machiavelli is best known for The Prince, which was never published during his lifetime. It was written to press his claims for office under the Medici family, but the advice it contains could apply to any aspiring ruler of the time. Illustrated by practical examples from history (and in particular from the career of Cesare Borgia), it quickly became notorious because it subverted the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. A successful ruler, Machiavelli argued, should be ruthless whenever necessary, because it was better to be feared than to be loved. In the affairs of government, “the end justifies the means” (i.e., if the outcome is good, it doesn’t matter how it is achieved). In particular, rulers should only keep their promises when this worked to their advantage.

The notoriety of The Prince is a backhanded tribute to the quality of Machiavelli’s writing (he also composed a very successful comedy drama, Mandragola); it might also be said that rulers disliked his work because he set out in print what they would have liked to practise. However, Machiavelli did not recommend immoral behaviour; rather, he accepted that rulers could only stay in power in an insecure world if they were prepared to dispense with the traditional rules of morality when the occasion demanded it. His own preference was for a republican form of government, run by clever, plain-speaking citizens (like himself) in the interest of the general public, rather than corruptible monarchies. This model for good governance was set out in a further book, The Discourses, which drew lessons from the history of Rome. In particular, Machiavelli argued that armies drawn from the citizens of a state are much more reliable than paid mercenaries—a hot topic in the Italy of his time.

Machiavelli’s chief interest was in the future of Italy in general, and his beloved Florence in particular. But his chief intellectual legacy lies in the field of International Relations, where his approach can be seen as a forerunner of realism (see pages 303–307, Chapter 15 for a discussion of realism), which tends to accept human beings as they are rather than hoping for positive changes. This sets him far apart from liberals, but also from “neo-conservatives” who believe that moral beliefs can and should be backed by armed force. Leo Strauss, a well-known academic who is often associated with the neo-conservatives, saw Machiavelli as the first distinctively “modern” political philosopher, mainly because his work had little or no place for religion. Machiavelli himself, with his pragmatic approach to the world, would probably not have objected to this verdict.

Further Reading

Maurizio Viroli, Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli, Hill and Wang, 2002.

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