Comparative Studies | Niccolo Machiavelli | HSC English

Comparative Studies | Niccolo Machiavelli

  • Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527

    Niccolo Machiavelli was born into a well-off family of moderate political connection. When he was a boy, the rich city-states that comprised Italy faced a myriad of invaders from Spain and France who tried to play one group off against the other.

    The stability in ‘golden age’ Florence which had been known under the Lorenzo Medici in Machiavelli’s youth was lost, and a Florentine Republic held power for a few years: 1498-1512. Soderini came to be the ruler of that republic and favoured Machiavelli, which caused him enemies.

    Niccolo Machiavelli got to be secretary and Second Chancellor, made him a civil servant. He went on diplomatic missions to King Louis of France, to Cesare Borgia, (part of the brutal, corrupt Vatican-ruling family and the person on whom some think ‘The Prince’ is based) and to the new pope. Though he was a passionate devotee of Florence as a city-state, he was not an exceptionally effective diplomat, probably because the Florentines had little power to wield at that point, but he travelled widely and learned a lot about politics.

    He was also involved in his own special project – building up a civilian Florentine militia so that the state would not have to rely on fickle condottieri (mercenaries).

    However, the Medici regained power, Soderini was exiled, and Niccolo Machiavelli was booted from office. He hopefully wrote letters of advice about government to the new rulers, but in1512, he was imprisoned and tortured – hung up by ropes until his shoulders dislocated – but he continued to deny being part of any conspiracy against the Medici family and was released after three weeks.

    He returned to his estate and studied and wrote, depressed to be so far away from the politics of Florence. In a letter he talks about how he would, of an evening, hold conversations with the ancients, which inspired his writing.

    Machiavelli wrote ‘The Prince’ during this time, but also poetry, letters to intellectual friends and plays that were popular during his lifetime. From these, we glimpse a man who was passionate, rather than cold and calcuating, and there’s no guarrantee that he truly believed in Princedom in his political writings either, though he clearly valued stability and realism.

    In Discourses on Livy, he speaks in favour of republican ideals, saying ‘the governments of the people are better than those of princes’ and ‘if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious.’ The Prince is not specifically anti-republican, indeed, mostly avoids the subject of other forms of government, though it does take a hard line on how a prince should treat the citizenry.

    However, many have concluded that The Prince, although written as advice for a monarchical prince, contains arguments for the superiority of republican regimes or have viewed The Prince as being a satirical work – meant to be deliberate comical irony.

     Instead of the more traditional subject of a hereditary prince, The Prince concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince.” He must first stabilize his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. He asserted that social benefits of stability and security could be achieved in the face of moral corruption.

    Aside from that, Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. As a result, a ruler must be concerned not only with reputation, but also must be positively willing to act immorally at the right times.

    As a political theorist, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force or deceit including extermination of entire noble families to head off any chance of a challenge to the prince’s authority. Machiavelli has become infamous for such political advice, ensuring that he would be remembered in history through the adjective, “Machiavellian.”

  • Values of the time

    • Humanism and the value of the reason and wisdom of the ancients, the Florentines were quite influenced by Roman thinkers like Cicero. They probably felt their ancestors’ greatness as a kind of calling to build Italy up.
    • Stability – so many civil wars and skirmishes made life for Florentines quite difficult. Machiavelli doesn’t seem to take the view that a democracy is particularly unstable – as the Late Renaissance English do – but that any ruler who doesn’t keep their neighbours weak and themselves strong is going to have problems.
    • Pragmatism and diplomacy. The biggest difference between Machiavelli and many Roman, and indeed, contemporary Florentine thinkers, is that he didn’t think a ruler should base their decisions off an ideal society, but a realistic one. Cicero’s idea of the great and noble statesman was still admired by Machiavelli, but he did believe a ruler might need to get their hands dirty occasionally, being clever rather than strictly noble. However, ‘virtue’ was an extremely important concept for Machiavelli and his writing mentions it a lot.
    • State-building is quite important to Machiavelli – all the art and thinkers of Florence had to come from wealth and a stable, urban environment. Compare this to how Caesar filled the coffers and left his gardens to the people (according to Antony) – a good leader ought to build the state. Machiavelli was a passionate Florentine, and devoted himself to its political service no matter who was in power. He was clearly affected by the idea of the city’s ‘greatess’ in the golden age.
    • Leadership and private and pubic morality. This touches on the problem again faced by Brutus – do you owe your country alliegance more than your friend? For Machiavelli, personal right and wrong had to be ignored by a ruler for the good of the state.

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