A brief biography of Niccolo Machiavelli and his ideas

Apr 14, 2016 · 7 min read

This is an essay from my undergraduate years at St. Francis College. I thought maybe someone could use it, in whatever way. Beware academic language.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in May 1469 as a Florentine and was a philosopher of modern political philosophy. His ideas though are quite old. He was far from ordinary, and was raised under the rule of Medici of Florence. Savonarola attempted a theocracy for a short time, which did not work out, and as a result the republic was reestablished. His famous work is his political treatise, The Prince, which was published at the beginning of the 16th century. Other works include The Discourse on Livy, and The Art of War.

Machiavelli lived in Florence, a republic and a city state at that time, and spent a good deal of his adult life there. In fact, he held a diplomatic post for 14 years. What Leonardo Da Vince did for art, he wanted to do for politics. After the republic fell, he had to go into exile. Even though Machiavelli drew his ideas from the ancient philosophers, his philosophy was also based on his own experiences. In the dedication part of The Prince, Machiavelli says that this book is a product of long experiences of modern things, and a continuous reading of the ancient ones.

Machiavelli was very fond of politics and would seek knowledge about politics from his friends over letter correspondence. The Prince was very carefully written, because Machiavelli approached his studies very seriously. However this book is also written in a very deceptive way. In fact, the word

Machiavelli has almost become synonymous with deception and cunning. Today, if a politician uses cunning and deceitful tactics, they were most probably influenced by Machiavelli in one way or another. Any serious philosophers will have heard about Machiavelli, in the same way as everybody knows something about Plato or Aristotle. In the 21st century executives from corporations use his tactics to become more competitive in the business world.

Machiavelli also was a revolutionary. In The Discourse on Livy, he actually compares himself to Christopher Columbus. “Machiavelli implicitly compares his new direction in republican political theory to the courageous explorations of Italian navigators such as Columbus, Vespucci, and Verazzanao” (Machiavelli, The Discourse on Livy)

He probably thought what Columbus did for geography, he can do for politics. Machiavelli was in favor of a state that had a more realistic approach compared to the autonomous state from the ancient world. The essence of Machiavelli’s realism becomes apparent in Chapter 15.

He writes “I shall depart from the methods of other people. But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.” (Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 15)

Rather than looking for imagination, the truth of the matter should be sought. Machiavelli is more interested in the evil characteristics that human beings have than the good ones that they aspire to have. According to him human beings always have good intentions, but in real life they do not live up to those good intentions.

With The Prince Machiavelli created a new form of political organization. In fact, he is the founder of the “modern state”. Without his contribution, Thomas Hobbes would not have followed up on his work, or Rousseau’s Social Contract would not have been written or at least delayed.

The true beneficiary of his book is the prudent man, who has his own authority and sets his goals high since he knows that he will probably fall short. He is appealing to the person who is able to create something out of nothing. The cunning person, who is daring and bold, knows how to take advantage of an opportunity. Machiavelli appeals to the virtue that makes the man recognize the opportunity and seize it. Besides, he distinguishes between two principalities; hereditary and the new principalities.

Machiavelli further compares the armed and the unarmed prophets. A prophet is someone to whom God speaks. He argues that the armed prophet is a better shaper of institutions, even though he might not be religious. Mao Zedong coined the term “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun!” However, there are exceptions to the rule. Take Jesus Christ, who succeeded without any weapons. First he started with a sect, which grew into a religion, and this religion was adopted by the Holy Roman Empire. Even though physical weapons are very powerful indeed, words might be also quite powerful, as well. Machiavelli did not have an interest in daily political affairs. He was interested in how to shape the minds of the future. He had no troops, nor any territory, yet he lasted longer than any of his contemporary political statesmen.

Machiavelli believes that in order to make people obey you, they must first believe you and the way to make them believe you is to treat them badly. While ancient philosophers appealed to the virtue, and the good in people, Machiavelli introduces a new kind of anti-moralism. If

Aristotle was a teacher of good, was Machiavelli the opposite? Machiavelli does not reject the idea of good necessarily. In fact, he is mentioning his virtu frequently. But he is often referring to extraordinary situations, which he tries to normalize. In those extreme situations like wars, his concept of human morality fits the picture. He truly thinks that human nature only reveals itself fully when humans are faced with a great crisis.

In fact, virtue is dependent upon chaos and confusion. What would Churchill do without Hitler? His logic is very sinister because what he is saying is that the good is only possible because of an existence of evil prior to that. The ordinary rules of justice do not apply during times of instability and revolution. Let’s take the case of Churchill and Hitler further. It was because Hitler existed, that Churchill, an extraordinary virtuous person, could emerge as an individual hero. If you compare a person who is more aligned to the thinking of Aristotle, that person will value stability and honor honest means to achieve it. For instance, most children are taught not to do something wrong even if it benefits them individually.

On the flip side, someone who is more in alignment with Machiavelli’s thinking would seek war and would only prosper then. Machiavelli would not conform to Christian values or any classical conceptions of virtue. He is favoring daring and bold action, being ruthless to others and reliant on one’s own arms. As long as the end is met it will justify the means. In his opinion, virtue is manliness, strength and evil. The prince must have this desire to achieve success, but he thinks that the only way to succeed in the political game is to get your hands dirty.

Machiavelli suggests one deceptive trick to the prince. He should appear human, and appear to have virtuous qualities when he in fact does not possess those qualities. He suggests that religion is harmful to practice, so the prince should not practice it. In fact, he should only appear to be a Christian.

His view on liberty is also rather interesting. Machiavelli claims that you have to learn how not to be good in order to enjoy liberty. The true prince must be able to love his own people, yet be prepared to strike with cruelty when necessary. This is a rather cruel use of power, but it underlines Machiavelli’s sinister nature. According to him, the politician who is too weak and too good should not engage in politics.

Machiavelli’s way of thinking can be described as realistic opposed to the contrast view of idealism. The realist sees things how they really are, while the idealist requires the comfort of moral illusions. Clearly, Machiavelli believes that the armed prophets and the strong will always win over the unarmed prophet and the weak. So what kind of government was he proposing?

First of all, he thought that the nobles and the elite are dangerous. In fact they are more dangerous than the common people. The elitist group will have a stronger urge to rule, while the people will be more decent and lack ambition. As a matter of fact, in Machiavelli’s world in which the people will rule, the nobles will not pose a great danger to the prince.

All in all, Machiavelli’s accomplishments have been very influential to say the least. However, his thought has been exploited in the course of history. He argued that the prince should not be influenced by religion, and not be constrained by any moral affairs. The prince he imagined would be expanding and constantly engaging in war, which is a rather aggressive and carries an almost imperialistic approach. In Chapter 18, he proclaims “it is necessary for the prince to know how to use the beast and the man.” The prince must use whatever means is necessary, and have absolute no regard for morality.

Patrick Daniel

Think and move forward


Written by


Patrick Daniel

Think and move forward

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