Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance politician, writer, and thinker born in Florence in 1469. At this time, the various Italian city-states were constantly at war with each other, and Italy itself had to deal with its powerful neighbors France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Within this tumultuous period, Machiavelli gained experience in politics as the Second Chancellor of Florence, a position which sent him on diplomatic mission throughout Italy as well as to the royal court of France. He is famous for having written a guidebook for rulers on how they can stay in power by any means necessary, known as The Prince, and for his claim that it is better to be feared than loved. He also wrote an influential work on the merits of republicanism, known as the Discourses on Livy.
Machiavelli grew up in the Italian city-state of Florence, which had been ruled by the Medici family for 60 years. In 1494, the Medicis were expelled from Florence and the city was instead set up as a republic. Machiavelli had been raised with a humanistic education and was an excellent writer and speaker. He was selected to be the Second Chancellor of Florence, and successfully led a militia of civilian-soldiers to victory over Pisa in 1509. Unfortunately, at this time the Medicis, with the help of the Pope and Spanish troops, were able to take back control of the city. Like many others, Machiavelli was stripped of his position in the Florentine government. He was also falsely accused of being involved in a conspiracy to bring the Medicis back into power, and was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.
After the Medicis came back into power, many of the people who were initially discharged were allowed to come back and reestablish their positions in the Florentine government. Machiavelli was hoping that he would be able to do this as well, and for this reason he wrote The Prince, a guidebook for how rulers can stay in power, which he dedicated to the Medicis. Unfortunately, this attempt was unsuccessful, and Machiavelli was not allowed to continue in politics in Florence. As a result, he retired to the countryside and wrote other works such as satirical plays, a work known as The Art of War (not to be confused with Sun Tzu’s Art of War), and his personal political thoughts in what is known as the Discourses on Livy.
The Prince became widely read in Machiavelli’s time, as the printing press had just recently been invented. In The Prince, people were confronted with things they had never heard before and they were shocked. Machiavelli wrote, “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise” and that “A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.” Before Machiavelli, it was believed that a ruler should be virtuous, and that only because of his virtue would he be fit to rule. This is known as political idealism, and goes back to Plato’s concept of the “philosopher king.” In contrast, Machiavelli’s The Prince put forth a political realism, which said that a ruler should do what works, regardless of whether it is right or not.
The Prince tells a ruler that true authority is power. Might makes right. Laws are only meaningful if they can be effectively enforced. For this reason, a ruler must command armed forces. For Machiavelli, it is crucial that a ruler is able to defend against both internal and external threats. Machiavelli writes, “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war” and cautions the ruler, “Before all else, be armed.”
Machiavelli famously writes that it is better to be feared than loved. He explains, “Love endures by a bond which men, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage to do so; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present.” The Prince explains that a ruler cannot rely on people’s admiration. A ruler must be in a position to make sure that he is obeyed. While Machiavelli doesn’t support cruelty for its own sake, in The Prince he explains that a ruler must be willing to do whatever is necessary in order to stay in power. For example, he explains “Men must be either pampered or annihilated. They avenge light offenses; they cannot avenge severe ones; hence, the harm one does to a man must be such as to obviate any fear of revenge.” This level of realism was shocking for most people at the time, and to this day the word “Machiavellian” is used to describe any policy where “the ends justify the means.”
In The Prince, Machiavelli explains that a successful ruler must have what he calls virtu. Virtu is not virtue, in the sense of doing good deeds, but rather the ability to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. Machiavelli explains that the world is governed by Fortuna (fortune), a cruel goddess who wreaks havoc on those who are unprepared. The ruler must therefore have virtu in order to be prepared for whatever Fortuna throws at him. For this reason, Machiavelli was opposed to a ruler having faith, which he saw as a weakness. A ruler must do everything in his power to make sure things go his way, and not put his faith in God that things will somehow work out.
Machiavelli’s second famous work is his Discourses on Livy. In the Discourses, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of there being a system of checks and balances in government. He points to the French monarchy, a government which he gained familiarity with while on his diplomatic missions, as a government which has found success because the King must abide by the laws created by the French Parliament. It is these laws which check his power, ensuring that he doesn’t become a tyrant over his people. Likewise, Machiavelli points to Rome, where the Senate was in constant battle with the people, which he sees as a “creative tension” which made sure that the interests of the Roman people were always looked after, and therefore allowed Rome to be great.
Machiavelli also believed in the value of free speech. Inspired by the ancients, who were trained in rhetoric (the art of public speaking), and who gathered in public assembly, Machiavelli was confident in the ability of the people to collectively make good decisions after hearing both sides of an argument presented to them. In contrast, in a monarchy freedom of speech is sometimes limited, and decisions are made by the ruler as an individual. This he sees as a weakness for the state. He explains, “For an uncontrolled and tumultuous people can be spoken to by a good man and easily led back into a good way. But no one can speak to a wicked prince, and the only remedy is steel.” In this way, a republic is more flexible (i.e. has more virtu) than a monarchy, since change can be made through words rather than violence.
Lastly, in the Discourses Machiavelli explains that true liberty can only come when the citizens are allowed to bear arms. He explains how in France the monarch disarmed the people in order to be able to rule them without worrying about an uprising. Machiavelli says that in this way, the French monarchy gave the people security, but not liberty. Only by being armed can the people have true liberty, because being armed allows them both to defend themselves against foreign oppressors as well as the threat of tyranny.
Machiavelli is a very interesting figure in the history of political thought because he is both the author of a text which explains how a ruler can maintain power at all costs, The Prince, as well as a work which explains the why a republic is preferably to a monarchy, The Discourses. Machiavelli’s political thoughts would deeply influence thinkers in modern times such as Bacon, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Montaigne. His belief in the importance of checks and balances, liberty, free speech, and the right to bear arms would influence the founding fathers of the United States, and he is seen as the originator of the modern conception of the state. As a Renaissance thinker, Machiavelli bridges the gap between ancient and modern, and The Prince stands as a classic text in the history of political thought.