Niccolo Machiavelli  (1469-1527)


Niccolò Machiavelli is most remembered for his view that, in political affairs, "the ends justifies the means." His name was despised through much of the sixteenth century as synonymous with maniacal egotism, or outright evil, in political affairs. Nonetheless this work Il Principe (1532) was also much admired for the practical guidance it offered to rulers, including those who ostensibly despised its author as an advocate of vicious cruelty. For students, it is important to recall that this work was written at a time when the very existence of the Italian system of city-states was gravely threatened by the inability of the Italians to work out an enduring peace among themselves. These city-states were also under threat of the larger and more powerful northern states whch had already made Italy their battleground for nearly two decades when Machiavelli wrote Il Principe. (from Mosaic)

Brief Biography: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence to an impoverished member of a noble family. His father could not afford to give him a good education, and Machiavelli labored under obscure teachers. To some extent, he was self-taught, which saved him from the scholastic abstractions that tainted the culture of his age. Machiavelli's opportunity came in 1498, with the execution of Girolamo Savanrola, an austere monk whose extreme politics led to a popular backlash and the election of a more moderate republican government in the city-state of Florence. Machiavelli then twenty-nine, became secretary to the republic's military and diplomatic council. For the next fourteen years he was one of Florence's leading diplomats, traveling in the France of Louis XII and gaining exposure to civilizations different from his own. When the collapse of the Borgia dynasty threw central Italy into confusion, Machiavelli, in 1505, visited the leading oligarchs of Perugia and Siena in an attempt to make them allies of Florence. The next year he observed firsthand the fiery subjugation of Perugia and Emilia by the warrior pope Julius II. While sending dispatches to Florence on the progress of Julius' campaign, Machiavelli had to visit the camps of Florentine soldiers, paying their levies in the struggle to retake Pisa. Yet as soon as Pisa was recovered in 1509, Florence found itself threatened by both France and Spain.

Machiavelli's political career ended abruptly in 1512 with the invasion of Italy by Spanish forces loyal to Pope Julius. Faced with the sacking of their city, the Florentines surrendered, and their republic- with its civic institutions- was dissolved. A progressive by nature, Machiavelli had replaced the republic's mercenary forces with citizen's militias. But the new militias failed to save Florence, and the Medici family returned from exile as the ruling oligarchs. Machiavelli immediately made overtures to them, but in vain: the Medicis dismissed him from his post, then accused him of taking part in a conspiracy against the regime.  (Warrior Politics 56-57)

Excerpts from The Prince, 1513

Chapter 14: That Which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of the Art of War

The Prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. And, on the contrary, it is seen that when princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states. And the first cause of your losing it is to neglect this art; and what enables you to acquire a state is to be master of the art. Francesco Sforza, though being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and the sons, through avoiding the hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons. For among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised, and this is one of those ignominies against which a prince ought to guard himself, as is shown later on.

Chapter 15: Concerning Things for Which Men, and Especially Princes, are Blamed

It remains now to see what ought to be the rules of conduct for a prince toward subject and friends. And as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people. But it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him to 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.

Hence, it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly...; one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful.... And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state...

Chapter 17: Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved than Feared

Upon this a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by nobility or greatness of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserved you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.

Chapter 18: Concerning the Way In Which Princes Should Keep Their Word

A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about. Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

From: Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. W. K. Marriott. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1908, pp. 117-118, 129-131.