Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

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It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.


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Niccolo Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 - June 21, 1527) was the author of The Prince, supposed to be an instruction book for rulers. In it, he advocated the theory that whatever was expedient was good. Machiavelli was born in Florence. From 1494 to 1512 he held an official post at Florence which included diplomatic missions to various European courts. Machiavelli was briefly imprisoned in Florence in 1512, was later exiled and returned to San Casciano. Died in Florence on June 21, 1527.


Niccolo Machiavelli was born at Florence on 3rd May 1469. He was the second son of Bernardo di Niccolo Machiavelli, a lawyer of some repute, and of Bartolommea di Stefano Nelli, his wife. Both parents were members of the old Florentine nobility.

His life falls naturally into three periods, each of which singularly enough constitutes a distinct and important era in the history of Florence. His youth was concurrent with the greatness of Florence as an Italian power under the guidance of Lorenzo de' Medici, Il Magnifico. The downfall of the Medici in Florence occurred in 1494, in which year Machiavelli entered the public service. During his official career Florence was free under the government of a Republic, which lasted until 1512, when the Medici returned to power, and Machiavelli lost his office. The Medici again ruled Florence from 1512 until 1527, when they were once more driven out. This was the period of Machiavelli's literary activity and increasing influence; but he died, within a few weeks of the expulsion of the Medici, on 22nd June 1527, in his fifty-eighth year, without having regained office.


Although there is little recorded of the youth of Machiavelli, the Florence of those days is so well known that the early environment of this representative citizen may be easily imagined. Florence has been described as a city with two opposite currents of life, one directed by the fervent and austere Savonarola, the other by the splendour- loving Lorenzo. Savonarola's influence upon the young Machiavelli must have been slight, for although at one time he wielded immense power over the fortunes of Florence, he only furnished Machiavelli with a subject of a gibe in The Prince, where he is cited as an example of an unarmed prophet who came to a bad end. Whereas the magnificence of the Medicean rule during the life of Lorenzo appeared to have impressed Machiavelli strongly, for he frequently refers to it in his writings, and it is to Lorenzo's grandson that he dedicates The Prince. Machiavelli, in his History of Florence, gives us a picture of the young men among whom his youth was passed. He writes: "They were freer than their forefathers in dress and living, and spent more in other kinds of excesses, consuming their time and money in idleness, gaming, and women; their chief aim was to appear well dressed and to speak with wit and acuteness, whilst he who could wound others the most cleverly was thought the wisest." In a letter to his son Guido, Machiavelli shows why youth should avail itself of its opportunities for study, and leads us to infer that his own youth had been so occupied. He writes: "I have received your letter, which has given me the greatest pleasure, especially because you tell me you are quite restored in health, than which I could have no better news; for if God grant life to you, and to me, I hope to make a good man of you if you are willing to do your share." Then, writing of a new patron, he continues: "This will turn out well for you, but it is necessary for you to study; since, then, you have no longer the excuse of illness, take pains to study letters and music, for you see what honour is done to me for the little skill I have. Therefore, my son, if you wish to please me, and to bring success and honour to yourself, do right and study, because others will help you if you help yourself."


The second period of Machiavelli's life was spent in the service of the free Republic of Florence, which flourished, as stated above, from the expulsion of the Medici in 1494 until their return in 1512. After serving four years in one of the public offices he was appointed Chancellor and Secretary to the Second Chancery, the Ten of Liberty and Peace. Here we are on firm ground when dealing with the events of Machiavelli's life, for during this time he took a leading part in the affairs of the Republic, and we have its decrees, records, and dispatches to guide us, as well as his own writings. A mere recapitulation of a few of his transactions with the statesmen and soldiers of his time gives a fair indication of his activities, and supplies the sources from which he drew the experiences and characters which illustrate The Prince. His first mission was in 1499 to Catherina Sforza, "my lady of Forli" of The Prince, from whose conduct and fate he drew the moral that it is far better to earn the confidence of the people than to rely on fortresses. This is a very noticeable principle in Machiavelli, and is urged by him in many ways as a matter of vital importance to princes. In 1500 he was sent to France to obtain terms from Louis XII for continuing the war against Pisa: this king it was who, in his conduct of affairs in Italy, committed the five capital errors in statecraft summarized in The Prince, and was consequently driven out. He, also, it was who made the dissolution of his marriage a condition of support to Pope Alexander VI; which leads Machiavelli to refer those who urge that such promises should be kept to what he has written concerning the faith of princes. Machiavelli's public life was largely occupied with events arising out of the ambitions of Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare Borgia, the Duke Valentino, and these characters fill a large space of The Prince. Machiavelli never hesitates to cite the actions of the duke for the benefit of usurpers who wish to keep the states they have seized; he can, indeed, find no precepts to offer so good as the pattern of Cesare Borgia's conduct, insomuch that Cesare is acclaimed by some critics as the "hero" of The Prince. Yet in The Prince the duke is in point of fact cited as a type of the man who rises on the fortune of others, and falls with them; who takes every course that might be expected from a prudent man but the course which will save him; who is prepared for all eventualities but the one which happens; and who, when all his abilities fail to carry him through, exclaims that it was not his fault, but an extraordinary and unforeseen fatality. On the death of Pius III, in 1503, Machiavelli was sent to Rome to watch the election of his successor, and there he saw Cesare Borgia cheated into allowing the choice of the College to fall on Giuliano delle Rovere (Julius II), who was one of the cardinals that had most reason to fear the duke. Machiavelli, when commenting on this election, says that he who thinks new favours will cause great personages to forget old injuries deceives himself. Julius did not rest until he had ruined Cesare. It was to Julius II that Machiavelli was sent in 1506, when that pontiff was commencing his enterprise against Bologna; which he brought to a successful issue, as he did many of his other adventures, owing chiefly to his impetuous character. It is in reference to Pope Julius that Machiavelli moralizes on the resemblance between Fortune and women, and concludes that it is the bold rather than the cautious man that will win and hold them both. It is impossible to follow here the varying fortunes of the Italian states, which in 1507 were controlled by France, Spain, and Germany, with results that have lasted to our day; we are concerned with those events, and with the three great actors in them, so far only as they impinge on the personality of Machiavelli. He had several meetings with Louis XII of France, and his estimate of that monarch's character has already been alluded to. Machiavelli has painted Ferdinand of Aragon as the man who accomplished great things under the cloak of religion, but who in reality had no mercy, faith, humanity, or integrity; and who, had he allowed himself to be influenced by such motives, would have been ruined. The Emperor Maximilian was one of the most interesting men of the age, and his character has been drawn by many hands; but Machiavelli, who was an envoy at his court in 1507-8, reveals the secret of his many failures when he describes him as a secretive man, without force of character--ignoring the human agencies necessary to carry his schemes into effect, and never insisting on the fulfilment of his wishes. The remaining years of Machiavelli's official career were filled with events arising out of the League of Cambrai, made in 1508 between the three great European powers already mentioned and the pope, with the object of crushing the Venetian Republic. This result was attained in the Battle of Vaila (now usually known as the Battle of Agnadello), when Venice lost in one day all that she had won in eight hundred years. Florence had a difficult part to play during these events, complicated as they were by the feud which broke out between the pope and the French, because friendship with France had dictated the entire policy of the Republic. When, in 1511, Julius II finally formed the Holy League against France, and with the assistance of the Swiss drove the French out of Italy, Florence lay at the mercy of the Pope, and had to submit to his terms, one of which was that the Medici should be restored. The return of the Medici to Florence on 1st September 1512, and the consequent fall of the Republic, was the signal for the dismissal of Machiavelli and his friends, and thus put an end to his public career, for, as we have seen, he died without regaining office.

Literature and Death

On the return of the Medici, Machiavelli, who for a few weeks had vainly hoped to retain his office under the new masters of Florence, was dismissed by decree dated 7th November 1512. Shortly after this he was accused of complicity in an abortive conspiracy against the Medici, imprisoned, and put to the question by torture. The new Medicean people, Leo X, procured his release, and he retired to his small property at San Casciano, near Florence, where he devoted himself to literature. In a letter to Francesco Vettori, dated 13th December 1513, he has left a very interesting description of his life at this period, which elucidates his methods and his motives in writing The Prince. After describing his daily occupations with his family and neighbours, he writes: "The evening being come, I return home and go to my study; at the entrance I pull off my peasant- clothes, covered with dust and dirt, and put on my noble court dress, and thus becomingly re-clothed I pass into the ancient courts of the men of old, where, being lovingly received by them, I am fed with that food which is mine alone; where I do not hesitate to speak with them, and to ask for the reason of their actions, and they in their benignity answer me; and for four hours I feel no weariness, I forget every trouble, poverty does not dismay, death does not terrify me; I am possessed entirely by those great men. And because Dante says: Knowledge doth come of learning well retained, Unfruitful else, I have noted down what I have gained from their conversation, and have composed a small work on 'Principalities,' where I pour myself out as fully as I can in meditation on the subject, discussing what a principality is, what kinds there are, how they can be acquired, how they can be kept, why they are lost: and if any of my fancies ever pleased you, this ought not to displease you: and to a prince, especially to a new one, it should be welcome: therefore I dedicate it to his Magnificence Giuliano. Filippo Casavecchio has seen it; he will be able to tell you what is in it, and of the discourses I have had with him; nevertheless, I am still enriching and polishing it."

The "little book" suffered many vicissitudes before attaining the form in which it has reached us. Various mental influences were at work during its composition; its title and patron were changed; and for some unknown reason it was finally dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici. Although Machiavelli discussed with Casavecchio whether it should be sent or presented in person to the patron, there is no evidence that Lorenzo ever received or even read it: he certainly never gave Machiavelli any employment. Although it was plagiarized during Machiavelli's lifetime, The Prince was never published by him, and its text is still disputable. Machiavelli concludes his letter to Vettori thus: "And as to this little thing [his book], when it has been read it will be seen that during the fifteen years I have given to the study of statecraft I have neither slept nor idled; and men ought ever to desire to be served by one who has reaped experience at the expense of others. And of my loyalty none could doubt, because having always kept faith I could not now learn how to break it; for he who has been faithful and honest, as I have, cannot change his nature; and my poverty is a witness to my honesty." Before Machiavelli had got The Prince off his hands he commenced his Discourse on the First Decade of Titus Livius, which should be read concurrently with The Prince. These and several minor works occupied him until the year 1518, when he accepted a small commission to look after the affairs of some Florentine merchants at Genoa. In 1519 the Medicean rulers of Florence granted a few political concessions to her citizens, and Machiavelli with others was consulted upon a new constitution under which the Great Council was to be restored; but on one pretext or another it was not promulgated. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Niccolo Machiavelli.]

Machiavelli the Hologram
Norm Cameron (Copyright 2005)

I am sure you are not fooled. I am not really Machiavelli. I am a hologram called Hi-Mach constructed by Virtual Savant Inc. My program scans an author's works and produces a simulation of the mind behind those works. Earlier versions of my program have been pirated by a certain large corporation. The holograms projected by those imperfect versions are readily recognizable by the many bugs in their source codes -- detectable by you by the poor grasp they have of the meaning of the Prince.

When I wrote the Prince, I had three related goals in mind.

1): To give a realistic assessment of human nature based on a dispassionate observation of actual human beings. The assessment was rather negative.

2): To claim that the only truly moral principle that makes any sense in a Principality is to maximize happiness.

3): To provide a realistic strategy for maximizing happiness that takes human nature into account.

I realize many of you have concluded that I am evil. I assure you this is not so. Allow me to review for you a little about the temper of the times when I wrote this little work.

I will presume that a few of you are aware of the momentous changes that have occurred in my beautiful city of Florence since you had last visited there 200 years ago under the guidance of that good guide Dante. Many changes occurred in those two centruies between 1314 and 1513 that altered radicallythe ways Italians saw themselves, their Church, and their political institutions. Today you call the shifts that occurred then as the Renaissance. And indeed it was, for us, a rebirth of Classical Greco-Roman values. We revered the classical scholars. So great and serious was this interest that our Lorenzo the Magnificent reopened the Academy of Plato right here in Florence. This resurgence of classicism brought a corresponding rejection of medieval modes of thought. In Sir Gawain you say a world in which the way one did things the means -- such as the code of chivalry -- was what mattered. The outcome, the ends, were secondary. In our era, this sort of idealism was seen as inpractical, unrealistic, and bad politics. Results matter. The ends -- if they are good are justified by the means -- at least in real world politics. This is a position that Sir Gawain -- and of course the tradition of Christianity on which the chivilric code rests -- would oppose.

In any event - the code of Chivilry, which had not been all that closely adhered to, even at the best of times, was no longer paid even lip service. In practical terms, chivilry and christianity, served the medieval masters well by ensuring that the weak remained totally subjugated to the strong. Feudal masters valued serfs who complained little about having their heads severed.

But, the feudal system broke down. Towns became cities. A mercantile middle class arose that was far from content with remaining in the middle. A parallel situation is emerging now in modern Canada. In 1973 the top 10 % of the population in Canada earned 21 times more than the bottom 10 %. In 1996 the top 10% in Canada earned 304 times the bottom 10%. The rich get richer -- the poor poorer -- in Renaissance Florence, and in modern Canada.

In Florence parronage took the place of fealty -- allegience -- to the Lord -- including allegiance to the Vatican -- the priinciple seat of Christian/chivilric values. With this, thesre is a shift away from theology to economics. The expansion of the state was fueled no longer by the Church but by the mercantile class. Secular values replaced church values. A parallel in modern Canada is the shift today from government to business. Your universities, for example, are increasingly supported by corporations, and less so by public monies. When the source of money shifts so do the values. In my time it was a shift from theology to economics -- money. In your day it is a shift from democracy to profit.

The church, acting perhaps in the spirit of competition with the rising mercantile class, reacted to the economic forces by playing or attempting to play the same temporal game by abandoning their spiritual priorities. Dante in fact documents this in his Inferno where we meet an extraordinary number of priests and popes who reside in Hell for their abandonment of reason and spirituality to serve their appetite. Martin Luther's reaction to this trend was to create an historic schism in Christianity. He nailed his 95 theses to a church gate in Wittenberg only 4 years after I wrote these words!

There can be no greater proof of papal decadence than the fact that the nearer people are to the Roman Church, the head of their religion, the less religious they are. And whoever examines the principles on which that religion is founded, and sees how widely different from those principles its present practice and application are, will judge that her ruin or chastisement is at hand.

You think me evil. Consider this. One of my greatest friends and influences was a man I know you admire -- Leonardo da Vinci. What did I learn from this wonderful man -- this man of wonder? I learned -- as did he -- that as good as the knowledge of the ancients was -- it was second hand. As renaissance men we could, and we should go further. We could learn much more by observing the book of nature! What Leonardo did with water, anatomy, astronomy, I did with human nature, and applied it to the political arena.

This work, the study of nature -- human nature in particular -- marks the beginning of modern science. A belief struture that arose from this work came to be known as Renaissance humanism. Its basic tenet is that a man's worth is determined NOT by his beliefs, his parentage, or his pious words, by by his works! Goodness is judged NOT prior principles, but by outcomes. As scientists, Leonardo and I, freed as we were, from the contraints of prior moral requirements, believed that we could understand and control nature. In my case understanding human nature would allow the control both of individuals and to social groups.

In looking at an individual or a social group it is the outcome, the end, that is important. Where maximum social pleasure is the desired outcome -- and that outcome flowed directly from Renaissance Humanism, it is permissible, in fact necessary to adjust whatever is necessary to adjust to achieve that end. The happiness and security of the many is thus an end that justifies ANY means necessary to achieve it!

How does this work for me? When I think about the good of my people, the mass of Italians, I abandoned those high handed idealistic sentiments parroted by ancient philosophers and hypocritical churchmen in favor of the good that people actually reallly do seek. And what are those? Security, stability, money, and respect! Look into your own soul and deny that it is these values that really drive your modern aspirations. It makes no sense to me at all to try to provide you with these goods through high sounding virtuous platitudes or moralities that are bound to fail in any real world. Those ends are of such importance to me that any means can be used, and the ultimate means that will always ensure the ends I desire is POWER!

Now as a human I can differentiate between what moralists call good means and bad means -- and as a human would prefer the good means. But as a Renaissance Humanist Scientist, I am obliged to select the best means -- meaning the means that achieves my ends. Here is what I say:

It cannot be called virtue to kill one's fellow citizens. To betray one's friends, to be treacherous, merciless, and irreligious; power may be gained by acting in such ways, but not glory…

Cruel deeds may be called 'well committed' (if one may use the word well of that which is evil) when they are committed at once, because they are necessary for establishing one's power, and are not afterwords persisted in, but changed for measures as beneficial as possible to one's subjects.

if a ruler can keep his subjects united and loyal, he should not woirry about incurring a reputation for cruelty, for by punishing a very few he will really be more merciful than those who permit disorders to develop with resultant killings and plunderings. For the latter usually harm a whole community, whereas the executions ordered by a ruler harm only specific indivisuals.

I recognize that in relying exclusively on the Power of the Prince, you may feel that I fail to see the danger that such Power can become an end in itself -- that Power corrupts. It is true. Princes lust for power. Power is an end-in itself -- for the Prince. But a good Price will recognize this and recognize too that his continuity and survival can be assurred only through good outcomes. Most Princes are narrow self interested fools. But, as fools they are also tools -- means to the good end I desire for the many. I care little for their narrow lusts for power and little for them. They are needed tho. And if they wish to survive -- this is their guide.

I maintain now and then that what I advocate is reasonable -- both in means and in ends. Why then am I so reviled???

There are two reasons:

1: I cite Cesare Borgia as an example of a good Prince
2: My unflattering analysis of human nature.

As for Borgia I do not have time here to defend these points in precise detail. But there is a defence and it too is rooted firmly in the notions I outline. Measure Borgia and his actions not as those of a good man, but as an effective tool.

And as for my idealistic critics: You dream about what ought to be. I describe what is -- and attempt to present for you the best outcome that can be obtained with the resources at our disposal.

how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it If a ruler who wants always to act humanely is surrounded by many unscrupulous men, his downfall is inevitable. Therefore a ruler who wished to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.

I believe firmly that human nature is guided exclusively by a desire for security, stability, comfort and respect. Those are our desires and we must choose rulers who will satisfy those desires with as little cost in pain and disorder as possible. The personal goals of the Prince need not concern us as long as we achieve ours! Why should we expect our Princes to be driven by principles and virtues that are alien to us!!!

Those of you who are repulsed by what I say are repulsed ot by me but by my message. I have held a mirror to you and shown you for what you really are. You do not like what you see -- you try to kill the messenger.

I admit that I may have a prediliction for negative generalizations about our nature. But, our glory, as humans comes from recognizing and attempting to overcome our limitations -- not by wishing us to fly with the angels.

These clones here will do their best to protect you from the truth of my observations aboyt human nature and human desire. One will agree that I am right, but will not accept that ends count more than means. The other will suggest that my work is but a jest. A jest in bad taste and not very funny at that.

Those who wish for their own reasons to dull the point of my analysis, suggest that it is a satire -- that it is so exaggerated that it must be a joke. That may seem reassuring to you. But it guarantees that you will go to your graves as children and will be pulled there by those who know full well the truth and reality of ahich I speak.

Its essential contribution to modern political thought lies in Machiavelli's assertion of the then revolutionary idea that theological and moral imperatives have no place in the political arena. "It must be understood," Machiavelli avers, "that a prince ... cannot observe all of those virtues for which men are reputed good, because it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion, in order to preserve the state."

Books from Alibris: Machiavelli

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