Who was Niccolo Machiavelli?

Machiavellian. How often do we hear a politician or a businessman described by that adjective? Usually it is used to characterise someone who is cynical or devious, or who engages in byzantine plotting to achieve their own ends. To be ‘Machiavellian’ is to be immoral, if not downright evil.

The word itself is derived from the name of a real person, Niccolo Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Florentine politician and the author of a small book called The Prince. It is to this book that he owes his dark reputation, and what he wrote in it so shocked his world that it was banned by the Catholic Church; when it eventually emerged into the light, its precepts were read as a kind of working guide for ruthlessness in politics. After a while, it wasn’t even necessary to actually read the book – you just had to describe someone as ‘Machiavellian’ and everyone knew exactly what you meant.

Perhaps that is not so surprising when you consider some of the more famous aphorisms from The Prince:

  • Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.
  • ‘The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.
  • Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.’
  • A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.
  • It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
  • One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

Taken by themselves, statements like these are, to say the least, rather stark pronouncements on the nature of power and the people who exercise it; even more shocking to Machiavelli’s contemporaries was the almost complete absence of any references to conventional ideas of morality. Niccolo writes about how men are, not how they ought to be.

So who was this man, whose very name has become so freighted with meaning?

Far from being the personification of evil, Niccolo would have been a highly entertaining dinner companion, full of witty stories and clever anecdotes. He possessed a mischievous sense of humour, something that comes across in the most famous portrait we have of him, a rather elfin-faced fellow with a knowing half-smile.

Born in 1469, the same year that Lorenzo the Magnificent became master of Florence, he came from a moderately well-off family that was encumbered by debts. His father, Bernardo, was a scholarly widower who was not much good at business, so by the time young Niccolo graduated from university the Machiavelli finances were just sufficient to support the family (he had two sisters and a brother), but not much more. Niccolo didn’t show any more aptitude for commerce than his father, and a life of scholarly indolence probably didn’t appeal, and so his mind turned to politics.

His opportunity came in 1498, when the city’s politics were upended in the turmoil following the end of the Medici regime, and he got himself elected to the position of Second Secretary of the Republic. His main job was to lead the small team of bureaucrats who managed the city’s foreign affairs, but it wasn’t long before he was being entrusted with diplomatic missions to the smaller city-states around Florence.

For the next fourteen years, Niccolo served the new republic with energy and intelligence, travelling indefatigably all over Italy and France trying to stave off threats that seemed to come from everywhere. The greatest of these was the emergence of another legendary figure from Renaissance history, Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of pope Alexander VI. Cesare is an intriguing and beguiling figure, unquestionably ruthless and devious, yet immensely charming, good-looking and charismatic. Machiavelli’s long duel with Borgia, who almost certainly was aiming to add Florence to his dominions, provided him with much of the raw material for The Prince.

The Borgia project eventually failed when his father died unexpectedly in 1503, and Cesare went off into exile. Niccolo, meanwhile, turned his attention to a new task: building a militia army for Florence. When his new citizen army played a decisive part in ending a long siege of neighbouring Pisa, Machiavelli became something of a hero in Florence, and was at the height of his powers.

But fate had another plan for Niccolo. Caught in a power struggle between France and Spain, the republican government fell and the Medici returned to power in Florence. That was the end of Machiavelli’s career, at least for now. He was eventually banished from the city to his farm at the little hamlet of Sant’Andrea in Percussina, from where he could just see the dome of the city’s cathedral, a constant and cruel reminder of his fall from power. It was there that he settled down to write The Prince, in which he tried to set out some practical rules for government, based on his own experiences.

This little book (it runs to just 85 pages in the Penguin edition on my desk) was penned as a kind of job application to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the new ruler of Florence. It didn’t achieve its aim, and Niccolo was never to return to any meaningful role in the Florentine government, though he did undertake some minor missions for the Medici. He also wrote a number of important works, including The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, which, despite its cumbersome title, is actually a deeply felt meditation on the merits of republicanism as a form of government. On June 27, 1527, he died at Sant’ Andrea, aged just fifty-eight, disappointed and worn out from his years in the service of a city that had rejected him.

This, then, is the man whose name has been abducted and then deployed down the ages as a byword for evil. He would, I suspect, have been rather amused and a little puzzled by his posthumous reputation. Just as in his dispatches he strove always to give his masters in the Florentine government the unvarnished truth, so in The Prince he tries to explain the practical realities of exercising power. It is easily forgotten that he says, over and over, that the overriding responsibility of a ruler is to ensure the well-being and survival of his state and its people, and that this is the context in which he tells us that princes may also have to do unpalatable things in pursuit of those goals. In Niccolo’s mind this was self-evident, and he was doing no more than lay out the facts.

Modern scholarship has done a lot to rehabilitate Niccolo’s reputation, and today there are many excellent biographies that give us a more balanced picture of his life and work. That development he would also have met with a shrug and a smile, I am sure, and an acceptance that such is the way of fate.

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