Machiavelli’s prolific and diverse output (poetry, novella, epigram, dialogue, letters, translation from Latin, biography, history, chronicle, political theory) typifies the activity of a Renaissance scholar steeped in knowledge of humanist classical culture. Unlike many humanists of his time, however, most of Machiavelli’s writing has a political slant to it, with even literary works such as his famous play La mandragola (1518; The Mandrake) being susceptible to political interpretation.
Works in essay form—such as “Discorso sopra le cose di Pisa” (wr. 1499; “Discourse on Pisa”), “Del modo di trattare i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati” (wr. 1502; “On the Method of Dealing with the Rebellious Peoples of Valdichiana”), “Ritratti delle cose di Francia” (wr. 1512; “Description of French Affairs”), and Istorie fiorentine (wr. 1520, pub. 1532; The History of Florence)—though often more descriptive than evaluative, contain echoes of many of the precepts on history and politics to be found in his major political essays, Il principe (wr. 1513, pub. 1532; The Prince) and I discorsi (wr. 1517, pub. 1531; The Discourses). These precepts include his views on the need to learn from former historical eras and events, his attribution of Italy’s contemporary social and political problems to the temporal power of the Papacy, and his aversion to the use of mercenary soldiers to fight on behalf of a ruler or a state. The fuller development of such notions in those major works has helped to make Machiavelli one of the key figures in the history of world social and political thought, though little weight was given to this area of his work by his contemporaries. Even when his political writings became more widely known in the second half of the 16th century, they were considered more dangerous than helpful, being placed on the Church Index of officially banned books in 1564 and attracting much odium for at least three centuries.
The 26 chapters of The Prince fall into the well-established Renaissance genre of the advice manual on how to rule, addressed to a prince by his humanist courtier. What distinguishes Machiavelli’s manual from other such works, however, is the originality of the political principles it advances and its dual focus, which offers not only a general theoretical perspective but also contemporary practical advice. In order to illustrate the conclusions he has reached, Machiavelli draws upon examples from both ancient and more recent history and also taps into his own experience in government as a Florentine political administrator and diplomat beginning in 1498. In his prescriptions on statecraft, his first priority is the creation and maintenance of a strong independent state. The essential tool for the achievement of this is the practice of what he terms virtú. But far from requiring “virtue” in the conventional moral sense, Machiavelli’s virtú does not demand that a ruler behave morally, but rather that he demonstrate political ability wherever this may lead in terms of actions—that he show, in Quentin Skinner’s (1981) euphemistic formulation, “moral flexibility.” Nor is Machiavelli afraid to enunciate the potentially dark consequences which the discovery of virtú carries with it. Its practitioner, he insists, must be cold and calculating, and not allow himself to be beset by moral scruples, feelings of guilt, or concern for abstractions such as right or justice. What must remain central is not any ethical sense but the capacity to govern successfully. As the great 19th-century writer Alessandro Manzoni explained: “Machiavelli did not want injustice…he wanted what was useful, and he wanted it either with justice or with injustice.” In this, The Prince, far from advocating any new political system or technique of government, was actually reflecting many of the ideas and practices already (and still) existing in political life, but its originality was in the attempt to arrange them clearly and unashamedly into a system and to bind them together in a conceptual framework.
Not that the writer’s vision manages to be without internal contradictions. What emerges, for example, from Machiavelli’s analysis in Chapter 8 of the actions of Agathocles, ruler of ancient Syracuse, is a description of horrifically immoral actions, which, though they seem to correspond to the writer’s prescription for virtú, are emphatically denied such status. Indeed, some critics, like John Parkin (in Niccoló Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: New Interdisciplinary Essays, 1995), would argue that the work is informed by subliminal dialogue and the reader must proceed by “teasing out the contradictions and oppositions which function in his text.” But even if we do not go this far, The Prince cannot be said to have the rigor of modern analytic political thought. It is not, as Maureen Ramsay (in Niccoló Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: New Interdisciplinary Essays, 1995) points out, “systematic or intellectually coherent enough” to be called political science and, like Machiavelli’s other treatise works, offers ample scope for contemplation or disagreement on the part of the reader, thereby making it a fitting precursor to an essay genre that had yet to be seriously developed.
Machiavelli’s other major essay, the much longer Discourses, has been seen by some as constituting something of a contradiction in the writer’s thought. While The Prince upholds the need for strong dictatorial rule, The Discourses openly expresses support for republican government with active participation by a wider group of citizens. The apparent contradiction may be reconcilable in terms of a chronology whereby once a strong state is established by strong personal leadership, a wider, though equally strong, form of government may usefully follow at a later date. Whatever the case, the preimperial Roman Republic clearly arises from The Discourses as Machiavelli’s favored political model.
What both works manifestly share is the appeal, whether in an absolute ruler or in republican leaders, to virtú and an insistence that human beings—selfish and prone to evil in Machiavelli’s view—must be taken and governed as they are, not as we would like them to be. While throughout his writing Machiavelli explicitly rejects the doctrines and institutions of the established Church, he is also arguing, perhaps paradoxically, for one of Catholicism’s central tenets—original sin albeit from an empirical and secular perspective.
Machiavelli’s style can be said to match the functionality of his message. It is characterized by a stark lexical economy and a conciseness of syntax in which concepts are compared and juxtaposed in formulations that can almost seem mathematical in their precision and their exclusion of embellishment. For all this the style, especially in The Prince, is not over-dry. It can even be vigorous and dramatic, eager and animated, and demonstrate the writer’s gift for the vivid focusing image—e.g. the prince as a lion and a fox combined; fortune as a great river in flood, stoppable, however, by defensive human action informed by virtú.
Neither the attempts by modern scholars to view Machiavelli as a harbinger of democratic thought nor the popular concept of the man as the incarnation of evil reflect a balanced view of his writing. While it is true that what he wrote does not lend itself to a single monolithic interpretation, at the same time its significance cannot be stretched beyond all reasonable bounds, and we must above all take careful account of the times and their social and mental limitations. To do otherwise is not to shed light on the writer’s thought but simply to misunderstand both the man and the historical context in which he operated.
Niccoló di Bernardo dei Machiavelli. Born 3 May 1469 in Florence. May have been involved in overthrowing the Savonarolist government, 1498; appointed head of the new government’s Second Chancery, 1498, and secretary of an agency concerned with warfare and diplomacy, 1498–1511, visiting Cesare Borgia, 1502, Rome, 1503 and 1506, France, 1504 and 1510, and Germany, 1507–08; helped to set up a standing army, which reconquered Pisa, 1509. Medici family returned to power, 1512, ending the Florentine Republic; Machiavelli suspected of plotting against the Medici, and jailed and exiled to Sant’Andrea in Percussina, where he spent his remaining years and produced his major writings. Partly reconciled with the Medici in 1519 and given various duties, including writing a history of Florence. Hoped for a new government post when the Medici were deposed in 1527, but distrusted by the new republican government for previous association with the Medici. Died in Florence, 21 June 1527.
Essays and Related Prose
I discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio, 1531; edited by Corrado Vivanti, 1983, and Giorgio Inglese, 1984; as The Discourses upon on the First Decade of T.Livius, translated by Edward Dacres, 1636 (translation edited by Bernard Crick, 1971), Ninian Hill Thomson, 1883, and Allan H.Gilbert, 1946; as The Discourses, translated by Leslie J.Walker, 2 vols., 1950 (translation revised by Brian Richardson, edited by Bernard Crick, 1970)
Istorie florentine, 1532; as The Florentine Historie, translated by Thomas Bedingfield, 1595, M.K., 1674, and W.K.Mariott, 1909; as The History of Florence, translated by Henry Nevile, 1675, and Ninian Hill Thomson, 2 vols., 1906; as The Florentine Histories, translated by C.Edwards Lester, 1845; as Reform in Florence, translated by Allan Gilbert, 1946; as Florentine Histories, translated by Laura F.Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., 1988
Il principe, 1532; edited by Luigi Firpo, 1961, Brian Richardson, 1979, and Piero Melograni, 1991; as The Prince, translated by Edward Dacres, 1640; many subsequent translations, including by Allan H.Gilbert, 1946, Peter Rodd, 1954, George Bull, 1961,
Daniel Donno, 1966, Robert A.Adams, 1977 (revised 1992), Harvey Claflin Mansfield, 1985, Russell Price, 1988, and David Wootton, 1995
The Historical, Political and Diplomatic Writings (includes The History of Florence; The Prince; Discourse on Livy; Thoughts of a Statesman; Missions; miscellaneous papers), translated by Christian E.Detmold, 4 vols., 1882
The Living Thoughts of Machiavelli (includes Discourses on Livy; The Prince; Private Letters), edited by Count Carlo Sforza, translated by Sforza and Arthur Livingston, 1940
The Portable Machiavelli, edited and translated by Peter E. Bondanella and Mark Musa, 1979
The Prince and Other Political Writings, edited and translated by Bruce Penman, 1981
Selected Political Writings, edited and translated by David Wootton, 1994
Other writings: the story Novella di Belfagor arcidiavolo (1545; The Marriage of Belphegor), three plays, a biography of Castruccio Castracani, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Opere, edited by Sergio Bertelli and others, 4 vols., 1968–89;
The Chief Works and Others, translated by Allan H.Gilbert, 3 vols., 1965, reprinted 1989.
Bertelli, Sergio, and Piero Innocenti, Bibliografia machiavelliana, Verona: Valdonega, 1979
Fiore, Silvia Ruffo, Niccoló Machiavelli: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism and Scholarship, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990
Anglo, Sydney, Machiavelli: A Dissection, London: Gollancz, 1969; New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1970
Borsellino, Nino, Niccoló Machiavelli, Rome: Laterza, 1973
Chabod, Federico, Machiavelli and tbe Renaissance, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958
Colish, Marcia L., “The Idea of Liberty in Machiavelli,” Journal of the History of Ideas 32 (1971):323–50
Coyle, Martin, editor, Niccoló Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: New Interdisciplinary Essays, Manchester: Manchester University Press, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995
Fleischer, Martin, Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought, New York: Atheneum, 1972; London: Croom Helm, 1973
Gilbert, Felix, “The Humanist Conception of the Prince and The Prince of Machiavelli,” Journal of Modern History 11 (1939): 449–83
Grazia, Sebastian de, Machiavelli in Hell, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989
Hale, J.R., Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy, New York: Macmillan, 1960; London: English Universities Press, 1966
Harriman, Robert, “Composing Modernity in Machiavelli’s Prince,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50 (1989):3–29
Montano, Rocco, Machiavelli: Valore e limiti, Florence: Sansoni, 1974
Parel, Anthony, editor, The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972
Pocock, J.G.A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975
Price, Russell, “The Senses of ‘Virtú’ in Machiavelli,” European Studies Review 3 (1973):315–45
Sasso, Gennaro, Niccoló Machiavelli: Storia del suo pensiero politico, Bologna: Il Mulino, 1980
Skinner, Quentin, Machiavelli, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and New York: Hill and Wang, 1981
Viroli, Maurizio, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” in Machiavelli and Republicanism, edited by Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990:143–71
Whitfield, J.H., Machiavelli, Oxford: Blackwell, 1947; New York: Russell and Russell, 1965
Wood, Neal, “Machiavelli’s Concept of ‘Virtú’ Reconsidered,” Political Studies 15 (1967):159–72
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