Machiavelli

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Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) - pronounced ma-kier-VE-li, IPA: /mak i a ˈvɛl i/ - was a government official and diplomat in the service of his native city of Florence, but he is remembered today as a political philosopher and, more particularly, as the author of Il principe (The Prince), a highly influential work in political philosophy.

The political principles Machiavelli advocated, or is thought to have advocated, have led to the use of the word Machiavelli as a noun to refer to a person who pursues his objectives with cunning and a complete disregard for moral considerations. The adjective Machiavellian - pronounced ma-kier-VE-liern, IPA: /mak i a ˈvɛl i ən/ - may be used to describe such a person and his plans. (In late 16th and early 17th century English drama, the Machiavel was a recognized character type - a schemer and manipulator, in the worst sense. Cf "Am I polliticke? am I Machiuell?" (Shakespeare, W. (1623) Merry Wives of Windsor III. i. 93, cited in OED.) The nickname 'Old Nick' for the Devil is also supposed to be a contraction of Niccolò, Machiavelli's forename, although this is disputed.

Machiavelli, the son of a lawyer, was born into a well-to-do Florentine family. When he was 25, in 1494, the Medici, the powerful and distinguished family which had ruled Florence for the last 60 years, were deposed and driven into exile, and Florence became a republic. In the same year Machiavelli obtained a post in the service of the government of Florence. He subsequently became a member of the council responsible for military affairs, and in this capacity was instrumental in creating a citizen militia so that Florence was no longer dependent for its defence on hired bands of (often unreliable) foreign mercenaries. He was also sent as a representative of the city on numerous embassies - to France and Spain, to other Italian cities and to the Pope in Rome. In 1512, however, the Florentines were defeated at the battle of Prato by an army partly financed by Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, and the Medici returned to power in Florence. Machiavelli lost his position in the civil service, was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Eventually released without charge, he retired to his estate at Sant'Andrea in Percussina near Florence, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Although Machiavelli wrote poetry, plays, and even a novel, he is remembered as a political philosopher and as the author of two works Il principe (The Prince) and Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius), which were written in his retirement at Percussina and which marked a new departure in the field of political philosophy.

Earlier political philosophy, under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, tended to focus on such issues as the nature of the ideal state and the qualities required of an ideal ruler. Machiavelli in contrast was concerned with the realities of political life: he was interested in the ways in which power can be won or lost, and in the reasons why one nation or city-state flourishes while another falls into decline. And in answering these questions he draws not only on his knowledge of Roman history but, crucially, on his own experience and observation of the political events of his day. In Il principe Machiavelli offers advice to a prince or sole ruler about ways in which he can protect his position, strengthen his authority, and ensure the stability of his realm; while in the Discorsi, drawing on the Roman historian Livy's account of the early history of the city of Rome, he discusses the kinds of institutions and structures that will make a republic strong and successful.

Machiavelli is under no illusion that effective political action sometimes comes at a cost and that a ruler may sometimes need to resort to deception and violence if he is to achieve his objectives. However, interpreters disagree about Machiavelli's view of the place of morality in public life. Some claim that he is essentially an amoralist: i.e., he believes that moral considerations must be subordinated to political aims or even that morality has no place in political life. Others claim that he is concerned, rather, to clarify the requirements of morality in the political sphere: i.e., he believes that actions such as lying and killing which would be morally wrong if done by a private individual in private life may sometimes be morally permissible, or even morally necessary, if done by those in authority for worthwhile political ends.

The Victorian novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) introduces Machiavelli as a character in her novel Romola (1862-63), which is set in Renaissance Florence and deals with the career of the charismatic priest Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498).