Niccolo Machiavelli's Legacy

Arguably one of the greatest political thinkers in history, Niccolo Machiavelli likely had no idea that he would gain such a sinister reputation after his death.   If anything, much of his political writings were meant to warn about the dangers of what we call Machiavellianism today.   And he certainly gained his insight into politics the hard way.

Born in 1469 in the city of Florence,  Machiavelli lived during one of the most politically active periods in Italy’s history.   Not only was the Italian Renaissance getting underway with a powerful intellectual and artistic awakening that would transform the world, but the entire Italian peninsula had become a battleground with the Papacy and various European kingdoms fighting for political control over the various Italian city-states.   220px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_Tito[1]

            A brilliant thinker and writer, Machiavelli earned numerous political posts in the independent Florentine republic which also allowed him to go on numerous diplomatic missions for his government.   His main task at these conferences was to help Florence remain free from outside control even though, ironically enough, he was never a citizen of Florence (due to the bizarre citizenship laws of that time).  Machiavelli’s first-hand experience dealing with international politics helped give him a cynical outlook on how various governments were run and his own encounters with the changing political landscape in Italy would expand his political education.

            The Florentine republic, along with Machiavelli’s career as a diplomat, came to a disastrous end in 1512.  The Medici family, which had previously ruled Florence before being driven from power, managed to retake the city with the help of the Papacy and Spanish troops.  After being removed from office, Machiavelli was quickly arrested by the Medicis and subjected to weeks of torture, including being hanged by the wrists from the back ( a practice charmingly known as “strappado”) before finally being released. 

            His health being largely broken by his experiences in prison, Niccolo Machiavelli retired to his estate and dedicated the rest of his life to writing about politics.  He also maintained an active Machiavelli_Principe_Cover_Page[1]correspondence with many of his politically connected friends.   Within a year of his forced retirement, he would write the book for which he is best known, Il Principio (“The Prince”) which was based on the life of Cesare Borgia, his one-time pupil.   Though he made copies of the book quietly available to many of his friends and colleagues soon after it was written, the ideas in this little book were so shocking that Machiavelli didn’t dare to have it officially published it during his lifetime.   It was only five years after his death in 1527 that The Prince became an international best-seller.

            And what were these radical ideas that Machiavelli laid out in The Prince and his other great political work, Discourses (which was also published after his death)?  Some of the most famous examples were:

  1. There is a sharp distinction between public and private morality. A state cannot be run by the ethics that individuals take for granted.    For that reason, any method that is successful in promoting the welfare of the state and its citizens is justified, including the use of deception.   Though most world leaders (including the reigning Pope of the time) essentially ran their governments this way, Machiavelli’s assertion that this was a perfectly reasonable way to operate seemed like dark heresy to many of his critics.
  2. Anything that works well is acceptable, even if it runs counter to the ethical principles that we live by as individuals. Also known today as “realpolitik”, this is a pragmatic approach to politics and diplomacy which stresses the importance of actual power in shaping how nations behave (again though, he stressed that what was acceptable for nations was not acceptable for individuals).    Again, the notion that governments could be exempt from the moral teachings that were considered universal at the time must have been especially galling considering the political power of the Catholic Church.
  3. Machiavelli’s third and most controversial point was this: Selfishness and prosperity are what really motivates human behaviour, whether for a nation or for individuals.   This doctrine of selfishness would be extremely influential, especially in shaping economic theories, not to mention the very basis of capitalism itself.  Later writers such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo would extend these ideas further but it all began with Niccolo Machiavelli.

Not surprisingly, Machiavelli’s political theories shocked much of Europe and he was widely condemned.   The Catholic Church banned The Prince and placed it on their Index of forbidden books. Other political thinkers either praised or condemned the book depending on their own philosophy.  The term “Machiavellian” would become a byword for ruthless scheming and deceit in just about every European language and his political philosophy had a powerful influence on the course of European history.  Machiavelli’s ideas help guide the formation of the modern nation state and he became become widely recognized as one of the founders of modern political science long after his death.

            But was Niccolo Machiavelli really as Machiavellian as all that?   While he may have recommended the kind of scheming behaviour for which he became famous, he at least tried to distinguish between public and private morality, something modern politicians and business leaders who claim to follow his philosophy often overlook.   He also supported republican ideals and spoke against hereditary monarchy and Papal rule, which likely didn’t sit too well with many of the royal houses that ruled most European states those days (it certainly offended the Papacy).   While later writers such as Ayn Rand claim to draw on Machiavelli’s ideas in promoting their own view of the world (including Rand’s concept of the “Virtue of Selfishness,”  none of them would ever be as influential as Machiavelli himself.  

            Still, nothing that Machiavelli wrote about was particularly original or new.  The kind of political scheming he described has been around since the dawn of human history (and possibly even earlier).  In a real sense, all he did was to give it the name by which it is known today.  That Machiavellianism is still alive and well, both as a political philosophy and as a personality trait studied by psychologists says a lot about the appeal of Niccolo Machiavelli's writing.   Achievement, indeed.


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