Niccolò Machiavelli: Fairly Misjudged

Florentine statesman and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli was born in 1469. On his 25th birthday, Charles VIII of France invaded, sending Piero de' Medici, the effective leader of Florence, fleeing into exile. Charles established a republican form of government to replace him, and four years later the young Machiavelli was appointed to the office of second chancellor—an important secretarial function.

For 14 years he traveled on several missions in Europe in this role, which practically guaranteed that he would be brought up on charges of conspiracy when the Medici family returned to power in 1512. Though he was acquitted, the court extracted from him a promise that he would permanently quit the civil service.

He devoted the rest of his life to writing poetry, short stories, historical essays, and comedies that today would probably be considered inappropriate for most audiences. One short work that survives is a lascivious description of a supposedly typical day he had spent providing custom for the local prostitutes.

Il Principe (The Prince), written about 1513, is acknowledged as his masterpiece. It is actually a long tract—a booklet—written as if for one person: the returned Medici, back in charge of Florence. Having suffered the curtailing of his civil service career because of Medici’s opposition, Machiavelli now fervently desired to gain this despot’s favor.

In Il Principe, he clearly describes what has become known in modern times as Realpolitik (a German word meaning “practical politics”)—plain facts about gaining and retaining power. Within 50 years, the word Machiavellian—“marked by cunning, duplicity or bad faith”—appeared. The term has served as a political criticism ever since and has passed into everyday usage.

Il Principe features at times stark, emotionless evaluations and prescribes actions that grant little or no feeling of a leader toward his subjects. It would appear that Machiavelli wrote Il Principe to be a sort of resume or curriculum vitae aimed at securing the favor of the Medici. What he secured for himself was a reputation that persists today for ruthlessness, spin-doctoring and callous advice on how a public-spirited person can corrupt himself.

To be fair, the gist of his treatise is not corruption or duplicity; it offers practical steps for maintaining power and respect in a world that Machiavelli saw as rife with corruption and other manifestations of an inherently evil human nature. He sought a redeemer of sorts, someone who could take matters in hand and save Italy both from foreign invaders and from what he saw as the wickedness of her own society.

Reading his work today, one is likely to find it chilling how sanguine a writer can be. 

Machiavelli was intentionally controversial in his choice of words, stating later that he might have softened his language had humankind not been so wicked. And so he consigned to the trash can any pretense to the idea that practical leadership was related in any way to gentility. Politics was a cold, hard business, and Machiavelli was happy to lay its inner workings bare. Reading his work today, one is likely to find it chilling how sanguine a writer can be. Even in Machiavelli’s own time, Il Principe garnered severe criticism in some circles; the Pope put it on the Index—a list of books specifically banned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Machiavelli died in 1527, a disappointed and embittered man. His dream of a united, republican Italy were not realized during his lifetime, yet his ideas have influenced politics ever since.

In the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck made practical use of much of Machiavelli’s advice. By innuendo, intrigue and manipulation, he provoked both wars and alliances, all with the aim of creating a strong and united German empire (of which he became the first chancellor) from the shards of Prussia and various German-speaking enclaves.

Today, too, we see examples all around us of individuals who operate on the belief that the end justifies the means—perhaps the chief principle for which Machiavelli is remembered. Il Principe was written to teach a ruler by what means he might establish, conserve and extend power, for Machiavelli considered this to be the primary measure of successful leadership. In the process he gave scant attention to the qualities of being merciful, just or compassionate. The irony is that the code attributed to Machiavelli, so repellent in theory, is very much what governments today seem willing to resort to in practice: the ruthless, amoral and unprincipled application of power.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs is likewise a treatise to instill wisdom in future leaders, but with astoundingly different advice to any potential ruler seeking to be a success. The advice to King Lemuel involved ideals far loftier than the considerations of Realpolitik: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).