Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli rarely rendered Nicholas Machiavel was an Italian diplomat, author, philosopher, and historian who lived during the Renaissance. He is best known for his political treatise The Prince, written about 1513. He has often been called the father of modern political philosophy and political science.

Niccolo Machiavelli

By the end of the fifteenth century, the democratic tendencies of the conciliar period had disappeared in both church and state. The pope, no longer able to claim supremacy in secular affairs, had regained his position in the ecclesiastical organization; and church councils, seldom assembled, were brought under his control.

In the political world, the tendencies toward nationality and monarchy were finally successful. The former idea of a united Europe under an imperial ruler had lost all significance, National distinctions were clearly marked, and separate states, secular in nature, stood forth under strong monarchs, who reduced the feudal assemblies to positions of unimportance.

The tendency toward consolidation made least progress in Italy. By the close of the Middle Ages the numerous feudal principalities and free cities had been combined into five larger units, the republics of Venice and Florence, the kingdom of Naples, the duchy of Milan, and the territory of the Roman church.

Further unification was prevented by jealousies among these states, by the absence of any single state or ruler able to control the others, by the policy of the pope, who opposed unification in order to retain control over the papal states, and by the interference of outside powers. Who played one Italian state against another in their ambitions to gain power in the peninsula.

In the later Middle Ages the Italian cities lost much of their political independence and communal institutions. Factional strife within the cities and wars among them led to the rise of despots who deprived the citizens of the freedom they had abused, to the aggrandizement of a few cities at the expense of others, and to the employment of mercenary troops and leaders moved by self-interest rather than by patriotism. Political morality and public spirit reached a low ebb.

The rulers of the Italian cities, although sometimes cruel and violent, were usually able and resourceful men. They encouraged the Renaissance and often improved the condition of the people as a whole. They were compelled, however, to be constantly on the alert against ambitious rivals and against the influential noble families. Conspiracies flourished, and assassinations, imprisonments, and banishments were common. Cold-blooded personal and political considerations were necessarily dominant factors in retaining power.

In the conditions existing in Italy, and in the rivalries of France, Spain, and Germany that turned Italy into the battleground of the stronger monarchies, the little Italian states, unable to maintain themselves by force, became skilled in the use of craft and diplomacy.

Niccolo Machisvelli (1469-1527)  took an active part in the complex life of Italian politics, and his acute observations of the actual workings of government in Italy, and in other parts of Europe to which his missions took him, are reflected in the nature and method of his political philosophy.

He was primarily concerned with the maintenance of Italian independence and the restoration of prosperity in the Italian cities. He was also thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the classical Renaissance, with its emphasis on intellectual freedom, its attack on the methods and dogmas of scholasticism, and its pagan attitude toward morals and religion.

Machiavelli paid no attention to the issues of church versus state or of pope versus council, nor to the teachings of the Scriptures, nor to the opinions of Church Fathers, nor to the principles of natural law. He believed that the historical method, by which present and future problems might find solution in the light of the past, was the only true approach to politics. In practice, he was chiefly interested in the questions of his own time.

He observed them closely, analyzed them carefully, drew his deductions, and then called upon history to support the conclusions that he had reached. His concern was with practical policies, rather than with political philosophy, with the machinery of government and the forces that work it, rather than with the fundamental nature of the state itself.

He was the first modern realist; he believed that the state should exist for its own sake, should aim at its own preservation and advantage, and should not be bound by the obligations that determine the actions of private individuals.

The chief difference between Machiavelli and the writers who preceded him was in his attitude toward religion and morality. He separated politics and ethics, even to the point of paradox and scandal, For centuries political thought had been a by-product of theology, and political issues had been confused with issues primarily religious in nature.

Machiavelli frankly subordinated moral principles to the necessities of political existence and welfare. He viewed the state as a distinctly human institution, and the church as one of the factors which a statesman must take into consideration in shaping his policy. The safety and success of the state were made paramount; all other considerations were subordinate.

In his desire to get at the actual facts of political existence, Machiavelli found that the precepts of Christianity played little part in the practical politics of the Italian cities. In his desire to unify Italy, he naturally opposed the papacy, which was one of the chief obstacles to union. In his zeal to deliver Italy from the invaders who despoiled it, he felt that any political means was justified. His doctrine was a theory of the preservation of the state, rather than a theory of the state itself.

Savonarola had tried to govern Florence by moral influence, but his experiment had proved a failure. Machiavelli saw in Savonarola’s attempt nothing but an abstract idealism inapplicable to the real world, and drew from it the conclusion that the essence of successful government is force and craft.

He believed that the art of politics depended on motives of human self-interest, as taught by history and by experience. Having a pessimistic and cynical view of human nature, he explained the love of independence and self-government by a materialistic individualism, and made material prosperity the chief motive of political action.

He did not approve of fraud and treachery, but he pointed out that power obtained in certain ways must be maintained by similar means. Machiavelli admired the strong and efficient ruler and despised a vacillating or scrupulous policy that endangered the independence of the state or the position of its governing head.

Machiavelli clearly realized the close connection between the distribution of wealth within a state and the location of actual governing authority. Accordingly, he recognized that different conditions require different forms of political organization. For men among whom economic equality prevails, he held that a democratic government is advisable, and he had a high appreciation of the value of popular government under proper conditions.

A republic of the type exemplified in Sparta, Rome, and Venice, he admired; but it presupposed an intelligent and public spirited citizen body. An aristocracy, especially if based on landholding, he disliked, believing it to be conducive to factional contests. He believed that a mixed form of government is best, and was inclined to favor an elective monarchy as best suited to the conditions of his age.

Machiavelli’s interest in the unification of Italy led him to place great emphasis on the value of extending the dominion of the state. In the Prince he considered the theory and practice of extending monarchic dominion, in the Discourses, the theme was the expansion of republics.

Machiavelli believed that a state must expand or perish, and he held up the Roman policy as one worthy of imitation. In his discussion of the methods by which authority may be extended and maintained over large areas, he exhibited both his acute observation of actual political conditions and his indifference to moral principles. Physical force and craft, especially the latter, were the essential bases for political greatness.

Two of Machiavelli’s suggestions will illustrate this approach to politics. In the Prince he discusses whether it is better for a ruler to be loved or feared.

A prince, he says,

Must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and faithful; for… he will be more merciful than those who, from excess of tenderness, allow disorders to arise, from whence spring bloodshed and rapine; for these as a rule injure the whole community, while executions carried out by the prince injure only individuals.

It is also, he concludes, better to be feared than loved, because men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the prince, and …a wise prince must rely on what is in his power and not on what is in the power of others.

The second illustration is to be found in the Discourses. Here he advises prudent men to ostensibly do out of generosity what they are forced to do out of necessity.

While the ideas of Machiavelli were bitterly criticized, and a distorted understanding of his doctrines brought his name into reproach, lasting to the present day, the importance of his contribution to political thought can scarcely be overemphasized. He brought political theory again in touch with practice.

The medieval method of building up a system of speculative philosophy, entirely dissociated from actual conditions, was gradually destroyed by the appeal to observation and experience which was the foundation of Machiavelli’s method.

He abandoned the generally accepted idea of natural law, and conceived of law as a positive rule, created by the sovereign in the state and maintained by physical force. He made the distinction between public and private morality an issue which survives to this day in practical politics and in international relations.

His argument in favor of conquest and expansion had far-reaching results in the international contests and colonial ambitions of the European states; and his maxims of practical politics were exemplified in the policies of the European monarchs and in the practices of diplomacy.

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