Historian and statesman, b. at Florence, 3 May, 1469; d. there, 22 June, 1527. His family is said to have been descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany, and to have given Florence thirteen gonfaloniers of justice. His father, Bernardo, was a lawyer, and acted as treasurer of the Marches, but was far from wealthy. Of Nicolò's studies we only know that he was a pupil of Marcello Virgilio. In 1498 he was elected secretary of the Lower Chancery of the Signory, and in later years he held the same post under the Ten. Thus it chanced that for fourteen years he had charge of the home and foreign correspondence of the republic, the registration of trials, the keeping of the minutes of the councils, and the drafting of agreements with other states. Moreover he was sent in various capacities to one or other locality within the State of Tuscany, and on twenty-three occasions he acted as legate on important embassies to foreign princes, e.g. to Catherine Sforza (1499), to France (1500, 1510, 1511), to the emperor (1507, 1509), to Rome (1503, 1506), to Cæsar Borgia (1502), to Gian Paolo Baglione at Perugia, to the Petrucci at Siena, and to Piombino. On these embassies he gave evidence of wonderful keenness of observation and insight into the hidden thoughts of the men he was dealing with, rather than of any great diplomatic skill. After the defeat of France in Italy (1512) the Medici once more obtained control of Florence; the secretary was dismissed and exiled for one year from the city. On the discovery of the Capponi and Boscoli plot against Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, Machiavelli was accused as an accomplice, and tortured, but he was set free when the cardinal became Pope Leo X. Thereupon he retired to some property he had at Strada near San Casciano, where he gave himself up to the study of the classics, especially Livy, and to the writing of his political and literary histories. Both Leo X and Clement VII sought his advice in political matters, and he was often employed on particular missions affecting matters of state, as, for in stance, when he was sent to Francesco Guiccardini, the papal leader in the Romagna and general of the army of the League, concerning the fortification of Florence. He made vain efforts to secure a public post under the Medici, being ready even to sacrifice his political opinions for the purpose. He returned home after the sack of Rome (12 May, 1527) when the power of the Medici had been once more overthrown, but his old political party turned against him as one who fawned on tyrants. He died soon afterwards.
Machiavelli's writings consist of the following works:
Historical : "Storie Fiorentine", which goes from the fall of the Empire to 1492, dedicated to Clement VII, at whose request it had been written. "Descrizione del modo tenuto dal duca Valentino nello ammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, etc."; "Vita di Castruccio Castracane"; "Discorsi sopra laprima deca di Tito Livio"; "Descrizione della peste di Firenze dell' anno 1527"; to this group belong also his letters from his embassies as well as his minor writings concerning the affairs of Pisa, Lucca, France, Germany.
Political: "Il Principe", "Discorso sopra il Riformare lo Stato di Firenze"; "Dell'arte della guerra", and other military works.
Literary: "Dialogo sulle lingue"; fIve comedies: "Mandragola"; "Clizia"; a comedy in prose; "The Andria " of Terence, a translation; a comedy in verse; "I Decennati" (a metrical history of the years 1495-1504); "Dell' Asino d'oro", writings on moral subjects; "La serenata"; "Canti Carnas cialesehi"; a novel, "Belfagor", etc.
Machiavelli's character as a man and a writer has been widely discussed, and on both heads his merits and demerits have been exaggerated, but in such a way that his demerits have preponderated to the detriment of his memory. Machiavellism has become synonymous with treachery, intrigue, subterfuge, and tyranny. It has been even said that "Old Nick", the popular name of the Devil among Anglo-Saxon races, derives its origin from that of Nicolò Machiavelli. This dubious fame he has won by his book the "Principe", and the theories therein exploited were further elaborated in his "Discorsi sopra Livio". To understand the "Principe" right it must be borne in mind that the work is not a treatise on foreign politics. It aims solely at examining how a kingdom may be best built up and established; nor is it a mere abstract discussion, but it is carried on in the light of an ideal long held by Machiavelli, that a United Italy was possible and in the last chapter of the work he exhorts the Medici of Florence (Giuliano and Lorenzo) to its realization. His aim was to point out the best way for bringing it about; he did not deal with abstract principles and arguments, but collected examples from classical antiquity and from recent events, especially from the career of Cæsar Borgia. So that the "Principe" is a political tract with a definite aim and intended for a particular locality. To gain the end in view results are to be the only criteria of the methods employed, and even the teachings of the moral law must give way to secure the end in view. Good faith, clemency, and moderation are not cast overboard, but he teaches that the interests of the state are above all individual virtues. These virtues may be useful, and when they are a prince ought to exercise them, but more often in dealing with an opponent they are a hindrance, not in themselves, but by reason of the crookedness of others.
Whosoever would prevail against the treachery, crime, and cruelty of others, must himself be beforehand in misleading and deceiving his opponent and even in getting rid of him, as Cæsar Borgia had done. While on the other hand Gian Paolo Baglione made a mistake, by omitting to imprison or put to death Julius II, in 1506, on the occasion of his unprotected entry to Perugia (Discorsi sopra Livio, I, xxvii). Again, a prince must keep clear of crime not only when it is hurtful to his interests but when it is useless. He should try to win the love of his subjects, by simulating virtue if he does not possess it; he ought to encourage trade so that his people, busied in getting rich, may have no time for politics; he ought to show concern for religion, because it is a potent means for keeping his people submissive and obedient. Such is the general teaching of the "Principe", which has been often refuted. As a theory Machiavellism may perhaps be called an innovation; but as a practice it is as old as political society. It was a most immoral work, in that it cuts politics adrift from all morality, and it was rightly put on the Index in 1559. It is worth noting that the "Principe" with its glorification of absolutism is totally opposed to its author's ideas of democracy, which led to his ruin. To explain the difficulty it is not necessary to claim that the book is a satire, nor that it is evidence of how easily the writer could change his political views provided he could stand well with the Medici. Much as Machiavelli loved liberty and Florence he dreamed of a "larger Italy " of the Italians. As a practical man he saw that his dream could be realized only through a prince of character and energy who would walk in the steps of Cæsar Borgia, and he conceded that the individual good must give way to the general well-being.
As a historian Machiavelli is an excellent source when he deals with what happened under his eyes at the various embassies; but it should be remembered that he gives everything a more or less unconscious twist to bring it into conformity with his generalizations. This is more marked even in his accounts of what he had heard or read, and serves to explain the discrepancies in the letters he wrote during his embassies to Cæsar Borgia, the "Descrizione", etc., the ideal picture he drew of affairs in Germany, and his life of Castruccio Castracane, which is rather an historical romance modelled on the character of Agathocles in Plutarch. He knew nothing of historical criticism, yet he showed how events in history move in obedience to certain general laws ; and this is his great merit as an historian. His natural bent was politics, but in his dealings with military matters he showed such skill as would amaze us even if we did not know he had never been a soldier. He recognized that to be strong a state must have its standing army, and he upholds this not only in the "Principe" and the "Discorsi" but in his various military writings. The broad and stable laws of military tactics he lays down in masterly fashion; yet it is curious to note that he lays no great stress on firearms.
His style is always clear and crisp and his reasoning close and orderly. What poetry he has left gives no proof of poetic talent; rather, the comedies are clever and successful as compositions and only too often bear undisguised traces of the moral laxity of the author (this is shown also in his letters to his friends) and of the age in which he lived. His "Mandragola" and "Clizia" are nothing more or less than pochades and lose no opportunity of scoring against religion. Machiavelli did not disguise his dislike for Christianity which by exalting humility, meekness, and patience had, he said, weakened the social and patriotic instincts of mankind. Hence, he mocked at Savonarola though he was the saviour of democracy, and he had a special dislike for the Holy See as a temporal power, as he saw in it the greatest obstacle to Italian unity; to use his own expression, it was too weak to control the whole peninsula, but too strong to allow of any other state bringing about unity. This explains why he has no words of praise for Julius II and his Italian policy. It was merely as an opportunist that he courted the favour of Leo X and Clement VII. On the other hand, when death came his way he remembered that he was a Christian and he died a Christian death, though his life, habits, and ideals had been pagan, and himself a typical representative of the Italian Renaissance.
Immaculate Heart of Mary
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online