If you have ever studied Shakespeare, you might have heard your teacher use the word “Machiavellian” to describe amoral characters such as Iago from Othello or Edmund from King Lear. “Machiavellian” denotes a person or action that disregards morality and is wholly self-serving. The origin of the word derives from the famous Florentine politician and writer Niccoló Machiavelli.
Who Was Machiavelli?
Niccoló Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469 to a middle-class family, thought to have had ancestors who filled many prominent posts in the city during the 13th century. This had changed drastically by Machiavelli’s lifetime. Bernardo, Machiavelli’s father, was prohibited from holding any official office as he was an insolvent debtor.
Ostracized from political life, Machiavelli devoted himself to studying and writing.
Machiavelli entered Florentine politics at the age of twenty-five as a new contender. Surprisingly, he quickly began to climb through the ranks. During the course of his career, he was in charge of writing official government documents, acted as a diplomat abroad, and was responsible for the organization and maintenance of the Florentine militia.
Machiavelli’s political career sadly met an abrupt end when the powerful Medici family defeated and dissolved the Florentine Republic in 1512. During the Medici reign, Machiavelli was accused of conspiring against the powerful family and was subjected to agonizing torture. He denied involvement with any conspiracy and, after three weeks of torment, was released from his imprisonment. He was then forcibly retired to his father’s estate at Sant'Andrea, never to return to politics.
Ostracized from political life, Machiavelli devoted himself to studying and writing. Throughout his life, he had been obsessed with the writers of the classical world. In a letter to his correspondent Francesco Vettori, he writes that when he reads the works of antiquity, he refuses to wear his street clothes, instead paying respect to the ancients by wearing his finest robes. He displayed a monumental amount of admiration for the ancient authors of Rome and Greece, who heavily influenced his work.
His Most Famous Work, The Prince
Machiavelli is most famous for his profound yet short book entitled The Prince which he dedicated to Lorenzo De Medici, the new ruler of Florence. The Prince is mainly concerned with the means by which ambitious princes can most effectively maintain and expand their territory. The Prince is marked by an attitude of pessimism towards human nature. Machiavelli states that “of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”
Following this depressing premise, Machiavelli forcefully argues that it is better to be feared than loved by those you rule, writing,
“It is much safer to be feared than loved because ... love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
Love is fickle and changeable, while fear is ever-present and consistent.
Continuing this pessimistic train of thought, he argues that the head of a state ought to do good when possible, but they must not be afraid of committing acts of evil to stay in power. Other men are willing to dirty their hands in order to overturn your rule, and because of this fatal tendency, leaders must also get their hands dirty from time to time. Machiavelli writes that “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” His political pragmatism was insightful but deeply disturbing to readers.
Published posthumously, The Prince left Machiavelli with an infamous reputation as an amoral, atheistic, and cynical writer. In 1559, the Catholic Church put Machiavelli’s works on the Index of Prohibited Books. In the play The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, written in 1589, Machiavelli appears in the prologue, boldly exclaiming, “I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance.”
How could a man so devious and pragmatic be called a lover of liberty?
Machiavelli came to be associated with an Elizabethan term, “Old Nick,” used to denote the devil. There is a subject of modern psychology, known as the “dark triad,” which focuses on three malevolent personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
However, this deeply negative image of Machiavelli did not always exist. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a more positive view of Machiavelli emerged, with authors such as the Republican James Harrington referring to Machiavelli as “the prince of politicians.” During the Italian Renaissance, humanist Giovanni Battista Busini fondly described Machiavelli as “a most extraordinary lover of liberty.”
This praise might seem confusing; after all, the word “Machiavellian” denotes someone who is cunning and unscrupulous. How could a man so devious and pragmatic be called a lover of liberty? The answer lies with Machiavelli’s other book, known as Discourses on Livy, which presents a very different image of his political beliefs.
The Common People as Protectors of Freedom
During Machiavelli’s life, traditional political philosophy generally dictated that the masses were not to be trusted. The Roman historian Livy, who was a huge influence on Renaissance humanists, exclaimed that “the mob is either a humble slave or a cruel master.” Machiavelli staunchly disagreed with this assessment of the average person, instead claiming, “That defect for which writers blame the crowd can be attributed to all men individually and most of all to princes.” In his opinion, humanity’s fallen nature is universal and can only be overcome through compromises that secure liberty.
Within Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli forcefully promotes the idea that regular people are the best protectors of liberty and that government by their consent is the best way to ensure a free and prosperous society. Princes and nobles have a tendency to confuse liberty with the ability to dominate others, whereas the masses “have only a desire not to be dominated, and as a consequence, a stronger will to live in liberty.”
Thus, Machiavelli concludes that the common people are the best guardians of liberty rather than the princes and nobles of society. He argues that the Roman Republic and Athenian democracy were made great because they were governed by the people, not by one-man rule. As Machiavelli argues, “This can arise from nothing other than the fact that governments by the peoples are better than governments by princes.”
Machiavelli and Free Speech
Like other humanists of the Renaissance, Machiavelli greatly admired the ancient traditions of rhetoric transmitted through the works of Aristotle and Cicero. Throughout his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli promotes debate and deliberation as the best methods for choosing both the optimal course of action and the most capable leaders.
He even has a chapter entitled “The Multitude is Wiser and More Constant Than a Prince” in which he argues that no one person’s judgment is more refined and clear than the collective deliberation of people through free and unhindered debate. The limitations on public discourse within monarchies put them at a distinct disadvantage when compared to republics as—unlike republics—they can only remedy issues by force, not through discussion.
Machiavelli does not worry that the average person could be led astray by snake oil salesmen or wishful thinking; on the contrary, he had faith in the competency of the masses to decide what was best for the common good of society. He proposes that,
“public opinion is remarkably accurate in its prognostications … With regard to its judgment, when two speakers of equal skill are heard advocating different alternatives, very rarely does one find the people failing to adopt the better view or incapable of appreciating the truth of what it hears.”
In sum, Machiavelli believes in the efficacy of public discussion and deliberation which give rise to the best decisions for the common good.
Good Laws as a Result of Conflict
Machiavelli opposed the consensus among historians of his day who argued that the fall of the Roman Republic was due to factional strife between the nobility and the commoners. His contemporaries believed that disunity was something to be avoided in a republic.
Machiavelli disagreed with the value placed upon unity. Instead, he argued that this disunity gave Rome her greatest laws: “Had Rome wished to eliminate the causes of her disturbances, she would also have eliminated the causes for her expansion.” He believed that a conflict of interests was a positive thing as it forced both groups to lay out the best arguments they could, compromise, and make laws that were best for the common good of society.
To this day, there still remains a huge debate over the intricacies and contradictions that characterize Machiavelli’s writings.
The stark differences between Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy and The Prince come from the nature of the aims of each book. The Prince aims to refine the conduct of a single prince, while Discourses on Livy offers guidance for the entire citizen body. The Prince was written to address a unique political opportunity that quickly evaporated, whereas Discourses on Livy was written to articulate the principles required by republics that sought longevity, liberty, and prosperity.
To this day, there still remains a huge debate over the intricacies and contradictions that characterize Machiavelli’s writings. Machiavelli was an extremely nuanced and original thinker whose reputation should not exclusively be that of an evil schemer. He argued for a republic whose liberty is safeguarded by the common person, in which free, unhindered debate provides the best course of action, and where compromises between opposing groups create harmony. Discourses on Livy reveals another side of Machiavelli, a man committed to the ideals of freedom through the means of representative government.