Machiavelli served his native Florence as a diplomat and ambassador. Florence was eventually beaten and absorbed by other nations, and Machiavelli was briefly tortured, and then sent to live on his ancestral farm.
Having nothing to do, he wrote a political manifesto in the form of a rulebook for government, The Prince. His contribution to philosophy is mainly that he was the first political thinker and writer to abandon the ideas of morality and ideology and emphasize power for its own sake. The two important things a ruler can have, says Machiavelli, are "Virtu" and "Fortuna"... but it is important to note that by "virtue," he didn't mean it the way the Bible does.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born May 3, 1469 in Florence, north central Italy. He was a statesman, writer, and political theorist. He travelled on several missions in Europe for the Republic of Florence between 1498 and 1512. On the restoration of Medici, he was arrested on a charge of conspiracy in 1513 and, though pardoned, was obliged to withdraw from public life. He devoted himself to literature, writing historical treatises, poetry, short stories, and comedies. His masterpiece is Il Principe (The Prince), written in 1532, the main theme of which is that all means may be used in order to maintain authority. It was condemned by the pope, and its viewpoint gave rise to the adjective "machiavellian." His writings were not published until 1782. Machievelli died June 21, 1527.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence. He was a great writer, diplomat, historian and playwright of the renaissance period who is most famous today for his views on politics, human nature, morality, fortune and religion. During his time, he was regarded as immoral and deceitful. In fact, his nickname in the 16th century was "Old Nick" — a popular nickname for Satan. The term "Murderous Machiavel" also became a favorite reference in Elizabethan plays.

Today, Machiavelli still has a bad reputation. In many dictionaries, the term "Machiavellian" means to be politically cunning, power-seeking and unscrupulous. This reputation is mostly the result of The Prince which has been described as "a handbook for dictators," advocating the cynical philosophy of "the end justifies the means." Many people misinterpret Machiavelli's views on politics because they base them entirely from this short book. However, his full political philosophy can be found in his Discourses on Livy which reveals that he was actually a strong republican who believed that the purpose of politics was to promote the "common good" but since very few people had or have read his other works, Machiavelli's bad reputation continues unabated.

To get a better understanding of his works, one must understand the period in which he lived. The Prince was written during a period in history when Italy was in danger of being destroyed by foreign enemies and Machiavelli felt that Italy could only be saved by a strong leader.

Born the son of a lawyer, Machiavelli attended the University of Florence and studied logic, mathematics, music, astronomy and philosophy. He was highly influenced by private readings and practical experiences with people. By far his greatest influence is the period in which he lived.

Renaissance Italy was the scene of intense political chaos. It was divided into several city states and threats were developing from nearby nation states such as France and Spain. Florence, unlike most of the Italian states was still independent and ruled by a republican government. As a strong republican, Machiavelli was intent on protecting and strengthening the independence of the city.

Machiavelli's political career began in 1498, when he became Chief Secretary and then second Chancellor to the Florentine Republic. His diplomatic responsibilities included investigation of the conditions of foreign states and of the political orientation of princes. In his diplomatic missions abroad between 1499 and 1508, he met many of the most powerful political figures of the age including Césare Borgia, King Louis XII of France, Pope Julius II, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II and the Medici family.

Césare Borgia was a cunning and cruel man, much like the one portrayed in The Prince. Although Machiavelli did not truly agree with Borgia's policies, he found him to be a very effective ruler, admiring him for his boldness, clever ways and expert use of cruelty.

The Medici were one of the richest and most powerful families in Italy. They came to power in 1434. In the year Machiavelli was born (1469), Lorenzo de Medici came to power leading Florence in a stable and prosperous period. Lorenzo's death in 1492 lead to a new republic. He was succeded by his son Piero II. However, the French invaded Florence in 1494 and Piero was banished in disgrace by angry citizens who immediately established a republic governed by a Council. This republic lasted from 1494-1512. The first four years of the new republic were heavily influenced by the charismatic Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola who held no formal political position. He issued prophecies of worldly corruption in both society and church. The preacher managed to exploit the discontent of the city's masses and their fears about the future. In 1497, he urged people to burn worldly attachments in an "bonfire of the vanities". Ironically, a year later, Savonarola himself was burned at the stake after being charged with heresy by the Pope. Machiavelli's first political experience as a youth was watching Savonarola from afar.

These events and rulers are clearly reflected in Machiavell's preoccupation with military matters. Machiavelli was especially critical of the employment of mercenaries and advocated the formation of a citizen army. After the republic was overthrown in 1512, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly conspiring against the Medici. On his release in 1513, he retired to his family estate and began work on his major writings. However, he never gave up hope of returning to politics. He tried to regain the favor of the Medici by dedicating a few of his works to them. In 1525, the Medici recalled him to service for a short time but he never did fully regain their trust.

Machiavelli died on June 22, 1527.


  • Ann Arbor at
  • M, for taking me to Florence. This is to prove i was paying attention :)

As K9 says, Machiavelli has an unjustly bad reputation, which is due to a misunderstanding of his work.

On the one hand, The Prince could be considered a handbook for dictators. On the other, Machiavelli strongly argued that the prince should not be hated by the people (as this is likely to lead to his downfall). While this does not change how the dictator got power, it does mean that said prince is not going entirely against the will of the people. Machiavelli did not advocate autocracy, particularly autocracy over a resentful and hostile people. Machiavelli did not actually advocate the idea that the end justifies the means; rather, he considered that the end, if good (i.e. a stable, free republic) excused the means. There is a difference.

It should also be considered that Machiavelli was, above all, a pragmatist. Like many socialists (Lenin, for example), he believed in the necessity of strong leadership (some would say tyranny) to create a republic in which people worked for the common good. The Prince is simply advice on how to keep the position of the strong leader; Machiavelli believed in doing what was necessary, rather than what was considered virtuous in Christian terms. His idea of doing what was necessary did not include gratuitous cruelty.

Focus has always been on The Prince, rather than Machiavelli's Discourses, which does lead to a skewed impression of his ideas. Machiavelli was committed to the idea of a republic. His vision of a united, stable, republican state, where people work for the common good rather than individual advancement, can be seen as near-communist. It seems utopian, a far cry from Machiavelli's traditional image of 'how to get the top job and influence people'.

Another problem with the traditional view was that Machiavelli was deeply suspicious of those who worked for personal glory. His ideal world would include bonuses for those who worked for the public good and penalties for those who worked for personal ambition. Again, this is in contrast to the view that Machiavelli wrote a handbook for people who wanted total power at the expense of the rest of the population.

In 1513 Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his most widely known work, The Prince. Intended to be read by Lorenzo Di Medici as a manual on the current political situation and means to deal with it, The Prince is a book which outlines the simple mechanics of taking and ruling states, of ruthlessly being the most effective and widespread ruler possible. The means outlined in this book have little regard to morality, only regard to the effective achievement of ends. Fear, Love, Respect are all used by Machiavelli's hypothetical Prince for the singular purpose of rule rather than out of any sort of innate morality. In short, The Prince is a manual of how to win, no more, no less.

To this day, Mr. Machiavelli is associated with amoral cutthroat ethics. In the time shortly after he wrote he was reviled for his writings in this book. He was and is reviled SO MUCH that the phrase Old Nick, a term to this day synonymous with Satan, The Devil, and Lucifer, came into existence because our friend Machiavelli was equated with this personification of evil.

Machiavelli wasn't doing anything but trying to play the game. After all, there can be only one at the top. And he wasn't gay, he was and is reviled purely on the basis of this writing.

It is often supposed that there were two sides to Machiavelli, as a superficial reading of his two most famous works (The Prince and the Discourses on Livy) seems to show a dichotomy between the two. Really, no such split exists, as I shall show in this brief summary of his ideas.

First, The Prince. Being much shorter and less enigmatic than his other work, it is often the one on which an understanding of him is based. Yet Machiavelli tells us right at the start that in this work he is concerned only with the government of principalities. "I shall not discuss republics, because I have previously treated them at length." Furthermore, he won't be talking about just your average principality either -

I say at once there are fewer difficulties in holding hereditary states, and those long accustomed to the family of their prince, than new ones; for it is sufficient only not to transgress the customs of his ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise, for a prince of average powers to maintain himself in his state, unless he be deprived of it by some extraordinary and excessive force; and if he should be so deprived of it, whenever anything sinister happens to the usurper, he will regain it.

It is "in new principalities that there are real difficulties". So The Prince is only about one sort of government (a principality, ruled by one man) and only about new principalities - ones newly acquired by their ruler, probably through conquest. Such a situation had just occured in his native Florence, where the Medici family had newly returned to power on the back of Spanish arms. Hence The Prince cannot be taken as a complete rendering of Machiavelli's political theory, as it deals with only a certain type of state. It is a handbook for princes, and the subject is how to stay in control of new conquests.

What was particularly shocking to contemporaries about Machiavelli's book were the measures he advised for the new prince to maintain himself in power. We're used to viewing politicians and states cynically, and so were most people in Europe at the time Machiavelli was writing. However, what didn't exist in Europe at the time was a genre of political literature advising that princes act in cynical and violent ways to manipulate the populace. They did it anyway, but political discourse wouldn't admit it. The fact we have such a surplus of literature condemning such things today owes to the reaction against Machiavelli, who for the first time suggested princes should break faith, be violent, and bamboozle their subjects so as to maintain power.

Machiavelli's prince was a strong man (vir), a man of virtu (efficiency, will, courage) who had overcome his enemies and conquered a new principality. But he would not long remain in power if he let the initiative pass to his enemies inside or outside the city, and he had to continue acting boldly to overcome nature. Machiavelli was the first author who saw citizens as passive objects to be manipulated, and the state as an actor doing the manipulating. For the prince to remain in power, he had to do everything necessary (but no more) to stage a political theatre that would please his subjects and make him feared by other princes. What was necessary was necessary, whether it contravened Christian or classical moral precepts.

Machiavelli had created a new moral universe which ran parallel to the individual one, a morality for states. This would later be called "the reason of states", or raison d'etat. If this were Machiavelli's only legacy, his negative reputation might be more justified - after all, he essentially encouraged princes to look after no other interest but their own, and to do anything towards that end. The only parameter he set for this was that anyone who committed more violent and unholy deeds than was strictly necessary was to be considered lacking in fame and glory, and a beast in the negative sense.

It is in The Discourses that Machiavelli transcends this plane and establishes himself as not only a great practical political thinker, but also a defender of liberty. The remit of the The Discourses is larger, as within it Machiavelli sets about to discuss what it is that leads cities to greatness; specifically, the city of Rome. His concern is much broader than with a newly-acquired principality, and hence is answers are more complex and proved more amenable to the critical eye of his contemporaries and posterity.

Machiavelli was an avowed republican, by which I mean he loved the state-form we call "a republic", not that he would have voted for George W. Bush.1 He believed that a republic was much more capable of achieving greatness than a principality, because it was capable of harnessing the entire energy of its population against nature and the enemies of the state. This meant it was more able to suceed in war because its citizens would be fighting for their liberty.

Furthermore, republics would be better able to adapt to the times and hence overcome challenges that principalities could not. When situations changed and nature threw new challenges at the state, it could call forth different men from within it to face the new challenges. A principality was necessarily limited by the character of its prince, as individual men found it hard to be many different things - they might be bold when danger abounded, but would they be cautious when the opposite conditions prevailed? A republic would have more chance to adapt, and in Machiavelli's dog-eat-dog world to adapt meant to survive.

Machiavelli then, was no fan of narrow and tyrannical regimes. He tells us several times that the most edifying thing a prince can do is to set up a long-lasting republic, and he sings the praises of Romulus (founder of Rome), Lycurgus (founder of Sparta) and Moses (founder of the Hebrew theocracy). It takes the will of such demi-gods to shape nature and men into the right form for a state to have longevity, and to carry out this task is the true meaning of glory. So although Machiavelli's conceptual split between the state and its citizens allowed for abuses, it also allowed for future-oriented development on rational lines.

1. Whether he would or not would be a fascinating question. A connection is sometimes made by the left - Leo Strauss wrote a book on Machiavelli (Thoughts on Machiavelli), and Leo Strauss influenced neoconservatism. This sounds sinister until it is realized that Strauss' book on Machiavelli is a hatchet-job of arguments against the Florentine.

See also raison d'etat and The transformation of European political theory: the legacy of Machiavelli on the impact of Machiavelli's thought.

Machiavelli's "The Prince" in Relation to Political Realism and American Policy Since 2001

In the year 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli finished work on what would become one of the most widely read and discussed political treatises in history, The Prince. The work came into being in Florence after Machiavelli was removed from the political scene in 1512, when Florence was brought under Spanish rule. In 1513, he was captured and imprisoned due to suspicions of his involvement in a conspiracy against the local powers. He was later released that year due in part to the great celebration of the fact that Florence had produced its first pope, the former Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici. Seeking to impress the Medician rulers who were then in power, Machiavelli retreated to a small rural residence where he wrote On Principalities, which would later become his most famous work, known as The Prince. With this work he attempted to convince the current regime that he would be an invaluable resource, and regain a political position, as well as their favor.1

The Prince has had far reaching implications throughout history. It has been argued that Machiavelli formed the foundation of political realism in The Prince,2 and that this discourse has become one of the world's most widely read and discussed political writings.3 Certainly in regard to American history and leadership, Machiavellian influences can be seen in many American leaders of note, including Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt.4 Undoubtedly, Machiavelli's far reaching influence over thought in the present can also be seen by the widespread use of the eponym containing his name, Machiavellian, which means clever and willing to sacrifice moral concerns in exchange for achievement.5 Indeed, according to some scholars, we are all by definition Machiavellian in nature, due to necessity within a society so motivated by capitalism.6 One of the most interesting parallels to be drawn from The Prince can be seen in American foreign policy during the last six years, which will be the focus of this analysis.

As a reference point, American foreign policy experienced a dramatic shift during the Cold War. This change in paradigm can best be attributed to a shift toward political realism within foreign policy. This era marked very recognizable foreign policy changes as evidenced by a focus on topics such as national security instead of the more humanitarian-oriented policies seen in the previous decade.7 This realism, characterized by national self-interest, was one inspired by a sense of vulnerability within a world consumed by conflict barely restrained under the guises of civility. After the terrorist attack on the United States that occurred on September 11th, 2001, a similar strengthening on the realist paradigm could be seen, for much the same reason, a sense of vulnerability in a troubled world.

Political realism in the broadest sense can be viewed as evaluating foreign policy in terms of its effects rather than the intentions of the policy.8 A very clear Machiavellian demarcation can be drawn in this premise. As Machiavelli writes in The Prince,

The desire to acquire is truly a very natural and normal thing; and when men who are able do so, they will always be praised and not condemned; but when they cannot and wish to do so at any cost, herein lies the error and the blame.9

As evidenced by the above excerpt, as well as more widely known statements by Machiavelli, 'the ends justify the means', which is a cornerstone of political realism, as well as American foreign policy, especially since 9/11. In the above text, it can be seen that Machiavelli did not care for the interests of the leader as much as he placed emphasis on the leader's ability to carry out his interests. To contrast this with American foreign policy, present day procedure pits America's interest in national security against a dangerous world. Policies highlighting goals, such as winning 'The War on Terror' have become analogous to the very means that the nation is using to accomplish them. Few times in history has American seen such vehement cooperation between the executive branch and the legislature in such a costly and ponderous endeavor.

American foreign policy over the past six years can also be generally characterized by another excerpt from The Prince:

And men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion in which their own interests are concerned; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you.10

It can be seen then, if  'one' in the above passage is taken to refer to an international state, that in recent years, the United States policy toward the Middle East has taken on a good deal of Machiavellian traits. In the above passage a parallel can be seen between the United States' treatment of various nations in the Middle East. Nations such as Saudi Arabia are dealt with in a 'generous manner' to resort to Machiavellian terms, but surely would be treated more like Iran or Iraq before the final U.S. invasion, if it were any less cooperative. 11

For the purposes of comparison, homeland security measures within the United States will be examined, inasmuch that a nation's ability to protect itself determines a great deal of its foreign policy.12 Recent years have seen a great reduction in civil liberties within the realms of citizen's privacy in the name of homeland security. It can easily be seen that such policies relate immediately to the United States' foreign policy due to the security concerns present within both facets of American Policy. On such subjects Machiavelli writes, "Therefore, a prince must not worry about the reproach of cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal...."13  It seems then, that recent policies of warrantless eavesdropping, and the ability to hold 'enemy combatants' indefinitely falls right in line with Machiavellian principles of the sort. In this case the executive branch of America is clearly focused on maintaining the highest possible security for the nation, possibly at the expense of public opinion.

In The Prince, Machiavelli also mentions concerns present in the security status of armed principalities which become occupied by force. One of the biggest examples of such an instance in regard to American foreign policy is the United States occupation of Iraq. Machiavelli speaks of the necessity to disarm such a state to insure loyalty, allowing only those who were loyal from the beginning of the occupation to posses arms.14 In the current occupation of Iraq, the United States has attempted to control the armament of the state, allowing only Iraqi police and security forces sanctioned by the U.S. to acquire and retain weapons. Again, such policies speak heavily of Machiavellian influence, whether intentional, or simply by convention.

It can be seen in the aforementioned examples that Machiavelli's influence extends far past his lifetime and geographical domain. Even today, we can see that our executive branch, especially in times of national duress becomes quite influenced by the ideals espoused by Machiavelli in The Prince.15 This is strongly evidenced by American foreign policy over the past 6 years in regard to heavy reliance on political realism in the realm of international relations post September 11th, 2001. Indeed, the work of Machiavelli has become such an intrinsic part of human relations both in the individual realm as well as the international paradigm that it is likely that our leaders emulate Machiavellian tendencies without even being cognizant of such behavior. Whether this is a byproduct of capitalism or human nature in general remains to be seen, however, all considerations indicate that Machiavelli's most famous work, The Prince, holds huge influence throughout modern society. In regard to American foreign policy through the last 6 years, we can see a pronounced shift toward political realism of which a cornerstone is one of Machiavelli's key premises, 'the ends justify the means'. This political realism, as evidenced by purveyors since past such as Bismarck and his dedication to 'realpolitik' often accompanies foreign policy in times of world turmoil or distress, and the events of the last 6 years in American History have proved no different.16 As evidenced by the actions of American executive leaders Machiavelli continues to be a strong influence not only in the current policy paradigm in which America is operating,17 but with regard to action specific behaviors on behalf of America's leaders, as evidenced by the continued shift in emphasis from civil liberty to national security.

1 Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 22, a=o&d=22093842.

2 Diana Schaub, "Machiavelli's Realism," The National Interest, Fall 1998,

3 De Lamar Jensen, ed., Machiavelli: Cynic, Patriot, or Political Scientist? Boston: D. C. Heath, 1960, vii,

4 Brian F. Danoff, "Lincoln, Machiavelli and American Political Thought," Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, no. 2 2000: 290,

5 David A. Crockett, "The President as Opposition Leader," Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, no. 2 2000: 245,

6 Skinner, 1.

7 Schaub, 1.

8 Ronald J. Stupak, and Peter M. Leitner, "Realism Revisited: Philosophical Assumptions, Power Patterns, and American Foreign Policy," Journal of Power and Ethics 2, no. 1 2001: 86,

9 Ibid., 1

10 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince ed. Bondanella, Peter, trans. Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, Oxford: Oxford University, 1998, 14,

11 Ibid., 56.

12 Alan P. Dobson, and Steve Marsh, US Foreign Policy Since 1945 / London: Routledge, 2001, 115, a=o&d=102241818.

13 Ibid., 36.

14 Machiavelli, 55.

15 Ibid., 70.

16 Danoff, 1.

17 Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 9,

Many thanks to shaogo for his editing prowess.

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