A Defence of Machiavelli
I would like to bring a political thinker into an article. This political thinker is probably more known to you than what you might think. It is because of him that we have the word Machiavellian. A word that means cunning, immoral, unethical, and unscrupulous. But his ideas have been misinterpreted for centuries, granting him an undeserved infamy. The man in question is Niccolò Machiavelli, and I would like to show that he is not that cunning.
Before the actual article I would like to justify myself. There are two reasons why I want to write this article. The first is the importance of clearing Machiavelli’s name of the tropes associated with it. Machiavelli is known amongst academics as more than just an unethical figure or proponent of unethical ideas. I would even argue that Machiavelli is known in academia for the title he has inside academia “The father of modern political science”. This title was granted because Machiavelli was not a philosopher, and also rejected being labelled as a philosopher. He was a pragmatic political thinker, and separated morals from politics. And this marks an era in which Politics would be a different area and would behave as one from the ethics. Compare it with the writings of the father of politics and you will notice that politics was an area strictly associated with ethics. And for the title of father of politics we have no one other than Aristotle.
The Second reason is because I think with a sharper turn to the right we might hear the name of Machiavelli being thrown out more, and even though one might use Machiavelli’s writings for far right politics, I do not think people will fully understand who they are mentioning and the mistake right wingers might do if they think of Machiavelli as the person they think he was.
With this taken care of, let us introduce the man.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born on the 3rd of May 1469 in Florence. He became a pupil of a Latin teacher, Paolo da Ronciglione. This is important, since it was due to his education in Latin that he would eventually have a strong knowledge of Rome, its History and Institutions. His public work was what first granted him notoriety. He was a diplomat for Florence during its Republic era. But once Florence was taken over by the Medici, once more, Machiavelli had to go into exile and later found and tortured by the Medici’s. Machiavelli was forced to retire from public life and, in a farmhouse outside of Florence he turned to literary pursuit. The first of his writings is the one that made him the character that we know think of today. This work was The Prince. Other literary works were written and most notable The Art of War, and Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy, commonly known as The Discourses on Livy.
Near the end of his life, he returned to the Medici family writing a History of Florence, a work that was completed. But Machiavelli’s life ended shortly having never published his political works.
Both The Prince and the Discourses on Livy were published posthumously. The Prince was technically addressed to the Medici family as a manual of Princedom and how to gain control and power. The book was supposed to go to newly prince Lorenzo Medici, after the death of his father, who was the supposed recipient of the book. Some people argue that this was a mere job application and the contents of The Prince do not represent Machiavelli’s opinion. But I beg to differ.
The Discourses on Livy was a book concerning the republican institutions and probably the richest work of political thought by Niccolò Machiavelli, drawing on the work of the roman historian Titus Livy, Machiavelli wrote on republican institutions, the forms of government, the advantages of each form, and contrasted multiple times examples from Roman history and his contemporary History. Machiavelli reveals himself more of a politician analysing history than an historian commenting on the work of Livy, and this is the important part.
While The Prince detailed the concept of an all power prince that had authoritarian power over his kingdom stopping pretenders and maintaining stability, the Discourses on Livy went over maintaining stability in a republican government and how to achieve lasting political stability in a nation. The interesting point here is that one would believe that the two works are in opposition, but if we look for the things that these two works have in common, we realize that Machiavelli believed that they were complementary.
On chapter 9 of the Discourses, Machiavelli argues that the creation of a Republic needs to be done by a single person, pointing out examples such as Rome and excusing Romulus from the murder of his brother. This single chapter binds the two works. If we jump to the last Chapters of The Prince we will read a detailed account of the political and military troubles of Italy during Machiavelli’s time. Add this to the critic that Machiavelli writes to the Papal States in the Discourses and one starts to see that Machiavelli was not content with the constant foreign invasions and disunity of Italy. His exhortation to Lorenzo Medici in the last chapter of The Prince is a plea for a prince, with the virtues that Machiavelli enumerated along his book, to unify Italy under one banner. This one prince could, after his unification, be the creator of the republic or would have created conditions for someone to create such republic.
Machiavelli’s work on the Discourses is one of preservation of a non-expanding Republic. He constantly sides with the examples that yielded the most long-lasting effects. And for him, this could be the future of Italy, but first Italy needed to be unified, and such unification during the 16th century would be a Herculean feat, which would most likely need all the help possible. But for Machiavelli, there was a way of carrying out that task both politically and militarily, and that was the way of a prince. But he did not necessarily believe that such Prince would be able to constantly maintain such a kingdom, and when the matter is preservation and long-lasting politics, Machiavelli looks to the Republic.
We should not fall for the arguments that Machiavelli defended a Republic because he was either born in one or because he thought it was more just. Machiavelli travelled throughout Italy during his diplomatic years being introduced to many ways of doing politics. And for him there was no just or unjust ways of governing, there were only practical or impractical ways of governing. Or in his words, good and bad ways. This thought can be seen throughout his works, but more precisely on the second chapter of the Discourses.
In conclusion, Machiavelli was a man of his time and geography. Did he at times devalue human life through sacrifices in the name of pursuing political goals? Yes, and so did most of the men of power in his time. But was he the unethical, unscrupulous thinker that we think of when we hear his name? No. Machiavelli was a pragmatic political writer that believed that The Prince, if embodied by Lorenzo di Medici, would be a state to a unified Italy and even probably an Italian Republic.
The fact that The Prince was his first published work after his death, doomed him to be the character that Italian society made him after being misinterpreted in his writings without the proper context. After this, his works were placed in the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. But Machiavellian characters appeared all throughout literature and plays like The Jew of Malta (1590) by Christopher Marlowe, and Othello(1603) by Shakespeare