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The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

The first great political philosopher of the Renaissance was Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). His famous treatise, The Prince, stands apart from all other political writings of the period insofar as it focus on the practical problems a monarch faces in staying in power, rather than more speculative issues explaining the foundation of political authority. As such, it is an expression of realpolitik, that is, governmental policy based on retaining power rather than pursuing ideals.


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Life

Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy at a time when the country was in political upheaval . Italy was divided between four dominant city-states, and each of these was continually at the mercy of the stronger foreign governments of Europe. Since 1434 Florence was ruled by the wealthy Medici family. Their rule was temporarily interrupted by a reform movement, begun in 1494, in which the young Machiavelli became an important diplomat. When the Medici family regained power in 1512 with the help of Spanish troops, Machiavelli was tortured and removed from public life. For the next 10 years he devoted himself to writing history, political philosophy, and even plays. He ultimately gained favor with the Medici family and was called back to public duty for the last two years of his life. Machiavelli's greatest work is The Prince, written in 1513 and published after his death in 1532. The work immediately provoked controversy and was soon condemned by Pope Clement VIII. Its main theme is that princes should retain absolute control of their territories, and they should use any means of expediency to accomplish this end, including deceit. Scholars struggle over interpreting Machiavelli's precise point. In several section Machiavelli praises Caesar Borgia, a Spanish aristocrat who became a notorious and much despised tyrant of the Romagna region of northern Italy. During Machiavelli's early years as a diplomat, he was in contact with Borgia and witnessed Borgia's rule first hand. Does Machiavelli hold up Borgia as the model prince? Some readers initially saw The Prince as a satire on absolute rulers such as Borgia, which showed the repugnance of arbitrary power (thereby implying the importance of liberty). However, this theory fell apart when, in 1810, a letter by Machiavelli was discovered in which he reveals that he wrote The Prince to endear himself to the ruling Medici family in Florence. To liberate Italy from the influence of foreign governments, Machiavelli explains that strong indigenous governments are important, even if they are absolutist.

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The Prince

Machiavelli opens The Prince describing the two principal types of governments: monarchies and republics. His focus in The Prince is on monarchies. The most controversial aspects of Machiavelli's analysis emerge in the middle chapters of his work. In Chapter 15 he proposes to describe the truth about surviving as a monarch, rather than recommending lofty moral ideals. He describes those virtues which, on face value, we think a prince should possess. He concludes that some "virtues" will lead to a prince's destruction, whereas some "vices" allow him to survive. Indeed, the virtues which we commonly praise in people might lead to his downfall. In chapter 16 he notes that we commonly think that it is best for a prince to have a reputation of being generous. However, if his generosity is done in secret, no one will know about it and he will be thought to be greedy. If it is done openly, then he risks going broke to maintain his reputation. He will then extort more money from his subjects and thus be hated. For Machiavelli, it is best for a prince to have a reputation for being stingy. Machiavelli anticipates examples one might give of generous monarchs who have been successful. He concludes that generosity should only be shown to soldiers with goods taken from a pillaged enemy city. In Chapter 17 he argues that it is better for a prince to be severe when punishing people rather than merciful. Severity through death sentences affects only a few, but it deters crimes which affects many. Further, he argues, it is better to be feared than to be loved. However, the prince should avoid being hated, which he can easily accomplish by not confiscating the property of his subjects: "people more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance." In Chapter 18, perhaps the most controversial section of The Prince, Machiavelli argues that the prince should know how to be deceitful when it suits his purpose. When the prince needs to be deceitful, though, he must not appear that way. Indeed he must always exhibit five virtues in particular: mercy, honesty, humaneness, uprightness, and religiousness. In Chapter 19 Machiavelli argues that the prince must avoid doing things which will cause him to be hated. This is accomplished by not confiscating property, and not appearing greedy or wishy-washy. In fact, the best way to avoid being overthrown is to avoid being hated.

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IEP

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

2001


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