Niccolo Machiavelli Research Paper

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Machiavelli became a political writer because of his failure as a practical politician. For this reason his political thought does not centre on the systematic development of principles of worthy life or norms of a just society. Instead it represents an attempt to describe practical problems, with recourse to historically comparable situations as paradigmatic challenges and to develop general rules for successful political activity from these examples. In Il Principe (The Prince) Machiavelli developed these rules principally in the perspective of the political activist, while the Discorsi (Discourses on Livy) place more emphasis on the long-term development perspectives of political communities. In this respect two differing perspectives, from theories of action and from theories of structural analysis can be found side by side in Machiavelli’s political thought. When Machiavelli addresses potential political activists his considerations are developed for the most part from a perspective of action, whereas when he addresses educated political observers, the emphasis is more on structural aspects. In all his writing he emphasised that his reflections were based on two sources; his own political experiences as well as the ‘wisdom of the ancients’: the works of the classical writers and historians. The affirmative allusion to classical antiquity identifies Machiavelli as a representative of Humanism; however his judgement of classical knowledge measured against his own experiences goes beyond the conventions of Humanism and classifies Machiavelli as the first modern political thinker in early modern Europe.

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1. Biography and Work

Machiavelli was born in the Santa Trinita quarter of Florence on May 3, 1469, as son of a jurist and minor political officer. Little is known of his childhood or the early years of his professional life. The only certainty is that he received a humanist education in accordance with his father’s wishes which was to enable him a career in the Florentine administration. In 1498, after the execution of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, who had tried to reform the republic on the basis of a moralization of the city society orientated by Christian ascetic ideals, he was voted secretary of the second chancery (domestic administration) and later additionally secretary of the council of the Ten (foreign and defence matters). Both posts, which Machiavelli held until his dismissal from office in 1512, allocated him the position of a middleranking political officer. However, since the members of the council of the Ten were elected only for short periods his political influence was considerably greater than this position would suggest. He undertook a number of important missions, for example, to the French court, to the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian, to the Roman Curia, and to Cesare Borgia, who had conquered a new duchy in Romagna shortly before. His task on these missions was to explain Florentine politics and also to make enquiries to assess the aims and intentions of the people he visited. Through this role a particularly trusting relationship developed between Machiavelli and Piero Soderini, voted gonfaloniere a ita (chief magistrate for life), in 1502, who entrusted Machiavelli repeatedly with the most difficult and confidential tasks.

The most important of these was the project to recapture Pisa, which Florence had lost in 1494. After all attempts to retake the port with the help of mercenary soldiers had failed, Machiavelli was commissioned to establish a Florentine militia, which forced Pisa into a capitulation within 3 years. The ensuing victory celebrations in Florence appeared to represent the climax of Machiavelli’s political career. His exceptional position within the political administration of Florence was also expressed in the fact that he tried to develop a more long-term strategy in a series of political memoranda. This strategy was based on a lasting stabilization of the republican system on the inner front, and aimed for the preservation of Florence’s political sovereignty on the outer front. Through his notorious emphasis on the exemplary nature of Rome he sought to develop an alternative conception of the republic to Savonarola’s Christian moralization program. Here he was not concerned with a political program of action, but with a political ideology from which Florence could gain confidence and courage in difficult and threatening situations.

Due to the energy and decisiveness Machiavelli showed in the tasks allotted to him he advanced rapidly to the spiritus rector of the Florentine republic and stood out especially in contrast to the hesitations and procrastinations of other Florentine politicians. He always held a strong aversion to all forms of waiting and delaying, which made him a sharp critic of every policy of neutrality. His singular importance in Florentine politics was also recognized by his contemporaries, seen in the fact that he was the only politician to be removed from office when the Medici returned to Florence with the support of Spanish troops in November 1512, apart from the chief magistrate Soderini. Shortly afterwards Machiavelli was suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the Medici. He was thrown into prison and questioned under torture, but there was no proof against him. He was freed in the course of a general amnesty on the occasion of Giovanni de’ Medici’s election to Pope, on condition that he no longer entered the City of Florence and did not hold any political office.

Machiavelli then began composing political writing on his estate in San Andrea in Percussina. At first this was more as a compensation for his forced political inactivity, but it soon aimed to bring his name into conversation among the then ruling groupings in Florence. He gained the reputation of an experienced and well-versed politician that could be entrusted with practical political tasks once again. The Medici appear to have mistrusted him to the end, however, and he received only a few unimportant missions along with permission to enter Florence again. In the meantime Machiavelli had made himself a name as a writer, with the comedy Mandragola (1517) among other writing, and was commissioned to write a history of Florence in 1519, which summarized all the existing annals and chronicles. He completed his Istorie Fiorentine in 1525, and it was a masterpiece of political history, scanning from the time of the migration of peoples to the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492. Machiavelli had previously written Il Principe and the Discorsi, which both remained unpublished until after his death, but which circulated as copies among the political intellectual circles of Florence during his lifetime. In 1520 Machiavelli also wrote the Dialogo dell’ arte della guerra, a dialogue modeled on a humanistic form on the reform of Italian warfare, as well as the historical novel Vita di Castruccio Castracani, in which he describes the conditions of political success using the example of a political adventurer from Lucca. Machiavelli’s life took a paradoxical turn; it was only his failure as a political actor that forced him into his existence as a political writer, through which he won success and recognition in his lifetime, and fame and infamy after his death.

Machiavelli himself, however, valued practical politics more highly than political writing, which is the reason why he immediately ran for political office after the Medici were successfully ousted in 1527. For many he appeared by now, however, to be one of the Medici’s faithful and he lost the vote for the post he had held until 1512. Machiavelli did not survive this disappointment; he fell ill with acute peritonitis and died a few days later on the June 21, 1527 in Florence. Shortly before his death he is reported to have told friends of a dream he had, in which he saw a crowd of miserable and ragged-looking men, who explained that they were on their way to paradise. Then he saw a group of noble and serious-looking men, among them the great classical philosophers and historians Plato, Plutarch, and Tacitus, who were damned and on their way to hell. Machiavelli is reported to have said to his friends that he would rather discuss politics in hell with the great men of antiquity than die of boredom with the blessed and holy in paradise. ‘Machiavelli’s dream’ is not substantiated and most likely expresses the impression which some of his contemporaries and many of his successors had of him. Yet it does illustrate certain characteristics of Machiavelli’s life and thinking—his enjoyment of discussing political problems, his veneration of classical philosophy and historiography, and his contempt for lives given over to Christian contemplation; in fact so well that it has been used and abused in research literature on Machiavelli throughout the years.

2. Machiavelli as Political Scientist

What allows us to characterize Machiavelli’s political writing and his suggestions for successful politics as scientific, and to understand Machiavelli as the founder of a form of political science not derived from philosophical-theological norms, but based on an independent rationality of political action? Neither the sympathy he held all his life with the republic nor the dry irony of his descriptions, neither the cynicism of some of his advices nor the strict internal worldliness of his ideas are sufficient, but only the specific method with which Machiavelli ordered his material and developed his ideas. It is a process of contrasting two terms or options that are so arranged as to include and sort antithetically all possibilities on one theoretical level. States are drawn up either as republics or autocracies, begins the argumentation of Il Principe and the Discorsi, and everything that falls between these two variants can be ignored. Among the autocracies, according to the further specification in Il Principe, there are hereditary and newly acquired forms. Among the newly acquired forms there are in turn those that have come to their conqueror as a result of his virtue ( irtu), whilst in the other cases fortunate circumstances ( fortuna) were of the most importance. And the latter is the very subject of Il Principe: the government of newly acquired autocracies gained through fortunate circumstances. The claim to validity of Chaps. 15–19 of Il Principe, in which Machiavelli advises the use of pretence and lies, deceit and cruelty, relates to this specific situation, and is in no way to be understood as a general rule of political success, a fact which is often overlooked in the literature on Machiavelli.

The process of antithetical contrast not only represents the material ordering principle in Machiavelli’s political thought, but also decides the characteristic style of his thinking and arguments: one must decide on one option or the other, and every attempt to avoid this decision or to leave it open is the beginning of political failure. Thus, Machiavelli turns away from the characteristic thinking and pattern of argument of Humanism of both–and (et–et) and replaces it with an either–or (vel–vel), which determines a decision. Although Machiavelli takes at the decision its own value as a decision at various points, Il Principe and the Discorsi can be read over long stretches as giving advice on making the right decision. To this end he adds comparative methods to the process of antithetical contrast, with which he examines the results and prerequisites of examples from his own time and from classical history. One can therefore describe Machiavelli as the founder of comparative political science. Others before him had argued comparatively, yet always within a given normative frame, whereby the comparison had merely the function of testing out political options as to the realisation of the normative given. Machiavelli on the other hand seeks to work without such moral-philosophical or theologicalbased guidelines and develops his suggestions for action only out of the comparison, whereby the success of the action or the project provides the scale. What success is, is determined for Machiavelli in view of the prevailing conditions of political action, which are a given factor for the political activists and not optional. He compares, for example, Rome and Sparta, which he recognizes as extremely successful political projects, and which can therefore serve as political models. The more exact comparison shows, however, that Sparta existed longer than Rome, but that the latter had a greater capacity for expansion in the confrontation with outer enemies. Since the Italian states were confronted with massive French and Spanish efforts towards expansion during the early sixteenth century, which they had to tackle on the military front in order to retain their political sovereignty, it was in Machiavelli’s view imperative that they take Rome as a model. The recent defeats of Venice, in its fight for the Terraferma were his proof that an oligarchic republic was not a successful model for solving Italy’s political problems under the conditions of the time.

The comparison process developed by Machiavelli represents an early variant of the fourfold-point scheme used in modern sociology. Here, Machiavelli uses two contemporary cases, and two from classical antiquity, each chosen according to the model of antithetical contrast and in an attempt to find as paradigmatic a description of the case as possible. Thus, Sparta and Venice are examples of oligarchic republics, Rome and Florence on the other hand represent republics in which the citizens are allowed a broader participation (go erno stretto vs. go erno largo). The contrast of the two contemporary and historical examples serves, among other things, to analyze contemporary situations, in which the political process is not complete, against the background of the historical cases which are completed and whose effects and side effects, intended or unintentional, can be fully overviewed. Should the historical cases only differ from the contemporary in the fact of complete and incomplete information, classical antiquity would not be a real comparison, but merely an addition to the present. For Machiavelli, however, classical republics differ from contemporary republics universally through their specific civil-religious foundation. He warned repeatedly of the politically negative effects of a Christianity strongly influenced by contemplation, and saw Christianity as responsible for the fact that there were fewer republics in his time than there were in classical antiquity. Since Christianity, or its prevailing interpretation, extolled the virtues of humble citizens sunk in contemplation rather than those of men of action, it had ‘rendered the world weak and a prey to wicked men, who can manage it securely, seeing that the great body of men, in order to go to Paradise, think more of enduring their beatings than in avenging them.’ In contrast, he praised the religion of the ancient Romans, which had played an important part in ‘commanding the armies, in reuniting the plebs, both in keeping men good, and in making the wicked ashamed.’ Machiavelli saw religion as an unavoidable element of people’s belief systems, and attempted to explain the differences between classical and renaissance republics in view of this political-cultural dimension. With respect to his own time Machiavelli made several references to the example of Savonarola, who carried out his project of moralizing Florence with the help of sermons and prophecies, with a complementary program of widening political participation to the petty bourgeoisie. Machiavelli seems to have developed certain sympathies with this project in hindsight, mentioning Savonarola several times in positive comments. His only criticism is that he was an ‘unarmed prophet’ who did not have the means to constrain those who did not believe in his sermons and prophecies into obedience at the decisive moment, using armed force. He would have had great sympathy for the appearance of an ‘armed prophet’ as a political reformer or as a founder of a state, as which he saw Moses for example. Machiavelli blamed in the main the pope and the Roman Curia for the fact that Italy had become a plaything for foreign powers, in the first place through the degeneration of morals spread from papal Rome throughout Italy, and secondly through the Curia’s vested interest in a political fragmentation of Italy. Both these ideas were taken up in the Italian Risorgimento and made fertile for lay anticlerical politics.

3. Machiavelli’s Republicanism

However, since Machiavelli rather doubted the possibilities of fundamental political renewal through religious reforms, he placed his hopes in political regeneration of Florence and Italy through the reform of the military, which explains why the subject of war and military organization is present throughout the whole of his writing. At first he was naturally concerned with the reform of Italian military organization itself, in the course of which he was in favour of replacing the mercenaries with a militia recruited within the area of rule. He also intended to use the increasing importance of drawn-up infantry on the European battle fields to refer back to the Roman model, in as far as the Romans also owed their military successes more to the infantry than to the cavalry. Aside from this he was interested in the political effect of military reform within the state; the duty of citizens to defend their city and their willingness to involve themselves existentially in political projects. He reserved his harshest criticism for mercenary troops, whom he described as cowards and traitors. Machiavelli’s ideas on military reforms played a particular role in Europe after the French Revolution and in postcolonial Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.

Machiavelli’s preference for Rome over Sparta, which was based on Rome’s greater capacity for military expansion, also meant his taking sides in Florence’s inner conflict around its type of constitution and the level of political participation. In principal there were two opposing parties, one of which was in favor of limiting access to political power to the rich and noble families, in other words the town patricians, while the other favored a stronger involvement of the middle classes, or the urban petty bourgeoisie. Since the uprising of the Florentine wool cloth workers in the late fourteenth century the conflicts in Florence revolved increasingly around this problem, which overshadowed the previous political lines of conflict between single families and their clientele groups. As sharply as Machiavelli rejected the power struggle of the clientele groups and factions, he defended the struggles between the social levels and classes for power and influence as a fountain of youth, which represented an irreplaceable form of revitalization of republican energies. He wrote that those who condemned the conflicts between nobility and the common people and attempted to prevent them through legislation not only limited the capacity for expansion of the republic, but robbed it of its most important source of life. We can see in this an early form of party theory, or rather a theory of the integration of political communities through conflict. Machiavelli saw, however, less value in the possibility of defending certain particular interests than in blocking degeneration and corruption by institutionalizing the inner conflict. Thus, he admits to the middleclasses that they have a greater interest in retaining liberty than the town patricians. However, the liberty to which he refers at this point is not the (liberal) freedom to go about their own interests undisturbed, providing these interests are not in conflict with those of the republic, but the (republican) freedom of political participation and civic engagement. With Polybios and Cicero as his starting point, Machiavelli developed a conception of a hybrid constitution, which was not (as in Montesquieu) oriented at a varying control of power to ensure individual freedom, but at the institutionalization of political conflicts to prevent moral degeneration and party spirit. Machiavelli forms the beginning of the constitutional and party theory of modern republicanism. This aspect of his work, to which Spinoza and Rousseaualready referred, has only been rediscovered and examined in the most recent Machiavelli research, particularly through the work of Gilbert (1965) and Pocock (1975).

4. Reception

For a long time the Machiavelli reception was dominated by a concentration on Chaps. 15–19 of Il Principe, in which Machiavelli discussed breaking one’s word and lying, pretence and treason, violence and cruelty as means of ensuring political rule as to their efficiency, and recommended their purposeful use in rejection of the theological moral-philosophical political theory of the Scholastics and of Humanism. The Machiavelli critique of the Antireformation (Cardinal Pole), the Monarchomachs (Gentillet), and in particular of the Enlightenment (Friedrich II of Prussia) concentrated above all on these passages and thereby brought about the dominant perception of Machiavelli, which is of a theorist of political scrupulousness. The popular image of Machiavelli as ‘teacher of evil’ and ‘spoiler of politics’ has been decidedly influenced by this. Aside from this, Machiavelli’s writing was received in Italy and Germany, where the nation–states were formed at a later date than in other western countries, as a theory of state-building; Fichte’s and Hegel’s image of Machiavelli in particular show clear signs of this. Under the influence of Fascism and National Socialism there was further intensive debate on Machiavelli in these countries. He was exemplified and celebrated as a forerunner of fascist politics by several writers while others, for example, Konig (1941) criticized him as a utopian and romantic, who understood little of real politics and, therefore, chased illusions and so represented the prototype of a fascist intellectual. Thus, the discussion of Machiavelli has always served to survey the various contemporary political problems. Like no other theorist in the history of political thought, he provokes his interpreters to deal with the questions of the present in the light of his own ideas, and to project his ideas onto those of the present. This has often led to a careless handling of the material with regard to its interpretation and analysis, but is on the other hand a precondition that a work should provoke such lively and extreme controversies in research literature as that of Machiavelli.


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