Happy Birthday Niccolo Machiavelli



“I have long been a doctor of the art. For some time now I have never said what I believe or never believed what I said. If sometimes I have told the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find.”


Happy 544th Birthday, Niccolo Machiavelli!


Born on May 3, 1469 into an ancient family, the Florentine diplomat, dramatist, poet, historian, and military theorist would play an outsized role in the development of the shape and character of political modernity. As Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence he visited the courts of Western Europe on diplomatic assignments, flourishing under the patronage of Piero Soderini. The 1512 return of the Medici’s, supported by Spanish troops, would result in the fall of the Florentine republic, and Machiavelli’s imprisonment and strappado—torture "on the rope." Freed from captivity in 1513, Machiavelli was exiled to his farm outside Florence, where, shunned from the corridors of power, he began writing, maintaining a nightly ritual in which he would shed his work clothes, muddy from the daily chores demanded on a working farm, “and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There I am warmly welcomed…” Shortly after his release from prison, in 1513, he penned The Prince, dedicated to Giuliano di Lorenzo de’Medici, the man responsible for his professional ruin, his imprisonment, and his torture. Later he would write The Art of War, The Discourses on Livy, and for Pope Clement VII, The History of Florence.


While it is for his political treatises that we remember Machiavelli today, he was famous in his time for his popular and widely performed theatrical works. The image of a Machiavelli that wrote comedies beloved by the people is somewhat at odds with the accepted image of a manipulative Machiavelli, whispering in the Prince’s ear that the end justifies the means. Yet this is the image Machiavelli cultivated. The most popular of his dramatic works, Mandragola, portrays the machinations of wealthy Sixteenth-century Florentines as they scheme to subvert fortune, demonstrating many of the political lessons Machiavelli first articulated in The Prince. And as in The Prince, the characters in Mandragola deploy deception and guile to gain an advantage over circumstance, rather than let mere circumstance determine the character of their life.


At first blush, Mandragola and The Prince seem to be two-of-a-kind, each representative of Machiavelli and, moreover, machiavellianism. These works appear at odds, however, with much his later output. Whereas The Prince is advice to the ruler on how best to subvert his enemies, command the population, and direct the current of fortuna, Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy is a strong defense of republican ideals, and a clear vision of the well-ordered state. Commentators have long had difficulty determining how these works complement each other; most have come to the conclusion that The Prince was penned as a political expediency, i.e. as an attempt to curry the favor of the once-again rulers of Florence, the Medici, so that Machiavelli may be rehabilitated. This interpretation leads us to the conclusion, however, that Machiavelli, renouncing the strong republicanism of his youth, and immediately following his imprisonment and torture, sought only to regain the political influence stripped from him when Florence fell in 1512. We may well wonder why “a man who has seen his country enslaved, his life’s work wrecked and his own career with it, and has, for good measure, been tortured within an inch of his life, should thereupon go home and write a book intended to teach his enemies the proper way to maintain themselves” (Mattingly, 1958). Indeed, such a comportment—giving oneself over to circumstance rather than working to actively shape the political landscape—though perhaps cunning, does not, given what we know, seem very Machiavellian.

The difficulty of reconciling the author of The Prince with the author of the Discourses, one an advisor to tyrants, the other a classical republican, heavily influences the popular image of a duplicitous Machiavelli. What we forget when we focus too much on Machiavelli the exiled political theorist, but which becomes evident when the whole if his life’s work is considered, is that even more than a intellectual Machiavelli was a decisive political actor. Should The Prince, then, be read as a political act in itself? If so, in what sense? The important question of Machiavelli's committment to republicanism is resolved when we realize The Prince is not only a treatise on the political art of deception, but is itself an act of political deception. The idea that Machiavelli imagined The Prince not as an attempted rapprochement, but as a cunning attempt at political sabotage, is supported by his otherwise strange refusal is disavow the work after penning the Discourses. The works are not at odds, but are united by an explicit and implicit republican principle. This conclusion, that Machiavelli intended for a “gullible and vainglorious prince to heed the duplicitous advice of The Prince, and thereby take actions that will jeopardize his power and bring about his demise,” (Deitz 1985) restores Machiavelli to the position of a strong defender of republicanism, and introduces a unity to his work that is lost in superficial readings. Moreover, it sheds light on the sense in which Leo Strauss called Machiavelli the first modern—not simply that he established the form of political modernity by turning to the "real stuff" of politics, but that Machiavelli himself was thoroughly modern. But in what sense?


Charles Baudelaire first defined modernity when he called it “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.” The transient, the fleeting, and the contingent: these clearly characterize the Machiavelli we think we know through The Prince. But what of the other half—the eternal and immovable? If Machiavelli was truly modern, then these too must be present in equal parts. Undoubtedly, the full sense of Machiavelli’s modernism is only revealed if we restore to The Prince the same strong republicanism that characterized Machiavelli throughout his life. This was his "eternal and immovable." On this reading the full brilliance of Machiavelli and The Prince shines forth. The work was never meant as anything but a stratagem to undermine the rule of the Medici. The 'machivellian' man that Strauss somewhat confusedly characterized as a deeply honorable "teacher of evil," this writer of comedies and carnival songs, became a master of the political masquerade of Renaissance Italy because he remained deeply committed to the restoration of the Florentine republic. It was only on the basis of this unwavering commitment that he could deceive so much; only dedication to a principle could make him a doctor of the art. Despite the masks he wore, Machiavelli remained singular. In the end he wasn't very machiavellian at all.


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Deception, Machiavelli, Modernity, Philosophy, Republicanism