Accepted and vilified, celebrated and rebuked by all, as François Villon would have had it, Machiavelli became a litmus test case for nearly every epoch in European history. Much remains to be done to reject numerous clichés and senseless accusations to fully understand and appreciate his legacy as a humanist, historian, political thinker, and a prophet of modern politics.
We have a good reason to do this, as 2013 marks 500 years since Machiavelli wrote his controversial and grossly misinterpreted essay Il principe (The Prince, 1513). This work offers a full assortment of how to exercise power: how to seize and consolidate it, how to get rid of one's rivals, how to strike first and pre-empt high treason and conspiracy, and so on. Machiavelli never claimed to have invented these stratagems, preferring to assume the role of a humble historian and refer to his predecessors, such as Cicero and Livy, while also describing the cruel and inhuman practices initiated by Philip II of Macedon or other Greek and Spartan rulers. But this did not sway history from associating him with the schemes illustrated in his book.
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Since Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and William Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Othello, where Machiavelli is depicted as an incarnation of the Devil (the Devil called Machiavel in Marlowe, or sinister individuals Iago and Richard III in Shakespeare), Machiavelli becomes just another name for evil. Sir Francis Bacon admired him for showing us politics the way it is, instead if the way it ought to be. Voltaire had mixed feelings for Machiavelli, almost a love-hate attitude, admiring his anticlerical tirades yet scorning him for his overt cynicism and instrumentalism. His disciple in philosophy, Emperor Frederic II of Prussia, went as far as to write the philosophical treatise Anti-Machiavelli.
German philosophy gave Machiavelli his second life, rehabilitating him as a modern patriot and perceptive historian and writer: Herder and Hegel liked him, Marx thought of him as the father of modern politics. Count Vittorio Alfieri proclaimed “Divino Machiavelli” as a reference point to a confessed republican and freedom-loving Italian humanist. Every epoch and school of thought was tempted to identity its own political and moral sensibilities through praise or devastating criticism of Machiavelli.
In fact, Machiavelli seems to have been one of the most frequently misunderstood thinkers. He was a republican. He detested monarchies. He admired the Roman Republic and firmly believed that Caesar dug its grave. A passionate opponent to ecclesiastical intrigues in politics, he was a uniquely incisive analyst of his time comparing the power structure and authority in centralized and strong monarchies, such as France and Spain, and the fragmented and weak Italy, an easy prey to the French and Spanish domination.
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The Prince was a maneuver. Having served to Piero Soderini, il gonfaloniere of Florence, who was a rival and a foe to the almighty Medici family, Machiavelli became liable and suspect of high treason after the Medicis recaptured the power and made a victorious comeback to Florence. He was tried and tortured but he escaped execution. Having witnessed the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria, he knew quite well the options at hand.
It was only after his torture that Machiavelli extended a letter to the young ruler of Florence, Lorenzo Medici. It was not meant to be public, but was published in 1534, after Machiavelli’s death. We know this letter as The Prince. Trying to show his competence and powers of counsel to the ruler, as if to say that it is always worth giving a chance to a historian who knows the best how power works and what we can expect from the human race, he departs from that kind of impartial historian that we see in Discourses on Livy or Florentine Stories or The Art of War.
Here comes Machiavelli as a prototype of an intellectual in politics. He knows that the city he loves will only have a chance if the ruler applies civilized politics. However, the question arises as to how to remain faithful to republican values and humanism if one is in a slaughterhouse where the only thing that matters is how to stay alive and not end up butchered. The duality of the human situation becomes the thread of the story that permeates Machiavelli’s political existentialism: out of vulnerability, one must rely solely on the beast who has a vision, a dream, a project, and who can defeat other beasts of prey that do not have anything save a hunger for power and cruelty.
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When asked about the emergence of a character we would describe now as intellectual, we would be tempted to refer to the French Enlightenment, hardly a misleading move. Yet the birth of the intellectual in politics, an individual able to bridge the world of ideas and the world of public affairs, by no means points the finger to the genesis of liberalism. For our modern sensibilities, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas More, and Machiavelli would be anything but liberals. They were humanists, men of letters, devout readers of classics and of Fathers of the Church. Machiavelli was less so, as his was a strikingly pagan perspective on public morality and politics.
The Prince comes as a piece of passionate patriotism and a neglected, if not forgotten, ability to explain the present by evoking the past. Machiavelli appears as an early conservative intellectual with much disdain for the present with its corruption, greed, cynicism, and power games.