This text was typed up from a Universal Classics Library edition,
published in 1901 by W. Walter Dunne, New York and London. The
translator was not named. The book contains a “photogravure” of
Niccolo Machiavelli from an engraving.
Niccolo Machiavelli, the first great Italian historian, and one of themost eminent political writers of any age or country, was born atFlorence, May 3, 1469. He was of an old though not wealthy Tuscan family,his father, who was a jurist, dying when Niccolo was sixteen years old. Weknow nothing of Machiavelli’s youth and little about his studies. He doesnot seem to have received the usual humanistic education of his time, ashe knew no Greek. The first notice of Machiavelli is in 1498 when wefind him holding the office of Secretary in the second Chancery of theSignoria, which office he retained till the downfall of the FlorentineRepublic in 1512. His unusual ability was soon recognized, and in 1500 hewas sent on a mission to Louis XII. of France, and afterward on an embassyto Cæsar Borgia, the lord of Romagna, at Urbino. Machiavelli’s report anddescription of this and subsequent embassies to this prince, shows hisundisguised admiration for the courage and cunning of Cæsar, who was amaster in the application of the principles afterwards exposed in such askillful and uncompromising manner by Machiavelli in his Prince.
The limits of this introduction will not permit us to follow with anydetail the many important duties with which he was charged by his nativestate, all of which he fulfilled with the utmost fidelity and withconsummate skill. When, after the battle of Ravenna in 1512 the holyleague determined upon the downfall of Pier Soderini, Gonfaloniere of theFlorentine Republic, and the restoration of the Medici, the efforts ofMachiavelli, who was an ardent republican, were in vain; the troops he hadhelped to organize fled before the Spaniards and the Medici were returnedto power. Machiavelli attempted to conciliate his new masters, but he wasdeprived of his office, and being accused in the following year ofparticipation in the conspiracy of Boccoli and Capponi, he was imprisonedand tortured, though afterward set at liberty by Pope Leo X. He nowretired to a small estate near San Casciano, seven miles from Florence.Here he devoted himself to political and historical studies, and thoughapparently retired from public life, his letters show the deep andpassionate interest he took in the political vicissitudes through whichItaly was then passing, and in all of which the singleness of purpose withwhich he continued to advance his native Florence, is clearly manifested.It was during his retirement upon his little estate at San Casciano thatMachiavelli wrote The Prince, the most famous of all his writings,and here also he had begun a much more extensive work, his Discourseson the Decades of Livy, which continued to occupy him for severalyears. These Discourses, which do not form a continuous commentaryon Livy, give Machiavelli an opportunity to express his own views on thegovernment of the state, a task for which his long and varied politicalexperience, and an assiduous study of the ancients rendered him eminentlyqualified. The Discourses and The Prince, written at thesame time, supplement each other and are really one work. Indeed, thetreatise, The Art of War, though not written till 1520 should bementioned here because of its intimate connection with these twotreatises, it being, in fact, a further development of some of thethoughts expressed in the Discorsi. The Prince, a shortwork, divided into twenty-six books, is the best known of allMachiavelli’s writings. Herein he expresses in his own masterly way hisviews on the founding of a new state, taking for his type and model CæsarBorgia, although the latter had failed in his schemes for theconsolidation of his power in the Romagna. The principles here laid downwere the natural outgrowth of the confused political conditions of histime. And as in the Principe, as its name indicates, Machiavelli isconcerned chiefly with the government of a Prince, so the Discorsitreat principally of the Republic, and here Machiavelli’s model republicwas the Roman commonwealth, the most successful and most enduring exampleof popular government. Free Rome is the embodiment of his political ideaof the state. Much that Machiavelli says in this treatise is as trueto-day and holds as good as the day it was written. And to us there ismuch that is of especial importance. To select a chapter almost at random,let us take Book I., Chap. XV.: “Public affairs are easily managed in acity where the body of the people is not corrupt; and where equalityexists, there no principality can be established; nor can a republic beestablished where there is no equality.”
No man has been more harshly judged than Machiavelli, especially in thetwo centuries following his death. But he has since found many ablechampions and the tide has turned. The Prince has been termed amanual for tyrants, the effect of which has been most pernicious. But wereMachiavelli’s doctrines really new? Did he discover them? He merely hadthe candor and courage to write down what everybody was thinking and whateverybody knew. He merely gives us the impressions he had received from along and intimate intercourse with princes and the affairs of state. Itwas Lord Bacon, I believe, who said that Machiavelli tells us what princesdo, not what they ought to do. When Machiavelli takes Cæsar Borgia as amodel, he in nowise extols him as a hero, but merely as a prince who wascapable of attaining the end in view. The life of the State was theprimary object. It must be maintained. And Machiavelli has laid down theprinciples, based upon his study and wide experience, by which this may beaccomplished. He wrote from the view-point of the politician, — not ofthe moralist. What is good politics may be bad morals, and in fact, by astrange fatality, where morals and politics clash, the latter generallygets the upper hand. And will anyone contend that the principles set forthby Machiavelli in his Prince or his Discourses have entirelyperished from the earth? Has diplomacy been entirely stripped of fraud andduplicity? Let anyone read the famous eighteenth chapter of The Prince:“In what Manner Princes should keep their Faith,” and he will be convincedthat what was true nearly four hundred years ago, is quite as true to-day.
Of the remaining works of Machiavelli the most important is the Historyof Florence written between 1521 and 1525, and dedicated to ClementVII. The first book is merely a rapid review of the Middle Ages, thehistory of Florence beginning with Book II. Machiavelli’s method has beencensured for adhering at times too closely to the chroniclers likeVillani, Cambi, and Giovanni Cavalcanti, and at others rejecting theirtestimony without apparent reason, while in its details the authority ofhis History is often questionable. It is the straightforward,logical narrative, which always holds the interest of the reader that isthe greatest charm of the History. Of the other works ofMachiavelli we may mention here his comedies the Mandragola and Clizia,and his novel Belfagor.
After the downfall of the Republic and Machiavelli’s release from prisonin 1513, fortune seems never again to have favoured him. It is true thatin 1520 Giuliano de’ Medici commissioned him to write his History ofFlorence, and he afterwards held a number of offices, yet these latterwere entirely beneath his merits. He had been married in 1502 to MariettaCorsini, who bore him four sons and a daughter. He died on June 22, 1527,leaving his family in the greatest poverty, a sterling tribute to hishonesty, when one considers the many opportunities he doubtless had toenrich himself. Machiavelli’s life was not without blemish — few livesare. We must bear in mind the atmosphere of craft, hypocrisy, and poisonin which he lived, — his was the age of Cæsar Borgia and of Popes likethe monster Alexander VI. and Julius II. Whatever his faults may havebeen, Machiavelli was always an ardent patriot and an earnest supporter ofpopular government. It is true that he was willing to accept a prince, ifone could be found courageous enough and prudent enough to unitedismembered Italy, for in the unity of his native land he saw the onlyhope of its salvation.
Machiavelli is buried in the church of Santa Croce at Florence, beside thetomb of Michael Angelo. His monument bears this inscription:
“Tanto nomini nullum par eulogium.”
And though this praise is doubtless exaggerated, he is a son of whom hiscountry may be justly proud.
Hugo Albert Rennert.