Special to The Washington Post
January 13, 1999; Page H01
The name Niccolo di Bernardo Machiavelli evokes the essence of immorality. To label someone a Machiavellian is to accuse him of putting convenience and success ahead of principle. This unsavory reputation grew from one work in 1513, The Prince, a little handbook packed with advice on how to get power and keep it. Remarkably apt in the current climate of political scandal, it remains avidly read.
As a statesman and writer caught up in the vicious intrigues of Renaissance Italy, Machiavelli was a participant in power politics and a shrewd analyst of the way power worked. The Prince became one of the most discussed works of the era, exciting some and shocking others -- as it does even now -- with its raw portrayal of power.
Even Tupac Shakur, the late rap superstar, drew on Machiavelli's reputation, releasing his last album under the pseudonym "Makaveli."
The Prince "became a symbol of a way of acting in politics that's commonly understood to be amoral, if not immoral," says Bruce Douglass, a professor of government at Georgetown University. "That's probably an incorrect characterization. If you look carefully at the work, it's more that Machiavelli is proposing practices that would be immoral in ordinary life.
"However, as many people know -- perhaps most people know -- political life and the affairs of nations require something which is a bit different. What Machiavelli does in The Prince is give expression to that in a somewhat graphic and unqualified way."
Indeed, Machiavelli's image has undergone a makeover in the last few decades. The work for which he is chiefly remembered now is more widely recognized as only one chapter in the story of a poet, playwright, adventurer, military leader, statesman and pioneering political scientist who rose from obscurity to the heights of governmental celebrity, only to fall into ruinous shame.
Born on May 3, 1469, just outside Florence, Machiavelli was in a perfect position to observe some of the most tumultuous times Italy had known since the fall of the Roman Empire. Italy then was not a united nation but a conglomerate of independent city-states, of which Florence was among the most prominent.
Machiavelli came from a distinguished family with a long history of government service. Niccolo was the oldest son of one of the clan's poorest members -- his father Bernardo was born illegitimate and incurred so many unpaid debts that he was barred from public office. Though little is known about Niccolo's early life, it is clear that he received a solid, if not first-rate, education in law and the classics, and he joined the powerful lawyers guild as a young man.
Since 1434, the Medici family, Italy's richest and most powerful clan, had dominated the Florentine political scene. By the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who became head of the family in 1469, the Medicis' influence had spread throughout the country via alliances and strategic marriages.
Their power was consolidated after 1478 when a failed attempt on Lorenzo's life by members of an opposing faction -- supported by the pope -- sparked a bloody pro-Medici riot. The clash ended with the lynching of the Medicis' most prominent opponents and rivals, who were hung from the walls of the Palazzo not three blocks from 9-year-old Niccolo's home.
But such control was not to last. Lorenzo died in 1492. His son Piero took power and quickly lost it as the French conqueror Charles VIII swept through Italy. Piero bought Florence's safety by giving away most of its territories, a decision so resented in Florence that he was forced to flee.
With the Medicis gone, the ascetic monk Fra Girolamo Savonarola whipped Florence into a God-fearing, anti-Medici frenzy for four years. In what Machiavelli later would analyze as an inevitable backlash, Savonarola was excommunicated, hanged and burned in 1498. Florence's government shifted again, finally opening the way for Machiavelli to step into the spotlight.
At age 30, he was named secretary to the Florentine governing council, a distinguished position he held for almost 14 years. He was essentially Florence's top bureaucrat, carrying out council orders, representing Florence on diplomatic missions and organizing a militia. He gained experience and respect as a statesman and became a close and trusted adviser to the heads of the republic.
The job took Machiavelli on diplomatic missions throughout and beyond Italy. He traveled to France three times, meeting with King Louis XII and went to Rome to meet with Pope Julius II, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and, perhaps most importantly, the infamous Italian warlord Cesare Borgia, who was to become one of Machiavelli's models of a ruthless prince.
But at the height of Machiavelli's career, the Medici family returned to power, overthrowing the elected Florentine government in 1512 and eliminating potential troublemakers. Less than two months later, Machiavelli lost his position. Things soon became worse.
A list of supposed anti-Medici conspirators drafted by two young Florentines included Machiavelli's name. Sought by the authorities, he surrendered and was imprisoned in the dungeons of the Bargello, Florence's prison, and tortured. Most likely, his interrogators used the strappado, tying Machiavelli's hands behind his back and hoisting him off the ground to hang by his wrists and wrenched arms.
After 22 days, he was released, still proclaiming innocence. There was no evidence that he had been involved in a plot.
Suspected of treason and granted only limited freedom, Machiavelli retreated to a small villa he owned outside of Florence. Relatives and friends, afraid to be associated with him or in political trouble themselves, pushed him away. "Everything," he wrote in a letter to a close friend, "was totally wrecked."
Desperate, he decided to write a book to gain the Medicis' favor, and he completed this peace offering in just a few months in 1513.
The Prince emerged from his experience in prison and the ruin that his life had become. Alone, under virtual house arrest, he lost faith in human nature and decided that man could always be counted on to be weak and self-interested.
"One can generally say this about men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives and their sons . . . when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away," Machiavelli wrote in The Prince.
For him, man's weak nature was a constant as unchanging as the bright sun that rose above his beloved Tuscan hills. A strong prince who understood and accepted that could gain power and do good. To the thinkers of the Renaissance, full of faith in humanity and the power of the human mind, this view was shocking.
The lessons drawn by Machiavelli were even more scandalous to his contemporaries. "It is much safer to be feared than loved when one of the two must be lacking," he wrote.
"Men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are a sorry lot, is broken on every occasion in which their own self-interest is concerned; but fear is held together by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you."
Consequently, "A wise ruler . . . cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance of faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons which made him promise are removed. And if men were all good, this rule would not be good; but since men are a sorry lot and will not keep their promises to you, you likewise need not keep your promises to them.
"A prince must not worry about the reproach of his cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal; for with a very few examples of cruelty, he will be more compassionate than those who, out of excessive mercy, permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering; for those usually harm the community at large, while the execution that come from The Prince harm one individual in particular."
Scholars today are quick to note that these maxims make up only part of Machiavelli's philosophy and were not intended as ethical pronouncements but as practical and realistic advice.
"I think Machiavelli says nothing that he disbelieved, but [The Prince] isn't a full statement of his beliefs," Douglass says. "It's a very sober, realistic, even cynical book, but it's all in the genre of advice.
"He's saying to the intended audience for the work, 'Here's what you need to do to get and keep power.' If I tell you there are a lot of hard things you need to do to get power, I don't think that's negative, it's just realistic. It's pretty hard-boiled."
To Machiavelli's contemporaries, however, such statements were outrageous.
Francesco Giucciardini, a Florentine historian and Machiavelli's friend, published criticisms of Machiavelli's two most basic premises: that men were by nature bad and that the ancients were suitable models for modern leaders.
Later, Machiavelli was translated into the French by Innocent Gentillet, who was often called the anti-Machiavel and who wrote in 1576 that Machiavelli invented "totally wicked maxims and built upon them a science not political but tyrannical."
Machiavelli first dedicated The Prince to Giuliano de'Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and brother of the new head of the Medici family, Giovanni de'Medici, who became Pope Leo X in 1513.
Giuliano was the Medicis' choice to rule Florence but died before he could do so and before Machiavelli could present the book. Machiavelli kept it for several years, revising and altering it. Finally, he decided to dedicate it to Giuliano's cousin Lorenzo de'Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, hoping that the young ruler would be pleased.
"Accept this little book, then, I beg your Magnificence, in the spirit in which I send it; for if you consider it and read it with attention, you will discern in it my surpassing desire that you come to greatness," Machiavelli wrote in 1517. "And if from the summit of your lofty station, your Magnificence ever turns your eyes to these low places, you will perceive how long I continue to bear the burden of Fortune's great and steady malice."
No one knows whether Machiavelli gave Lorenzo de'Medici his work. One story, possibly apocryphal, says Machiavelli appeared at court to present his book while another visitor was presenting Lorenzo with two hunting dogs. The 20-year-old prince was said to be far more interested in the hounds.
Whatever happened, the effort failed. Machiavelli's book was ignored, and he again withdrew to his villa and immersed himself in writings of ancient historians and philosophers. He wrote three comic plays, several works of fiction, a history of Florence in verse and several long poems on lighthearted topics.
Machiavelli's comedies are among the first Italian dramas to combine realistic characters and the classical structure familiar today and often are seen as the best Italian dramas of the Renaissance. They were spectacular successes, winning competitions and letters of praise from his friends.
His more lasting legacy, however, are his biographies and political analysis, including Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, also written in 1513. This presented the most powerful statement of his philosophy that the lessons of the past could be gathered and applied to Italy in his day.
In the form of a critical commentary on the work of Roman historian Titus Livius (59 B.C.-17 A.D.), Discourses set out to turn successes and mistakes of past politicians into valuable lessons, bolstered with Machiavelli's experiences on diplomatic missions to some of the most important kings, princes and warlords of his time.
One of the most important themes of Discourses was republicanism, the philosophy that later would inspire America's Founding Fathers and that shaped the government of Florence before the Medicis' return to power.
Machiavelli's republicanism owed much to the model of ancient Rome. He believed that a state should be ruled by its own citizens or their elected representatives, free from external authority and the tyranny of hereditary monarchs or rulers.
"There are implicit in that ideal things that people commonly affirm and embrace today, like the rule of law, civic mindedness, patriotism, the willingness to sacrifice for one's country," Douglass says. "Those are the kinds of things Machiavelli believed in, and he was very much a devotee of republican ideas of the Romans as the remedy to the defects of current Italian politics."
Unlike The Prince, Discourses was intended as a strictly private document and was circulated only among Machiavelli's close friends. It often came dangerously close to treason, advocating independence and self-rule at a time when the Medicis were trying to extend their family's influence over Italy's city-states. Had authorities known that Machiavelli favored a government of the people, he might have found himself in jail again.
He also took on the Roman Catholic Church, castigating corrupt priests whose abuses had disillusioned many believers.
"We Italians owe this first debt to the church and to the priests -- we have become irreligious and wicked; but we owe them an even greater debt still, which is the second reason for our ruin: that the church has kept, and still keeps, this land of ours divided," Machiavelli wrote in a chapter unflinchingly titled "How Much Importance Must Be Granted to Religion, and How Italy, Without Religion, Thanks to the Roman Church, Has Been Ruined."
It was a response to secular tendencies in the church and the increasingly close relationship between the clergy and politics, most notably when the head of the powerful Medici family became pope, something that many intellectuals resented.
From the Vatican in Rome, the pope controlled a three-pronged empire: the spiritual guidance of every soul in western Europe, a significant amount of political power in the form of papal states and land throughout Italy and Europe, and the church's colossal financial holdings. As the clergy's power grew, many people began to look at priesthood as less a spiritual calling than a comfortable and even lucrative career.
With Discourses, Machiavelli conceived a new discipline -- political science.
"Machiavelli was original most of all in his claim that statecraft could be erected into a science," Herbert Butterfield, a Cambridge University professor, wrote in 1962. "[He] distinguished himself by claiming that, in the study of history, one could discover not only the causes but also the cure of the ills of his time."
Machiavelli died of a stomach ailment in 1527 at age 58. Fittingly, it was the same year that the Medicis again were expelled from Florence. His friends published much of his work in 1532, prompting immediate reaction. In 1557, The Prince became one of the first books placed on the Roman Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books.
Machiavelli's infamy soon spread abroad. In France, his legacy was seen in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Aug. 24, 1572. Catherine de'Medici, great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent and widow of King Henry II of France, was thought to have ordered the execution of all Protestant, or Huguenot, religious leaders in Paris in an attempt to suppress dissent.
Allegedly with her approval, Catholic mobs butchered more than 3,000 Hu-guenots in one day, and the violence spread throughout France. Machiavelli's ideas were blamed for inspiring the violence.
In England, Machiavelli's reputation preceded the first English translation of The Prince in 1640. Seventy years earlier, "Machiavel" had been used as a slur, and the name is mentioned in the works of Elizabethan dramatists Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, usually to conjure images of cunning and deceit.
Others, however, saw in Machiavelli not a lover of tyranny but a teller of truths. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), often considered the father of the scientific method and one of the most influential forerunners of the Enlightenment, wrote: "We are much beholden to Machiavel and others that write what men do and not what they ought to do."
In the 20th century, on occasions when politics and international relations become less a battle between right and wrong than a search for effectiveness, Machiavelli's advice is prized.
"The minute you enter public life, life gets more complicated," Douglass says. "If you're thinking, even with the best of motives, of getting and keeping power, well, sometimes getting and keeping power requires compromises with the ideals that you would like to follow.
"Maybe sometimes it's necessary to tell a half truth, a lie to maintain power, and maybe that power is important for a larger purpose. Now, I know that's standard Realpolitik reasoning, but it doesn't make it any less true to call a spade a spade."
Andrew Curry is a news aide at The Washington Post.
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