A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the Florentine republic and rose rapidly in importance. As defense secretary he substituted (1506) a citizens' militia for the mercenary system then prevailing in Italy. This reform sprang from his conviction, set forth in his major works, that the employment of mercenaries had largely contributed to the political weakness of Italy. Machiavelli became acquainted with power politics through his important diplomatic missions. He met Cesare Borgia twice and was sent by way of Florence to Louis XII of France (1504, 1510), to Pope Julius II (1506), and to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1507).
The Medicis' return (1512) to Florence caused his dismissal; in 1513 he was briefly imprisoned and was tortured for his alleged complicity in a plot against the Medici. Machiavelli retired to his country estate, where he wrote his chief works. He humiliated himself before the Medici in a vain attempt to recover office. When, in 1527, the republic was briefly reestablished, Machiavelli was distrusted by many of the republicans, and he died thoroughly disappointed and embittered.
Machiavelli's best-known work, Il Principe [the prince] (1532), describes the means by which a prince may gain and maintain his power. His ?ideal? prince (seemingly modeled on Cesare Borgia) is an amoral and calculating tyrant who would be able to establish a unified Italian state. The last chapter of the work pleads for the eventual liberation of Italy from foreign rule. Interpretations of The Prince vary: it has been viewed as sincere advice, as a plea for political office, as a detached analysis of Italian politics, as evidence of early Italian nationalism, and as political satire on Medici rule. However, the adjective Machiavellian has come to be a synonym for amoral cunning and for justification by power.
Less widely read but more indicative of Machiavelli's politics is his Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio [discourses on the first 10 books of Livy] (1531). In it Machiavelli expounded a general theory of politics and government that stressed the importance of an uncorrupted political culture and a vigorous political morality. Vaster in conception than The Prince, the Discourses shows clearly Machiavelli's republican principles, which are also reflected in his Istorie Fiorentine [history of Florence] (1532), a historical and literary masterpiece, entirely modern in concept.
Other works include Dell' arte della guerra [on the art of war] (1521), which viewed military problems in relation to politics, and numerous reports and brief works. He also wrote many poems and plays, notably the lively and ribald comedy Mandragola (1524). His correspondence has been preserved and is of great interest. The chief works of Machiavelli are available in several popular English editions.
See Pasquale Villari, Life and Time of Niccol Machiavelli (2 vol., tr. 1878); Herbert Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (1956); Sydney Anglo, Machiavelli (1970); Eugene Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (1987); P. S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (1989).
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