Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Niccolo Machiavelli

The term Machiavellian is used to describe someone who is willing to deceive and manipulate other people for personal gain - it usually carries a negative connotation.  However, for rulers in Renaissance Europe, following the principles of Niccolo Machiavelli could be the key to staying in power. Even today Machiavelli is regarded as the father of modern politics largely through his book       The Prince, an instructive manual on gaining and maintaining political power.

Machiavelli (1469- 1527) was born in Florence, Italy during the peak of the Renaissance. Florence was the home of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, the famous Medici family and a cultural, economic and political powerhouse. Machiavelli began a career as a public servant of the Florentine Republic. Later he developed a reputation as a political philosopher, military strategist, writer and famous playwright. This was a tumultuous time in Italy with wars occurring between the numerous city-states (Genoa, Venice, Florence, Naples, Milan), conflicts with the Pope, and outside armies marching through Italy from Spain, France, Switzerland and Germany.  It was a world of shifting alliances, treachery and the overthrow of governments by both internal and foreign forces. What intrigued Machiavelli the most was understanding why some governments succeeded and others failed.  What was the key to staying in power? 

In response to this question, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a guide to acquiring and preserving power.  In this treatise Machiavelli lays out his instructions for sovereigns who have recently come to power.  He discusses how to deal with the citizenry, what types of governments are easiest to control, how to organize the military and what to look for in your counsel.  In many ways The Prince reveals things that most politicians already know.  For example, you should appear upright and honest, but feel free to be covertly ruthless and deceitful. His message laid out in The Prince has been studied for centuries and has been said to influence numerous politicians from diverse backgrounds (communists, fascists, republicans and democrats) such as Lenin, Lincoln, Mussolini, Napoleon, etc.  Some leaders have been directly affected by Machiavelli, while others have, perhaps unknowingly, followed the ideas promulgated at this book. The writings of Machiavelli have been, and will continue to be, interpreted multiple ways and used for many purposes, but the goals have always remained the same. 

Machiavelli's political children
There is still controversy about what Machiavalli really meant in The Prince, especially since he also wrote about the need for a Republic, such as Florence. I've read this work twice and I continue to find new ways of interpreting it.  Most intriguing for me now is seeing how The Prince relates to other works on political theory, and how it can be interpreted today.  Even though we will never know exactly what Machiavelli is trying to tell us, people are likely to continue using his ideas to justify their political ambitions.

1 comment:

  1. As an Asian. I see Machiavelli as someone who inspires colonization. But anyway he is a great person.