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( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Nicolo Machiavelli was born at Florence May 3, 1469. He came of a distinguished patrician family, which had been honored with the highest dignities of the republic. Of his early life and his education little is known. His writings reveal, however, a wide familiarity with the Latin and Italian classics; but the Greek language he seems never to have mastered.

In 1498, four years after the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, Machiavelli became the secretary of the restored republic. He held this position for fourteen years. During this time he not only attended to the voluminous correspondence of the state and drew up memorials, when occasion required, on important questions of the day, to be presented to the council, but he was also frequently employed on diplomatic missions. He was twice Ambassador to the Court of Rome, and thrice to that of France. In these missions and several others of inferior importance he acquitted himself with great dexterity; and his correspondence and dispatches form an instructive and interesting collection of state papers. They are interspersed with shrewd comments on men and things, which reveal him as a man of clear judgment and a keen observer.

One of his missions, in 1502, was to the camp of Cesar Borgia, or the Duke of Valentinois as he was now called, who was then in Romagna. The duty of the envoy appears to have been to wait upon the Duke and to keep an eye upon him. Borgia was then engaged in the intricate intrigue which ended with the capture of Sinigaglia; and Machiavelli was a witness of the signal triumph of his villainy, when he caught in one snare and crushed at one blow all of his most formidable rivals. The envoy has been accused of having prompted the crimes of the artful and merciless tyrant. But his correspondence shows that his relations with Borgia at the time, though ostensibly amicable, were really hostile. But this did not prevent his conceiving the highest admiration for the genius of a man who, when apparently about to be himself crushed, had by a masterly combination of audacity, cruelty, and fraud, turned defeat into victory. With the eye of a politician he studied Borgia, less as a man than as a Prince. The hypocrisy and villainy which he might have detested in a private citizen assumed a different hue when employed by a ruler for the establishment of power and the creation of a state. Machiavelli contrasted Borgia with the enemies who were pitted against him, and he could not fail to recognize his superiority. Here was a man who, trained to an unwarlike profession, had created an army out of the dregs of an unwarlike people, and who after having won sovereignty by destroying his enemies, won popularity by destroying his own tools. There was no denying the genius of the man; as to the means employed, they were justified by the end, in the opinion of Machiavelli. That a ruler should have no conscience, no scruples, but should hold himself free to use any and every means that might further his designs, is the -fundamental principle which underlies the famous or infamous system of politics subsequently developed and expounded by Machiavelli in his work entitled the Prince, in which he took Caesar Borgia for his model. That at this time he had already begun to entertain such views, is shown by his letters to his friend Vettori, in which he expresses the opinion that the behavior of Borgia in the conquest of the provinces and cementing a new state out of fragmentary elements, and his way of dealing with false friends and doubtful allies, were worthy of all praise and of scrupulous imitation.

Detestable as are the principles of Machiavelli, there is no question that he labored earnestly for the welfare of Italy. He longed to see her released from the domination of foreign masters—to see both the French and the Spaniards driven beyond her borders, and to see arise within a new state dominated by an Italian Prince. He had little faith in republics. Their weakness in the existing chaotic condition of Italy was only too apparent. He perceived clearly, too, that one of the main sources of this weakness was the practice which was general among the states of employing mercenary troops the professional condottieri a practice which extinguished the valor and discipline of their own citizens and left their wealth an easy prey to foreign plunderers. One of the measures of Borgia which he commended most highly was his discontinuance of this vicious practice, and his employment of troops levied among his own subjects.

Machiavelli may have looked upon the successful Borgia as the possible future savior of Italy; but more naturally he sought this honor for his own city Florence. He returned from his embassy with a scheme through which alone the first step in this direction could be taken the reorganization of the Florentine militia. He determined if possible to give his state an army made up of her own citizens. At that time Piero Soderini had been elected gonfalonier of Florence for life, and to him the plan was first submitted. Soderini entered into his views; but when they were laid before the council, obstacles arose. First came the financial embarrassment of the state, for its exchequer was depleted by its war with its rebellious subject state, Pisa. But more serious than this was the distrust of the citizens. Some of them feared to put Soderini in command of a standing army lest he should overturn the government and make himself despot of Florence as he probably would have done had he retained Machiavelli for his adviser. For three years Machiavelli and Soderini labored at this scheme before they finally succeeded in passing it through the council. A Bureau of the Militia was then established, of which Machiavelli became the secretary. The country districts of the Florentine state were divided into military departments, and levies of foot soldiers were made in order to form a standing militia — of foot soldiers only, for Michiavelli had declared against both cavalry and artillery. A commander of the army had now to be selected. There were objections to selecting a citizen of Florence, or perhaps no competent citizen was avail-able, and Machiavelli, true to his policy of expediency, proposed for this responsible position Don Micheletto, one of the cut-throats of Borgia. The Don had worked well for Casar Borgia, was a good soldier, and, notorious villain though he was, was deemed a fit officer to discipline and exercise the raw Florentine militia.

Meanwhile important events had taken place in Italy. The Pope Alexander VI had died, and Julius II had ascended the vacant throne. Machiavelli was sent to Rome to attend the conclave. There he again met Casar Borgia, now stripped of his power and a prisoner of the deadliest enemy of his house; and he seems to have regarded his former hero with less of compassion than of contempt. In the following year he accompanied Julius, as envoy from his state, on his expedition into the province of Emilia, where the military Pope subdued in person the rebellious cities of the church. Toward the close of the year 1507 he was sent to Botzen in Germany on a mission to the Emperor Maximilian, who was meditating a journey into Italy in order to be crowned at Rome.

The public life of Machiavelli was now drawing to a close. In 1508 was formed the League of Cambray, by which Julius II combined the powers of Europe against the Venetians. Then followed stirring events in the north of Italy, which had the effect of raising the hopes of the Medicean party in Florence and of weakening the power of Soderini, and finally, in 1512, came the battle of Ravenna.

This battle was decisive of the fate of Florence. Giovanni de' Medici, afterward Pope Leo X, entered the city backed by a Spanish army, and restored to power the Medici. Machiavelli even now did not despair of retaining his office; but the Medici received coldly his overtures of service. He was regarded with suspicion, as the right-hand man of the deposed Soderini, and within three months after the return of the Medici, he was stripped of all his appointments and banished from the city. Soon after this he fell under an unjust suspicion of having taken part in the conspiracy of Boscoli, against the Medici, was thrown into prison, and, after the manner of the times, was put to the rack. Upon the election of Giovanni to the Papacy (March, 1513) he was released from confinement; and he then retired to a villa in the country, there to divide his time between books and dissipation.

Busily. occupied as Machiavelli had been in his public life, he had found time to devote to literary pursuits other than those immediately connected with his office, and he now took up as serious work what had before been a pastime. Within a year after his retirement he had completed his Prince the work already referred to. This work was designed as a sequel to his Discourses upon Livy, which, though not published, must have been writ-ten while he was still in office. But it would seem to have come hard to a man whose life had been a stirring one, and whose spirit was restless, to fill the full measure of existence in the quiet society of books. His letters to his friend Vettori present us with a strange mixture of intellectual and sensual enjoyment. He talks of his literary work, and he tells with equal frankness, and perhaps with keener zest, of his dissipations; and the one theme is as entertaining to his friend as the other. Indeed, much of the correspondence that passed between the two friends falls under the head of obscene literature. And yet this coarseness of taste which, it should be said, was not generated in his retirement, but is exhibited in the whole of his private correspondence did not blunt his intellectual vigor. Many of the letters written at this time related to the affairs of Italy and Europe. They were intended to be shown to the Medici at Rome, and they exhibit the same keenness of perception and the same philosophical breadth as is found in his earlier diplomatic papers.

From the first moment of his retirement Machiavelli meditated the possibility of his return to power. Upon the completion of the Prince he decided to dedicate the work to one of the Medicean Princes in the avowed hope that he might thereby ensure a recall to office. Upon the advice of his friend Vettori, he fixed upon Giuliano de' Medici for the intended honor. Giuliano had been chosen by Pope Leo X as ruler of a duchy to be formed by the union of Parma, Piacenza, Reggio, and Modena, and it seemed to Machiavelli that under his tutelage the new Duke might become the great unifier of Italy. But unfortunately Guiliano died. The work was finally dedicated to the young Lorenzo de' Medici, who had been installed in Florence. This act of Machiavelli seems to have given more offense to his countrymen than even the pernicious teaching of the work itself. It seemed like political apostasy. It has the-appearance, indeed, of servile fawning for a personal purpose. But it admits of a more favorable interpretation. Machiavelli certainly had the interest of his country at heart; his confidence in himself and his system was immense. The change of rulers in Florence was a fact which he could not alter; yet what he attempted under the old regime might still be effected under the new.

The Medici were in no haste to accept his proffered services. He continued his literary work, and varied it by giving readings from his Discourses to a select audience in the Rucellai gardens. This work professed to be a commentary on the early history of Rome, though the few passages of Livy which he selected were used merely as texts which served to introduce his peculiar views as to the strong and weak points of different forms of government. The real theme of his work was the existing condition of Italy, and one of the main truths which he sought to inculcate was that a state to be strong must depend for its defense on the arms of its own citizens.

Toward the year 1519 he wrote, upon the invitation of Leo, a Discourse upon Reforming the State of Florence, in which he earnestly admonished Leo, both for his own sake and that of Florence, to give the city a free constitution advice which runs counter to the whole tenor of his Prince, and which declares more distinctly than any other act of his life that he was at heart a true patriot.

Machiavelli never realized his fond hope of being called to a responsible position under the new government; but toward the close of his life he was selected by the Medici for two or three not very important missions. In the spring of 1526 he was employed by Pope Clement VII to inspect the fortifications of Florence, and later in the year was sent on a mission to Venice. In the following spring he was directed to repair to Lombardy, where he was to be associated with Clement's viceroy in the Papal service. A new political career seemed to open before him; but before he could leave Florence he was taken ill, and on the 22nd of June, 1527, he died, from an overdose of opium, it is said, administered through mistake.

The prominent place filled by Machiavelli, in time of stirring political events and the boldness with which he advanced his peculiarly cynical views of human nature, naturally made him many enemies. The impression made by his Prince upon the minds of his contemporaries was generally unfavorable, and the adverse public estimate of his character was not helped by the excesses of which he was guilty in his private life. By the great majority of the sober-minded among his contemporaries he seems to have been looked upon as a thoroughly bad man, all the more dangerous because of his splendid talents. Yet even his enemies admit that he had good qualities. Vardi says of him that "in his conversation he was pleasant, obliging to his intimates, and the friend of virtuous persons." In religion Machiavelli was as heretical as in politics. He held the Church and the clergy in supreme contempt; yet on his death bed he consented to receive the last sacrament; and the story that he died with blasphemy on his lips is undoubtedly a calumny of his enemies. In person Machiavelli was of medium height, was black haired, with a rather small head, piercing eyes and a nose slightly aquiline. He was married at about the time when he became Secretary of Florence, and left several daughters. His domestic life is said to have been a happy one, in spite of his irregularities.

Machiavelli was the author of numerous works besides those which have already been referred to. A few of them only are now of sufficient interest to require mention here. In a treatise on the Art of War, written in 1520, he set forth his views on military matters, digesting the theory already exemplified in his reform of the militia of Florence. He urges in this work the employment of national troops, and the necessity of relying upon infantry in war, doubts the efficiency of fortifications and the value of artillery. The work is highly colored by his enthusiasm for ancient Rome, and from the modern military standpoint it is simply a curiosity. His last great work was a History of Florence, written by command of the Pope, who, as the head of the house of Medici, was at this time sovereign of that State. The History does not appear to be the fruit of much industry or research. It is unquestionably inaccurate. But it is written in a pleasing style, is lively and picturesque, and the reader probably receives from it a more faithful impression of the national character and manners than from other more correct accounts. It is notable that though the writer was enjoined to bring into especial prominence the house of Medici, he treats the characters of Cosmo, Piero, and Lorenzo with a freedom and impartiality equally honorable to himself and his patron.

Machiavelli wrote several poetical works, which are of interest now solely to the literati. He was also the author of three comedies, of which one only, the Mandragora, contributed to his literary reputation. This comedy of Machiavelli is one of the most celebrated works of his time. It has been universally admired by critics for its merit as a work of art, and as universally condemned for its immorality. It is presented as a picture of the old Florentine life. Its principal characters are a plausible adventurer, a profligate parasite, a hypo-critical confessor, as easily duped husband and a wife too easily brought to yield to shame. The plot of the play is both clumsy and improbable; but its scenes are lively, its characters are well drawn, the satire is telling, and the wit is both sprightly and of a sort to please the auditors for whom the play was intended. It has been maintained by the apologists of Machiavelli that the Mandragola was written by him as a satire, with the commendable purpose of opening the eyes of his contemporaries to their moral iniquities. But after having been admitted to the secrets of his private life and correspondence, one requires faith of no ordinary strength to see in this objectional piece anything but an exhibition of his own grossness pampering the depraved taste of his age.

The great work of Machiavelli, however, that which alone has kept his memory alive and which has served to cover his name with obloquy, as a synonym of all that is crooked in politics, is the Prince. The character of this astounding work has been tersely presented by Macaulay in a single paragraph : "It is scarcely possible for any person, not well acquainted with the history and literature of Italy, to read without horror and amazement this celebrated treatise of Machiavelli. Such a display of wickedness, naked yet not ashamed, such cool, judicious, scientific atrocity, seems rather to belong to a fiend than to the most depraved of men. Principles which the most hardened ruffian would scarcely hint to his most trusted accomplice, or avow, without the disguise of some palliating sophism, even to his own mind, are professed without the slightest circumlocution, and assumed as the fundamental axioms of all political science."

Atrocious as this work is, it may be possible to relieve Machiavelli of some of the odium which it has brought upon him, if we will consider the circumstances under which it was written. That Machiavelli was actuated through his whole public life by a pure and earnest zeal for the welfare of his country, does not admit of question. He was never engaged in any political intrigue; was never charged with any base political act; while his great measure of the reform of the militia was undoubtedly directed to the sole end of increasing the power of Florence. But his view extended beyond Florence. The whole of Italy was included within its compass. He longed to see Italy a great state under a single government, the peer instead of the prey of France and Spain. The problem which he set before himself was the method by which this end should be attained. If it be granted that this was the noble purpose of Machiavelli, it becomes possible to solve the enigma of the Prince. Italy was at that time in a state of thorough disorganization, almost in a state of anarchy. The petty states into which it was divided rarely worked together against a foreign enemy, and were frequently at strife with one another. Villainy was perpetrated on all sides and in high places. How might all this be remedied? There was, in the opinion of Machiavelli, but one way. A strong hand must seize the helm, one who could combine the States, break up their autonomy and consolidate them into a single state Italy. It was a noble scheme, and the Prince, who was to do this work, would need to be a man of energy, a man who never resorted to half measures, and who would not be deterred by obstacles. There would be opposition, there would be intrigue, and treachery, for Machiavelli understood his countrymen; but against these weapons like weapons must be employed. As Borgia had done in creating his small state, so must the new Prince do in unifying Italy. The work would be a work of blood; but the end was a laudable one.

That some such scheme floated in the brain of Machiavelli, though not demonstrable, seems highly probable. It affords a key to the atrociousness of the Prince. But the time was not yet ripe. Italy had still to wait three centuries for its final unification; and when the time came, fortunately there was no longer necessity for a Machiavellian policy.

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