Machiavelli: Biography And Facts About History's Most Misunderstood Man
His name is connected with political leaders prone to playing 3-D chess, but was Machiavelli actually the conniving manipulator that we know him as? His most well-known work, The Prince, teaches that it's better to be feared than loved and that the ends justify the means. While most scholars take this book at face value, it's possible that Machiavelli was attempting to create a work of satire that got away from him. Was Niccolò Machiavelli a monster? Or was he just a realist?
Before he was the world's most evil man, he was a diplomat
Born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, Niccolò Machiavelli didn't come out of the womb decrying those who were born wealthy, but he did work his way into the diplomacy after the Medici family was exiled in 1494. Working for the government for 14 years, he observed the actions of people in power, how they treated one another, and how they treated him. After the Medici family was reinstalled as the leaders of Florence, he took part in a failed coup to keep them out, which led to Machiavelli getting bounced from the country. He was jailed, tortured, and banished to the countryside for more than a decade.
Machiavelli was one lusty bureaucrat
Machiavelli's antics in Italy were saucy to say the least. Sure, he had a wife and children, but he was a straight-up horn dog, even for a 14th-century politician. He had multiple mistresses, and he didn't even try to hide them. His letters were filled with nasty remarks about sex workers and one-night stands. He wrote of one woman:
[She had] a tuft of hair, half white and half black, the top of her head was bald which allowed you to see several lice taking a stroll… Her eyebrows were full of nits; one eye looked down and the other up. Her tear ducts were full of mucus… Her nose was twisted into a peculiar shape, the nostrils were full of snot and one of them was half missing. Her mouth looked like Lorenzo de Medici's, twisted on one side and drooling since she had no teeth to keep the saliva in her mouth. Her lip was covered with a thin but rather long mustache.
One of his favorite mistresses was actress Barbera Raffacani Salutati, a singer he wrote about in the poem "Bárbera." He was so into her that he instructed a friend in Rome:
Barbera is there in Rome; if you can do her any service, I commend her to you, for she gives me far more concern than does the emperor.
The Prince was written in exile
After the failed 1513 coup against the Medici family, Machiavelli was "given the rope," a brutal form of torture in which the victim was slowly pulled by a rope attached to a pulley. The family wanted him to make what he believed to be a false confession, so he kept his mouth shut as best he could. After he was set free and sent to live in the country, he began outlining Of Principalities, which would later become known as The Prince. The main theme of the work is all the ways in which a monarch, new or old, can keep ahold of their kingdom. He advises that people attempting to rise through the ranks of politics stop relying on luck or fate and instead use force and underhanded tactics to take power and establish total authority. After his dealings with the Medici family, it's no surprise that their iron-fisted rule was on the forefront of his mind.
Machiavelli may have been trying to destroy tyrants who put his work into practice
It's impossible to know exactly what Machiavelli intended to accomplish with his seminal work, but modern historians have a few different theories. One belief is that Machiavelli wanted to create a kind of honey trap full of psychotic advice that was certain to turn a ruler's subjects against them. In this version of the story, Machiavelli thought that any tyrant who was so power-hungry as to follow his suggestions was ready to self-destruct. Some researchers think that the ousted diplomat hoped that his writing would get back to the Medici family and bring about their downfall.
Was Machiavelli just trying to get a job with The Prince?
While it's possible that Machiavelli wanted to use The Prince to bring down the Medici family from the inside, it’s also possible that he hoped it would impress them and get him back into their good graces. After all, exile had rendered him unemployed. Miles J. Unger, author of Machiavelli: A Biography, notes that the ousted diplomat may have written a fascinating book, but as a job application, it was an embarrassment. He told Business Insider:
I think I said in my book at one point that it was one of the worst job applications of all time. It was totally unsuccessful in its purpose and probably always doomed to failure ... Unfortunately for him, he wasn't a very tactful person ... He basically says, 'I'm not going to tell you the things you want to hear, but the things you really need to hear if you want to hold onto power.’
As unfortunate of a job application as it may have been, The Prince has retained its status as a revolutionary work because Machiavelli was one of the first political writers to talk about the ways politicians and monarchs really act. Unger continued:
If you're Lorenzo de' Medici and you think of yourself as this great lord, you don't really want some bureaucrat telling you all the gritty, nasty details of how to hold onto power.
Machiavelli's writing completely upended his era's political thought
The Prince was published in 1532, five years after Machiavelli's death, but before the book was officially released, it got around through his friends. At the time, members of the political landscape were shocked by the way he described a leader, which is to say that he accurately described everyone who seeks power. Political philosophers of the time believed that in order for a leader to be good, they had to be humble and honest, but Machiavelli acknowledged that they simply had to look like they were a moral person, no matter how dirty their hands got. He wrote "A prince must always seem to be very moral, even if he is not."
The Catholic Church weren't fans of his work
Even before he was exiled, Machiavelli's whole thing was speaking truth to power (unless he could use his own power as a diplomat to sleep around), so he kept the Catholic Church firmly in his sights. He looked down upon the religious, believing that leaving one's life up to divine providence was the same as crossing your fingers and hoping. All that aside, he also believed that the leaders of the Church were, like his Prince, just pretending to be moral in public.
After his death, all of Machiavelli's works were placed on the Catholic Church's "Index of Prohibited Books." The church was so offended by his work, in fact, that they used his name as shorthand for the Devil, nicknaming the demon "Old Nick."
Was Machiavelli power-hungry, or was he just a realist?
To be Machiavellian in the modern era isn't just to be cunning, it's to be underhanded. It's to gain power by any means necessary. Students of The Prince take the author's words to heart, but Machiavelli may not have been promoting the concept of political evil. It's likely that he was just taking his knowledge of politics and putting everything on the table. Many modern scholars believe that Machiavelli was nothing more than a realist. He knew that princes and politicians of his era (and every era) had to look as if they were upstanding moral beings in order to get work done. Alan Ryan, a political professor at Oxford, states:
The staying power of The Prince comes from its insistence on the need for a clear-sighted appreciation of how men really are as distinct from the moralizing claptrap about how they ought to be.
Machiavelli died a failure in his own eyes
Machiavelli passed away in 1527, nearly 15 years after he finished writing The Prince. While the book went unpublished, he continued to write plays and poems while occasionally working for the Medici. Miles J. Unger said:
He considered it a life of failure. But of course, in the end, it's his writings for which he's famous, not the work he did as a bureaucrat for the Florentine government.
Despite his disdain for Catholicism, he was given last rites and entombed in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. An epitaph on Machiavelli’s tomb reads "Tanto nomini nullum par elogium." It roughly means "There is no eulogy to befit so great a name."
Now that you've learned so darn much about Machiavelli, why take our Machiavelli quiz real quick to see how much you remember, so that you can brag to your friends, and maybe teach people where the reference "Machiavellian" comes from, as well as what it accurately means.
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