3/19/09 - machiavelli

In today's encore excerpt - Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) statesman, author and source of the term 'machiavellian', which has come to mean 'unscrupulously cunning, deceptive or expedient' in seeking to achieve some end, and comes from the ideas he put forward in his book, The Prince. Niccolo was an able and eager political functionary renowned for his good humor and wit, but was banished from political life when the Republic of Florence he served fell, and was replaced by the returning Medici and the old form of autocracy. Though he wrote passionately in advocating republics above autocracies, The Prince was his attempt to show that he could nevertheless be a worthy counselor to the Medici—a notably unsuccessful bid to win a job, since the Medici disregarded him. With this book he was saying 'if you want to be a powerful autocrat here's how to do it right':

"In his brief work [The Prince] are contained the results of his studies of ancient history and everything he learned during his years as secretary of the Florentine Republic. ... Above all, he wished that his short work might be read and understood by the Medici ... [and] if they read it, they would realize that he knew better than anyone else what a prince should do to consolidate power. ...

"When The Prince began to circulate ... it found a host of enemies who saw it as an evil work, inspired directly by the devil, in which a malevolent author teaches a prince how to win and keep power through avarice, cruelty, and falseness. ... What had Machiavelli written to stir up such indignation? He had explained that the ideas set forth by thinkers who had written advice books for princes before him were simply wrong. ... These writers maintained that a prince who wishes to keep power and win glory must always follow the path of virtue. ... Machiavelli [who had just seen Florence fall under such a 'virtuous' leader] stated that a prince who followed such advice in all circumstances not only would not conserve his power, but would surely lose it and be scorned and soon forgotten. ...

" 'It is necessary' [he wrote] for a prince, if he wants to maintain his realm, 'to learn to be able not to be good' and to use or not use this, 'according to necessity.' ... A good prince, it has been said for centuries ... should try not to instill fear in but to win the love of his subjects. ... Machiavelli argues instead that a prince ... should 'know well how to use the beast and the man.' ... With similar daring, he discarded the doctrine that a good prince must be generous, lavishing gifts and favors on his friends, [writing that he] will succeed only in flattering a few hangers-on and bankrupting his estate. ... Machiavelli [writes that] a prince should certainly hope to be considered merciful and kind but that cruelty [could be] 'well-used.' ... It is difficult to be loved and feared at the same time, but 'it is much safer to be feared than loved if one has to lack one of the two.' ... [Further] princes who have readily broken their word have, 'done great things', and have triumphed over princes who have kept their word. ... In short, he wants a prince who knows how to win.

"When Francesco Vettori who had become Lorenzo [de Medici, Duke of Urbino]'s most authoritative adviser presented Lorenzo with Niccolo's masterpiece, Lorenzo barely glanced at it, showing much more interest in two stud dogs that someone had sent him."


Maurizio Viroli


Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli


Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 1998 by Gius Laterza & Figli


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