Machiavelli

"The term Machiavellian refers to someone who is unscrupulous, cunning, cynical, and unprincipled"(Goods 1998). Many scholars agree that this particular adjective would have dismayed Niccolo Machiavelli, the man from whom the term is derived. In reality he has been attributed as being one of the brightest lights of the Italian Renaissance through his works as not only a writer, but also as an influential philosopher of history and political thought. His most famous work The Prince has been misunderstood due to the motives discussed and the blatantly honest language used. Many of his critics have condemned him for his pessimistic outlook of man as a whole and in doing so try to negate the bulk of his work. Yet even after over 470 years his works are still thought provoking and influential in the political arena. This paper looks at some of the influences that may have created such a man.
Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469, a time of political upheaval and a strong political influence from the Roman Catholic Church. Although Machiavelli was never what would today be considered middle class, he himself states “I was born poor and learned earlier to stint myself than to prosper”(Gilbert 1961, 102). While the extent of this poverty is not known, it is known that his family owned land and was able to pay for his education. In fact, through some of his father’s letters we learn that he had an excellent education in Latin, arithmetic, history, and poetry, but that he was not well off enough to afford other more expensive forms of training (Gilbert 1961, 56). However, his financial hardship from earlier on seems to display itself in his cautious approach to most of his political activities. In fact, the lessons Machiavelli learned early on set a precedent of conservatism that carried on throughout his life.
Machiavelli’s first position in government was given to him in 1498 at the age of twenty-nine. His position was that of Second Chancellor or Secretary and was the second most important paid position in the city (Gilbert 1961, 12). This position was advantageous in the fact that it provided him with experience dealing with both international negotiations and domestic business within the city. These early experiences were evident influences in his political beliefs and he himself commented on them occasionally. It was these early lessons in politics that not provided the foundation for his political beliefs, but they were also used for instructional purposes. In fact, Machiavelli used various early diplomatic missions as the basis for a short guideline he sent to the Florentine diplomat of Spain named Raffaelo Girolami. In this letter Machiavelli discussed not only what he had done but also how he could have improved (Gilbert 1961, 209). This letter was meant not only as advice for a particular situation but also as a learning aid to apply to all situations. We see from this and other letters like it that Machiavelli not only learned the theory behind politics but also continually refined his skill with each new challenge.
Machiavelli demonstrated a great knowledge and insight regarding politics through his writings but more importantly he displayed a man who went through great effort to pay attention to details. Nowhere else is this fact more evident than in the advice and instructions that he imparted to less experienced government officials. His own advice states to “…write to those with whom you do business so clearly that when they have a letter of yours they may think they are there-in such detail it describes the thing to them”(Gilbert 1961, 123). Not only does this apply to his beliefs in documentation, but also encourages them to pay close attention to details in order to supplement those writings. This type of statement was far from uncommon, in a large quantity of his letters to less experienced diplomats he advised them to “’go to the extreme of writing too much rather that too little” (Gilbert 1961, 110). It was Machiavelli’s belief that details were only important if they were remembered and advised to always be aware of what is occurring.
Many of Machiavelli’s writings display the knowledge of one who has spent extensive time studying the past. More importantly, it can be proven that