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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles P. Neill

By Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)

NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI, perhaps the greatest prose writer of the Italian Renaissance, was born in Florence May 3d, 1469, and died there June 22d, 1527. He was of ancient and distinguished lineage on both his father’s and his mother’s side, and many of his more immediate ancestors had been honored by republican Florence with high offices of State. His father Bernardo was a respectable jurist, who to a moderate income from his profession added a small revenue from some landed possessions. His mother was a woman of culture, and a poet of some ability.

Of Niccolò’s early life and education we know nothing. No trace of him remains previous to his twenty-sixth year. But of his times and the scenes amid which he grew up, we know much. It was the calm but demoralizing era of Lorenzo the Magnificent, when the sturdy Florentine burghers rested satisfied with magnificence in lieu of freedom, and, intoxicated with the spirit of a pagan renaissance, abandoned themselves to the refinements of pleasure and luxury;—when their streets had ceased for a while to re-echo with the clash of steel and the fierce shouts of contending factions, and resounded with the productions of Lorenzo’s melodious but indecent Muse. Machiavelli was a true child of his time. He too was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Renaissance; and looked back, fascinated, on the ideals of that ancient world that was being revivified for the men of his day. But philosophy, letters, and art were not the only heritage that the bygone age had handed down; politics—the building of States and of empire—this also had engaged the minds of the men of that age, and it was this aspect of their activity that fired the imagination of the young Florentine. From his writings we know he was widely read in the Latin and Italian classics. But Virgil and Horace appealed to him less than Livy, and Dante the poet was less to him than Dante the politician; for he read his classics, not as others, to drink in their music or be led captive by their beauty, but to derive lessons in statecraft, and penetrate into the secrets of the successful empire-builders of the past. It is equally certain, from a study of his works, that he had not mastered Greek. Like Ariosto, Machiavelli was indebted for his superb literary technique solely to the study of the literature of his own nation.

With the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, Machiavelli, at the age of thirty, emerged from obscurity to play a most important rôle in the Florentine politics of the succeeding decade and a half. In 1498 he was elected secretary to the Ten of War and Peace,—a commission performing the functions of a ministry of war and of home affairs, and having in addition control of the Florentine diplomatic service. From 1498 to 1512 Machiavelli was a zealous, patriotic, and indefatigable servant of the republic. His energy was untiring, his activity ceaseless and many-sided. He conducted the voluminous diplomatic correspondence devolving upon his bureau, drew up memorials and plans in affairs of State for the use and guidance of the Ten, undertook the reorganization of the Florentine troops, and went himself on a constant succession of embassies, ranging in importance from those to petty Italian States up to those to the court of France and of the Emperor. He was by nature well adapted to the peculiar needs of the diplomacy of that day; and the training he received in that school must in turn have reacted on him to confirm his native bent, and accentuate it until it became the distinguishing characteristic of the man. His first lessons in politics and statecraft were derived from Livy’s history of the not over-scrupulous Romans; and when he comes to take his lessons at first hand, it is in the midst of the intrigues of republican Florence, or at the court of a Caterina Sforza, or in the camp of a Cesare Borgia. Small wonder that his conception of politics should have omitted to take account of honesty and the moral law; and that he conceived “the idea of giving to politics an assured and scientific basis, treating them as having a proper and distinct value of their own, entirely apart from their moral value.”

During this period of his political activity, we have a large number of State papers and private letters from his pen; and two works of literary cast have also come down to us. These are his ‘Decennale’: historic narratives, cast into poetic form, of Italian events. The first treats of the decade beginning 1494; and the second, an unfinished fragment, of the decade beginning 1504. They are written in easy terzine; and unfeigned sorrow for the miseries of Italy, torn by internal discord, alternates with cynical mockery and stinging wit. They are noteworthy as expressing the sentiment for a united Italy. A third literary work of this period has been lost: ‘Le Maschere,’ a satire modeled upon the comedies of Aristophanes.

When in 1512, after their long exile, the Medici returned to Florence in the train of her invader, Machiavelli, though not unwilling to serve the restored rulers, was dismissed from his office and banished for a year from the confines of the city. Later, on suspicion of being concerned in a plot against the Medici, he was thrown into prison and tortured. He was soon afterward included in a general pardon granted by the Cardinal de’ Medici, then become Leo X. But notwithstanding Machiavelli’s earnest and persistent efforts to win the good graces of the ruling family, he did not return to public life until 1525; and this interval of enforced leisure from affairs of State was the period of his literary activity. A number of comedies, minor poems, and short prose compositions did not rise above mediocrity. They were for the most part translations from the classics, or imitations; and the names are hardly worth recounting. But in one dramatic effort he rose to the stature of genius. His ‘Mandragola’ achieved a flattering success both at Rome and in Florence. It has been pronounced the finest comedy of the Italian stage, and Macaulay rated it as inferior only to the greatest of Molière’s. In its form, its spontaneity, vivacity, and wit, it is not surpassed by Shakespeare; but it is a biting satire on religion and morality, with not even a hint of a moral to redeem it. Vice is made humorous, and virtue silly; its satire is “deep and murderous”; and its plot too obscene to be narrated. In it Machiavelli has harnessed Pegasus to a garbage cart.

His lesser prose works are—the ‘Life of Castruccio Castracani,’ a “politico-military romance” made up partly from incidents in the life of that hero, and partly from incidents taken from Diodorus Siculus’s life of Agathocles, and concluding with a series of memorable sayings attributed to Castruccio, but taken from the apophthegms of Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius; and the ‘Art of War,’ a treatise anticipating much of our modern tactics, and inveighing against the mediæval system of mercenary troops of mail-clad men and horses. A more ambitious undertaking, and in fact his largest work, is the ‘History of Florence.’ At the suggestion of the Cardinal de’ Medici, the directors of the studio of Florence commissioned Machiavelli to employ himself in writing a history of Florence, “from whatever period he might think fit to select, and either in the Latin or the Tuscan tongue, according to his taste.” He was to receive one hundred florins a year for two years to enable him to pursue the work. He chose his native tongue; and revised and polished his work until it became a model of style, and in its best passages justifies his claim to the title of the best and most finished of Italian prose writers. He thus describes the luring of Giuliano de’ Medici to his place of assassination:—

  • “This arrangement having been determined upon, they went into the church, where the Cardinal had already arrived with Lorenzo de’ Medici. The church was crowded with people, and divine service had already commenced; but Giuliano had not yet come. Francesco dei Pazzi, therefore, together with Bernardo, who had been designated to kill Giuliano, went to his house, and by artful persuasion induced him to go to the church. It is really a noteworthy fact that so much hatred and the thoughts of so great an outrage could be concealed under so much resoluteness of heart, as was the case with Francesco and Bernardo; for on the way to church, and even after having entered it, they entertained him with merry jests and youthful chatter. And Francesco, even, under pretense of caressing him, felt him with his hands and pressed him in his arms, for the purpose of ascertaining whether he wore a cuirass or any other means of protection under his garments.”
  • But though Machiavelli had the historical style, he lacked historical perspective; he arranged his matter not according to objective value, but placed in the boldest relief those events that best lent support to his own theories of politics and statecraft. He makes his facts to be as he wishes them, rather than as he knows them to be. He wishes to throw contempt on mercenary troops, and though he knows an engagement to have been bloody, prefers for his description such a conclusion as this:—“In the tremendous defeat that was noised throughout Italy, no one perished excepting Ludovico degli Obizzi and two of his men, who being thrown from their horses were smothered in the mud.” To Machiavelli history was largely to be written as a tendenz roman,—manufactured to point a preconceived moral.

    Though Machiavelli wrote history, poetry, and comedy, it is not by these he is remembered. The works that have made his name a synonym, and given it a place in every tongue, are the two works written almost in the first year of his retirement from political life. These are ‘The Prince’ and the ‘Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius.’ Each is a treatise on statecraft; together they form a complete and unified treatise, and represent an attempt to formulate inductively a science of politics. The ‘Discourses’ study republican institutions, ‘The Prince’ monarchical ones. The first is the more elementary, and would come first in logical arrangement. But in the writing of them Machiavelli had in view more than the foundation of a science of politics. He was anxious to win the favor of the Medici; and as these were not so much interested in how republics are best built up, he completed ‘The Prince’ first, and sent it forth dedicated “to the magnificent Lorenzo, son of Piero de’ Medici.”

    In the ‘Discourses,’ the author essays “a new science of statesmanship, based on the experience of human events and history.” In that day of worship of the ancient world, Machiavelli endeavors to draw men to a study of its politics as well as its art. In Livy he finds the field for this study.

  • “When we consider the general respect for antiquity, and how often—to say nothing of other examples—a great price is paid for some fragments of an antique statue which we are anxious to possess to ornament our houses with, or to give to artists who strive to imitate them in their own works; and when we see, on the other hand, the wonderful examples which the history of ancient kingdoms and republics presents to us, the prodigies of virtue and of wisdom displayed by the kings, captains, citizens, and legislators who have sacrificed themselves for their country: when we see these, I say, more admired than imitated, or so much neglected that not the least trace of this ancient virtue remains,—we cannot but be at the same time as much surprised as afflicted; the more so as in the differences which arise between citizens, or in the maladies to which they are subjected, we see these same people have recourse to the judgments and the remedies prescribed by the ancients. The civil laws are in fact nothing but the decisions given by their jurisconsults, and which, reduced to a system, direct our modern jurists in their decisions. And what is the science of medicine but the experience of ancient physicians, which their successors have taken for a guide? And yet to found a republic, maintain States, to govern a kingdom, organize an army, conduct a war, dispense justice, and extend empires, you will find neither prince nor republic, nor captain, nor citizen, who has recourse to the examples of antiquity!”
  • In his commentary on the course of Romulus in the founding of Rome, we find the keynote of Machiavelli’s system of political science. His one aim is the building of a State; his one thought, how best to accomplish his aim. Means are therefore to be selected, and to be judged, solely as regards their effectiveness to the business in hand. Ordinary means are of course to be preferred; but extraordinary must be used when needed.

  • “Many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that when the act accuses him, the result should excuse; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame.”
  • In an equally scientific and concise manner he analyzes the methods of preventing factions in a republic.

  • “We observe, from the example of the Roman consuls in restoring harmony between the patricians and plebeians of Ardea, the means for obtaining that object, which is none other than to kill the chiefs of the opposing factions. In fact, there are only three ways of accomplishing it: the one is to put the leaders to death, as the Romans did; or to banish them from the city; or to reconcile them to each other under a pledge not to offend again. Of these three ways, the last is the worst, being the least certain and effective.”
  • In ‘The Prince,’ a short treatise of twenty-six chapters, and making little more than a hundred octavo pages, Machiavelli gives more succinct and emphatic expression to the principles of his new political science. ‘The Prince’ is the best known of all his works. It is the one always connected with his name, and which has made his name famous. It was said of the poet Gray that no other man had walked down the aisle of fame with so small a book under his arm. It might be repeated as truly of Machiavelli. Men, he has said, “preferred infamy to oblivion, for at least infamy served to transmit their names to posterity.” Had he written ‘The Prince’ to escape oblivion, the fullest measure of his desire would have been attained. For the model of his prince, Machiavelli took Cesare Borgia, and cites him as an example worthy of imitation; and he has shared in the execration that posterity has heaped upon Borgia.

    The fifteenth and eighteenth chapters of ‘The Prince’ contain a formulation of the principles that have brought down condemnation on their author.

  • “The manner in which men live is so different from the way in which they ought to live, that he who leaves the common course for that which he ought to follow will find that it leads him to ruin rather than to safety. For a man who in all respects will carry out only his professions of good, will be apt to be ruined amongst so many who are evil. A prince therefore who desires to maintain himself, must learn to be not always good, but to be so or not as necessity may require…. For, all things considered, it will be found that some things that seem like virtue will lead you to ruin if you follow them; whilst others that apparently are vices will, if followed, result in your safety and well-being.”
  • And again:—

  • “It must be evident to every one that it is more praiseworthy for a prince always to maintain good faith, and practice integrity rather than craft and deceit. And yet the experience of our own times has shown that those princes have achieved great things who made small account of good faith, and who understood by cunning to circumvent the intelligence of others; and that in the end they got the better of those whose actions were dictated by loyalty and good faith. You must know, therefore, that there are two ways of carrying on a contest: the one by law, and the other by force. The first is practiced by men, and the other by animals; and as the first is often insufficient, it becomes necessary to resort to the second.
  • “A prince then should know how to employ the nature of man, and that of the beast as well…. A prince should be a fox, to know the traps and snares; and a lion, to be able to frighten the wolves: for those who simply hold to the nature of the lion do not understand their business.
  • “A sagacious prince, then, cannot and should not fulfill his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist. If men were all good, then indeed this precept would be bad; but as men are naturally bad, and will not observe their faith towards you, you must in the same way not observe yours towards them: and no prince ever yet lacked legitimate reasons with which to color his want of good faith….
  • “It is not necessary, however, for a prince to possess all the above-mentioned qualities; but it is essential that he should at least seem to have them. I will even venture to say, that to have and to practice them constantly is pernicious, but to seem to have them is useful. For instance, a prince should seem to be merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright, and should even be so in reality; but he should have his mind so trained that, when occasion requires it, he may know how to change to the opposite. And it must be understood that a prince, and especially one who has but recently acquired his state, cannot perform all those things which cause men to be esteemed as good; he being often obliged, for the sake of maintaining his state, to act contrary to humanity, charity, and religion. And therefore it is necessary that he should have a versatile mind, capable of changing readily, according as the winds and changes bid him; and as has been said above, not to swerve from the good if possible, but to know how to resort to evil if necessity demands it.”
  • And yet in these same books we find expressions worthy of a moralist.

  • “All enterprises to be undertaken should be for the honor of God and the general good of the country.”
  • “In well-constituted governments, the citizens fear more to break their oaths than the laws; because they esteem the power of God more than that of men.”
  • “Even in war, but little glory is derived from any fraud that involves the breaking of a given pledge and of agreements made.”
  • “It is impossible to believe that either valor or anything praiseworthy can result from a dishonest education, or an impure and immodest mind.”
  • The strangest moral contradictions abound throughout ‘The Prince,’ as they do in all Machiavelli’s writings. He is saint or devil according as you select your extracts from his writings. Macaulay has given us a perfect characterization of the man and his works.

  • “In all the writings which he gave to the public, and in all those which the research of editors has in the course of three centuries discovered: in his comedies, designed for the entertainment of the multitude; in his comments on Livy, intended for the perusal of the most enthusiastic patriots of Florence; in his ‘History,’ inscribed to one of the most amiable and estimable of the popes; in his public dispatches; in his private memoranda,—the same obliquity of moral principle for which ‘The Prince’ is so severely censured, is more or less discernible. We doubt whether it would be possible to find, in all the many volumes of his compositions, a single expression indicating that dissimulation and treachery had ever struck him as discreditable.
  • “After this, it may seem ridiculous to say that we are acquainted with few writings which exhibit so much elevation of sentiment, so pure and warm a zeal for the public good, or so just a view of the duties and rights of citizens, as those of Machiavelli. Yet so it is. And even from ‘The Prince’ itself, we could select many passages in support of this remark. To a reader of our age and country, this inconsistency is at first perfectly bewildering. The whole man seems to be an enigma; a grotesque assemblage of incongruous qualities; selfishness and generosity, cruelty and benevolence, craft and simplicity, abject villainy and romantic heroism. One sentence is such as a veteran diplomatist would scarcely write in cipher for the direction of his most confidential spy; the next seems to be extracted from a theme composed by an ardent schoolboy on the death of Leonidas. An act of dexterous perfidy, and an act of patriotic self-devotion, call forth the same kind and the same degree of respectful admiration. The moral sensibility of the writer seems at once to be morbidly obtuse and morbidly acute. Two characters altogether dissimilar are united in him. They are not merely joined, but interwoven. They are the warp and the woof of his mind.”
  • In consequence of this, no writer has been more condemned or more praised than Machiavelli. Shakespeare, reflecting English thought, uses his name as the superlative for craft and murderous treachery. But later years have raised up defenders for him, and his rehabilitation is still going on. He has been lauded as “the noblest and purest of patriots”; and more ardent admirers could “even praise his generosity, nobility, and exquisite delicacy of mind, and go so far as to declare him an incomparable model of public and private virtue.” In 1787, after his dust had lain for nearly three centuries in an obscure tomb beside that of Michelangelo, a monument was erected above him, with the inscription given below.

  • [No eulogy could add aught to so great a name as that of Niccolo Machiavelli.]

  • In 1859 the government of his native Tuscany itself gave his works to the public in a complete edition. And in 1869 the Italian government enrolled him in its calendar of great ones; and placed above the door of the house in Florence in which he lived and died, a marble tablet, inscribed—

  • Dell’ Unità Nazionale Precursore audace e indovino
  • E d’Armi proprie e non aventizie primo Institutore e Maestro
  • L’Italia Una e Armata pose il 3 Maggio 1869
  • [To Niccolo Machiavelli—the intrepid and prophetic Precursor of National Unity, and the first Institutor and Master of her own Armies in place of adventitious ones—United and Armed Italy places this on May 3d, 1869, his Fourth Centenary.]
  • His rehabilitation proceeds from two causes. Later research has shown that perhaps he only reflected his time; and his works breathe a passionate longing for that Italian unity which in our day has been realized. He may be worthy canonization as a national saint; but those who are more interested in the integrity of moral standards than in Italian unity will doubtless continue to refuse beatification to one who indeed knew the Roman virtus, but was insensible to the nature of virtue as understood by the followers of Christ. And no amount of research into the history of his age can make his principles less vicious in themselves. A better understanding of his day can only lessen the boldness of the relief in which he has heretofore stood out in history. He was probably no worse than many of his fellows. He only gave a scientific formulation to their practices. He dared openly to avow and justify the principles that their actions implied. They paid to virtue the court of hypocrisy, and like the Pharisee of the earlier time, preached righteousness and did evil; but Machiavelli was more daring, and when he served the devil, disdained to go about his business in the livery of heaven.