Biography of Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3rd, 1469 during a time of great political activity in Italy. His first role in political affairs came at the young age of 29, when the ruling regime of Savonarola fell from power in his native city. Though he had no previous administrative background, Machiavelli was appointed to serve as second chancellor of the Florentine Republic under the new government. His nomination to this powerful diplomatic post was in large part due to the influence of the Italian humanists, who stressed the need for an education in the "humane disciplines" of Latin, rhetoric, classical studies, ancient history and moral philosophy - subjects in which Machiavelli excelled as a student.

The position of second chancellor included important responsibilities for the foreign and diplomatic relations of the Republic and gave Machiavelli the opportunity to travel and observe first-hand the successes and failures of leaders throughout Europe. It was from these experiences as a diplomat and ambassador that Machiavelli formed his deep convictions about the methodology of effective leadership. Indeed, from his later writings it is evident that the foundation for much of his political philosophy rested upon the lessons he drew from the diplomatic and military events of his time.

Machiavelli's first assignment was on a mission to the court of Louis XII of France to appease the French leader after a disaster in their alliance against Pisa. He quickly learned that Florence's sense of its own importance was clearly at odds with the realities of its military position and relative wealth. To anyone educated in the school of modern kingship, his native government appeared vacillating and weak. Machiavelli took this embarrassment to heart and later wrote powerfully about the political necessity of military strength, the dangers of procrastination, the folly of appearing irresolute, and the need for boldness, ferocity, and tangible power.

A few years later, in October of 1502, Machiavelli was sent to meet with Cesare Borgia, the duke of Romagna and an audacious and threatening military power who later demanded a formal alliance with the Florentines. It was during this time of great political turmoil and upheaval in Italy that Machiavelli drew meaningful lessons from his observation and assessment of contemporary statecraft. He was greatly impressed by Borgia, a fearless and courageous leader who possessed undivided and autonomous power, operated under conditions of extreme secrecy, and acted with swift execution. The success of his leadership resulted from his qualities of boldness, physical strength, and predatory instinct. Though he admired much of Borgia's leadership style, Machiavelli was unimpressed by his seeming overconfidence. When Borgia assumed that his maneuvering and posturing to ensure a loyal successor to the papacy would automatically result in a favorable situation, Machiavelli criticized the duke's reliance on good luck. Indeed, Machiavelli often referred to Borgia in his writings as an example of irrational reliance on chance and good fortune - a recurring theme in his later philosophical works. Machiavelli had learned that truly effective leadership required taming fortune and empowering oneself to be the master of one's own destiny.

The next influential leader with whom Machiavelli interacted was Julius II, the newly elected pope. Though initially convinced that the warrior pope was destined for disaster, Machiavelli was later converted to Julius's plan of reconquering the lost papal states. The pope's sheer audacity and authority - and most importantly the absolute nature of his power - gave great hope for unexpected victory. Machiavelli admired this ferocity, but noted in later writings that "if times had come when he needed to proceed with caution, they would have brought about his downfall; for never would he have turned away from those methods to which his nature inclined him." For Machiavelli, a leader must adapt to changing circumstances and craft his strategy not merely according to his temperament, but in accordance with the most effective course of action. Indeed, the primary weakness that each of these leaders shared was a disastrous inflexibility in the face of changing conditions. It was upon this basic premise of versatility and potency that Machiavelli founded his political philosophy.

Unfortunately for Machiavelli, Julius's ferocity prevailed, at least in the short run, and after his alliance with Ferdinand of Spain, the Medicis re-entered Florence and the Republic was dissolved in September of 1512. Machiavelli was formally dismissed from his post at the chancery, sentenced to imprisonment, and issued an enormous fine after being suspected of conspiring against the new Medicean government. The next year, however, Julius II died, and his successor Leo X granted a general amnesty as part of the rejoicing, freeing Machiavelli to a premature retirement at his country home.

Though he lived in constant hope of re-entering the political scene, the remainder of Machiavelli's life was dedicated to writing and reflection. His lot from this time forward was to contemplate the political scene not as a participant, but as an analyst. Machiavelli became a prolific and diverse author, writing biography (Life of Castruccio Castracani), civic and social history (The History of Florence), and even what many consider to be the best Italian play of the century (Mandragola). Machiavelli is best remembered, however, for his works of political philosophy. In Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli reflects systematically on his political and diplomatic experience, the lessons of history (both contemporary and ancient), and ultimately articulates what he supposed to be the rules of statecraft.

Machiavelli’s hopes of returning in a full-fledged manner to the political arena never materialized. In 1521, he published The Art of War, and in 1525 Pope Clement VII awarded him a stipend for his historical work – particularly displayed in his History of Florence, another work not published until after his death. When the Medicis were overthrown in 1527, Machiavelli’s ties to the family (through his work as historian and his other, smaller duties) rendered him suspicious in the eyes of the new government; even the restoration of the Republic did not mean Machiavelli could regain his earlier reputation. He died in San Casciano in 1527, just a few miles outside his beloved Florence.

Study Guides on Works by Niccolo Machiavelli

In 1511, Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat, respected and secure in his position. He was an agent of Piero Soderini, often sent abroad to represent Florence, and highly esteemed as both a scholar and a political mind. Then came 1512, and the...