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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY

MACHIAVELLI'S REPUTATION AND INFLUENCE

Machiavelli's works, especially The Prince, have been widely read for more than four and a half centuries, and Machiavelli's name has been familiar to millions who never read his works. Mostly, he has been condemned as a preacher of political immorality. In Elizabethan England, he was conventionally seen as a diabolical figure. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), in his play The Jew of Malta (1590?), brings him on the stage under the name "Machevill" and makes him say (Prologue, lines 14- 20):

I count religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance. Birds of the air will tell of murders past. I am asham'd to hear such fooleries! Many will talk of title to a crown: What right had Caesar to the empery? Might first made kings....

Certainly, the reputation of Machiavelli in England contributed much to the notion that Renaissance Italy was a place where intrigue, treachery, and political violence were not only practiced almost continuously but also shamelessly justified by the invocation of evil principles. It has even been suggested (probably incorrectly) that the expression "Old Nick," meaning the devil, is derived from Machiavelli's first name, Niccolo.

But within a century of Machiavelli's lifetime, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) expressed a different opinion: "We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others that wrote what men do, and not what they ought to do." The accurate perception of Machiavelli as a careful and honest observer of human conduct has increasingly led to a much more positive view of his significance and value. Although in the popular mind he still retains his sinister reputation-"Machiavellian" has after all passed into the language to refer to the use of unscrupulous or deceptive means to advance one's ends-most writers today regard him as one of the founders of modern political thought. The influential political theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), author of Leviathan (1651), strongly echoes Machiavelli's conviction that human beings are naturally wicked and require strong government to keep them from harming each other and reducing society to ruin. Moreover, Machiavelli's method of supporting all his conclusions with examples drawn from history or from the public life of his own time makes him perhaps the most important forerunner of modern political science, and of the social sciences in general. In this respect, he had particular influence on Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), author of The Spirit of Laws (1748).


Has Machiavelli's influence on political activity equaled his influence on political thought? It has frequently been asserted by writers hostile to Machiavelli that rulers like Napoleon I and Adolf Hitler used The Prince as a kind of textbook to guide them in the pursuit of power. Most scholars, however, say this notion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Machiavelli's purpose was to describe the realities of political life-not to set up a school for tyrants. Certainly, many modern politicians have read The Prince, and no doubt they have learned something from it. But, if Machiavelli's exposition applies to nineteenth-or twentieth-century figures like Napoleon and Hitler, that is much more an indication of how well he understood the political dimensions of human nature than it is evidence that such figures learned their methods from him.

On the other hand, there are two important areas of political life in which Machiavelli's influence is evident. First, Machiavelli was an ardent patriot. He lived at a time when Italy was divided into dozens of principalities and city-states, and his primary attachment was quite naturally to his own city-state of Florence. But Machiavelli's eloquent call, at the end of The Prince, for the liberation of all Italy from foreign invaders marked a major step forward in the evolution of national consciousness. It took a long time for his hopes to be realized. But in the nineteenth century, when Italy was finally unified and freed from foreign domination, Machiavelli came to be recognized as one of the prophets of modern patriotism.

Second, Machiavelli has had great influence as a military thinker. In many ways, he is considered to be the founder of modern military science. His treatise The Art of War, it has been said, laid the foundations of modern tactics. More generally, his study in The Prince of the rational use of force to get, keep, or increase political power is a direct antecedent of the work of the great European military theorist Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), author of On War (1833). Also, Machiavelli's repeated call for a citizen army-and his practical work as a government official in trying to build such an army for Florence-anticipates the mass armies that, ever since the age of the French Revolution, have fought most wars of modern national states.

History has shown that Machiavelli exercised a profound influence on generations of readers. In what way may he influence us? Certainly we can learn a great deal from him about the political nature of people and about the way that educated people in early modern times thought and felt. That is important and valuable. Machiavelli's significance also lies in his personal example as a man of the Renaissance. He was a man of action, a statesman, and a diplomat. He was also a man of letters, who showed that he could produce works that became classics in the fields of politics and history-and who even wrote a play (Mandragola) that some critics have called the greatest Italian comedy! He reflected constantly upon the experience of his busy public life to obtain the materials for his writings. At the same time, he drew upon his scholarly and literary reflections for the wisdom he needed to guide him through the difficult and sometimes dangerous tangle of worldly business. Thus he exemplifies the ideal of versatility, of the integration of thought and action, that was so valued by people during the Renaissance. This ideal of the "Renaissance man" can still be useful today, when many people feel their individuality is threatened by the tendency to specialize more and more narrowly.

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