machiavelli 0000140 Louis J. Sheehan

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

It was a daring political move that the exiled Niccolo Machiavelli, his career in ruin, made in 1512 from his family farm south of Florence. He had sent a short treatise, “The Prince” (Il Principe), as an offering of counsel to the most powerful man in Florence, Lorenzo (called “the Magnificent”) de Medici, the man who himself had ordered Machiavelli’s dismissal and exile. The cover letter is as masterly as the treatise. “Take this little gift,” Machiavelli wrote, “in the spirit I send it, and if you read it diligently you will discover in it my urgent wish that you reach the eminence that fortune and your other great qualities promise you.”

Renaissance sycophancy aside, it is held that this letter was Machiavelli’s pitch for employment with the Medici family. He closed by citing his reduced condition and couching a veiled plea, “And . . . you will realize the extent to which, undeservedly, I have to endure the great and unremitting malice of fortune.” It is an irony and a contradiction that “The Prince,” the classic handbook on power politics and the guide to gaining and maintaining that power, should have owed its birth to the collapse of the author’s political career.

Machiavelli’s masterwork evolved from his short story “On Principalities,” which foreshadowed “The Prince” and is the first suggestion of the author’s famous theme. “The Prince” was not published until 1531, more than four years after his death, though the manuscript circulated privately a decade earlier. It elicited responses that Ross King, in his life of Machiavelli, called a “heady mixture of admiration, fear and contempt.”

Initially, “The Prince” was seen as a handbook for tyrants. Elizabethan dramatists Shakespeare and Marlowe used the author’s name to create diabolical stage villains. Later, Bertrand Russell called “The Prince” “a handbook for gangsters.” The book’s reach and longevity are extraordinary. Lee Atwater, the late Republican strategist, boasted that he had read it 23 times, while Mafia bosses also claim to be its avowed students.

Albert Russell Ascoli, professor of Italian studies at Berkeley, calls “The Prince” Machiavelli’s “gift of counsel” and writes that “Western political thought has been gazing at it in horror and fascination since its first publication.” He called it the product of the “Perfect Storm” of Florentine, Italian and European politics and culture.

During his lifetime, Machiavelli (1469-1527) was far better known as a popular dramatist and controversial state functionary than as the author of a slight tract on statecraft. He was also a poet, farmer, military engineer and militia captain.

He is known as the philosopher of power, though he never seemed to have considered himself a philosopher and often rejected such inquiry. He tended to appeal to experience and example in place of logical analysis. Machiavelli’s genius some have called dark, but it is genius nonetheless. He contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought — political theory, certainly, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. He entered politics in 1498, at age 29, when he was appointed secretary to the Signoria, the executive arm of government. He prospered, marrying Marietta Corsini at age 32. It was not a love match, for he consorted over the years with prostitutes and mistresses.

His career continued to rise steadily until the return to power of the Medici in 1512 and Machiavelli’s summary discharge. For the next eight years in exile, though he was miserable, Machiavelli wrote the books for which he is remembered today. He never suffered a writer’s grandeur. His last great work, “Florentine Histories,” totally modern in concept, is widely considered a literary masterpiece. “The Art of War” is his only work published during his lifetime.

“The Prince” contains but 26 brief chapters, some only several paragraphs in length. As political theory it was scandalous and radical for its time. The book dismisses the then-commonplace view that there is a special connect between moral goodness and legitimate authority — that, as one observer put it: “Rulers did well when they did good. When they were virtuous and moral they were, in turn, obeyed and respected.” In “The Prince,” Machiavelli urged rulers not to follow convention, but to understand fully the nature of the people, to sense change and move with the times, to see the new politics, the nuovi modi et ordini — the new order — both global and local. It is the book’s principle lesson and sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Ryan Inzana

His legacy is extraordinary, an intriguing part of which is “The Prince’s” influence on Western literature: Italo Calvino wrote that what makes Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma” a great Italian novel is that sense of politics as a calculated readjustment and redistribution of roles.” Balzac defined that novel as the new “Prince.” The influence seems endless. The novelist Salman Rushdie gave Machiavelli a starring role in his entertaining new work, “The Enchantress of Florence.”

Through the centuries, Machiavelli’s name has often been conscripted into service by adherents of varying outlooks eager to unfurl his banner over their causes. During the Risorgimento, the drive for Italian unification, Machiavelli was glorified as a patriot and advocate of the movement.

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

Again out of favor in the final months of his life, Machiavelli died on June 21, 1527, and was buried the next day alongside his father in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. In 1787 his remains were moved to a new, impressive marble monument within the church. The tomb features an allegorical figure of Diplomacy above the legend “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium”: No elegy is equal to such a name.

But long after the author’s death, “The Prince” is his most widely read and appreciated work. In Prof. Ascoli’s words, “The Prince” goes on “insisting, to whoever will listen, on the necessity of gesturing toward history and the human community, and toward a future whose darkness it has so brilliantly illuminated over the centuries.”

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire


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