7 November 2015

Niccolò Machiavelli

Enforced retirement gives public servant time to write about his ruthless ideas

Statesman and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with the words ‘cunning’ and ‘duplicity’, was dismissed from office in Florence on this day in 1512 by a written decree issued by the Medici rulers.

The Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno in Florence
Machiavelli was forced to withdraw from public life and retired to his home in the Chianti region of Tuscany, where he wrote his most famous work, The Prince, which was to give the world the political idea of ‘the ends justify the means’.

Had the Medici not distrusted him, Machiavelli might have continued to serve in Florence as a diplomat and military leader. 

He may never have passed on to mankind the ideas he had learnt from his work during the turbulent period in Italian history when popes and other European countries were battling against Italy’s city states for power.

In The Prince he was able to write with first-hand knowledge about the methods he had seen used by Cesare Borgia and his father Pope Alexander V1 to take over large parts of central Italy.

The ideas he put forward were to make the word ‘machiavellian’ a regularly used pejorative adjective and the phrase ‘Old Nick’ to become an English term for the devil.

The book put forward the idea that the aims of princes, such as glory and survival, could justify the use of immoral means.  

Machiavelli also advocated that it is safer to be feared than to be loved, if you can’t achieve both, and he recommended that if an injury has to be done to a man ‘it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared’.

His ideas were to exert a lasting, profound influence on western political thought and are still referred to today. But in modern times, people have begun to interpret them as pragmatic observations rather than as encouraging ruthlessness, cruelty and violence in people.

Machiavelli never got back into public office after the decree of 7 November 1512 and he died at his home in 1527 at the age of 58.

Travel Tip:

Machiavelli wrote ‘The Prince’ at his country home in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, south of Florence, in the heart of Chianti country near San Casciano Val di Pesa. The house where he is believed to have lived is now a Bed and Breakfast called La Fonte del Macchiavelli.

Travel Tip:

There is a monument to Machiavelli in the beautiful Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, where many famous Florentines are buried. A marble structure by Innocenzo Spinazzi was erected in his memory in 1787. The Latin inscription on the front of the monument translates as: ‘No eulogy is equal to such a name’. 

More reading:

'The ends justify the means' - the life of Niccolò Machiavelli

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