His name is usually associated with something negative. Machiavellianism is one of the “dark triad” of personality traits (the other two are narcissism and psychopathy) characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception. Both empathy and emotion recognition have been shown to have negative correlations with Machiavellianism. Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, viewed Machiavellianism as “an abhorrent type of politics” and the “art of tyranny”.
However, the person, whose name is marred by such an association was in fact not a machiavellian (in the typical modern meaning) at all. Yes, in his book The Prince, Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even seemed to endorse it in some situations.
But let us look into the context and see what drove him to write this book.
Lorenzo was a great patron of the arts. His name is associated with the beginning of the Renaissance.
In 1492, Lorenzo died and was succeeded by his son Piero II.
In 1494, the Florentines rebel and expelled Piero II. The republican government was restored.
Machiavelli was at that time twenty-five years old.
Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola blamed the exile of the Medicis as the work of God, punishing them for their decadence. Declaring that Florence would be the New Jerusalem, the world center of Christianity and “richer, more powerful, more glorious than ever”, he instituted an extreme puritanical campaign, enlisting the active help of Florentine youth.
But when Savonarola publicly accused Pope Alexander VI of corruption, he was banned from speaking in public. When he broke this ban, he was excommunicated.
The Florentines, tired of his extreme teachings, turned against him, and he was arrested.
Under torture, Savonarola confessed that he had invented his visions and prophecies. He was convicted as a heretic and burned at the stake on 23 May 1498.
A month later, Machiavelli was appointed as Second Chancellor of the Florentine Republic at the age of twenty-nine.
Later in his book The Prince, he characterized Savonarola as an incompetent, ill-prepared, and “unarmed” prophet, unlike “Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus”:
If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long — as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.
From 1502 to 1503, Machiavelli witnessed the brutal reality of the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander VI, who were then engaged in the process of trying to bring a large part of Central Italy under their possession. (From, probably, spring of 1502 until early 1503, Leonardo da Vinci served as a military engineer and architect of Cesare Borgia and traveled with him, then quit his service and moved to Florence, where he started working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.)
Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia. He distrusted mercenaries and instead staffed his army with citizens, a policy that was to be repeatedly successful. Under his command, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509.
In August 1512, the Medicis used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato, and the Florentine republic was dissolved.
In 1513 the Medicis accused Machiavelli of conspiracy against them and had him imprisoned. He was tortured “with the rope” (the prisoner was hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body’s weight and dislocating the shoulders).
According to some accounts, he was also “dropped.” Usually, people confessed their sins after one drop, but Machiavelli sustained six drops and still denied his involvement.
As a result, he was released after three weeks and then retired to his estate. In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:
When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.
Thinking about Machiavelli, I cannot help remembering another talented person — Soviet engineer, inventor, scientist, journalist, and writer Genrich Altshuller. He is most notable for the creation of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ).
After unimaginable tortures in the Stalin’s prison, he decided never to do science again
That is not what the humanity needs. One has to take a weapon and start protecting human rights for real.
Nevertheless, he returned to his studies after the hard labor term.
A full-fledged TRIZ movement developed among Soviet engineers and other technically inclined people by the 1970s, and Altshuller played the role of its intellectual leader.
He lectured at TRIZ congresses, published articles and books and corresponded with various TRIZ practitioners. He became the founding member and president of the Russian TRIZ Association.
A number of his close friends and students have become the most prominent thinkers and teachers of the movement. He died in 1998.
Machiavelli managed to pull himself together too. He looked at his experience without blinking and came to the conclusion that one cannot afford to ignore life realities if he wants to achieve a level of success in his quest. That is why he put together the instructions to a ruler who would like to change the life of his people for the better.
Pained by the defeat of the democracy, he recommends him to use all means possible to maintain his power in order, paradoxically, to promote freedom. That was how “The Prince” was born. That was the beginning of modern political science.