Machiavelli was born in Firenze, Italy,
into a poor family (though his father was a doctor of law); and he was largely
self-educated. In 1488 he became
secretary of 'The Ten' (Il Dieci) effectively the Foreign Ministry, and
was sent on a number of political missions. He was imprisoned in 1512 accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the Medici, but he was
released at the request of Pope Leo X. He devoted the remainder of his life to writing.
 [See Discourses.] For human beings are basically egoistic
though not beyond redemption. But his
solution and his general
approach to politics and morality is secular and 'humanistic' [a] to be contrasted sharply with the positions held by
medieval Christian philosophers. He argued that to ensure the state is unified,
strong, viable an absolute ruler (the 'Prince' or Leader)
is needed [The Prince] [b]. Moreover, he must be allowed to
use all means at his disposal, even if immoral, to preserve his power. But Machiavelli adds that even if the Prince
has no good qualities, such as being merciful, religious, humane, it is
advantageous if he can appear to possess them. He allows that once an absolute 'monarchy' has been firmly established the general good, including
greater liberty for all, is more likely to be achieved in a republic on
the Roman model, in which there can be some participation by citizens [c] in
their government, than in an absolutist state [see Discourses]. The people, he thinks, are generally more
prudent and have better judgement than princes.
Underlying Machiavelli's political
philosophy is a distinction he makes between fortuna (chance circumstance) and virt ('vitality'
resolution, courage, ruthlessness) [d]. On the one hand he sees men as victims
of fortuna. But through cultivation of virt individuals, and thence the state
as a whole (civic virtue), might recover a degree of control over human
affairs. However, in the course of time
the contentment thereby engendered may in turn give way to corruption, and this
often renders states susceptible to attack by others before the process can be
reversed and order restored [see Florentine
PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY
 [Discourses] Machiavelli
tried to discover general practical rules for achieving particular ends in
society by making use of an inductive method [a]. This involves a consideration of
negative and positive instances and a study of causes (especially virt)
and effects discoverable from history which he supposed to be a cyclical process [b]. His assumption thus seems to have been that like causes will bring about
like consequences; and that the study of these could assist the Prince to rule
and legislate effectively.
Machiavelli seems to have been concerned
more with practical politics than with abstract political theory. He is significant for his emphasis on
absolutism and for his implicit advocacy of the justification of means by
ends. And it is here perhaps that the
main difficulty with his political philosophy lies. If immoral means are allowed in order to
bring about a particular end, there will be the danger of producing an immoral
society even if the security of the state is achieved. Genuine well-being of the people would seem
to require some conception of virtue. Does a ruler have to be immoral to guarantee the state's security and
the people's welfare? His undoubted
approval of the virtues of republican Rome would suggest that he was himself
aware of this problem: but the tension
within his thought remains. However,
one must also take into consideration his realistic view of man as thoroughly
egoistical (though it may be objected that Machiavelli is here too
pessimistic). It is arguable also that
there is an inconsistency between absolute monarchy and Machiavelli's
suggestion that a participatory government might later be admissible. Finally, he shows a limited appreciation of
the role played by cultural factors other than political ones in the
development of states.
Machiavelli: Il Principe (1513) (The Prince); Istorie
fiorentine (1520-25) (Florentine
History); Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livia (1526) (Discourses on the First Decade of Tito Livy). For English translations see A. Gilbert, Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, 3 vols. There are several single editions of The
Prince in English translation.
Skinner, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction.
Fischer, M., Well-Ordered License: On the Unity of
Viroli, M., Machiavelli.