Of Power and Ethics in Torn Apart Florence

Niccolò Machiavelli, Works (Tutte le opere di Nicolo Machiavelli cittadino et secretario fiorentino divise in V parti …)

Published in Geneva 1550

 

The best known portrait of Machiavelli, painted by artist Santi di Tito.

Nicolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) fell victim to his modernity. Why do contemporary philosophers hardly ever talk about his works on political philosophy today? Not because his ideas aren’t good, but, on the contrary, because they are widely accepted! The matter was quite different in his lifetime though.

As the son of an impoverished Florentine advocate, Machiavelli was an outsider. This became an advantage after the fall of the powerful Medici: Florence was henceforth governed as a republic. Since Machiavelli was not a member of any of the old parties, he was elected to the new council. For fourteen years he was responsible for foreign and security policy, later also for the military. He travelled all over Europe on diplomatic missions, to the courts of princes, kings, emperors, to the Pope. He knew all the tricks in the book and understood how politics worked. But then the Medici returned and ended Machiavelli’s career once and for all.

Florence during Machiavelli’s lifetime. View from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartman Schedel.

Only after the end of his political career in 1521 did Machiavelli write most of his works. But what did he stand for? For “Machiavellianism,” the maxim that the ends justify the means, no matter how brutal? For a republican system as he evokes it in his “Discorsi”? In fact Machiavelli was strongly influenced by ancient Rome. In his active time he even replaced the army of mercenaries in Florence with a militia after Roman-Republican example – and by doing so finally defeated the arch enemy Pisa after many failed attempts.

In his heart Machiavelli dreamt of a strong prince for Italy, to unite the country and rule it in accordance with republican and cultured ideals.

Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” just like his “History of Florence,” was probably written to ingratiate himself with the Medici. This treatise was anything but a mirror for princes. Machiavelli deconstructs the workings of power in a way that transcends time. The prince was to obey only three rules, anything else was allowed in cases of emergency. That was minimal consensus, but a modern idea at the time. Just like the notion that a prince was legitimated by his actions, not by his descent. These actions could be exempted from a traditional understanding of morality, the ruler had to be able to act brutally in order to guarantee the existence of the state. In his lifetime there were plenty of rulers after this fashion, especially among the Borgia; but also the Sforza and other dynasties descending from the condottieri knew little scruples, when it came to maintaining their position.

With analyses like this the political insider Machiavelli at once revealed – in a very modern fashion! – that the business of power works like a propagandistic performance, only in the guise of morality, worn as masks. Even worse: Machiavelli accepted this condition without criticising it. Which got “The Prince” blacklisted later…

So Machiavelli’s reasoning does not take an idealistic approach in the humanist fashion, but an empirical approach, scientific in the modern sense. The 1550 edition summarizes all of his writings, marked by a divided Italy, the fight between estates and cities, the search for new systems of order in a chaotic world. That holds true not only for historical-philosophical treatises but also for his subtle and still-popular comedy “Mandragola.” We recognize ourselves in the people of his time. Machiavelli holds up the mirror to us just like he did to his contemporaries.