A humanist is defined as one who is concerned with the interests and welfare of humans. Niccolo’ Machiavelli can be thought of as a humanist. Although opinions on this differ greatly depending on whom you speak with. Machiavelli’s life consists of so many examples and lessons that he has learned throughout his life. Through my paper, I intend to examine his perception of morality based on his political writings and life experiences. Niccolo’ Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 and died in 1527. Although we do not know much about his early life, we know that he was educated according to the humanist ideals of the Renaissance.
He was trained at an early age by a latin teacher named Paolo da Ronciglione. He spent his youth in the city of Florence which suffered from continuous political instability. Machialvelli, a humanist, had a practical approach to politcs. He came up with the idea that “the end justifies the means”. He argued that whether a government is “good”, can only be determined by looking at whether it is effective. 5 Machiavelli worked under the Republican government led by Piero Soderini. In 1512 when the Spanish troops defeated the republican army the Medici family took over rule of Florence.
As a result Machiavelli was put into internal exile. In 1513 he was wrongly accused of conspiring against the Medici family. He was then imprisoned and tortured for several weeks. Afterwards he lived in a small town outside of Florence. It was then that he began his literary career by writing one of his most remembered and debated books called “The Prince”. It is also one of the most famous works in the history of political philosophy. His experiences as a young man were reflected in his work. “The Prince” has often been read as a book that promotes a sly and mean way of attaining political power. However, he discerns that morals are very important even though political action sometimes go beyond moral considerations. 5 He also wrote poems and plays and other well known books such as, “The Art of War”. In “The Prince”, he asks the question who is a better ruler, the one who is loved by his subjects or the one who is feared by them? 5 Machiavelli felt that it would be good to be both of them but if you had to choose then fear would be the best choice out of the two. He made observations about the conduct of political leaders and whether or not they were able to achieve their goals.
He then gave recommendations based on these considerations. It is not obvious what he expected to achieve by writing “The Prince”. According to his writings, he did not believe that Christianity should play a role in government. He believed that it hindered the states power to govern. Machiavelli asserts, the state needs to restrict the power of the church, allowing it to exercise its office only in the spiritual realm. 4 Traditional political theory incorporated “God” as a way of ensuring stability. Machiavelli did not agree with this. He believed that the power of the state was more important than the moral law of God.
One of his most famous passages from his book “The Prince” reads, “If all men were good this precept would not be a good one but as they are bad and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them. ” 4 It was because of such bold statements that “The Prince” was put on a prohibited book list by the Catholic church and possibly why today the word “Machiavellian” means devious or unscrupulous in political dealings. 4 Machiavelli believed that power is best kept intact when the ruler understands that it is power that keeps them strong and not external influences such as religion.
He did not promote violence for the sake of itself. He promoted doing whatever it took to keep the state strong and powerful. This was a view similarly shared by one of our modern day activists, Malcom X. In approximately the last 500 years “The Prince” became a favorite book of numerous political leaders such as Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benito Mussolini mainly due to the technical lessons to be learned from it. He used the term virtu’ in his book “The Art of War” which is a dialogue on military affairs.
It describes the great ability of a general who is able to adapt to various battlefield conditions as they present themselves. It is said that the most vilified of political thinkers is also the one of whom it has been said that he concentrated all his real and supreme values in what he called virtu’. 6 What he meant by this was that a prince would have to develop a different psychology than what he is used to. The “new” prince is “prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him and not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be should be capable of ntering upon a path of wrong doing when it becomes necessary”. 7 Some ninety years ago Villari said that Machiavelli always use the word virtue in the sense of courage and energy both for good and evil. To Christian virtue in its more general meaning, he rather applied the term goodness, and felt much less admiration for it than for the pagan virtue that was always fruitful of glory. 2 Although the political life of Niccolo Machiavelli is quite interesting when analyzing his views on government and religion, his personal life and experiences were equally a representation of him as a humanist.
He was described by some as never offensive and possessing a genuine understanding of human weakness. Niccolo formed a quite distinct perception of life formulated with generosity and a passion for great deeds. He understood the life lessons of human malice. He learned this through his own personal experiences. Although Machiavelli was only nine years old at the time he remembered hearing people talk about the political events taking place involving the Medici family who ruled Florence at that time.
Cosimo de’ Medici the elder had impoverished or banished anyone who he believed due to their wealth or influence may obstuct his plans. 1 Cosimo was willing to do “whatever it took” to ensure absolute power of the state. He believed that if you want to expand your power politically you can not always follow the Christian principals of morality. Cosimo eventually died and was succeded by his son, Piero who also passed away after only 1 month as the head of the Medici regime. The regime was then headed by Piero’s two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.
Giuliano was later killed in a conspiracy that was created to kill him and his brother Lorenzo. Lorenzo fled to his escape. Once in his early twenties Machiavelli heard the sermons of a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola. However, he did not share the views of Savonarola. Savonarola belived that the sins of a people have their roots in the behavior of princes. 8 Since Machiavelli did believe that Savonarola was a prophet albeit a liar, he always spoke of him with respect but never became one of his followers.
According to Machiavelli, Savonarola made quite a few political mistakes. He allowed the death of 5 Florentines to occur with out defending their right to an appeal by using a new law that Savonarola himself had encouraged the passage of. In reality as Machiavelli later wrote, the fact that the friar had neither endorsed their right to appeal nor condemned their execution “harmed his reputation” more than any other action. 9 After the death of Savonorola, Machiavelli was nominated as secretary of the Second Chancery which handled the dominions and foreign affairs of Florence.
His job was to keep the Signoria and the Ten informed on military and political problems so they could make appropriate decisions. He was a highly unusual chief who knew how to transform his subordinates into friends. 10 This became apparent in letters written by his subordinates. Niccolo’ had a lively curiosity and his wit brought laughter to the members of the Chancery. In July 1499, his job became increasingly difficult when he was sent on his second mission to meet Caterina Sforza Riario.
He was sent there to persuade her to accept the renewal of the contract for her son Ottaviano Riario to fight for Florence in the reconquest of Pisa without the increase of salary that she was requesting. 11 Although she liked Florence she refused. Niccolo’ then tried to convince the Signoria that Caterina would be more persuaded it they performed deeds instead of words. Deeds such as paying their old debts and offering better conditions in exchange for using her sons troops. Caterina was always concerned about “matters of honor,’ which she held “above all things. ” 12 Machiavelli undoubtedly admired her behavior.
He also admired her beauty and intelligence. He believed that he had convinced her to settle for a verbal promise instead of a written commitment, however, she soon informed him that she needed a written commitment from Florence. He was undoubtedly surprised and hurt probably due to the fact that he had already told the Signoria that she had agreed and now this made him look bad. In any case, Caterina remained without the protection of Florence, which did not lift a finger when Cesare Borgia laid siege to Forli. 13 Once her fortress was taken she was held for two weeks.
Machiavelli wrote about her again in his book called the “Discourses”. He told the story of a strong woman abducted with her children. Machiavelli also mentioned Caterina in his Art of War, when he described how she defended the fortress of Forli against Cesare Borgia. 14 His words showed deep admiration for her. She had the spirit to await an army as neither the King of England or the Duke of Milan did. 14 His memory of this countess whom he met on one of his first missions remained vivid over the years, and with his accounts of her deeds, he introduced her into legend, making her live forever. 4 Although Machiavelli is no longer shocking, he is still a subject of much debate and controversy. This is mostly due to the fact that he was misunderstood in the past. Works Cited 1. Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 13 2. P. Villari, Life and Times of Machiavelli, tr. Linda Villari, 4 vols(London,n. d), II, 92 3. The political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosopy, edited by Anthony Parel, University of Toronto Press, 1972, pp. 157-78 4. Cunningham, Lawrence S.