Machiavelli: Renaissance Political Philosopher

Western Civ

Research Report
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Machiavelli was a great political philosopher who lived in Italy during the height of the Renaissance. He lived his life searching for the real answers behind politics in the hopes that one-day Italy might be united to achieve its former glory as a world power. Today, Machiavelli is widely known for the controversial political views found in his masterpiece, The Prince.

Historical Background

 After the Black Death swept across Europe during the fourteenth century, the general attitudes of the people began to change. The Catholic Church had been powerless to stop the onslaught and chaos brought by the plague. This caused people to seek answers elsewhere, beyond the dogma of the church. Scholars looked towards the ancients of Greece and Rome as models for their inquiries into the human world. Individualism, secularism, and humanism replaced grace and divinity. By the time Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, Italy was experiencing a Renaissance, a rebirth of classical literature and ways of thinking.

The Italy of Machiavelliís time was in a state of political confusion. Foreign armies clashed on Italian battlefields in hopes of conquest. Powerful Italian families battled for control of the countryside. City-states and territories dotted the Italian landscape. Alliances were forged and broken. The papacy was becoming increasingly corrupted, and foreign mercenaries were being hired to fight for the Italian cause. Italy lacked the general political stability and unity that scholars were finding had existed before the Catholic Church during the time of the Romans.

Research Report

Machiavelli officially began his political career in 1498, at the age of twenty-nine. That year, Machiavelli was given the position of Chancellor and Secretary of the Ten of Liberty and Peace in the Republic of Florence. Machiavelliís job in the Florentine Republic allowed him to travel abroad on diplomatic missions and see how other successful governments functioned. He met with many famous leaders such as Luis XII of France, Cesare Borgia (son of Pope Alexander VI), Pope Julius II, and Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire. His travels made him realize that both political power and stability were possible if the right formulas were followed. 

In 1512, the Medici family took over Florence and the republic was dissolved. Machiavelli was removed from office and, after he was suspected in an anti-Medici plot, he was imprisoned and tortured. Machiavelli was released from prison in 1513 and decided to retire to his countryside home of San Casciano. It was there that Machiavelli composed his most famous works, The Prince (1513), and The Discourses (1513-19). In the lush countryside of San Casciano, Machiavelli also wrote the, Art of War (1521), and the History of Florence (1525).

When the Medici presence in Florence was overthrown, Machiavelli hoped to regain his position in the republic. He returned from his exile to Florence in 1527. Machiavelli, however, was not that popular in Florence. Some people suspected him of being pro-Medici; others feared him because of his deep political insights. At 58 years old, Machiavelliís health was beginning to deteriorate. He grew sick and died in 1527, never fully achieving the political power he desired.

Machiavelliís works, however, leave him a legacy far greater than any political title could have given him. His views on politics set him apart from any other political philosopher before him. Following true Renaissance style, Machiavelli looked to the past to supply answers for the present and future. Machiavelli engrossed himself in classical literature and in the study of ancient leaders. He compared ancient leaders and ancient situations to the leaders and the events of his own time. Machiavelli wanted to know the method to achieve political success, and how this method could be used to unite Italy.

Machiavelli believed in a cyclical view of history, that situations in the present are mimetic of past situations. With this in mind, all the answers to current problems could be found in the past. By exposing the mimetic aspects of history, Machiavelli was able to find historyís didactic nature. History was instructional, one could learn from the past to obtain the answers he was looking for.

Machiavelli also probed deep into the conflict between politics and ethics. Politics, matters of state, were always of the utmost importance. To Machiavelli, the state was the primary good. The state provided security and freedom for its citizens; therefore everything must be done in order to maintain it. This belief placed political leaders above ethical standards. In the words of Machiavelli, ďthe ends justify the means.Ē Leaders must do everything they can to support the state, even if their actions at times seem unethical.

By placing the state as the primary good, Machiavelli was able to examine corruption. Corruption of the state occurred when a leader placed some secondary good (material wealth/status) above the primary good (the state). So long as the state remains the primary good, the government will be powerful and the people will be secure. 

On his travels, and in his quest into ancient literature,

Machiavelli came across many different types of government. To Machiavelli, however, the best form of government was the republic. In a republic, conflict between classes leads to a greater unity and a stronger state. Republican forms of government allowed for the voices of the people to be heard to some degree through discussion and through suffrage while still allowing power to lie in the hand of a select few. A select few could rule with the utmost authority to enforce the state as the primary good. 


Machiavelli, like the ancient Romans, recognized that republican forms of government could be too slow to act during times of necessity. For this reason, Machiavelli saw no fault in the temporary leadership of a prince or a dictator during times of crisis. As long as the state always remains the primary good, the government will be just. Also, a dictator or prince must never have the power to change the traditional laws governing the leadership of the state. In such a case, individuals can place their own ambitions (secondary good) above the state (primary good) and corruption develops.


Machiavelli favored republics like his own Venice, but recognized that under certain conditions or times of crisis, rule must be passed to one individual for drastic action. The ability of an absolute ruler to obtain fast action led to Machiavelliís quest for a great Prince. A great Prince, he believed, could act fast to rid Italy of its foreign occupation and unite the Italian people. Once the Prince had restored and reunited Italy, steps could be taken to redevelop the republic and Italy would be great again.

Machiavelli also believed that a strong state must have a strong military. A strong military, made up of citizen soldiers, works to continuously enforce the powers of the state, and thus upholds the primary good. Citizens should be freed from their obligations to the church because the church suppressed arête (valor, courage, and the honor of a warrior) and preached humility and meekness. In this light, Machiavelli believed in strong secularism. According to Machiavelli, citizens should place nothing (not even God) above the state. The state and the state alone existed to provide citizens with security.

Historical Significance

Machiavelliís works have given birth to a new political era. Many of the ideas and methods developed by Machiavelli and other Renaissance philosophers are still in practice today. Machiavelliís call for secularism is still reflected in modern governments through separation of church and state. His approach towards treating the problems of mankind as a science is still mirrored by todayís social scientists. The method of solving current problems by comparing them to past situations is still used by contemporary historians, politicians, and economists. Ideas and methods first developed by Machiavelli have stood the test of time to prove that Machiavelli was truly a great philosopher.


Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. Machiavelliís The Prince: Text and Commentary. Woodbury: Baronís Educational Series, 1975.

Bondanella, Peter and Mark Musa. The Portable Machiavelli. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1979.

Butterfield, H. The Statecraft of Machiavelli. London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1979.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Art of War.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The History of Florence.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince.

Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelliís Three Romes. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Web Resources -Huge list of Machiavelli links. -Nice summary of Machiavelliís life with a black and white picture of Machiavelli. -Short article about Machiavelli with an analysis of key points in The Prince. -Analysis of Machiavelliís life and political beliefs. -Brief article on Machiavelli with links to other related philosophers.

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