” For that small matter of lies”, wrote Machiavelli,”I am a doctor and hold my degrees. Life has taught me to confound false and true, till no man knows either”. In ”The Prince” his personal confession becomes a general rule; ”One must know how to color one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver”.

The Prince: Cesare Borgia combined the qualities of the lion and the fox, and became the model for Machiavelli's ideal ruler

The Prince: Cesare Borgia combined the qualities of the lion and the fox, and became the model for Machiavelli's ideal ruler

What is to be made of Machiavelli’s doctrine that it is sometimes wise for a prince to break his word and to violate treaties? It is usually said that this teaching originated with Machiavelli . If so, it would be  very surprising, for the vast majority of so-called original inventions during the Italian Renaissance are know known to have been borrowed from classical texts. The Florentines seemed to value wisdom much as Edwardian English gentlemen valued port; the older the better.

Having invented his method, Machiavelli proceeded to apply it imperfectly. He virtually ignored the Middle Ages, likely because medieval chroniclers were deficient in those dramatic human twists, reversals and paradoxes that really interested him. This neglect of the Middle Ages marred his study of how to deal with foreign invaders. Over a period of a thousand years, Italy had always suffered invasion from the north; the lessons implicit in these instances would have helped Machiavelli to resolve his main problem much better than the more remote happenings he chose to draw for example from his ”Discourses on Livy”. In other words, often courage and a united command worked far better than duplicity and dramatic acts of terrorism.

The invader: Charles VIII of France caused the downfall of the Florentine Republic

The invader: Charles VIII of France caused the downfall of the Florentine Republic

In 1504, Machiavelli wrote a play, which has been lost, called ”Masks”. Apparently it was an imitation of Aristophanes’ ”Clouds” the subject of which is the Sophists, those men who claimed to teach ”virtue” in a special sense, namely, efficiency in the conduct of life. The Sophists emphasized material success and the ability to argue from any point of view, irrespective of its truth. At worst, they encouraged a cynical disbelief in all moral restraints on the pursuit of selfish, personal ambition. Florentines during their golden age had paid little attention to the Sophists, preferring Plato, who accorded so well with Christianity and an aesthetic approach to life; but after the Florentine collapse to the French in 1494 it would have been natural for a man like Machiavelli to dig out other, harder, more rough and tumble philosophers.

The source of his doctrine of political unscrupulousness may well have been the Sophists as presented in Aristophanes’ play. The question arises, as to how could an undisputably civilized man lie Machiavelli advise a ruler to be cruel and deceitful and strike terror?  The answer may lie in the last chapter of ”The Prince”, entitled ” Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians”. This may be the clue. ”See how Italy beseeches God to send someone to save her from those barbarous cruelties and outrages… ( an Italy that is ) ‘leaderless, lawless, crushed, despoiled, torn, overrun, she has had to endure every kind of desolation.”



Machiavelli is a patriot writing in mental torment. He seldom mention the deity, but in this chapter the name of God occurs six times on one page, as an endorsement for this new kind of ruler. Machiavelli really believes that his deceitful prince will be as much an instrument of God as Moses was, and this for two reasons. Italy is an occupied country, and her survival is at stake; and just as moral theologians argued that theft becomes legitimate when committed by a starving man, so Machiavelli implies that deceit, cruelty, and so on become legitimate when they are the only means to national survival.

Also, Machiavelli has seen honesty in action and its subsequent failure. Savonarola had hoped to silence canon by singing hymns. Machiavelli himself had sent conscripts against the Spaniards. The Italians had been then, and still were, Bantams pitted against heavy weights. They could not win according to the rules, only with sucker punches. And since they had to win or cease to be themselves, that is, a civilized people as compared to foreign ”barbarians”; Machiavelli argues that it is not only right, but the will of God, that they use immoral means to achieve their ends.machiavelli6

The Prince is an extreme book that grew out of an extreme situation and that its maxims must be seen within the context of a

red, smoking ruins of a devastated Italy. One of the nearest modern parallels was wartime France where cultivated men like Albert Camus joined the resistance, committing themselves to blowing up German posts at night and to other sinister techniques of guerilla warfare . Like Machiavelli, they saw these as the only way to free their beloved country.

However, the most brilliant, and perhaps neglected aspect of Machiavelli was his method. Before Machiavelli, historians had been slaves of chronology, going forward, chronicling events year by year and decade by decade. Machiavelli pooled historical facts from a variety of authors, not necessarily of the same period, and to use these facts to draw general conclusions or to answer pertinent questions.

Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia

Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia

Machiavelli does not wholly break with the cyclical reading of history, but his approach of overlaying a thesis within the discourse was a major step forward in that he discovered a method whereby people can learn from the past. For example, ,”what kind of reputation or gossip or opinion causes the populace to begin to favor a particualr citizen?” and Whether the safeguarding of liberty can be more safely entrusted to the populace or to the upper class; and which has the stronger reason for creating disturbances, the ‘have nots’ or the ‘haves’?”.

”In his highly readable new biographyMachiavelli, Ross King paints a more complete picture of Florence’s most misunderstood thinker and his tumultuous times. King’s breezy narrative doesn’t spare Machiavelli, depicting him as an intellectual who loved prostitutes as much as philosophy. But it does present the fresh and sympathetic hypothesis that Machiavelli may not, in fact, have been so Machiavellian.

King, an art historian and the author of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, portrays a Machiavelli who lived by more than cunning and reason. He consulted astrologers and believed that the heavens influenced political events. Although he championed dissimulation, he was incapable of it: he refused to flatter fools and regularly mouthed off to superiors. He understood suffering, once urging his son to release a mule from its halter so that it might “regain its own way of life.” And he inspired not fear, but affection. During his long trips abroad, friends wrote him letters professing that they were “seized by a marvelous desire” to see him, and reporting that his highly strung wife couldn’t bear their separation: “Good Lord, there is no way to get her to calm down and take comfort.”

Other women missed him, too: one friend wrote to inform him that a particular prostitute was also yearning for his return. Yet the amoral tone of Machiavelli’s work seems to reflect his age more than his temperament. In the 16th century, gore and tragedy dominated the Italian peninsula, a hodgepodge of warring city-states, kingdoms and republics. Machiavelli roamed this minefield of intrigue on horseback as Florence’s diplomatic envoy from the age of 29. In an early mission, he failed to resolve a long-standing feud between two families, and King describes the result: “The heads of a dozen members of the Panciatichi family were stuck on lances and paraded through the city, while other disembodied heads were used for games of palla, a primitive version of tennis.” Machiavelli later encountered a henchman trained in strangulation, a mother who kept a recipe book of beauty treatments and slow-acting poisons, and a ruler who ate his brother-in-law’s heart.”( William Lee Adams )

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  1. Lynn Jenkins says:

    I wound up this blog a couple weeks ago and I seriously can not get enough! Please keep writing!

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