International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 3

By Jay M. Shafritz | Go to book overview

M

MACHIAVELLI. Florentine administrator, diplomat, and statesman whose name in popular usage has become synonymous with ruthless and devious political calculations. Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, 1469-1527, on exclusion from public office by the ruling Medici family after 1512, turned his attention to the study of politics, statecraft, and war. It is his published works rather than his conduct of public affairs for which he is most renowned. His writings include The Prince (his most famous work), Discourses on the First Decade of Livy, The Art of War, and The History of Florence (Bondanella and Musa 1979).

These classics of Renaissance literature represent important contributions to the development of politics as an area of academic focus. Indeed, Machiavelli has often been described as the founder of modern "political science." While this is perhaps an exaggeration, he undoubtedly employed empirical methods, relying heavily on his own observations and experiences as a foundation for his analysis of politics within the Italian peninsula in general and his own city-state of Florence in particular. He certainly believed that through the rigorous analysis of man's past actions, it should be possible to predict future behavior.

Machiavelli was not a philosopher who deliberately set out to posit or develop theory; he was more an experienced practitioner prescribing a distinctive approach to government and the conduct of state business. He first took up public office in 1498 in Florence's Second Chancery, which had involvement in both foreign and domestic affairs. He remained in office for 14 years, during which he helped raise the Florentine militia and traveled abroad on several diplomatic missions. Most significant of these excursions were three visits paid to Cesare Borgia in the years 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli came to admire Pope Alexander VI's illegitimate son, who, at that time, posed a serious threat to Florentine territorial integrity. It was Cesare Borgia's guile and determination that forged in Machiavelli's mind the character of the ideal ruler who was to be the central figure in The Prince.

Machiavelli lost his office in 1512 on the fall of the Florentine Republic and the return to power of the Medici family. Initially imprisoned and tortured, he was eventually allowed to retire to his estates, dying in 1527. During the whole of his life, the Italian states were locked in political and military struggles. The Italian wars involved not only the states of the peninsula itself but also intervening powers that sought to impose their hegemony over the region. Most notable of these were France and the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs. In the year of Machiavelli's death, Rome was sacked by the Hapsburg army while its leader looked helplessly on. If Machiavelli was anything at all, he was certainly a product of his times.

While not setting out to become a philosopher, there is no doubt that he became one of importance and substance. Machiavelli's philosophical starting point is a grimly pessimistic assessment of human nature. Fundamentally selfish, mankind is motivated entirely by its own self-interest. This renders fear a far more effective force for progress than love. Ventures undertaken out of love will invariably be abandoned if the consequences threaten selfinterest or if a better outcome can be pursued. Fear of punishment, by contrast, will drive one on to meet one's commitments because it would clearly not be in one's interests to fail to meet them. One can therefore trust someone motivated by fear rather more than one can trust someone motivated by love.

While Machiavelli was pessimistic about human nature, he was optimistic about the future of human society. If self-interest will invariably prevail, as he believed it would, then man's actions can be analyzed, future behavior can be predicted, citizens and other rulers can be manipulated, and society can be organized by an astute ruler to maximize the benefit to all, especially, of course, himself. That ruler will recognize the essentially conflictual nature of politics-all politics, both domestic and international-and use that understanding to advantage.

Unfortunately for Machiavelli, his views on human nature have given him a bad name. The extent to which he was influenced by Cesare Borgia, a man of grossly evil reputation, has done nothing over the centuries to enhance his own standing. His reliance on the manipulative potential of an astute, self-interested ruler is fundamentally unattractive to the liberal mind, regardless of the actual outcome of that ruler's conduct. So too is the apparent detaching of the conduct of politics from immediate questions of ethics and morality. Universal benefit is unacceptable if the methods used to achieve it are repulsive. Machiavelli's own name has often been regarded as synonymous with evil. If a person is described as "Machiavellian," one can assume that that person is regarded as devious, immoral, two-faced, manipulative, and untrustworthy.

And yet, Machiavelli was a champion of republicanism and of liberty. Far from being immoral, it was arguably his morality that motivated him to seek out a way of overcoming the profound shortcomings he discerned in human nature. In the final chapter of The Prince, he exhorts, by implication, Lorenzo di Medici to "liberate Italy from the Barbarians." The message was straightforward: Achieve power by the only way possible and then use that power to good advantage. Machiavelli was a realist who saw the possibility of security and a well-ordered society in which citizens would enjoy liberty through the necessary manipulation and utilization of mankind's inherent selfishness.

Machiavelli remains a profoundly controversial figure, more maligned than read, more misinterpreted than understood. Ironically, if he had been more "Machiavellian"

-1323-

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International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 3
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