Niccolò Machiavelli lost his job in 1512. He had been secretary to the chancery for the Republic of Florence since 1498, but the Medici family retook the city-state by force and installed their prince as leader, banishing Machiavelli from government.
There being no blogs, Machiavelli retreated to his farm outside of Florence to write a treatise for the new rulers on how to govern—a document he hoped would convince them to rehire him.
It was called The Prince, and its 500th anniversary this year was cause for a resurgence of reconsiderations of the brief, and in some ways shocking book that laid the cornerstone for modern politics.
While The Prince failed to get Machiavelli back into the government, it influenced great political thinkers across the centuries, including René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu and John Locke.
“Machiavelli and Plato are the only two political thinkers whose names have become adjectives and that are still used in contemporary parlance,” says Ioannis Evrigenis, an associate professor of political science at Tufts. He notes that if you search the New York Times archive, Machiavelli has been mentioned more than 48,000 times since 1851.
But there is a problem. The term Machiavellian, referring to the ruthless pursuit of an end by any means, badly misinterprets the ideas that he expounded in The Prince and Discourses on Livy, which he wrote around the same time.
The Founder of Modern Politics
Both books need to be read in context with each other to understand Machiavelli’s belief in democracy and the right of people to have a voice in their government, says Evrigenis, who hosted a conference titled “Wrestling with Machiavelli” at Tufts in 2011.
While The Prince is a set of short maxims, bits of advice written for a political leader to digest easily, Discourses on Livy is a longer work, focusing on how citizens can run a republic.
“Though he did propound the necessity of using any means to an end, his end was to benefit humanity,” says Vickie Sullivan, a professor of political theory and also professor and chair of the classics department in the School of Arts and Sciences. “So it’s really not just any end—it’s the political end of saving the state to allow human beings to live securely and flourish.”
So why should we care about Machiavelli half a millennium later? “Because in so many ways, he is the founder of modern politics,” says Sullivan, who with Evrigenis was an invited speaker at the “500 Years of Machiavelli’s The Prince” conference at Harvard University in September. “Machiavelli’s writings put us at the threshold of the modern world.”
Machiavelli talks about creating states and societies based not on what people should ideally be, but on how they really are, Sullivan says. “He writes about ‘the effectual truth of the thing rather than the imagination of it’ as the best way to craft statehood,” she says.
He was also the first to suggest using psychology in statecraft. “He treats people as individual units that participate in politics and whose minds you need to get into—they are no longer a mass,” says Evrigenis. “You’ve got to figure out what they think, so you can manipulate what they think to rule more effectively.”
“He shows us how the flaws of force and fraud may be necessities in preserving a state, but he also shows us the possibility of human greatness, how things can be accomplished,” says Sullivan.
Bad PR for The Prince
But Machiavelli is mostly remembered for being, well, Machiavellian. That’s in part because just 30 years after their publication, his books were banned. Still, people continued to discuss his ideas, focusing on the simple maxims and not on the challenges he wrote to each one, says Evrigenis. Many prominent scholars of the time claimed to summarize his views, but misinterpreted many of his arguments.
“He hated intellectual laziness and would have been upset by the simplification of his work, which was written to make us think on our feet, to consider all sides of a problem and its possibilities,” Evrigenis says. “But he created the Machiavelli problem himself. He just put all these ideas out there and said ‘go figure it out’—and on it’s gone for 500 years.”
It is Machiavelli’s challenge to our modern world, Sullivan and Evrigenis argue, that we ferret out new possibilities by understanding that what is right in one circumstance may be disastrous in another. “When he talks about the state of war, he is really talking about a state of mind,” Evrigenis says. “He stresses flexibility—to be able to think quickly and react, even in peace.”
And that leads to his greatest legacy, which could be summed up as “assume nothing.”
“People often say he was critiquing Christianity or Plato or Aristotle, but his thinking is far broader than that,” Evrigenis says. “He is interested in challenging any dominant way of thinking that may not preserve a secure society.”
Gail Bambrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.