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Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Scandal of Machiavelli or The Iron Law of Politics

By Pedro Schwartz

For historians of political thought, the year 2013 was the 500th anniversary of the writing of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. It was an occasion to fight it out with the great Florentine. I still have not got over the shock of reading The Prince as a student in Franco's Spain. The idealistic young man that I was did not know how to counter Machiavelli's implacable logic. True, times had changed and the crimes of a Borgia were not countenanced. But what if the spirit of politics, even democratic politics, was as Machiavelli had described? Was there nothing else to be said about competition for power but that it was the kind of savage game he described? When democracy was restored in Spain I was elected to Parliament as a lonely libertarian in a conservative ticket. I was not cut out for the job and did not stay long. Does this mean that I had not understood and digested the lessons of The Prince?

I. An eventful life and a complex personality

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469, in a family of the lower nobility and modest means. His father Bernard Machiavelli was a natural son, a condition which weighed on our author's political career. Little is known about Niccolò's education and early life in Republican Florence, except that he became a distinguished civil servant when he was thirty. His means were always modest: his salary while employed at the Signoria and a house and some land in the village of Sant' Andrea di Percussina in the borough of San Cassiano.

The situation of relative isolation of the affairs of central Italy changed in 1494, when the King Charles III of France came over the Alps with his army to claim the Kingdom of Naples for himself. The Medici were forced to leave Florence for a long exile of almost twenty years. In the wake of the French, the traditional allies of democratic Florence, the Republic was restored. For a period the acetic priest Savonarola lorded over the populace. He ended by being burnt at the stake. The institutions of the Republic were thus restored in 1498 and Machiavelli, at the age of 29, was made the head of the Second Chancellery of the Signoria, in charge of military and foreign affairs. It is not known why he was offered such a high post. This was the beginning of a distinguished diplomatic and military career.


In 1500 he took part in the first of his many missions to the court of the King of France. He met Cesare Borgia in 1502, again as part of the mission the Signoria sent to deflect the ambitions of the Duke of Valentinois or "il Valentino", as he was generally called, from carving a dukedom for himself in Romagna at the expense of Florence among other cities. It is when following Valentino that Machiavelli came to distinguish two factors in attaining and maintaining supreme power in a new kingdom: Fortuna and Virtù—on the one hand luck and on the other what the Romans called virtus, courage, decisiveness, ambition, and ruthlessness. Machiavelli's admiration for the Duke was born during those negotiations—an admiration that grew when he witnessed how ruthless he was towards his enemies and how attentive to the needs of the cities he acquired. Thus, his lieutenant in Romagna, Ramiro de Lorca had proved himself efficient but cruel. To distance himself from such an unpopular strongman he had him beheaded and left in the public square of Cesena, carved like an ox. Machiavelli also recounted Cesare's revenge at Sinigallia with admiration, in a piece of 1503 he had titled "Description of the way that Duke Valentino killed Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, Paolo Orsisni and the Duke of Gravina-Orsini" the gist of which he inserted in The Prince. Borgia attracted the four plotters to the castle of Senigallia under false pretenses and had them strangled. Machiavelli in The Prince drew the moral of this story with the following words: "And because this part is worthy of notice and of being imitated by others, I do not want to pass it over" (The Prince, Chapter VII). What he was implying is that, in relations among states and princes force was decisive, in contrast with private life.

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