Born in May 1469 and died in June 1527, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was a huge influence during the Renaissance period. His work, alongside the work of many others, helped to revolutionise concepts, social ideals and aspects of contemporary societies.
Throughout his life, Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, humanist, historian, philosopher, writer, and politician of the Renaissance period.
A humanist is a non-religious person who believes in no supernatural, no life after death and that ‘we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity’. Machiavelli believed that religion was not the only element of personal gratification or stress relief. One chapter in his book ‘The Prince’ named ‘church states’ provides evidence towards his anti-ecclesiastical views. Machiavelli concludes that church states depend upon ancient religious institutions that ‘are so strong and well established’ they ‘keep their rulers in power no matter what they do or how they live’. ‘Only church leaders possess states without defending them and subjects without governing them,’ he continues. This shows his beliefs that the church system is corrupt and a cathartic institution that is morally incorrect because church goers are exploited for personal gain and satisfaction for those higher on the hierarchy of church state systems.
Niccolò Machiavelli could be seen as a genius because he highlighted flaws within Renaissance society and how religion would be seen as a method of absolution and justification for continuous pain and suffering. For example, confession would be used as a way for forgiveness for criminals and ‘God’s plan’ concepts were used as a way to sedate rebellion and give reason for immoral acts.
Even though from a modern perspective we realise that Machiavelli was right for attempting to reveal truths and unleash the more sinister motives of people in power, back in the Renaissance period social moral codes were so strict that arguments against God were seen as almost criminal and people would be labelled as villainous and consequences of evil. These people, who in modern day may be seen as revolutionary geniuses, in that day would have been perceived as the opposite and arguments against church would be seen as blasphemous, perhaps as worst as treason. Going against God was the ultimate deviance and Machiavelli was a victim of being labelled an aberrant sinner which is one reason as to why he may be seen as a villain.
During the time Italy was divided into four rival city-states, it was ‘at the mercy of stronger governments throughout the rest of Europe’ according to biography.com in 2014. Niccolò Machiavelli became a diplomat, which (according to the Cambridge Dictionary) is ‘an official whose job is to represent one country in another, and who usually works in an embassy’. Young Machiavelli became one of these after the temporary fall of Florence’s ruling Medici family in 1494. This position belonged to him for 14 years in Italy’s Florentine Republic during the Medici family exile. Machiavelli was well-known for his unprincipled enjoyment of disturbing associates by appearing more unabashed than be actually was. Machiavelli pretending to be shameless made him appear as deceitful and untrustworthy. This may be one of the reasons as to why he was seen as such a wrongdoer.
Though all these are points show why Machiavelli is significant, it is arguable that his most notable factor is his work ‘The Prince’. The book was written after he was put in jail to be tortured in 1513 after being accused of plotting against new rulers. However, he refused to admit conspiring against the Medici and was eventually released when a general amnesty was declared in celebration of Cardinal Giovanni de’Medici being elected Pope Leo X.
Once Machiavelli was released, he was unemployed and began to write ‘The Prince’ in hopes to please the Medici family and that they would give him a job. ‘The Prince’ was written during a time of tragedy in the Renaissance. Many things Machiavelli wrote about were to do with violence and politics. The book is a detailed scrutiny of how to acquire and maintain power in politics. His book is made up of an opening dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici as well as 26 chapters. The book covers a wide variety of subjects such as different types of principalities, different types of armies and military leaders, characteristics of the prince and Italy’s political situation. The final chapter is a beg for the Medici family to follow the almost instructions as to how to be a good leader and pull Italy out of embarrassment.
Instead of giving a material gift like many others who wish the favour of powerful men, Machiavelli offers his knowledge on the behaviour of superior men. Machiavelli presents that he, as a man of low social rank, has the best perspective of the objectives of those above him. This could be compared to how a prince has the best viewpoint of the actions of his people. Some may argue that his wisdom may be seen through this because of how he was creative in his way of asking for a job from the Medici family. However, others may argue that he is foolish as he wasted time and effort creating this book and his main objective to get a job wasn’t even fulfilled as Lorenzo de Medici ignored ‘The Prince’ and Machiavelli remained unemployed for the rest of his life. But some may argue that although he never got the job, his book influenced great political thinkers across the centuries, including René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu and John Locke.
Machiavelli’s book led to him be remembered in many different ways, such as the term ‘Machiavellianism’. In 2015, Harley Therapy wrote that ‘Machiavellianism in psychology refers to a personality trait which sees a person so focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals.’ A Machiavellian person is described to be narcissistic, psychopathic and sociopathic. Narcissism is to believe you deserve admiration and to be treated differently than others. Sociopathy is to be cold and insensitive to others needs.
A Machiavellian may seem pleasant and charming but they have little empathy and can corrupt and exploit others easily just to achieve whatever they desire. They are said to be absent of principles and values as well as choose power and money before relationships.
There is something called the ‘Machiavellianism Scale’ that has a series of questions to define whether a person is a ‘high Mach’ or a ‘low Mach’. These are basically polar opposites. While a ‘high Mach’ would be selfish and put themselves first, a ‘low Mach’ would be selfless and show empathy to others. A ‘high Mach’ would not trust others and find relying on someone naive, whereas a ‘low Mach’ would believe in goodness and following morals.
Machiavelli being remembered as the term to describe a self-centred and somewhat psychopathic obviously shows that Machiavelli was more of a villain rather than a genius.