Machiavellianism: An adjective?

Written By : Avi Gupta

“A prince cannot observe all those things for which men are considered good, for in order to maintain the state he is often obliged to act against his promise, against charity, against humanity, and against religion”- This is one of the famous quotes written by Niccolò Machiavelli in his book “The Prince”. The Prince is a short treatise that tells how to acquire power, create a state and keep it. This book represents Machiavelli’s effort to provide a guide for political action based on the lessons of history and his own experience as a foreign secretary in Florence. He used to believe that politics has its own rules which shocked his readers that the adjectival form of his surname, Machiavellian, came to be used as a synonym for political maneuvers marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli popularly known as Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was an Italian politician, diplomat, philosopher as well as a writer based in Florence, Italy during the period of the Renaissance. ‘The Prince’ is the first authentic book of political science that examines power. According to scholars, it is a guidebook for an ideal prince, a great book for politicians about the use of cruel, self-serving shrewd manner of ruling, and an extended study of how to acquire as well as sustain political power. The book is considered as a persuasion for people in Italy to visualize a situation of an ideal head of state ruling a unified Italy. The book comprises 26 chapters and an opening dedication to Lorenzo de Medici.

Machiavelli’s purpose in writing ‘The Prince’ can be explained with two reasons:

Firstly, to show a ruler or a prince how he could uphold a safe and prosperous state in the midst of the political turmoil of the early 16th century in Italy, and

Secondly, to redeem himself in the eyes of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, son of Piero de’ Medici.

Before writing “The Prince”, Machiavelli was considered a respectful statesman, he represented Florence on foreign missions. He became a public figure when he assumed duties as the Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence in 1498. During the next 14 years, Machiavelli carried out many diplomatic missions on behalf of Florence and traveled to the most important places in Italy and Europe. Machiavelli was responsible for the diplomatic and military affairs of the State.

Niccolò Machiavelli passed his childhood peacefully, receiving the humanistic education customary for young men of the Renaissance middle class. He witnessed the expulsion of the Medici family, oligarchic despots who had ruled Florence for decades, and the rise of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican religious zealot who took control of the region shortly thereafter. Italy at that time became the scene of intense political conflict. The city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples fought for control of Italy. Each of these powers attempted to pursue a strategy of playing the other powers off of one other, but they also engaged in less honorable practices such as blackmail and violence. These events influenced Machiavelli’s attitudes toward government, forming the backdrop for his later impassioned pleas for Italian unity.

Machiavelli observed Cesare Borgia (son of Pope Alexander VI) during his military campaigns in the Italian Romagna. It was Borgia who shaped Machiavelli’s opinions about leadership. Borgia was a cunning, cruel, and vicious politician, and many people despised him. Nevertheless, Machiavelli believed Borgia had the traits necessary for any leader who would seek to unify Italy.

Machiavellianism in the present world has become an adjective according to which Machiavellianism is a personality trait that denotes cunningness, the ability to be manipulative, and a drive to use whatever means necessary to gain power. But I would defend Machiavelli in the end and would like to quote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond who said “Machiavelli is frequently dismissed today as an amoral cynic who supposedly considered the end to justify the means,” he is, in fact, “a crystal-clear realist who understands the limits and uses of power.”

The Prince is one of the most influential and controversial books published in Western literature. Critics have long debated whether The Prince, which famously argues that the ends—no matter how immoral—justify the means for preserving political authority, was written as a satire. While Machiavelli’s intent is unknown, this much is indisputable: the book continues to be a searing meditation on the means some people use to get and maintain power.

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