Niccolò Machiavelli was one of the most influential political theorists of Western philosophy. His most read treatise, The Prince, turned Aristotle's theory of virtues upside down, shaking the European conception of government at its foundations. Machiavelli lived in or nearby Florence Tuscany his whole life, during the peak of the Renaissance movement, in which he took part. He is also the author of a number of additional political treatises, including The Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, as well as of literary texts, including two comedies and several poems.
Machiavelli was born and raised in Florence, Italy, where his father was an attorney. Historians believe his education was of exceptional quality, especially in grammar, rhetoric, and Latin. He seems not to have been instructed in Greek, though, despite Florence having been a major center for the study of the Hellenic language since the middle of the fourteen hundreds.
In 1498, at age twenty-nine Machiavelli was called to cover two relevant governmental roles in a moment of social turmoil for the newly constituted Republic of Florence: he was named chair of the second chancery and - a short time after - secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e di Pace, a ten-person council responsible for maintaining diplomatic relationships with other States. Between 1499 and 1512 Machiavelli witnessed first-hand the unfolding of Italian political events.
In 1513, the Medici family returned to Florence. Machiavelli was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to overthrow this powerful family. He was first imprisoned and tortured then sent into exile. After his release, he retired to his country house in San Casciano Val di Pesa, about ten miles southwest of Florence. It is here, between 1513 and 1527, that he wrote his masterpieces.
De Principatibus (literally: "On Princedoms") was the first work composed by Machiavelli in San Casciano mostly during 1513; it was published only posthumously in 1532. The Prince is a short treatise of twenty-six chapters in which Machiavelli instructs a young pupil of the Medici family on how to acquire and maintain political power. Famously centered on the right balancing of fortune and virtue in the prince, it is by far the most read work by Machiavelli and one of the most prominent texts of Western political thought.
Despite the popularity of The Prince, Machiavelli's major political work is probably The Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius. Its first pages were written in 1513, but the text was completed only between 1518 and 1521. If The Prince instructed how to govern a princedom, The Discourses were meant to educate future generations to achieve and maintain political stability in a republic. As the title suggests, the text is structured as a free commentary on the first ten volumes of Ab Urbe Condita Libri, the major work of Roman historian Titus Livius (59B.C.-17A.D.)
The Discourses are divided into three volumes: the first devoted to internal politics; the second to foreign politics; the third one to a comparison of the most exemplary deeds of individual men in ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy. If the first volume reveals Machiavelli's sympathy for the republican form of government, it is especially in the third that we find a lucid and pungent critical gaze at the political situation of Renaissance Italy.
Other Political and Historical Works
While carrying forward his governmental roles, Machiavelli had the opportunity to write about the events and issues he was witnessing first-hand. Some of them are critical to understanding the unfolding of his thought. They range from the examination of the political situation in Pisa (1499) and in Germany (1508-1512) to the method used by the Valentino in killing his enemies (1502).
While in San Casciano, Machiavelli wrote also a number of treatises on politics and history, including a treatise on war (1519-1520), a recount of the life of the condottiero Castruccio Castracani (1281-1328), a history of Florence (1520-1525).
Machiavelli was a fine writer. He left us two fresh and entertaining comedies, The Mandragola (1518) and The Clizia (1525), both of which are still represented in these days. To these we shall add a novel, Belfagor Arcidiavolo (1515); a poem in verses inspired to Lucius Apuleius's (about 125-180 A.D.) major work, L'asino d'oro (1517); several more poems, some of which amusing, the translation of a classical comedy by Publius Terentius Afer (circa 195-159B.C.); and several other smaller works.
By the end of the sixteenth century, The Prince had been translated into all major European languages and was the subject of heated disputes into the most important courts of the Old Continent. Often misinterpreted, the core ideas of Machiavelli were so despised that a term was coined to refer to them: Machiavellianism. To these days the term indicates a cynical attitude, according to which a politician is justified to do any tort if the end requires it.