The world in which Florentine statesman Niccolo Machiavelli lived scarcely resembles our own. City-states have been replaced with nation-states. Empires have collapsed, never to be rebuilt. And modern warfare is waged with weapons and tactics the likes of which he could have never imagined. Yet similarities remain. Although he died nearly 500 years ago today, Machiavelli would be able to navigate our politics as deftly as he navigated his, because the principles that govern them remain much the same.
At the time of his death, Machiavelli was well known in northern Italy for his service as a politician and diplomat in Republican Florence from 1498 to 1512 and as a writer of Commedia Erudita, or "learned comedy" plays. He was less well known for two works that now define his legacy: The Prince, first distributed under the title On Principalities in 1513 but not officially published until five years after his death in 1527, and Discourses on Livy, written in 1517 but published posthumously in 1531. Thomas Cromwell, the legal mastermind behind the English Reformation, is said to have admired Machiavelli, and Henry VIII and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V both owned copies of The Prince. But at the time of Machiavelli's death, few people, if any, recognized in his thought and actions the start of a new, radically modern epoch in politics.
Machiavelli's legacy has since grown to colossal proportions. He is credited with introducing the difference between public and private virtue — between the principles that govern personal morality in friendship, family and business, and the moral logic that guides the politician or statesman. In doing so, as political philosopher Leo Strauss observed, Machiavelli broke from politics as understood by "the Ancients" as the pursuit of a unified public and private "good life" and gave us the notion that politicians can and should operate according to the demands of the state as an entity independent from civil society and its moral imperatives. He understood that in private morality, where a person's integrity is at stake, the means matter as much, if not more than, the ends. But in public morality, where the power and prosperity of states are at stake, the ends are fundamental even if they do not entirely justify the means. A leader who embraces personal moral imperfection to protect their realm is, in this sense, more virtuous than a ruler who, in their pursuit of moral perfection, fails to consolidate their power, make critical if unsavory alliances and secure, through violence if necessary, that which ensures the survival of their realm.
Of course, Machiavelli was not the first to submit that statesmen play by different rules than private individuals. But he was the first to argue persuasively that these rules constitute a morality every bit as legitimate as that of everyday life. The persuasiveness of his case rests not in its philosophical expansiveness — unlike most philosophical discourse, his writing draws heavily on aphorism and anecdote — but in its relation to the world — his world. Machiavelli wrote from life, and his writing has shaped the way generations of political leaders, philosophers and publics understand politics. Just as important, it also shaped the way politicians and statesmen practice politics. Grasping Machiavelli's legacy thus requires that we look not only at what he wrote but also the world in which his work was written, for it was in that world that the modern state was given birth.
Blueprints for the State
In 1453, two events utterly transformed the world in which Machiavelli himself would soon be born. That year, the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, armed with a 17-foot long, 37,000-pound cannon, burst through the great walls of Constantinople. Once inside, they laid waste to the Byzantine Empire, sounding a death knell for the siege-based warfare that had characterized Medieval Europe and, more broadly, for the feudal social and political orders it supported. Mehmed's invasion also sent a wave of scholars and artisans, many of them Greek, from the eastern Mediterranean to Italy. By the time of Machiavelli's birth in 1469, these immigrants were well on their way to planting the seeds for what would become the Italian Renaissance.