Niccolò Machiavelli: Father of Modern Political Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli
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Niccolò Machiavelli. Santi di Tito, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Niccolò Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance political philosopher, writer, diplomat, and historian, best known for his work “The Prince” (Il Principe), written in 1513, which is a seminal treatise on political theory and practice. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli discusses the nature of power, the role of the ruler, and the tactics necessary to maintain and expand political control.

He is often associated with the idea that “the ends justify the means,” although his views are more nuanced than this simplistic interpretation suggests.

Machiavelli’s ideas had a significant impact on political thought and continue to be studied and debated today.

Early Life

Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, during a tumultuous period of political upheaval in the Italian peninsula. His father, Bernardo Machiavelli, was a lawyer, and his family belonged to the Florentine nobility, albeit not among the wealthiest or most influential.

Little is known about Machiavelli’s early childhood, but it is believed that he received a humanist education, which emphasized the study of classical literature, history, and philosophy. He likely studied Latin, Greek, and rhetoric, which were typical subjects for a young man of his social class at the time.

In 1494, when Machiavelli was around 25 years old, Florence underwent a dramatic political transformation with the expulsion of the ruling Medici family and the establishment of a republic. This event had a profound impact on Machiavelli’s life and career, as he became involved in the political affairs of Florence.

Machiavelli began his public service in the Florentine government in 1498, when he was appointed as a clerk in the Florentine chancery. Over the years, he rose through the ranks of the government, serving in various diplomatic and administrative roles. His experiences in politics and diplomacy would later influence his writings on statecraft and governance, including his most famous work, “The Prince.”

Philosophical Influences

Machiavelli was influenced by a variety of philosophical and historical sources, both classical and contemporary to his time. Some of his key influences include:

  1. Ancient Roman Political Thought: Machiavelli was heavily influenced by the works of ancient Roman writers such as Livy, Tacitus, and Cicero. He admired the pragmatic approach to politics found in Roman political thought and drew upon their ideas in his own writings.
  2. Ancient Greek Philosophy: Machiavelli was familiar with the works of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. While he didn’t necessarily agree with all of their ideas, their writings on ethics, politics, and human nature undoubtedly influenced his thinking.
  3. Humanism: Machiavelli was a product of the Renaissance humanist movement, which emphasized the study of classical texts and a renewed interest in human dignity and potential. Humanist ideas about the importance of individual agency and the pursuit of virtù (excellence or prowess) in public life can be seen reflected in Machiavelli’s writings.
  4. Realpolitik: Machiavelli was also influenced by the political realities of his time, particularly the tumultuous politics of Italy during the Renaissance. His experiences as a diplomat and government official in Florence shaped his pragmatic and realistic approach to politics, which sought to understand and navigate the complexities of power dynamics.

Machiavelli’s philosophical influences were diverse, drawing from both classical and contemporary sources to develop his own distinctive theories on politics and governance.

Key Philosophical Aspects

Machiavelli’s philosophy, as articulated in works such as “The Prince” and “Discourses on Livy,” encompasses several key aspects:

  1. Realism: Machiavelli is often regarded as one of the first modern political realists. He believed that politics should be studied and practiced as they are, rather than as they ought to be according to abstract moral principles or ideals. Machiavelli emphasized the importance of understanding power dynamics, human nature, and the realities of political life.
  2. Separation of Morality and Politics: One of Machiavelli’s most controversial ideas is the separation of morality from politics. He argued that rulers must sometimes act immorally or unethically in order to maintain power and stability. Machiavelli famously wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” This emphasis on the pragmatic use of power, even if it means disregarding traditional moral standards, is a central aspect of his philosophy.
  3. Virtù: Machiavelli introduced the concept of virtù, which refers to the qualities of a successful leader or ruler. Virtù encompasses traits such as strength, intelligence, decisiveness, and strategic thinking. Machiavelli believed that a successful ruler must possess virtù in order to navigate the complexities of politics and achieve their goals.
  4. Fortuna: In addition to virtù, Machiavelli also recognized the role of fortuna, or fortune, in politics. Fortuna represents the unpredictable and uncontrollable forces that shape human affairs, such as luck, chance, and external circumstances. While virtù enables a ruler to seize opportunities and overcome obstacles, fortuna can also disrupt even the most carefully laid plans.
  5. Republicanism: While “The Prince” is often seen as advocating for autocratic rule, Machiavelli’s broader political thought also includes republican ideals. In works like “Discourses on Livy,” he discusses the virtues of republican government, including civic engagement, checks and balances, and the importance of the common good.

Machiavelli’s philosophy is characterized by its realism, pragmatism, and focus on the effective exercise of power in the pursuit of political goals.

Notable Writings

Niccolò Machiavelli produced several notable works throughout his career, encompassing political treatises, historical analyses, and diplomatic writings. Some of his most significant works include:

  1. The Prince: Published in 1513, “The Prince” is Machiavelli’s most famous and influential work. It offers practical advice to rulers on how to acquire, maintain, and expand political power. Machiavelli’s pragmatic and often ruthless prescriptions for effective leadership have made “The Prince” a subject of intense debate and interpretation for centuries.
  2. Discourses on Livy: Written between 1513 and 1517, “Discourses on Livy” is a commentary on the work of the ancient Roman historian Livy. In this treatise, Machiavelli discusses the principles of republican government, the virtues of civic engagement, and the importance of institutions in maintaining political stability.
  3. The Art of War: Written in the early 16th century, “The Art of War” is Machiavelli’s treatise on military strategy and tactics. Drawing upon his experiences as a diplomat and military observer, Machiavelli offers advice to rulers on how to organize and deploy their armed forces effectively.
  4. The Florentine Histories: Completed in 1525, “The Florentine Histories” is Machiavelli’s historical account of the city-state of Florence. Covering the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the early 16th century, this work provides valuable insights into the political, social, and cultural dynamics of Renaissance Italy.
  5. Mandragola (The Mandrake): Although primarily known for his political and philosophical writings, Machiavelli also wrote comedies. “Mandragola,” written in 1518, is one of his most famous comedic works. It satirizes the hypocrisy and corruption of Florentine society while also exploring themes of love, deception, and morality.

These works collectively represent Machiavelli’s diverse intellectual interests and his contributions to political theory, historical analysis, and literary expression.

Final Years

Machiavelli’s final years were marked by political turmoil, personal challenges, and a struggle for relevance. After the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1512, Machiavelli’s political career suffered a setback, as he was expelled from public office and subjected to various forms of persecution by the ruling Medici family, who had returned to power.

In 1513, shortly after being expelled from office, Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, “The Prince,” in an attempt to regain favor with the Medici rulers. However, his efforts were largely unsuccessful, and he remained on the sidelines of Florentine politics for the rest of his life.

During his exile, Machiavelli turned to writing and literary pursuits, producing works such as “The Art of War” and “Discourses on Livy.” He also continued to seek patronage and support from influential figures, but his efforts to reenter political life were largely thwarted.

Machiavelli’s personal life during this period was also marked by financial difficulties and health problems. He struggled to support his family and maintain his household, relying on various forms of patronage and occasional government appointments to make ends meet.

Machiavelli died on June 21, 1527, at the age of 58. Despite his efforts to regain political influence and secure his legacy, he died in relative obscurity, with his works only gaining widespread recognition and influence in the centuries that followed.

Although today Machiavelli is remembered as one of the most important political thinkers in Western history, his final years were a period of frustration and disillusionment as he grappled with the challenges of his time.


Machiavelli’s influence has been significant and far-reaching, extending to various fields including politics, philosophy, literature, and beyond. Some notable figures and movements that have been influenced by Machiavelli include:

Political Thinkers and Leaders:

    • Thomas Hobbes: Hobbes drew upon Machiavelli’s ideas about power and the state of nature in his own works on political philosophy.
    • Francis Bacon: Bacon admired Machiavelli’s realism and pragmatism, incorporating similar themes into his own writings on politics and science.
    • Max Weber: Weber’s concept of the “iron cage” of bureaucracy and his analysis of charismatic authority reflect Machiavellian influences.
    • Modern political leaders and strategists have also been influenced by Machiavelli’s writings, albeit often indirectly through secondary sources or interpretations.

    Realist Thinkers in International Relations:

      • Machiavelli’s emphasis on power politics and statecraft has influenced realist scholars such as Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and Henry Kissinger in their analyses of international relations.

      Literary Figures:

        • William Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s portrayal of political intrigue and manipulation in plays like “Richard III,” “Macbeth,” and “Julius Caesar” reflects Machiavellian themes.
        • Miguel de Cervantes: Cervantes engaged with Machiavelli’s ideas in “Don Quixote,” particularly in his portrayal of the character of Sancho Panza.
        • Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche’s critique of traditional morality and his concept of the “will to power” resonate with Machiavellian themes.

        Enlightenment Thinkers:

          • Voltaire: Voltaire engaged with Machiavelli’s ideas in his works on politics and history, recognizing his contributions to political thought.
          • Montesquieu: Machiavelli’s writings on republican government and the separation of powers may have influenced Montesquieu’s theories on constitutionalism.

          Modern Culture and Media:

            • Filmmakers, writers, and artists have drawn upon Machiavelli’s ideas in their portrayals of politics, leadership, and morality in popular culture.

            Machiavelli’s influence spans centuries and disciplines, shaping discussions on power, morality, and governance in diverse contexts.


            Machiavelli’s legacy today is multifaceted and continues to provoke debate and analysis across various disciplines:

            1. Political Thought: Machiavelli’s contributions to political theory and his insights into power dynamics, leadership, and statecraft remain influential. His emphasis on realism, pragmatism, and the separation of morality from politics continues to inform discussions on governance and political behavior.
            2. Ethical and Moral Philosophy: Machiavelli’s provocative ideas about morality and ethics, particularly his argument that rulers must sometimes act immorally for the sake of the state, continue to be subjects of ethical inquiry and debate. His work challenges traditional notions of virtue and raises fundamental questions about the relationship between ethics and politics.
            3. Historiography: Machiavelli’s historical writings, such as “The Prince” and “The Florentine Histories,” have contributed to our understanding of Renaissance Italy and the complexities of political life in the period. His approach to historical analysis, which emphasizes the role of individuals and institutions in shaping events, remains relevant to historians today.
            4. Literature and Culture: Machiavelli’s influence can be seen in literature, art, and popular culture, where his ideas about politics, power, and manipulation continue to inspire creative works. References to Machiavelli and “Machiavellian” characters are common in film, television, literature, and even video games.
            5. Education and Scholarship: Machiavelli’s works are studied in universities and educational institutions worldwide, where they serve as important texts in fields such as political science, philosophy, history, and literature. Scholars continue to analyze and interpret Machiavelli’s writings, uncovering new insights into his ideas and their relevance to contemporary issues.

            Machiavelli’s legacy is complex and enduring, reflecting his status as one of the most influential thinkers in Western thought. While his ideas have been controversial and often misunderstood, they continue to stimulate intellectual inquiry and shape our understanding of politics, ethics, and human nature.