On May 3rd, 1469, Italian diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer Niccolo Machiavelli is born in Florence. Often called the father of modern political science, for many years he was a senior official in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry.

His personal correspondence renowned by Italian scholars, he was secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his most well-known work The Prince (Il Principe) in 1513, having been exiled from city affairs; its promotion of extremist political methods are seen by many as cloying efforts to regain the patronage of the Medici.

Entering public life at the age of 29, Machiavelli joined the Florentine Second Chancery in 1498, four years after a French invasion set in motion the Italian Wars. Though the city-states in Italy proved strong enough to resist French control over Italy (Holy Leagues of 1495 and 1511), disunity among Italian city-states had been exposed, facilitating further intervention by foreign powers in subsequent years, ending with the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559 and Spain as a hegemonic presence in Italy.

Machiavelli saw it all first-hand. In the Chancery, Machiavelli’s duties included stints as a diplomat, secretary, and military official. He observed the eminent political players of the time and learned about the operations of government. But when Florentine gonfalonier Piero Soderini was deposed in 1512 and the Medicis were restored, Machiavelli found himself unemployed and out of favor with the new regime.

Machiavelli was arrested and tortured for having his name on a list of suspected anti-Medici conspirators. Being stranded in a country villa on the outskirts of the city, he set to work writing The Prince. Dedicating it to Lorenzo de’ Medici, he hoped to regain a role in the Florentine government, but also set out practical precepts of power and ended with a vision for a unified Italy after years of political strife.

“Machiavellianism” is widely used as a negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described most famously in The Prince. Machiavelli characterized immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and the killing of innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even seemed to encourage it in some situations. In Le Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote “Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a demon, nor a miserable and cowardly writer; he is nothing but the fact. And he is not only the Italian fact; he is the European fact, the fact of the sixteenth century.”

The book gained notoriety due to claims that it teaches “evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power.” In the modern application, the term is often associated with political deceit, deviousness, and realpolitik, and Machiavelli has experienced somewhat of his own renaissance in recent years.

Any similarities between the political methods described above and the events and characters stemming from contemporary politics as played in certain climes and elections are unintended, purely coincidental and not the fault of your humble scribe.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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