One day, I met Niccolo in exile in Sant'Andrea in Percussina, he looked rugged and drunk. His sweet smile had disappeared into a sad face. A very different image of a person in an ambassador role he had before the Medici threw him in jail, tortured him and sent him into solitary exile at his country retreat.
He was a diplomat for 14 years in Italy's Florentine Republic during the Medici family's exile. When the Medici family returned to power in 1512, Niccolo was dismissed and jailed.
During his exile he wrote books, including The Prince which became his most renowned book.
I asked him straightforwardly:
“People say that nowadays you drink in the company of peasants, fought in villages and rail at your fate. The solitary exile must have been hard for you, it is like a punishment worse than death for a man who found high-level politics as necessary as breathing. Do you feel bitter about the treatment of the Medici to you?”
“When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savour. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.”
“The Medici threw you in jail, tortured you with a rope hanged from your bound wrists, from the back, forcing your arms to bear your body's weight and dislocating your shoulders. However they could find no evidence of your direct involvement in the conspiracy, and, under the general amnesty granted by the Pope you were released a few weeks later and they sent you into solitary exile here.
But despite the cruel treatment by the Medici, you dedicated your most renowned book “The Prince” to the Magnificence Lorenzo de Medici a prince of the Medici who tortured you. Why so?”
Niccolo citing the opening chapter of The Prince said:
“I want to present myself to his Magniﬁcence with some testimony of my devotion towards him, the possession of mine that I love best and value most is my knowledge of the actions of great men—knowledge that I have acquired from long experience in contemporary affairs and from a continual study of antiquity. Having reﬂected on it long and hard, I now send it, digested into a little volume, to his Magniﬁcence.
And if his Magniﬁcence, from the mountain-top of his greatness will sometimes look down at this plain, he will see how little I deserve the wretched ill-fortune that continually pursues me”
“The word “Prince” in your book “The Prince” obviously does not refer to hereditary prince in aristocratic system but to a ruler of a country.”
Niccolo citing Chapter 9 said:
“It is about a citizen who becomes the prince of his country not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens. We can call this ‘civil principality’. Now, this kind of principality (princely state)—·this way of becoming a prince·—is obtained with the support of the common people or with the support of the nobles.
Someone who becomes prince with the help of the nobles will ﬁnd it hard to maintain his position because he’ll be surrounded by men who regard themselves as his equals, which will inhibit him in giving orders and managing affairs. It is easier for a prince who got there with the help of popular favour: he’ll be able to exercise his principality single-handed, with few if any people unwilling to obey him.”
“Machiavellianism" is a widely used negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort you described most famously in The Prince. You described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. “
Niccolo citing Chapter 15 said:
“I am not apologetic about this·: my aim is to write things that will be useful the reader who understands them; so I ﬁnd it more appropriate to pursue the real truth of the matter than to repeat what people have imagined about it. Many writers have dreamed up republics and principalities such as have never been seen or known in the real world. ·And attending to them is dangerous·, because the gap between “how men live” and “how they ought to live” is so wide that any prince who thinks in terms not of how people do behave but of how they ought to behave will destroy his power rather than maintaining it. A man who tries to act virtuously will soon come to grief at the hands of the unscrupulous people surrounding him. Thus, a prince who wants to keep his power must learn how to act immorally, using or not using this skill according to necessity.
As I said in Chapter 18, a prince is forced to know how to act like a beast, he must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps and a fox is defenceless against wolves. So the prince needs to be a fox to discover the traps and a lion to scare off the wolves.”
I said :
“You seemed to endorse cruelty, violence and even murder in some situations, which oppose the universal norms in our society.”
Niccolo citing Chapter 17 said:
“I say that every prince should want to be regarded as merciful and not cruel; but he should be careful not to mismanage his mercy! Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; yet his ‘cruelty’ restored order to Romagna, uniﬁed it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. When you come to think about it, you’ll see him as being much more ·truly· merciful than the Florentines who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.”
“This philosophy of "the end justifies the means" has often been associated with you, and so named Machiavellianism. The Prince became a handbook for ruler like Stalin, who starved the Ukranian people șo he could sell the grain from Ukraine to the west so he could make the army stronger and to grow the indunstry.
The Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini saw himself as a modern-day Machiavellian and wrote an introduction to his honorary doctoral thesis for the University of Bologna—"Prelude to Machiavelli.”
In this thesis he quoted your Chapter 17 as evidence of your bitter pessimism in respect to human nature: “For we may say here in general that men are ungrateful, inconstant, deceiving, cowardly in the face of danger, greedy for gain: and as long as you do them favors they are loyal to you and ready to pledge you their blood, their property, their lives, their children — until, as I have said above, they no longer need you; but when that time arrives they are quick to desert you.”
Niccolo citing Chapter 8 said:
“Someone who is seizing a state should think hard about all the injuries he’ll have to inﬂict, and get them all over with at the outset, rather than having cruelty as a daily occurrence. By stopping cruelty very soon, the usurper will be able to reassure people and win them over to his side by generosity. Someone who doesn’t proceed in this way—whether from fear or on bad advice—will always have to have a knife in his hand; and he won’t be able to rely on his subjects, who will be alienated by his continued and repeated injuries....”
“Your book The Prince is actually a little book with a clear language, easy to understand. However the books of commentaries, reviews, critics and analysis about it are much longer than this little book. What do you say about it?"
Niccolo citing Chapter 1 said:
“Many writers decorate their work—choke their work—with smoothly sweeping sentences, pompous words, and other ‘attractions’ that are irrelevant to the matter in hand; but I haven’t done any of that, because I have wanted this work of mine to be given only such respect as it can get from the importance of its topic and the truth of what it says about it.”
“Yet this little book became very famous because of its controversy, Bertrand Russell called it a “handbook for gangsters”. Leo Strauss called you a “teacher of evil” because of The Prince. Are you surprised about it?”
“The Prince is just one of my books, I also wrote “The Art of War”, “Discourses on Livy”, and plays.
In “The Art of War”, Lord Fabrizio Colonna said that we should learn things similar to the ancients that honor and reward virtue, not to have contempt for poverty, to esteem the modes and orders of military discipline, to constrain citizens to love one another, to live without factions, to esteem less the private than the public good.
However, good institutions without the help of the military are not much differently disordered than the habitation of a superb and regal palace, which, even though adorned with jewels and gold, if it is not roofed over will not have anything to protect it from the rain.
In “Discourses on Livy” I quoted Livy saying that people are strong together, but weak when alone giving the example of the Roman plebs. Livy additionally feels that the multitude is wiser than the one prince. And in Chapter 30 I wrote about that truly powerful Republics and Princes buy friendships not with money, but with virtue and reputation of strength.
The book discusses the rulers of Rome and how a strong or weak Prince can maintain or destroy a kingdom. After a weak prince a kingdom could not remain strong with another weak prince. Luckily, the first three kings each had a certain strength, which aided the city. Romulus was fierce, Numa was religious, and Tullus was dedicated to war.”
“ So it seems your focus is that a Prince shall rely on his virtue and strength, rather than being a weak Prince, and relying on fortune.”
Nicollo said, with a nod:
“Yes, after all I am not so Machiavellian……”
This is an imaginary interview in memory of Niccolo Machiavelli.Sources: Wikipedia, CliffsNotes