Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian politician, historian, philosopher and writer who worked in Florence during the Renaissance. As an official in the Florentine Republic, Machiavelli had responsibility for diplomatic and military affairs. His observations on rulers, leadership and unscrupulous politicians have led to him being heralded as the founder of modern political science. Machiavelli's beliefs on rulers therefore reverberate strongly in contemporary thought on politicians and what they ought not to be like.

Historical Background

In the latter part of the Middle Ages and near the beginning of the Renaissance, Italy was prone to a host of political problems, including invasions from France and Spain. Wayward leaders were also leading the country astray. Among these were Alexander Borgia, who became pope by bribing the Papal College. The Medici family in Florence was also losing its power and prestige. This political turmoil led to some part of Italy, such as Genoa, becoming republics, and other parts, including Venice, became dictatorships. With no central government and essentially a country of nation-states, Italy was tearing itself apart.

Machiavelli's Personal Experience

Enter Niccolò Machiavelli. Born in 1469 to a family of sometimes-powerful position, Machiavelli would grow up to hold a number of government positions, including serving as an advisor to the Borgia family. As pope, Alexander Borgia stole money from the church and used its coffers for his family's wealth. His son Cesare was a warlord and his daughter Lucrezia allegedly poisoned several husbands in order to inherit their money. As the Borgias became equated with theft, crime and violence, Machiavelli began to record his observations and offer guidance on how rulers ought best to lead.

"The Prince"

Taking Cesare Borgia as a "model," Machiavelli formed his beliefs on rulers into a book called "The Prince." Key to the book is the idea that infighting between family members as well as a lack of central leadership will lead to the instability of a nation. Machiavelli asserted that good rulers must learn "not to be good" but to set aside ethical standards of justice and compassion in order to maintain stability. Unlike medieval and other early-Renaissance writers who advocated that rulers – specifically kings – were sent by God to carry out his moral law, Machiavelli argued that successful rulers are the ones who do whatever they need to in order to preserve order. In Renaissance literature, the term "machiavelle" came to refer to a villain who will betray others in order to get his own way.

Contemporary Context

In contemporary usage, "Machiavellian" refers to treachery, over-ambition and ruthless power. In Machiavelli's viewpoint, anything a ruler does should always be supported by appropriate reasons. The end, in other words, must always justify the means. This justification for a leader's actions has been applied to many different contexts, from just war theory to social welfare programs. Among Machiavelli's more well-known phrases is "it is better to be feared than loved." He advocates strong leadership, and his writings suggest that rulers should be foremost concerned with defending their territories.