Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine diplomat, political theorist, historian, and poet. He was politically active in the courts of Louis XII of France, Cesare Borgia, Maximilian I, and Pope Julius II. After the return to power of the Medici in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli underwent banishment and withdrawal to Sant’ Andrea, where he wrote his two major political works: The Prince (Il Principe, 1513), and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, 1513-1522). These political writings present themselves as political counsel. They deal mainly with the possibilities for the lasting stabilization and self-preservation of polities. The theme of time emerges against the background of this practical problem. Machiavelli’s analysis of history focuses on the way different factors are persistent or variable with time. He formulates advice for different time frames and deals with the correct handling of the opportunities and dangers of time as a factor of political action.
Machiavelli’s project can be understood as an answer to the then current political crisis of an Italy that was splintered into city-states. The Prince is his most influential work. Formally the work follows in the Middle Ages tradition of “mirrors for princes” that deal with the presentation of the kingly virtues. But Machiavelli breaks with the tradition in content. Instead of a normative orientation around Aristotelian virtue ethics and the Christian natural law tradition, he lays out a series of rules for political cunning. Not the ideal, but rather the actual determines Machiavelli’s advice. Most of this advice relates in particular to the acquisition and maintenance of power by a new prince. Machiavelli’s achievements in The Prince testify thereby to his efforts to recommend himself to the Medici for reinduction into the service of the state.
The virtues (virtu) Machiavelli recommends for princes should not be understood as classical virtues. These would even be harmful. The prince must appear to have those virtues that are considered good, but he must also have the ability to contravene mercy, humanity, and religion. For Machiavelli, justice and political success are not connected.
This counsel, directed to the achievement and preservation of the power of the autocrat, gave Machiavelli the reputation of a “teacher of wickedness.” This emancipation of politics from morality was influential in the history of ideas. The directives, focused on the preservation of the prince, provided a basis for later thought on questions of national interest and are to this day a point of reference for political realism.
The Discourses are a commentary by Machiavelli on the Roman histories of Titus Livy. But at the same time, he unfolds a republican theory of the state. His analysis of the history of Rome has the goal of enabling a revival of Rome’s political success. Since the basic structure of the world is invariable, history can serve as a teacher in current political questions. The imitation of ancient Rome could thus be the solution to the political crisis of contemporary Italy.
Machiavelli claimed that there are particular, necessary rules in history that hold for all time. These necessita are not interventions into history by a god (providentia dei) but rather regularities comparable to natural laws. Throughout time, political events follow necessarily from particular preconditions. This compulsion can result from natural circumstances or from the actions of humans.
For Machiavelli, human nature is a constant. Humans always tend to the bad rather than to the good, and they ceaselessly follow their appetites and ambitions (ambizione). They are not political beings by nature but must be domesticated and cultivated by institutions. Only in the well-ordered state can they develop the necessary powers for the preservation of the polity.
Politics, Government, and Time
The connection between The Prince and the Discourses has always created difficulties for interpreters. The techniques aimed at the retention of autocratic power and the reviving of republicanism are two different, situation-dependent proposals for solving the problem of the stabilization of a polity. A consistent reading presents itself against the background of Machiavelli’s conception of political time.
Human nature imprints a determinate structure on the course of history. Following the ancient historian Polybius, Machiavelli formulates a cyclical model of the forms of government. States change from a condition of order to a condition of disorder. They thereby pass through various forms of administration, from autocracy to popular government. Monarchy degenerates to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and democracy to anarchy. For Machiavelli, all of these forms of government are to be rejected, the good ones because stability is ephemeral, the degenerate forms because of their badness.
According to Machiavelli, periods of political decline require an autocrat to bring new order to the polity, because the people are not in a position to do so. The advice in The Prince is directed in particular to this politically effective agent (uomo virtuoso). But the function of the uomo virtuoso seems to be temporally limited. If the polity is able to maintain itself after the establishment of laws and institutions, then the republican mixed constitution is for Machiavelli the better form of government. The considerations in the Discourses apply to such a government.
Republics are best able to maintain their inner stability and external capabilities of expansion. In them, the prince, the nobility, and the people can govern and oversee themselves together. Republican freedom is the result of orderly conflict between the nobility and the people.
Machiavelli makes temporal continuity the criterion of success in politics. The other goals of political action are subordinated to it. The key to defense against the permanent dangers of decay and corruption is virtu. In Machiavelli’s usage, this denotes a category of accomplishments that lead to political success. Virtu can be found in individuals, in a people, or in the military.
Since virtu cannot be inherited, the competence of a people is better than that of an autocrat as the starting condition for a stable polity. The mere continuity of a republic over generations is grounds for its precedence as a form of government. Republican freedom can be a means of achieving enduring political stability.
Virtu represents power in the fight against Fortuna. Opposed to necessita, Fortuna, often personified as a female deity, stands for unpredictability in politics. She is the irrational moment in time. Her temper can help a polity to greatness or bring about its fall. She predestines the path of human action, but not absolutely. Machiavelli sees about half of the action as being left to human skill.
Even if the arrival of Fortuna is uncertain, there are ways to take precautions against her. Machiavelli compares her with a raging torrent that in its times of calm allows dams to be built. But the human tendency is to not think about changing times. This idleness is a sign of lacking virtu and offers Fortuna easy prey.
On the other hand, correct virtu can harness Fortuna for political success. The goddess of fortune can appear as the bringer of favorable opportunities (occasione). If they are recognized and exploited, then the agent has a share in luck. Machiavelli talks of the occasione as hurrying by, with the hair brushed forward covering the face so as not to be recognized. If the opportunity passes by, then one tries in vain to grab it by the bald back of its head.
The contest with Fortuna requires a deep sense of situation and adaptiveness to actual temporal circumstances (qualita dei tempi). Time, writes Machiavelli, drives everything before it, and it is able to bring with it good as well as evil. But time waits for no man, and only the one who adapts to it will have luck in the long run. Republics offer here the best conditions because of the diversity of their citizens; they are more flexible and adaptable than an autocracy. The virtu of one person fit for one time is not likely to change when circumstances change.
However, even the degeneration of a republic cannot be stopped, only slowed. Machiavelli calls time the father of truth. The enduring badness of humanity becomes manifest and in time spoils goodness. Thus, for Machiavelli, there is a natural limit to the life of all things in the world. Decay is inherent to time.
See also Ethics; Law; Magna Carta; Morality; Rome,
Ancient; Time, Cyclical; Values and Time
Machiavelli, N. (1983). The discourses. London: Penguin
Classics. (Original work published 1513) Machiavelli, N. (2003). The Prince. London: Penguin
Classics. (Original work published 1513-1522)
Orr, R. (1972). The time motif in Machiavelli. In
M. Fleisher (Ed.), Machiavelli and the nature of political thought. New York: Atheneum.
Skinner, Q. (2001). Machiavelli: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.