"The result is that the same problems always exist in every era" - the historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

3 May 1469, the historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in Florence.
“Anyone who studies present and ancient affairs will easily see how in all cities and all peoples there still exist, and have always existed, the same desires and passions. Thus, it is an easy matter for him who carefully examines past events to foresee future events in a republic and to apply the remedies employed by the ancients, or, if old remedies cannot be found, to devise new ones based upon the similarity of the events. But since these matters are neglected or not understood by those who read, or, if understood, remain unknown to those who govern, the result is that the same problems always exist in every era.“ (Niccolò Machiavelli, “Discourses on Livy“)



Santi di Tito’s (1536 – 1603) famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli


Usually, Machiavelli is associated with machtpolitik these days, power politics by hook or by crook, and Machiavellism became an idiom for achieving one’s own political supremacy and ethics and morals be damned. However, back in the day Machiavelli’s chief concern was to analyse power and the difference between actual conditions and a should-be-state and not formulating a normative primer for real and would-be autocrats. His evaluation, not yet common, at least not during the 15th and 16th century, was based on what he found to be empirically ascertainable. Indeed, without paying heed to contemporary moral concepts and value judgements, a rather uncommon notion for his day and age, but not unheard of before among the great ones of the Italian Renaissance. His Il Principe (“The Prince”) thus made him one of the most widely read political and state philosophers of the modern age with such an impact that his actual principal work, the “Discorsi”, where he, the convinced Republican, laid down his thoughts about an ideal state, politics and war, quite the man of the Renaissance, along the lines of Livy.



The 'Carta della Catena': a 15th century view of Florence (c. 1490)


Being versatile and exhaustless is the essence of a true classic. And besides the wilful interpretations of those in power who have read and misread Machiavelli, a long line from Henry VIII to Josef Stalin and beyond, even serious philosophical and scientific discourse drove him into various ideological corners. And while some of his theses appear as common sense these days and many of his assumptions about his native Florence as an ideal state if the Florentines just would decide to become Republicans are rather obsolete along with Machiavelli’s political prophecies, his undeniable merit is to have unhinged the medieval image of a good, Christian prince by just keeping up appearances as an ideal body politic and transforming the ruler into a pure worldly role. It’s not about being good, but being reasonable, whatever the cost may be, for the common good and not one’s own. A lesson often skipped in the modern reception of Machiavelli.


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