Niccolo Machiavelli (May 3,1469- June
22, 1527) is by far the most controversial political thinker of the Renaissance. Machiavelli was
from the Italian city-state of Florence, where the political scene was in chaos for most of his lifetime.
In short, Italy remained the center of political and military affairs in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, largely due to its strategic trading location on the Mediterranean.
More importantly, Florence was the forefront of the Western
cultural renewal, where Renaissance thought began to replace the philosophy of the Middle Ages.
Renaissance men, like Machiavelli, longed for a return to the Greco-Roman paradigm of the first few
centuries A.D. Yet Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), doesn't accept the Aristotelian logic it emulates;
it portrays men as inherently corrupt, base individuals who strive only for personal gain. Using
this premise, Machiavelli writes a handbook of sorts for Italian Renaissance princes. In it, he
is more practical than ideal, more skeptical than hopeful. Yet these were the necessary virtues
of the time. The Catholic Church, a major source of political stability during the Middle Ages,
had lost much of its esteem as a political presence. Meanwhile, secular authorities hungry for
power struggled to fill the void the Church had left.
Machiavelli, who spent much of his life working as a mid-level government employee of Florence, was
able to directly assess the results of strong leadership. His keen interest for history and political
and military strategy led him to theorize about the nature of civil society and government in particular.
Most of all, Machiavelli wanted to see Florence dominate Italy. Yet when the Florentine republic
collapsed in 1507, he was accused of treason and forced to live outside the city in exile. Here,
he wrote The Prince in efforts to be appointed a government position by the Medici family, who controlled
Florence at the time. Unfortunately, the Medici family was unseated in 1527 when international
military confrontations upset the brief era of Medician peace. Though Machiavelli would die soon
after these events, The Prince would ultimately become the most famous literary work of the Renaissance.