At an event in Boston earlier this year, the renowned scholar Edward Muir identified the correspondence of Niccolò Machiavelli’s on December 10th, 1513, to Francesco Vettori as the most important letter written in the Renaissance.
Why? It was in that document, written 500 years ago today, that Machiavelli first referred to his "little book", De Principatibus, which we know as The Prince. This work, in which he argued that a "prince", that is to say someone wielding power, may use immoral means to secure his ends, has given the word Machiavellian a place in ordinary language.
Another scholar, Miguel Vatter, has said that only The Communist Manifesto even remotely competes with The Prince in terms of its influence on modern political thought. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China's burgeoning embrace of capitalism – if not yet democracy – perhaps The Prince now stands alone.
The reputation of Niccolò Machiavelli has been highly controversial through the centuries. On this, his 500th anniversary, what can be said of him, for and against?
First, Machiavelli was a magnificent writer: a playwright, poet and author of other significant political works apart from The Prince. His writing is characterised by a startling candour, rendering absurd the often heard claim that he was "a man misunderstood". He had exceptional insights into the workings of the human mind: take, for example, his painfully acute assertion that men will forget the killing of their father sooner than the loss of his estate.
Machiavelli emphasised the importance of timing in politics. Former Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, who has the scars to prove it, has remarked on his insight that what is important in politics is not an idea in itself, but whether that idea's time has come – or indeed gone.
Machiavelli was highly patriotic. Chapter XXVI of The Prince was a rallying cry for Italian freedom, which helped inspire the 19th-century revival of national feeling known as the Risorgimento. Machiavelli could, however, also be said to have elevated love of country to an unhealthy level, and his placing of the welfare of the fatherland above that of his own soul – if he indeed he actually believed he had one – suggests an almost Hitlerian excess.
In secular terms, Machiavelli provided a rationale for why one should never take one’s own life: 50 per cent of life is down to one’s own efforts, and 50 per cent to chance. One truly never knows when things could improve, so suicide is not a wise choice.
Machiavelli was identified by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin as a forerunner of value pluralism, having questioned the idea that values were compatible within a system and thus helped undermine monism, the tracing back of all phenomena to a single source, which Berlin saw as causing fanaticism.
Machiavelli was strongly anti-Christian, despising what he saw as the impracticality and weakness of the doctrine. One leading scholar has argued that Machiavelli was a Christian in his own way (just without the basic tenets and practices). However, others, including Ignatieff, leave one in no doubt about his hostility to the Christian creed.
Machiavelli was incontestably, in Leo Strauss’s phrase, a “teacher of evil”, albeit in this case the description might have been meant as a compliment.
Machiavelli advocated murder as a policy instrument and displayed clear admiration for the opportunistic slaughter by Cesare Borgia of his own henchman, Remirro de Orco, who had become expendable. Morally, how does this differ, other than in scale, from a purge by Stalin, himself a noted devotee of The Prince?
Many leading intellectuals have extolled Machiavelli’s contribution to republican theory, but it has also been argued that he was “the first fascist”. Convincing parallels have been drawn between his ideas and the ideology of Italian fascism, which is seen to be permeated by Machiavellian themes and principles.
Mussolini was an ardent admirer of Machiavelli and wrote a commentary on him, describing The Prince as a vade mecum for the man of government. Another commentator has written in this regard that one can accuse Mussolini of everything – except of having been a bad interpreter of Machiavelli.
Despite being seen by some eminent thinkers as a supporter of rudimentary democracy, Machiavelli clearly despised ordinary people. In that epochal letter of December 10th, 1513, he describes a day spent during a period in exile in Sant’ Andrea in Percussina near Florence, which included carousing and gaming with locals in the village inn.
Before entering into a rhapsody about "communing with the ancients", he cuttingly describes these simple folk as mere "lice", a detail that is almost invariably overlooked or excused by apologists.
There is a salaciousness about some of Machiavelli's writings, which is to be seen especially in the play Mandragola. This vulgarising cast of mind is of a piece with his far more serious undermining of transcendent universal values.
The Italian idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce referred to Machiavelli as an enigma that would perhaps never be resolved. This, however, seems something of an intellectual cop-out. Leo Strauss is more direct: Machiavelli, he wrote, changed the moral climate of the West.
Many intellectuals, including in our own day, have made use of Machiavelli as it suited their immediate purposes, in the process perhaps giving him a free pass in relation to his dark side.
Visiting Florence, I occasionally go to look at his tomb at Santa Croce. Even if one can't be sure of the final destination of his spirit, it would not be unfair to describe The Prince as an evil work of genius.
Michael Sanfey is a first secretary in the Anglo-Irish division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and is completing a PhD on Machiavelli at UCP university in Lisbon.