The now famous or, according to some, infamous father of modern political science, Niccolo Machiavelli, was hardly such a well-known figure in his own day. The son of a Florentine attorney, Machiavelli was an obscure but still relatively privileged child of literate Italian urbanites. Following the re-establishment of the Florentine Republic in the late 15th century after a half century of de-facto rule by the Medici family, Machiavelli found employment in the new government as a diplomat, bureaucrat, and later Secretary of War. During his public career, Machiavelli worked with and among the prominent political actors in Florence and in the broader Italian Wars. His career that he is know best for today, as an author and political philosopher, would not begin in earnest until his exile at the hands of the victorious Medici family in 1512, following the defeat and destruction of the Florentine Republic.
His most enduringly famous and controversial work, Il Principe (The Prince) was only circulated among his friends during his life, sometime shortly after his exile from Florence. During his lifetime, a later work of his, The Art of War, was published in 1521 to some positive reception. However, following his death, The Prince would be published posthumously by friends and associates in 1532. While not a smash hit among the urban burghers of Europe like the works of reformation celebrity Martin Luther, it did find its way into the courts of Europe. In the ensuing decades and centuries, the name of the obscure Florentine secretary would become synonymous with immoral and unscrupulous political actors, developing into the slur “Machiavel” and later culminating in the modern adjective “Machiavellian”.
Following his death and the publication of The Prince, the work became both increasingly influential and controversial. It was rumored, both then and now, that King Henry VIII of England was inspired to break with the Catholic Church, in part, by Machiavelli. As tensions heightened and the fires of reformation broke out across Europe, influential figures on both the Catholic and Protestant sides came to associate their opposition with that supposed teacher of evil, Machiavelli. In 1557, zealous counter-reformer Pope Paul IV added the works of Machiavelli to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, an official list of banned books begun by Paul IV in 1555 to combat protestantism. Despite the addition of his books to the Index Machiavelli was, decidedly, a Catholic. He did have his issues with Christianity, but he was no crypto-Lutheran. After all, the Prince itself was written before there even were “Lutherans”. At the time of The Prince’s initial writing in 1512 or 1513, Luther was still an unimaginably obscure figure in Northern Germany. It would not be until 1517 that he would dramatically nail his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral. In spite of these basic, simple-to-observe refutations of any protestant sentiments in Machiavelli’s writing, the Pope still saw his works (or, specifically, The Prince) as threatening enough to the Catholic social order to warrant their banning. Evidently, Machiavelli’s political philosophy was so offensive to the notoriously zealous Paul IV that it got him grouped in with heretics and heathens.
On the other side of the religious conflict, important protestant commentators of the day identified in their Catholic opponents a dark “Machiavel” influence. One such protestant was Innocent Gentillet, a French Huguenot, Lawyer, and courtier of Henry II. In 1576, as it is argued by scholar C. Edward Rathe, Gentillet first circulated his Anti-Machiavel. This, importantly, places the work four years after the great betrayal of the French protestants during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
On the 18th of August, 1572, much of the French Huguenot nobility had gathered in Paris for the marriage of Margaret of Valois, King Charles IX’s sister, and King Henry III of Navarre (later King Henry IV of France). A few days after the marriage, on the eve of the feast of Saint Bartholomew, King Charles IX ordered the killing of a group of these Huguenot leaders which would spiral into a massacre that would claim between 5,000 and 30,000 Huguenots throughout France. The massacre, it came to be believed, was instigated by the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici, an ardent Catholic. It was one of the worst atrocities in the age of the European wars of religion and would instigate the French wars of religion between the Catholic children of Catherine de’ Medici and the protestant Henry III of Navarre.
Raging against this atrocity and Machiavelli, Gentillet’s 600-page Anti-Machiavel decries the Florentine Secretary of War as a profoundly immoral influence on the politics of Europe. After all, Machiavelli’s political analysis in The Prince does create a justification of sorts for a heinous act like the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Other apologists of Machiavelli have identified Gentillet as one of the first in a long line of Anti-Machiavellian writers who unfairly slandered the name of the Florentine writer. While Gentillet is certainly part of this tradition, his objections to Machiavelli are understandable and not unreasonable. He may tread into the territory of a zealous religious partisan and French nationalist, but he does correctly identify that Machiavelli’s writing can justify extreme political violence. Where he misunderstands Machiavelli is in interpreting Machivelli’s special political maxims as general moral maxims, according again to scholar C. Edward Rathe. Gentillet’s traditional christian view of politics and ethics as inseparable led him to, rather expectedly, contribute greatly to the transformation of Machiavelli’s name into a slur.
Ultimately, the campaign to transform the name of Niccolo Machiavelli into a political slur began in earnest rather quickly in the decades following his death, with both major Catholic figures like Pope Paul IV and protestant writers like Innocent Gentillet levying major attacks against the name of the Florentine political philosopher. In both cases, Machiavelli became associated with the immoral actions of the other side of the European religious conflict, and his name became a descriptor for one’s political and religious enemies.
Innocent Gentillet and the First “Anti-Machiavel”
Political Morality? Machiavelli Encouraged a Flexible Approach Five Centuries Ago