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Niccolò Machiavelli was a political philosopher in Renaissance Italy. Though he was also a musician, poet, and playwright, he is best remembered today for his philosophy that the ends justify the means in politics, a theory delineated in his most famous work, The Prince. The word Machiavellian has come to mean ruthlessness and manipulation in the modern world, though the philosopher stressed pragmatism rather than ruthlessness. In fact, during his lifetime, Machiavellian referred to a theoretical political system in which power was earned rather than inherited.
Machiavelli was born in Florence on 3 May 1469. He grew up in a politically tumultuous period and entered the world of politics himself at the age of 25, when he became a clerk. The same year, 1494, Florence became a republic, ousting the Medici family from the monarchy. Machiavelli gained a post on the Council dealing with diplomatic and military matters, and his work brought him to the royal courts of France and Aragon and to the Pope's seat in Rome. Cesare Borgia, on whom the philosopher is believed to have partially based The Prince, came to power in 1502.
Machiavelli was in charge of the Florentine militia from 1503 to 1506. In 1512, the Medicis were restored to power, and he was arrested on conspiracy charges the following year. He was tortured, but finally released, and spent the rest of his life writing at his private estate just outside of Florence. Machiavelli died on 21 June 1527.
In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses effective ways to gain and maintain political power using examples from his personal observations as well as from ancient texts. The book does not deal with the nature of an ideal ruler or form of government, but rather with the means to gaining control. The philosopher stressed that any methods used by the ruler should have the well-being of the state in mind as an ultimate goal, and he set limits on what he considered acceptable ways of gaining control. "The ends justify the means" is a gross oversimplification of his philosophy. Machiavelli stressed pragmatism and realism, acknowledging that ideals were not always feasible.
Machiavelli's other major work, Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, drew on early Roman history to discuss the nature and superiority of the republic as a political system. Some scholars consider this work to be a truer account of his political philosophy than The Prince.
It is very unfortunate that Machiavelli is best known for allegedly coming up with an "ends justify the means" philosophy of government. He was actually against such ruthlessness and it's good to see this article points that out very well.