Around 1500 AD, Machiavelli was working for the government in the city-state of Florence. Florence was smack in the middle of the Renaissance, which meant that everybody in Florence was thinking and talking about how cool ancient Rome was.
After the Medicis tortured him and pushed him out of power in 1513, Machiavelli began writing books about politics instead. He was still only 44 years old, and he hoped that his books would convince the Medicis to let him work in politics again.
Machiavelli wrote a book called “The Prince.” He proposed that governments, in order for their citizens to do well, sometimes should do things that would be wrong for individual people to do. Governments may have to kill people, or torture people, or take people’s money, or lie to people. Machiavelli suggested that these bad things might really be good if they helped save a lot of people’s lives by stopping a war or a rebellion, for example. For Machiavelli, the ends justified the means.
Machiavelli disagreed with Plato‘s earlier theory that the best people should rule, and not stupid ordinary people. Machiavelli agreed more with Cicero‘s idea that power should lie with the people, in a republic, because all the people together would make better choices than one person who might turn out to be bad or wrong.
The Catholic popes hated Machiavelli’s work, because they wanted the rulers of Europe to rule because God had chosen them, and Machiavelli didn’t care about who God wanted at all. Machiavelli sent copies of his books to the Medici rulers of Florence, and the Medici seem to have liked them. But when Machiavelli died, at 58 years old, he still hadn’t gotten to work in politics again.