When Niccolo Machiavelli is introduced in Ubisoft’s Florentine spinoff Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it isn’t a flattering presentation. He is a shady ally of convenience, who disappears at the first sign of danger. It is implied that he is about to betray you (if he hasn’t already). And neither the drama nor anyone else expects any different. Machiavelli is the official father of Realpolitik, of “The Ends Justify the Means.” Or “Might Makes Right.” “Machiavellian” generally describes a gambit where the only governing principle is that one will do anything, break any principle, betray any ally, and create any deception, to come out of it with a favorable outcome. To whoever that would be beneficial for at this particular moment.

niccoloWhile it is true that Niccolo laid out the reasoning for these principles in “The Prince,” in very well written and easy to understand language[1], the reason for Machiavelli being personally thought to have argued for these principles, and advocated them, is more of a leap of faith. The Florentine city-state at the time was a relatively progressive state of affairs; in spite of being in the middle of many power struggles and wars, it was also a center of art, architecture and scientific development.

In fact, Niccolo was in good company in Renaissance Italy when advocating for authority being derived from merit and practical political prowess, rather than the authority of the Church or any divine right. Thoughts which then questioned hereditary rights and societal class structure. This also comes along with a decided opposition to for example slavery.

And from his actual activities it could be possible to say that Niccolo was a humanist and a republican. Simply opposing the authority of the church was a progressive (never mind risky) stance at the time, and in truth remained so for several hundred years.

But Niccolo’s political efforts are often judged in retrospect after how successful the governments he served at the time were. And they all ended in disaster, as with the Borgia. Whose ruler at the time – the monstrous Cesare, groomed to political leadership from birth, who features prominently in Brotherhood – is indeed the “Prince” being patiently taught the principles of sustainable dictatorship in Niccolo’s kindly lecturing text “Il Principe.”

Il Principe, Trollolol edition

Il Principe, Trollolol edition

Certain things do not quite fit, however. “Il Principe” was written in Italian (and passed around also before the work was finished) – rather than written in Latin, which was common for works intended for the elite. As the entirely fictional assassin in Brotherhood comments, Niccolo passes around his “pamphlets” (as the delightfully well-informed writers on this particular project put it).

And Niccolo held a position in the government at the time. And was hired officially to write his treatise, which the Borgias apparently hailed as wise and glorious at at least one occasion. But at the end of the Borgias’ rule, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured (and the work was briefly denounced), which explains how this backfired.

In fact, if you read the actual text – and know that this work mentioned specifically episodes which any citizen at the time would identify and place at the hands of earlier ruthless and hated leaders (that the Borgias supported) – it becomes very clear that the text damns the Borgias, and all rulers like them, with detailed, accurate and high praise.

Still, the Borgias were so secure in their power that they did hail the work as a set of good principles to rule by while they held office – they were proud of the practical approach to leadership – up until they were unseated. In other words, Niccolo – while in the employ of the Borgias – wrote the manual on their methods and disseminated it to be read by anyone who could read Italian. And suddenly the scheming takes on a different aspect, and Niccolo’s courage as a political activist becomes more respectable. As someone to not merely help unseat a ruthless rule, but to do so while so completely exposing and damning the methods such a rule would rest on.

As the story in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood progresses, we do not know Niccolo’s allegiances. He functions as an insider, but his loyalty becomes increasingly problematic to trust. He puts the player in difficult positions, he exploits the assassins and their power for unknown ends. And we do not know – and perhaps still don’t know once the credits roll – if we can trust this person. Especially since it is only once you are ultimately successful in liberating Roma that Machiavelli confides in Ezio that, “Of course, I was always on your side.”

But this is where the writing, and the interactive approach, is so successful. If the player has decided over the course of the game to fashion themselves as a servant of the people and the many groups in Roma, we can perhaps accept that Niccolo was ready to betray you in the pursuit of higher and loftier goals – but that ultimately you found yourself on his side.

While if the player thought of themselves a leader to replace the Borgias and work against any opposition, they would be more inclined to consider Machiavelli as one who followed you, only when he knew where the wind was blowing. Which in an unusually artful fashion so completely explains Niccolo Machiavelli’s works and political activities. It is not common now, after all (not in the other Assassin’s Creed titles either), to see this politically aware writing.

Also interesting is that the interactive approach that only a videogame can provide was a successful vehicle to explain, in easily understandable terms, such a complex political character. Even to the point where the player might think carefully about their own role in the story – and if perhaps they were the ones being carefully groomed, from the very beginning.

 

[1] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1232 “The Prince”, Niccolò Machiavelli.