The Renaissance of Machiavelli

Part 2
(Statue of Machiavelli at the Uffizi, Florence/ Wikimedia Commons)


[This paper, the second of two, was first published in the September 21, 1927 issue of Commonweal. You can read the first paper here]

In a letter to Vettori, dated December 10, 1513, Machiavelli has left a description of his life in exile, at once so eloquent and so revealing as to the private character of the man that common fairness demands at least a short, condensed quotation. He begins by referring to his expulsion from Florence and other painful events attendant upon the return of the Medici:

‘Since my last misfortune, I have led a quiet country life. I spent September in snaring thrushes, but at the end of the month even this sport failed me. So I rise with the sun in the morning, and go into one of the woods for a couple of hours to pass some time with the woodcutters, who have always some troubles to tell me, either of their own or their neighbors.

On leaving the wood, I go to a spring, and thence up to my uccellare, with a book under my arm—either Dante, Petrarch, or one of the minor poets, such as Tibullus or Ovid. I read their amorous transports, and the history of their lives, recalling my own to my mind, and time passes pleasantly in these meditations. Then I take myself to the inn by the roadside, chat with passers-by, ask news of the places whence they come, hear various things and note the varied tastes and diverse fancies of mankind. This carries me to the dinner hour, when in the company of my brood I swallow whatever fare this poor little place of mine . . . can afford me.

Dinner over, I go back to the inn, where I generally find the host, a butcher, a miller and a couple of brick makers. I mix with these boors the whole day, playing at cricca and at tric-trac, which games give rise to a thousand quarrels and much exchange of bad language. At nightfall I return home and seek my writing room, and, divesting myself on its threshold of my rustic garments, I assume courtly attire; and thus suitably clothed, enter within the ancient courts of ancient men, by whom, being cordially welcomed, I am fed with the food that alone is mine and for which I was born. These men in their humanity reply to me, and for the space of four hours I feel no weariness, remember no trouble, no longer fear poverty, no longer fear death. And since Dante says that there could be no science without retaining that which is heard, I have recorded that which I have acquired from the conversation of these worthies, and composed a pamphlet.’

The snaring of the thrushes may seem a symbolic if not very bloody recreation for this supposed snarer of men, and the recalling of the history of his loves to his mind lends color to his reputation for debauchery. But the wood-cutters, the brick-makers and the cricca are part of a picture so charming, so innocent, so bucolic, that one asks—can it truly have been drawn by Machiavelli?

Moreover, the "loves" themselves lose their saturnalian character upon investigation. Niccolo once more was but imitating his favorite ancients. And as Athenian and Roman youth were wont to write scandalously to each other, so much Machiavelli to Vettori, if only as a literary exercise. There is nothing to show that his amours went beyond the ordinary gallantries of the period, and his private life would easily stand comparison with that of the average respected citizen of the present time. He was no Giles de Reies, and his affection for his family shines unmistakably through all the clouds of calumny which have been suffered to gather about his name.

But the "pamphlet" was a different matter. He was, in fact, writing two. The Prince, and Discourses upon Titus Livy—the one describing the art of government from the standpoint of a dictator, the other as it should be practiced in a republic. As was to be expected, they are scholarly works enlivened with the light touches of a witty pen; and in them, in addition to the wealth of classical example, all the material which the author has collected during his long years as a diplomat, reappears. But it has undergone a strange sea change.

What has happened to the man? The very course of certain roads, once described with painstaking accuracy in the Reports, has been altered to suit some new purpose. The humble secretary of the Ten, who could be deceived by nobody, now seems to be the victim of phantoms. Thus Caesar Borgia, in the first Decennale (a lively history in rhyme of the decade ending in 1504) depicted as "a man without compassion, the hydra, the basilisk, rebellious to Christ, deserving of the most wretched end," emerges as the prince par excellence.

The gentle soul (for Machiavelli was a gentle soul) has revolted. He has seen Florence and Pisa at each other's throats and thrown together with Rome and Venice into a cauldron of intrigue and bloodshed, stirred year after year by invasions from France, interference from Spain, the contending ambitions of the Medici, the Borgia, the Sforza, the Orsini, the Colonna and other families of nobles. He has heard of nobody since Dante who could clearly envisage a nation beyond and above the multitude of factions. He has spent almost a lifetime in investigating at first hand the means whereby men rule and become powerful, and he thinks he has found the secret.

This is what has happened to poor Niccolo, a vision —vast, shadowy, beautiful—whose name is Italy. And it has blinded him. For the secret of power, as he understands it, is unscrupulous cunning and ruthless cruelty. Florence, "dominated and divided by the doctrines of that great Savonarola, who, filled with divine virtue, fascinated her by his words," fell back into the hands of the Medici. The "weaponless prophet" ended upon the scaffold. The ideal prince whose coming he evokes shall meet with no such fate, if getting rid of virtue, divine or otherwise, can aid him.

For whereas laws, agreements and contracts bind private individuals to keep faith, arms alone avail with potentates. . . . Where it is a question of the welfare of our country, we must admit of no considerations of justice or injustice, of mercy or cruelty, of praise or ignominy, but putting all else aside must adopt whatever course will save its existence. . . . A prince should know how to assume the beast nature both of the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot defend himself against snares nor the fox against wolves. Therefore a prudent lord neither can nor should observe faith when such observance might be to his injury. But it is necessary to give a good coloring to your nature, and be a great dissembler and dissimulator, because men then readily allow themselves to be deceived. . . . And it is a general rule that men should be either killed or caressed, because they can take revenge for light injuries but cannot for grave. The injury, therefore, should be so grave as to be beyond all risk of reprisals. He who conquers a free city and does not destroy it may expect to be destroyed by it, since it will always rebel, urged by the great love of liberty that is inextinguishable in free men's minds. . . . Cruelties may be said to be well done, if it may be permitted thus to speak of evil deeds, which are done suddenly for the sake of establishing a safe position, and not continued afterward. . . .

Such extracts could be multiplied indefinitely. Their author had made himself both immortal and infamous at a bound. No doubt his underlying idea is sound. The duties of a sovereign are different from those of a private citizen. If for "cruelties" he had substituted the word "punishments," and for "prince" the word "state," he would have been better understood. For we do not call it murder when a malefactor is hanged by due process of law, nor do we cry treachery if now and then a policeman wears a suit of mufti.

Moreover there is no question as to the purity of Machiavelli's motive. He was attempting to inspire the ruling prince of the Medici to work for the broad good of a nation yet to be, instead of wasting himself over the petty ambitions of his house. Thus it is a new prince, whose kingdom is as yet un-won, whose problems are dealt with. The writer's own ideal was a mixed government, with king, nobles and a parliament, each acting as a check upon the extravagances of the others.

But he went too far. Sheer patriotism had made him drunk. For it may not be permitted "thus to speak of evil deeds." Nor would it be difficult to refute his theories with his own words. The love of liberty is indeed inextinguishable in free men's minds, nor is it possible to make the injury so grave as to put its perpetrator beyond all risk of reprisals. The prince who permits no considerations of justice or injustice to move him must reckon with the indignation of all mankind. He may caress some, but cannot very well kill all.

So, much as we may commend Machiavelli for puncturing some of the hollow phrases of liberalism, we must in the end agree with Queen Christina of Sweden, who, reading the first French translation of these works, began by writing "Cela est vrai, ah que cela est bien dit!" (“That is true, that is well said!”) along their margins; continued with such phrases as "Que terrible commandement!" and ended with, "Je n'en croi rien." (“I do not believe any of it”).

Moi aussi, je n'en croi rien. Sound as much of this new science of politics undoubtedly is, the language which expresses it is often diabolical. Here is no half-great man, but a great half-man. "In the State according to Machiavelli," says Schlegel, "nothing is known of God." No wonder, then, that Frederick the Great of Prussia, who in practice followed the worst of these doctrines, was himself Machiavellian enough to write an "Antimachiavel" in which he pretends to repudiate them.

But what of Machiavelli? His pamphlets having failed to quicken the spark of noble endeavor in any of his contemporaries, he set himself to the writing of some admirable histories under the patronage of the Vatican—and to the composition of satirical comedies like Mandragola and the Clizia, wherein there is much wit, no religion, and little decency. The very soul of the man seemed to be dying.

Then Florence once more lifted up her head among free states. Old times seemed to be coming back again. He looked forward to being restored to office. But it was not to be. Nobody seemed to think of the faithful secretary of Soderini's time, and a certain Francesco Tarugi was nominated in his stead.

"To be prohibited from serving his country," says Villari, "was a blow that Niccolo Machiavelli could not survive." Nor did he. An old stomach ailment became virulent. He had made a will in which his wife, referred to in terms of unaltered affection, was named executrix. His family was about him. So he called in Fra Matteo, confessed his sins, and passed, on June 22, 1527. The great half-man had become whole.

Italy today does him honor. She has found her prince. The government has an aristocracy and a parliament of a sort quite after Machiavelli's heart. But is this prince, who calls himself "il Duce," following Niccolo the half-man or Niccolo the whole? It is a question of the gravest importance to the world. Fascismo is a challenge to liberal government everywhere, and Italy surrounds Rome. In seeking an answer to a question like this, we should turn a deaf ear to prejudiced voices and give a careful and impartial scrutiny to the facts of contemporary history.

The question has received a thousand hopeful answers from recent history, of which the most important, perhaps, is the reorganization of the Italian schools. How the Herbartian, or positivistic pedagogy predominant at the beginning of the century has been superseded by a system recognizing religious instruction as the foundation of all true education, and how far the reforms (now in charge of Minister Pietro Fedele) have succeeded in realizing the Catholic ideal, is a subject too complicated to be dealt with in this article. Suffice it to say that Machiavelli's forgetfulness of God is not being imitated, however potent the Florentine's spirit may be in shaping the merely political destinies of the country.

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The Renaissance of Machiavelli

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