The Renaissance of Machiavelli

Part 1
(Niccolo Machiavelli/ Wikimedia Commons)

 

[This paper, the first of two, was first published in the September 14, 1927 issue of Commonweal]

Not so long ago, English-speaking etymologists were debating, with at least some show of seriousness, whether the expression "old Nick," as applied to the devil, might not be derived from Niccolo—the Niccolo they had in mind being Niccolo Machiavelli.

Were this all, one might suffer the four hundredth anniversary of his death to pass in silence, or leave its celebration to satanists. But it is not all. This same famous (or infamous) Florentine, whom the Protestant world knows only as the author of the phrase (attributed also to the Jesuits) "The end justifies the means," stands today as one of the officially proclaimed prophets of Fascismo.

In 1924, when Mussolini was offered the degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Bologna, he answered that he did not wish an honorary degree, but preferred to defend his own thesis like any other student. Asked what subject he proposed to choose, he answered, "Machiavelli." And on August 30 of the following year, Alfredo Rocco, his Minister of Justice, took occasion in a speech delivered at Perugia to say that Machiavelli was not only a great political authority, but the one from whom "Fascism learns not only its doctrines but its actions."

The author of The Prince, of the Discourses, and of The Art of War seems not to be as dead as was supposed. His challenge to liberalism has entered the field of actual politics, thus making his character of interest and importance to the whole world. My dictionary defines the word "Machiavellian" as "pertaining to Machiavelli or to his principles of political duplicity; hence crafty, double-dealing, cunning, unprincipled."

This unquestionably is the popular definition, and one is immediately struck by the woeful lack of Machiavellianism displayed by the leader of New Italy in openly favoring such a personage. A double-dealer should espouse a dubious cause in private only. Which leads to the question, was Machiavelli himself as Machiavellian as he is credited with having been?

Born at Florence on May 3, 1469, descendant of Dono del Machiavelli of the old nobility, his arms were a cross of azure upon a field of argent, with four nails, also of azure, at the four corners of the cross. By an irony of fortune, it was another branch of the same family, the Castellani, whose blazon was an eagle. Yet Niccolo seemed to live only to praise the eagle, symbol of the Caesars, and is reputed to have been the implacable foe of priests and Popes, of religion itself, even of common honor, decency and morality. Nevertheless, the house where he lived and died, instead of having been pulled down by an outraged posterity, still stands In Florence—16, Via Guicciardini.

Of his early life we only know that he received the ordinary education of a fashionable youth of the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent; that his later scholarship was due to his privately conducted studies, not to schools; and that he inherited from his father an estate valued at 110 broad florins and 14 pence—a very moderate competence, which he was never able much to improve upon. He seldom wrote about himself, and has left us nothing in which even the death of his mother, which occurred when he was twenty-six, is so much as mentioned—leading to the common inference that he was a man without heart.

The first words from his pen that have been preserved are in two letters, one in Italian, the other in Latin, both dated in December, 1497, relating to an attempt to preserve the family's right to the gift of the living of Santa Maria della Fanga, which the Pazzi were threatening to usurp. He won his cause, and the incident shows that he knew Latin (there is no foundation for the belief that he read his favorite Greek authors in their own tongue) and was already trusted by his family as an able man of affairs.

At the age of thirty-three he married Marietta Corsini, who brought him little or no dowry, and by her had six children. She was a devoted wife, but because Niccolo lived to write a satiric novel, La Novella di Belfagor, in which woman is represented as one of the most potent causes of the moral downfall of man, it is generally taken for granted that he had no love for his family.

Add to this the fact that his familiar letters to his friends Vettori and Guicciardini would bring a blush to the cheek of Broccaccio and might even satisfy a Broadway producer; that his principal literary works were put upon the Index by Paul IV (an action confirmed by the Council of Trent, in 1563); and the legend that he died with a jest upon his lips just after having dreamed that no person fit for polite society ever went to heaven—add these and many other similar details together, and you have a picture of the forefather of Italian unity which even the average child will recognize.

Pasquale Villari, his most voluminous biographer, describes the physical appearance of this monster as being without visible horns or hoofs, and otherwise as follows: "He was of middle height, slender of figure, with sparkling eyes, dark hair, rather a small head, a slightly aquiline nose and a tightly closed mouth. All about him bore the impress of a very acute observer and thinker, but not that of one able to wield much influence over others."

Nor did he wield much influence over others. He spent his life collecting information for his official superiors (no less than twenty-one important diplomatic missions are to his credit) in writing histories, and in inventing anew the arts of war and statecraft. He seems never to have been deceived, but there is no indication of his having personally turned the course of events. His pay was a few yards of cloth now and then, to be used as presents, and an occasional florin for himself—seldom enough to cover his traveling expenses. He was so poor in his later years that he speaks of himself as "cowering in his rags." When he died, at the age of fifty-eight, none of his contemporaries thought it worthwhile to write his biography -- and this though he was a member of the literary clique which frequented the famous Oricellarii Gardens, once visited by Leo X.

Machiavelli, in short, was to his own generation a man of vast utility but of little political importance. When twenty-nine years old he entered public life as secretary to the Ten, the Ten being a sub-committee of the Signory, or ruling body of the republic of Florence. And there he remained for fourteen years, busy—when not absent on foreign missions—with the correspondence of state and of war.

The Medici had been expelled and the republic was largely dominated by the fiery eloquence of the Dominican friar, Savonarola, whom we find him describing as "the weaponless prophet," one who used language "which not even a dog would tolerate." His prejudice against weaponless prophets was increased by his experience with a certain duchess, a dealer in mercenary soldiers, to whom he was sent on his first errand of diplomacy. The lady had already buried three husbands—not without the suspicion of having poisoned some of them—and proved altogether too much for the man later to be regarded as the world's champion wire-puller. She receives him with fair words —in the presence of the Venetian ambassador—and puts him off. He sees through her, and sees also the mercenaries march to Venice rather than to Florence. The incident is of importance, for from it he drew the idea elaborated in his Art of War (the only one of his works printed during his lifetime) and eventually adopted by all the nations of the world—namely, that states should depend upon national armies rather than upon foreign soldiers fighting for pay. But the mission was a failure.

And for this failure his employers praised him to the skies. Why? Well, for one thing, the mercenaries might have gone to Pisa, which would have been worse. But for another, Machiavelli had acted in palpable good faith. He was a find, a man who could be trusted. A man, in fact, who never broke faith nor gave false testimony during his whole career.

And so originated those wonderful "Reports," as Machiavelli wandered from court to court, from Romagna and Caesar Borgia to Sforza at Milan, from Sforza to France, from France to Maximilian, from Maximilian to Rome. He is like a Pepys, but with world politics rather than gossip for a subject. Nothing escapes him, nothing is left to invention. A novelist gathering his material, he was not yet ready to give his imagination play. Yet the tendency to treat every happening as an example of a general law is already manifest. He was laying the foundations for the modern method of historical writing, for his philosophy of government. So he bristles with aphorisms, and is as quotable as Pope. His style has the sparkling, almost appalling clarity of a Voltaire.

But as one reads, something in the character of the Frenchman makes itself felt by its absence. This cold cynicism is not cold. Our double-dealer has somehow failed, while looking upon Gorgon, to be turned to stone. The "tightly closed mouth" relaxes, but it is less a sneer than an impish grin which appears. Per Bacco! One likes the fellow. Everybody seems to like him. He finds time to write private letters to his colleagues and superiors. They are read aloud at those "little suppers" he can no longer attend in person, and the convives "crack their jaws with laughter" over his quips.

They also complain that he has become a nuisance, so often does he send them hunting all Italy for books. He wants Plutarch's Lives, for instance, which can be obtained only in Venice. For he must needs bury himself in the classics "to banish the memory of the horrible sights" he is compelled to witness. "It was intolerable to his disposition to be continually involved in so dense a tangle of infamy" as that which he discovered on his visits to the temporal princes, or "to live among men steeped in crime, ever ready for treachery and bloodshed, amenable to nothing but brute force." So writes a biographer. Consequently, he pens "ribald and facetious letters" for distraction, and asks continually to be permitted to return home to his wife and family. A rogue, it would seem, should have been made of sterner stuff.

In time he gets his wish, for—Savonarola having long since been executed by the enraged Signory—the republic of Florence once more falls into the hands of the Medici. Machiavelli's friend, the Gonfalonier Soderini, is deposed; and Machiavelli, who has taken a master strategist's part in the defense of the city, not only loses office but is banished for a year and compelled to pay a fine of 1,000 florins.

Reduced almost to want, he retires with his "brood" to his little villa near San Casciano—not, however, before being falsely accused of conspiracy against the returned Medici and put to the torture. He suffered four turns of the rack, says history—or six, as he himself alleges. And he adds, "I am really pleased with myself, and think that there is more in me than I ever believed before." He had really come through the ordeal very well for a scoundrel, and the scurrilous sonnets in which it was once believed he mocked his fellow-unfortunates in prison have proven to be forgeries. Whence, then, his evil reputation? For that— for the source, indeed, both of his shame and his glory —we must inquire into what he did while an exile in his villa near San Casciano.

(Click here to read the second paper)

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The Renaissance of Machiavelli

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