Machiavelli-art - 6/25/09 "On Niccolò Machiavelli and His Tradition" by Lord James Northfolke.
NOTE: See also the files: Charlemagne-art, Margery-Kemp-msg, cl-Italy-msg, Italy-lnks, Italy-msg, A-Study-o-SCA-art, Confrontation-art, households-msg.
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This article was first published in the May 2008 issue of "Quoth the Raven", the newsletter of the Barony of Raven's Fort, Ansteorra.
On Niccolò Machiavelli and His Tradition
by Lord James Northfolke Niccolò Machiavelli was born to a poor family on 3 May 1469 in Florence, Italy. (It must be remembered that, during this time, Florence was still independent and ruled by a republican government.) He was to become known as a writer, a statesman, and a Florentine patriot and political theorist whose acute psychological observations brought him a reputation of amoral cynicism. During the early period of his life he received the usual humanistic education of the time, but later gained his wide knowledge by private reading and practical experiences in life.
In 1498 (at the age of 29) he was appointed Chief Secretary of the republic. During this same year, he emerged as the head of an administrative and diplomatic branch of the Florentine government (the chancery). While in office he traveled in Europe, particularly France to study the conditions of foreign states and the political orientation of their princes. Spending five months "abroad" enriched his experience, learning of the people and customs of a strong nation united under the rule of a single prince. On his return he developed the notion that Italy's political plight, due primarily to the necessity of relying upon adventurers, required desperate solutions and as chief advisor to gonfalonier (chief magistrate for life) Soderini, replaced the traditional mercenary troops with a native Florentine militia. To accomplish this, he obtained permission to create a special magistrate, the Nine of the Militia (which took Pisa in 1509). As secretary to the Nine he traveled throughout the republic to distribute arms and enroll infantry. However, despite his efforts, the Spaniards attacked Florence and the new militia almost immediately gave way and the Medici were easily able to regain power.
When a conspiracy against the Medici was found early in 1513, he, already an object of suspicion to the new government, was accused of complicity and thrown into prison. He maintained his innocence and, although later released, was not taken off the list of conspirators--he sought refuge in the little property that was left to him by his father. It was here that he wrote a large part of the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the First Decade of Tito Livy) and Il principe (The Prince). Thus, he became the first historiographer of Florence upon gaining the good graces of the Medici, but when they fell in 1527, he had no place in the new republic and died soon after (21 June).
In 1530 two Englishmen, Reginal Pole and Thomas Cromwell, often discussed politics together. Pole held Plato's ideal from the Republic. Cromwell, insisting that such views were out of date, suggested and offered a more "modern" manual for politics. Pole never received the manual from Cromwell, but later read it. This manual, he said, was "written by the finger of Satan." This manual was The Prince by Machiavelli.
Written in 1513, Machiavelli's work explains, what he articulates as four types, principalities and the means by which they are acquired. The first is that of hereditary which is usually maintained with few difficulties if the prince follows conservative policies. The second is what he designates as mixed. These originate from the addition of new territories; are maintained with greater difficulty as men are inconstant, changing their rulers willingly, hoping to better their condition. For Machiavelli this type is problematic at best and specifies solutions: (1) conquerors should enter and install themselves in the newly acquired provinces; (2) colonies should be set up to serve as links to the territories of the prince; and (3) princes should become the head and protector of the less powerful neighboring territories and weaken the more powerful. The third type is the new principalities: those acquired by a new prince (like most during the Renaissance); those acquired by means of the prince's own arms and abilities; those by means of other's arms or fortune; those through iniquity; and civic principalities (with the help of the noble class). Finally, he describes that of ecclesiastical principalities: those governed by religious institutions, i.e., the Church.
For Machiavelli, the state is the highest achievement of humanity; the individual, the people, and the leader all cooperate in maintaining it. The state has no superior. The love of state must outweigh the love for one's own soul. Human nature is such that individuals will seek gratification of their lusting for power, pleasure, and profit. Human excellence, then, is measured by virtue (Italian, virtù); strength, courage, and intelligence with the will to act with dynamic vitality. The most vital states are those whose republics where their citizens enjoy the maximum freedom to be masters of their own destiny.
Machiavelli asserted that men are subject to immutable laws and, consequently, are always the same and are led by the same passions to the same ends. Because of this, we can foresee the course of political development by studying the cycles and phases of historical events; and, it is essential for a statesman to experience modern events, study the past and exploit the knowledge gained in political actions. The Prince is an exposition on how to exploit these lessons of history in politics. The prince must turn to means imposed by other statesmen, especially those of contemporaries. The (successful) ends justify these means. In reading The Prince, it appears that, for Machiavelli, the Roman and Greek political pasts were worth imitation. It is as though he is asking why his city (Florence) did not come up to the standard of which they had set--that is, a free republic of virtuous citizens competing for fame and glory in government service.
"Throughout the history of its influence, people have found Machiavelli's Prince to be many things," states Eugene Garver, "but a work of rhetoric has rarely been one of them." Garver attempts to show how Machiavelli uses and adapts traditional methods of rhetorical invention to find stable structures for understanding, and intervening in, changing events. He contends that Machiavelli organizes The Prince as a narrative imitation of his own activity of inventing a solution of how to understand and be successful in a changing world. The prince is the innovator just by following the argument of Machiavelli. Garver also asserts that throughout Machiavelli's work, the rhetorical formality comes from the "emptying of terms" of the conventional meaning. Thus, for example, virtue is explicated in a way that it becomes an "alternative for an ethics of principles without degenerating into an ethics of results."
Leo Rauch, in his book The Political Animal, asserts that, for Machiavelli, politics must be neutral in regards to values; that is, in politics there can be no right or wrong in the moral sense. Any values he has are in the political sense. Consequently, he (Machiavelli) discusses the state in purely political terms; something, Rauch asserts, subsequent philosophers could not adequately do. We need to deal with the state devoid of any mythic terms; i.e., as one of the places where man can display his values. According to Rauch, Machiavelli is interested in the distinction between "is" and "ought". The disparity between the way men are and the way they ought to be is so great that "he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation." All in all Machiavelli's work is an illustration where humanity is thought of purely in political terms.
If there was a single purpose to Machiavellian history, it was that of cultivating the deed; i.e., politically. He desired to have his readers lose themselves in antiquity so as to lose sight of modernity. To forget modernity was to overcome the destiny which made modern man impotent. Thus, in teaching what men had done, Machiavelli sought to teach men what they might do. Machiavelli attempted to make the deed "the first principle of history because he believed he had discovered the primordial principles which tied men to the past." However, according to Mark Hulliung, "nothing could be further from the truth." He asserts that any restoration of a republican rule is not the end justifying the means; neither, then, does the forcible unification of Italy, which was not much more than mere afterthought, engage in morality in Machiavelli's writings. For Machiavelli, the end is greatness, and unity of the Italian states is solely a possibility from the "glorious, violent, and aggrandizing deeds that are better performed by republican citizens than monarchical subjects" (emphasis mine). Thus, the highest glory is that which is most disciplined, makes the most of the maximum number of people, and leads to the most impressive results.
Hulluing also deals with the idea, originally argued by Felix Gilbert, that Machiavelli parodied and satirized humanist literature. He asserts that this is a very "fruitful" way in which to interpret Machiavelli's Prince. Here he also reminds that satire did not mean for them what it means for us. Beginning in primitive societies, words of satire were thought literally to destroy or drive one's nemesis to self-destruction. By the more advanced culture of Renaissance Rome, satire was a highly developed art form. Hulluing submits that "whereas satirists had always taken vice and corruption as their targets, Machiavelli did that and much more; he made virtue, traditionally the hanging judge of satire, his special target." He continues that Christian and Stoic virtue are popular objects of contempt and derision of the satirist. From this, Machiavelli creates a revolution, a "transvaluation of values:" Machiavellian politics, becomes virtue.
"Why should one love country above self or soul?" Sebastian de Grazia puts this question to Machiavelli because he permits no benefit to self when such benefit would detract from the common good. He sees love of country in the lover's suffering torture, exile, mistreatment and loss of life and soul; to die for country is symbolic of love for country. This is not a new notion, even during the time of Machiavelli. Roman history defines Italy as an entity, and ancient geography considers Italy to be a geographic unity, the peninsula separate at the north by the Alps. Machiavelli, himself, notices the efforts of the Florentines to adorn their city. The lover is bound to his "lady's" service.
Eugene Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1987).
Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell (Princeton: Princeton University, 1993).
Mark Hulluing, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton: Princeton University, 1983).
Lawrence F. Hundermark, Niccolò Machiavelli in Great Thinkers of the Western World, ed. Ian P. McGreal (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).
Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. W.K. Marriott (New York: Knopf, 1992).
Leo Rauch, The Political Animal: Studies in Political Philosophy from Machiavelli to Marx (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1981).
Bruce James Smith, Politics and Remembrance: Republican Themes in Machiavelli, Burke, and Tocqueville (Princeton: Princeton University, 1985).
H.R. Trevor-Roper, Men and Events: Historical Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).
Copyright 2008 by James Van Roekel, 209 Royal Oaks Street, Huntsville, TX 77320. . Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.