Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (03 May 1469–21 June 1527)

Today is the 553rd anniversary of the birth of Niccolò Machiavelli (03 May 1469–21 June 1527), who was born on this date in 1469.

The remit of political philosophy and philosophy of history overlap significantly, as both as concerned with the action of human agents in time, thus Machiavelli, as a political philosopher, has much to say that is relevant to philosophy of history. But Machiavelli was also an historian, so that his political philosophy is informed by a direct knowledge of and interest in history. Of the relation between politics and history Lord Acton wrote: “…the science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the stream of history, like grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to the making of the future.” (Lectures on Modern History, 1895, Inaugural Lecture)

One of Machiavellli’s major works is his Discourses on Livy, a long work that presents itself as a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s History of Rome from its Foundation. One of the most memorable passages from Machiavelli’s letters is his description of reading the ancients:

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.”

This is how we must imagine Machiavelli writing his Discourses on Livy, in courtly robes, reading Livy and the ancients, and drawing lessons from them. In Chapter 3 of the Discourses on Livy, “What Accidents Made the Tribunes of the Plebs Be Created in Rome, Which Made the Republic More Perfect,” Machiavelli begins with a reflection upon human nature that no previous philosopher would have said aloud:

“As all those demonstrate who reason on a civil way of life, and as every history is full of examples, it is necessary to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad, and that they always have to use the malignity of their spirit whenever they have a free opportunity for it. When any malignity remains hidden for a time, this proceeds from a hidden cause, which is not recognized because no contrary experience has been seen. But time, which they say is the father of every truth, exposes it later.”

It was this directness, and Machiavelli’s willingness to say aloud what others were only thinking, that made him essential reading even while begin notorious and condemned on all sides. One could argue that Machiavelli is a man of late medieval Europe; certainly the world he was born into was late medieval, and his own work was one of the spurs that began to transform his late medieval world into the early modern world. In passages like the above we immediately recognize in Machiavelli that modernity — he speaks to us in a way that we can understand, in the language of our own time, and not like other authors of the fifteenth century, or indeed not like the authors of classical antiquity, from which Machiavelli had learned so much.

In Machiavelli’s History of Florence, Book V, Chapter I, he bemoans the fallen state of his own times, which is a theme that runs throughout Machiavelli, but he has lessons to be learned from his own times no less than from the ancients:

“Although the transactions of our princes at home and abroad will not be viewed with admiration of their virtue and greatness like those of the ancients, perhaps they may on other accounts be regarded with no less interest, seeing what masses of high spirited people were kept in restraint by such weak and disorderly forces. And if, in detailing the events which took place in this wasted world, we shall not have to record the bravery of the soldier, the prudence of the general, or the patriotism of the citizen, it will be seen with what artifice, deceit, and cunning, princes, warriors, and leaders of republics conducted themselves, to support a reputation they never deserved. This, perhaps, will not be less useful than a knowledge of ancient history; for, if the latter excites the liberal mind to imitation, the former will show what ought to be avoided and decried.”

Machiavelli’s most famous work is a very short book called The Prince — the book that made him posthumously famous and notorious, and made his name into an adjective — Machiavellian — used to describe dishonesty, deceit, and political intrigue.

Much has been made of Machiavelli’s conception of fortune that is present throughout The Prince. In a well-known passage at the end of Chapter XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her,” Machiavelli says that fortune is a woman:

“…fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.”

Earlier in Chapter XXV Machiavelli says of fortune:

“I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.”

Machiavelli, then, implicitly evokes the ancient image of time as a river — a river that can rage out of control and sweep away everything in its path, but also a river than can be controlled when the appropriate measures are taken.

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