The Renaissance, though it produced no important theoretical philosopher, produced one man of supreme eminence in political philosophy: Niccolò Machiavelli. It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he certainly is sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug. His political philosophy is scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends, regardless of the question whether the ends are to be considered good or bad. When, on occasion, he allows himself to mention the ends that he desires, they are such as we can all applaud. Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches to his name is due to the indignation of hypocrites who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing. There remains, it is true, a good deal that genuinely demands criticism, but in this he is an expression of his age. Such intellectual honesty about political dishonesty would have been hardly possible at any other time or in any other country, except perhaps in Greece among men who owed their theoretical education to the sophists and their practical training to the wars of petty states which, in classical Greece as in Renaissance Italy, were the political accompaniment of individual genius.
Machiavelli (1467–1527) was a Florentine, whose father, a lawyer, was neither rich nor poor. When he was in his twenties, Savonarola dominated Florence; his miserable end evidently made a great impression on Machiavelli, for he remarks that 'all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed', proceeding to give Savonarola as an instance of the latter class. On the other side he mentions Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus. It is typical of the Renaissance that Christ is not mentioned.
Immediately after Savonarola's execution, Machiavelli obtained a minor post in the Florentine government (1498). He remained in its service, at times on important diplomatic missions, until the restoration of the Medici in 1512; then, having always opposed them, he was arrested, but acquitted, and allowed to live in retirement in the country near Florence. He became an author for want of other occupation. His most famous work, The Prince, was written in 1513, and dedicated to Lorenzo the Second, since he hoped (vainly, as it proved) to win the favour of the Medici. Its tone is perhaps partly due to this practical purpose; his longer work, the Discourses, which he was writing at the same time, is markedly more republican and more liberal. He says at the beginning of The Prince that he will not speak of republics in this book, since he has dealt with them elsewhere. Those who do not read also the Discourses are likely to get a very one-sided view of his doctrine.
Having failed to conciliate the Medici, Machiavelli was compelled to go on writing. He lived in retirement until the year of his death, which was that of the sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V. This year may be reckoned also that in which the Italian Renaissance died.
The Prince is concerned to discover, from history and from contemporary events, how principalities are won, how they are held, and how they are lost. Fifteenth-century Italy afforded a multitude of examples, both great and small. Few rulers were legitimate; even the popes, in many cases, secured election by corrupt means. The rules for achieving success were not quite the same as they became when times grew more settled, for no one was shocked by cruelties and treacheries which would have disqualified a man in the eighteenth or the nineteenth century. Perhaps our age, again, can better appreciate Machiavelli, for some of the most notable successes of our time have been achieved by methods as base as any employed in Renaissance Italy. He would have applauded, as an artistic connoisseur in statecraft, Hitler's Reichstag fire, his purge of the party in 1934, and his breach of faith after Munich.
Caesar Borgia, son of Alexander VI, comes in for high praise. His problem was a difficult one: first, by the death of his brother, to become the sole beneficiary of his father's dynastic ambition; second, to conquer by force of arms, in the name of the Pope, territories which should, after Alexander's death, belong to himself and not to the Papal States; third, to manipulate the College of Cardinals so that the next Pope should be his friend. He pursued this difficult end with great skill; from his practice, Machiavelli says, a new prince should derive precepts. Caesar failed, it is true, but only 'by the extraordinary malignity of fortune'. It happened that, when his father died, he also was dangerously ill; by the time he recovered, his enemies had organized their forces, and his bitterest opponent had been elected Pope. On the day of this election, Caesar told Machiavelli that he had provided for everything, 'except that he had never thought that at his father's death he would be dying himself'.
Machiavelli, who was intimately acquainted with his villainies, sums up thus: 'Reviewing thus all the actions of the duke [Caesar], I find nothing to blame, on the contrary, I feel bound, as I have done, to hold him as an example to be imitated by all who by fortune and with the arms of others have risen to power.'
There is an interesting chapter 'Of Ecclesiastical Principalities', which, in view of what is said in the Discourses, evidently conceals part of Machiavelli's thought. The reason for concealment was, no doubt, that The Prince was designed to please the Medici, and that, when it was written, a Medici had just become Pope (Leo X). In regard to ecclesiastical principalities, he says in The Prince, the only difficulty is to acquire them, for, when acquired, they are defended by ancient religious customs, which keep their princes in power no matter how they behave. Their princes do not need armies (so he says), because 'they are upheld by higher causes which the human mind cannot attain to'. They are 'exalted and maintained by God', and 'it would be the work of a presumptuous and foolish man to discuss them'. Nevertheless, he continues, it is permissible to inquire by what means Alexander VI so greatly increased the temporal power of the Pope.
The discussion of the papal powers in the Discourses is longer and more sincere. Here he begins by placing eminent men in an ethical hierarchy. The best, he says, are the founders of religions; then come the founders of monarchies or republics; then literary men. These are good, but destroyers of religions, subverters of republics or kingdoms, and enemies of virtue or of letters, are bad. Those who establish tyrannies are wicked, including Julius Caesar; on the other hand, Brutus was good. (The contrast between this view and Dante's shows the effect of classical literature.) He holds that religion should have a prominent place in the State, not on the ground of its truth, but as a social cement: the Romans were right to pretend to believe in auguries, and to punish those who disregarded them. His criticisms of the Church in his day are two: that by its evil conduct it has undermined religious belief, and that the temporal power of the popes, with the policy that it inspires, prevents the unification of Italy. These criticisms are expressed with great vigour. 'The nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they…. Her ruin and chastisement is near at hand…. We Italians owe to the Church of Rome and to her priests our having become irreligious and bad; but we owe her a still greater debt, and one that will be the cause of our ruin, namely that the Church has kept and still keeps our country divided.'1
In view of such passages, it must be supposed that Machiavelli's admiration of Caesar Borgia was only for his skill, not for his purposes. Admiration of skill,
and of the actions that lead to fame, was very great at the time of the Renaissance. This kind of feeling has, of course, always existed; many of Napoleon's enemies enthusiastically admired him as a military strategist. But in the Italy of Machiavelli's time the quasi-artistic admiration of dexterity was much greater than in earlier or later centuries. It would be a mistake to try to reconcile it with the larger political aims which Machiavelli considered important; the two things, love of skill and patriotic desire for Italian unity, existed side by side in his mind, and were not in any degree synthesized. Thus he can praise Caesar Borgia for his cleverness, and blame him for keeping Italy disrupted. The perfect character, one must suppose, would be, in his opinion, a man as clever and unscrupulous as Caesar Borgia where means are concerned, but aiming at a different end. The Prince ends with an eloquent appeal to the Medici to liberate Italy from the 'barbarians' (i.e. the French and Spaniards), whose domination 'stinks'. He would not expect such a work to be undertaken from unselfish motives, but from love of power, and still more of fame.
The Prince is very explicit in repudiating received morality where the conduct of rulers is concerned. A ruler will perish if he is always good; he must be as cunning as a fox and as fierce as a lion. There is a chapter (XVIII) entitled: 'In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith.' We learn that they should keep faith when it pays to do so, but not otherwise. A prince must on occasion be faithless.
'But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived. I will mention only one modern instance. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, he thought of nothing else, and found the occasion for it; no man was ever more able to give assurances, or affirmed things with stronger oaths, and no man observed them less; however, he always succeeded in his deceptions, as he knew well this aspect of things. It is not necessary therefore for a prince to have all the above-named qualities [the conventional virtues], but it is very necessary to seem to have them.'
He goes on to say that, above all, a prince should seem to be religious.
The tone of the Discourses, which are nominally a commentary on Livy, is very different. There are whole chapters which seem almost as if they had been written by Montesquieu; most of the book could have been read with approval by an eighteenth-century liberal. The doctrine of checks and balances is set forth explicitly. Princes, nobles, and people should all have a part in the Constitution; 'then these three powers will keep each other reciprocally in check'. The constitution of Sparta, as established by Lycurgus, was the best, because it embodied the most perfect balance; that of Solon was too democratic, and therefore led to the tyranny of Peisistratus. The Roman republican constitution was good, owing to the conflict of Senate and people.
The word 'liberty' is used throughout as denoting something precious, though what it denotes is not very clear. This, of course, comes from antiquity, and was passed on to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tuscany has preserved its liberties, because it contains no castles or gentlemen. ('Gentlemen' is of course a mistranslation, but a pleasing one.) It seems to be recognized that political liberty requires a certain kind of personal virtue in the citizens. In Germany alone, we are told, probity and religion are still common, and therefore in Germany there are many republics. In general, the people are wiser and more constant than princes, although Livy and most other writers maintain the opposite. It is not without good reason that it is said, 'the voice of the people is the voice of God'.
It is interesting to observe how the political thought of the Greeks and Romans, in their republican days, acquired an actuality in the fifteenth century which it had not had in Greece since Alexander or in Rome since Augustus. The Neoplatonists, the Arabs, and the Schoolmen took a passionate interest in the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, but none at all in their political writings, because the political systems of the age of City States had completely disappeared. The growth of City States in Italy synchronized with the revival of learning, and made it possible for humanists to profit by the political theories of republican Greeks and Romans. The love of 'liberty', and the theory of checks and balances, came to the Renaissance from antiquity, and to modern times largely from the Renaissance, though also directly from antiquity. This aspect of Machiavelli is at least as important as the more famous 'immoral' doctrines of The Prince.
It is to be noted that Machiavelli never bases any political argument on Christian or biblical grounds. Medieval writers had a conception of 'legitimate' power, which was that of the Pope and the Emperor, or derived from them. Northern writers, even so late as Locke, argue as to what happened in the Garden of Eden, and think that they can thence derive proofs that certain kinds of power are 'legitimate'. In Machiavelli there is no such conception. Power is for those who have the skill to seize it in a free competition. His preference for popular government is not derived from any idea of 'rights', but from the observation that popular governments are less cruel, unscrupulous, and inconstant than tyrannies.
Let us try to make a synthesis (which Machiavelli himself did not make) of the 'moral' and 'immoral' parts of his doctrine. In what follows, I am expressing not my own opinions, but opinions which are explicitly or implicitly his.
There are certain political goods, of which three are specially important: national independence, security, and a well-ordered constitution. The best constitution is one which apportions legal rights among prince, nobles, and people in proportion to their real power, for under such a constitution successful revolutions are difficult and therefore stability is possible; but for considerations of stability, it would be wise to give more power to the people. So far as regards ends.
But there is also, in politics, the question of means. It is futile to pursue a political purpose by methods that are bound to fail; if the end is held good, we must choose means adequate to its achievement. The question of means can be treated in a purely scientific manner, without regard to the goodness or badness of the ends. 'Success' means the achievement of your purpose, whatever it may be. If there is a science of success, it can be studied just as well in the successes of the wicked as in those of the good—indeed better, since the examples of successful sinners are more numerous than those of successful saints. But the science, once established, will be just as useful to the saint as to the sinner. For the saint, if he concerns himself with politics, must wish, just as the sinner does, to achieve success.
The question is ultimately one of power. To achieve a political end, power, of one kind or another, is necessary. This plain fact is concealed by slogans, such as 'right will prevail' or 'the triumph of evil is short-lived'. If the side that you think right prevails, that is because it has superior power. It is true that power, often, depends upon opinion, and opinion upon propaganda; it is true, also, that it is an advantage in propaganda to seem more virtuous than your adversary, and that one way of seeming virtuous is to be virtuous. For this reason, it may sometimes happen that victory goes to the side which has the most of what the general public considers to be virtue. We must concede to Machiavelli that this was an important element in the growing power of the Church during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, as well as in the success of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. But there are important limitations. In the first place, those who have seized power can, by controlling propaganda, cause their party to appear virtuous; no one, for example, could mention the sins of Alexander VI in a New York or Boston public school. In the second place, there are chaotic periods during which obvious knavery frequently succeeds; the period of Machiavelli was one of them. In such times, there tends to be a rapidly growing cynicism, which makes men forgive anything provided it pays. Even in such times, as Machiavelli himself says, it is desirable to present an appearance of virtue before the ignorant public.
This question can be carried a step further. Machiavelli is of opinion that civilized men are almost certain to be unscrupulous egoists. If a man wished nowadays to establish a republic, he says, he would find it easier with mountaineers than with the men of a large city, since the latter would be already corrupted.2 If a man is an unscrupulous egoist, his wisest line of conduct will
depend upon the population with which he has to operate. The Renaissance Church shocked everybody, but it was only north of the Alps that it shocked people enough to produce the Reformation. At the time when Luther began his revolt, the revenue of the papacy was probably larger than it would have been if Alexander VI and Julius II had been more virtuous, and if this is true, it is so because of the cynicism of Renaissance Italy. It follows that politicians will behave better when they depend upon a virtuous population than when they depend upon one which is indifferent to moral considerations; they will also behave better in a community in which their crimes, if any, can be made widely known, than in one in which there is a strict censorship under their control. A certain amount can, of course, always be achieved by hypocrisy, but the amount can be much diminished by suitable institutions.
Machiavelli's political thinking, like that of most of the ancients, is in one respect somewhat shallow. He is occupied with great lawgivers, such as Lycurgus and Solon, who are supposed to create a community all in one piece, with little regard to what has gone before. The conception of a community as an organic growth, which the statesmen can only affect to a limited extent, is in the main modern, and has been greatly strengthened by the theory of evolution. This conception is not to be found in Machiavelli any more than in Plato.
It might, however, be maintained that the evolutionary view of society, though true in the past, is no longer applicable, but must, for the present and the future, be replaced by a much more mechanistic view. In Russia and Germany new societies have been created, in much the same way as the mythical Lycurgus was supposed to have created the Spartan polity. The ancient lawgiver was a benevolent myth; the modern lawgiver is a terrifying reality. The world has become more like that of Machiavelli than it was, and the modern man who hopes to refute his philosophy must think more deeply than seemed necessary in the nineteenth century.