1. The Diplomat

One man remains, hard to classify: diplomat, historian, dramatist, philosopher; the most cynical thinker of his time, and yet a patriot fired with a noble ideal; a man who failed in everything that he undertook, but left upon history a deeper mark than almost any other figure of the age.

Niccolò Michiavelli was the son of a Florentine lawyer—a man of moderate means, who held a minor post in the government, and owned a small rural villa at San Casciano ten miles out of the city. The boy received the ordinary literary education; learned to read Latin readily, but no Greek. He took a fancy to Roman history, became enamored of Livy, and found for almost every political institution and event of his day an illuminating analogue in the history of Rome. He began, but seems never to have completed, the study of law. He cared little for the art of the Renaissance, and expressed no interest in the discovery of America; perhaps he felt that merely the theater of politics was now enlarged, while the plot and characters would remain unchanged. His one absorbing interest was politics, the technique of influence, the chess of power. In 1498, aged twenty-nine, he was appointed secretary to the Dieci della Guerra—a Council of Ten for War—and held that post for fourteen years.

It was at first a modest function—compiling minutes and records, summarizing reports, writing letters; but he was in government, he could watch the politics of Europe from an inside observation point, he could try to forecast developments by applying his knowledge of history. His eager, nervous, ambitious spirit felt that only time was needed before he would be at the top, playing the heady game of state against the duke of Milan, the Senate of Venice, the king of France, the king of Naples, the pope, the emperor. Soon he was sent on a mission to Caterina Sforza, Countess of Imola and Forlì (1498). She proved too subtle for him, and he came back empty-handed, chastened. Two years later he was tried again, accompanied Francesco della Casa as associate envoy to Louis XII of France; della Casa fell ill, and Machiavelli had to head the mission; he learned French, followed the court from château to château, and transmitted to the Signory such alert intelligence, such keen analyses, that on his return to Florence his friends acclaimed him as now a graduate diplomat.

The turning point in his intellectual development was his mission, as aide to Bishop Soderini, to Caesar Borgia at Urbino (1502). Called back to Florence for a personal report, he celebrated his rise in the world by taking a wife. In October he was again despatched to Caesar. He joined him at Imola, and arrived at Senigallia just in time to note Borgia’s happiness at having successfully ensnared, and strangled or caged, the men who had conspired against him. These were events that stirred all Italy; to Machiavelli, meeting the brilliant ogre in the flesh, they were lessons in philosophy. The man of ideas found himself face to face with the man of action, and did him homage; envy burned in the young diplomat’s soul as he realized the distance he had still to travel from analytical and theoretical thought to a magnificent crushing deed. Here was a man, six years younger than himself, who in two years had overthrown a dozen tyrants, given order to a dozen cities, and made himself the very meteor of his time; how weak words seemed before this youth who used them with such scornful scarcity! From that moment Caesar Borgia became the hero of Machiavelli’s philosophy, as Bismarck would be of Nietzsche’s; here, in this embodied will to power, was a morality beyond good and evil, a model for supermen.

Back in Florence (1503), Machiavelli perceived that some members of the government suspected him of having been swept off his mental feet by the dashing Borgia. But his industrious scheming to advance the interests of his city regained for him the esteem of the Gonfalonier Soderini and the Council of Ten for War. In 1507 he saw the triumph of one of his basic ideas. No self-respecting state, he had long argued, could entrust its defense to mercenary troops; they could not be relied upon in a crisis; and they or their leader could almost always be bought by an enemy armed with sufficient gold. A national militia should be formed, said Machiavelli, composed of citizens, preferably of vigorous peasants used to hardship and the open air; it should be kept always in good equipment and training; and it should serve as the last firm line of the republic’s defense. After long hesitation the government accepted the plan, and empowered Machiavelli to realize it in action. In 1508 he led his new milizia to the siege of Pisa, where it acquitted itself well; Pisa surrendered, and Machiavelli returned to Florence at the height of his arc.

On a second mission to France (1510) he passed through Switzerland; his enthusiasm was aroused by the armed independence of the Swiss Confederation, and he made it his ideal for Italy. Returning from France, he saw the problem of his country: how could its separate principalities unite to protect Italy if a united nation like France should decide to absorb the whole peninsula?

The supreme test of his militia came too soon. In 1512 Julius II, furious against Florence for having refused to join in expelling the French from Italy, ordered the armies of the Holy League to suppress the republic and restore the Medici; and Machiavelli’s militia, assigned to defend the Florentine line at Prato, broke and fled before the trained mercenaries of the League. Florence was taken, the Medici triumphed; Machiavelli lost both his reputation and his governmental post. He made every effort to appease the victors, and might have succeeded; but two ardent youths, conspiring to re-establish the republic, were detected; among their papers was found a list of persons on whose support they had counted; it included Machiavelli. He was arrested and tortured with four turns of the rack; but no evidence of his complicity having been found, he was released. Fearing rearrest, he removed with his wife and four children to the ancestral villa at San Casciano. There he spent all but the last of his remaining fifteen years, fretting in hopeful poverty. But for this disaster we should never have heard of him, for it was in those hungry years that he wrote books that moved the world.

2. The Author and the Man

It was a dreary isolation for one who had lived at the very core of Florentine politics. Occasionally he would ride into Florence to talk with old friends and explore any chance of re-employment. Several times he wrote to the Medici, but he received no reply. In a celebrated letter to his friend Vettori, then Florentine ambassador in Rome, he described his life, and told how he came to write The Prince:

Since my last misfortunes I have led a quiet country life. I rise with the sun, and go into one of the woods for a few hours to inspect yesterday’s work; I 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 bird-snaring enclosure, with a book under my arm—Dante, Petrarch, or one of the minor poets, such as Tibullus or Ovid. I read their amorous transports and the history of their loves, recalling my own to my mind, and time passes pleasantly in these meditations. Then I betake 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, and my slender patrimony, can afford me. In the afternoon I go back to the inn. There 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 tric trac, which games give rise to a thousand quarrels and much exchange of bad language; and we generally wrangle over farthings, and our shouts can be heard in San Casciano town. Steeped in this degradation my wits grow moldy, and I vent my rage at the indignity of fate….

At nightfall I return home and seek my writing room; and divesting myself on its threshold of my rustic garments, stained with mud and mire, I assume courtly attire; and thus suitably clothed, I 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, and am not ashamed to hold discourse with them and inquire the motives of their actions; and 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 dread death; my whole being is absorbed in them. 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 have composed a pamphlet De principatibus, in which I plunge as deeply as I can into cogitations upon this subject, discussing the nature of princedom, of how many species it consists, how these are to be acquired, how they are maintained, why they are lost; and if you ever cared for any of my scribbles, this one ought not to displease you. And it should be especially welcome to a new prince; for which reason I dedicate it to his Magnificence, Giuliano…. (December 10, 1513)76

Probably Machiavelli has here simplified the story. Apparently he began by writing his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, completing his commentary on only the first three books. He dedicated these Discorsi to Zanobi Buondelmonti and Cosimo Rucellai, saying: “I send you the worthiest gift I have to offer, inasmuch as it comprises all that I have learned from long experience and continuous study.” He remarks that classic literature and law and medicine have been revived to enlighten modern writing and practice; he proposes likewise to resuscitate classic principles of government, and apply them to contemporary politics. He does not derive his political philosophy from history, but selects from history incidents supporting the conclusions to which he has been led by his own experience and thought. He takes his examples almost entirely from Livy, sometimes in his haste basing arguments on legends, and occasionally helping himself to morsels from Polybius.

As he proceeded with the Discourses, he perceived that they would be too long, and too long delayed in their completion, to serve as a practical gift to one of the ruling Medici. Therefore he interrupted the work to write a summary that would embody his conclusions; this would have a better chance of being read, and of bringing a fair return in the friendship of the powerful family that now (1513) ruled half of Italy. So he composed Il principe (as he came to entitle the book) in a few months of that year. He planned to dedicate it to Giuliano de’ Medici, then ruling Florence; but Giuliano died (1516) before Machiavelli could make up his mind to send the book to him; so he rededicated it, and sent it, to Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, who made no acknowledgment of it. It circulated in manuscript, and was surreptitiously copied; it was not printed till 1532, five years after the author’s death. Thereafter it was among the most frequently reprinted books in any language.

To his own description of himself we can add only the anonymous portrait of him in the Uffizi Gallery. It shows a slender figure with pale face, hollow cheeks, sharp dark eyes, thin lips tightly closed; obviously a man of thought rather than of action, and of keen intelligence rather than of amiable will. He could not be a good diplomat because he was too visibly subtle, nor a good statesman because he was too intense, grasping ideas fanatically as in the portrait he tightly clasps the gloves that affirm his semigenteel rank. This man who so often wrote like a cynic, whose lips so often curled into sarcasm, who plumed himself on such perfect mendacity that he could make people think he lied when he spoke the truth,77 was in his heart of hearts a flaming patriot, who made the salus populi the suprema lex, and subordinated all morality to the unification and redemption of Italy.

There were many unlikable qualities in him. When Borgia was up he idealized him; when Borgia was down he followed the crowd and denounced the broken Caesar as a criminal and “a rebel against Christ.”78 When the Medici were out he condemned them eloquently; when they were in he licked their boots for a post. He not only visited brothels before and after marriage, but sent his friends detailed descriptions of his adventures there.79 Several of his letters are so coarse that not even his most voluminous and admiring biographer has dared to publish them. Nearing fifty, Machiavelli writes: “Cupid’s nets still enthrall me. Bad roads cannot exhaust my patience, nor dark nights daunt my courage…. My whole mind is bent on love, for which I give Venus thanks.”80These things are forgivable, for man was not made for monogamy; but less pardonable, though quite in harmony with the custom of the times, is the complete absence, from all of Machiavelli’s considerable surviving correspondence, of any word of tenderness—of any word—about his wife.

Meanwhile he turned his able pen to divers forms of composition, and rivaled the masters in each. In a treatise on the art of war (L’arte della guerra, 1520) he announced to states and generals, from his ivory tower, the laws of military power and success. A nation that has lost the martial virtues is doomed. An army requires not gold but men; “gold alone will not procure good soldiers, but good soldiers will always procure gold”;81 gold will flow to the strong nation, but strength departs from the rich nation, for wealth makes for ease and decay. Consequently an army must be kept busy; a little war now and then will keep the martial muscles and apparatus in trim. Cavalry is beautiful, except when faced with sturdy pikes; the infantry must ever be regarded as the very nerve and foundation of an army.82 Mercenary armies are the shame and sloth and ruin of Italy; each state should have a citizen militia, constituted of men who would be fighting for their own country, their own lands.

Trying his hand at fiction, Machiavelli wrote one of Italy’s most popular novelle, Belfagor arcidiavolo, bursting with satiric wit on the institution of marriage. Turning to drama, he composed the outstanding comedy of the Italian Renaissance stage,Mandragola.The prologue struck a new note, making a novel curtsey to critics:

Should anyone seek to cow the author by evil-speaking, I warn you that he, too, knows how to speak evil, and indeed excels in the art; and that he has no respect for anyone in Italy, though he bows and scrapes to those better dressed than himself.83

The play is an astounding revelation of Renaissance morals. The scene is laid in Florence. Callimaco, hearing an acquaintance praise the beauty of Lucrezia, wife of Nicias, decides—though he has never seen her—that he must seduce her if only to be able to sleep in peace. He is disturbed to learn that Lucrezia is as famous for her modesty as for her beauty; but he takes hope on being told that Nicias frets over her failure to conceive. He bribes a friend to introduce him to Nicias as a physician. He professes to have a potion that will make any woman fertile; but, alas, the first man who lies with her after she has taken it will soon afterward die. He offers to undertake this mortal adventure, and Nicias, with the traditional kindness of characters to their authors, consents to be replaced. But Lucrezia is obstinately virtuous; she hesitates to commit both adultery and murder in one night. All is not lost; her mother, lusting for progeny, bribes a friar to advise her in the confessional to go through with the plan. Lucrezia yields, drinks, lies with Callimaco, and becomes pregnant. The story ends with everybody happy: the friar purifies Lucrezia, Nicias rejoices in his vicarious parentage, and Callimaco can sleep. The play is excellent in structure, brilliant in dialogue, powerful in satire. What startles us is not the seductive theme, long hackneyed in classical comedy, nor even the merely physical interpretation of love, but the turn of the plot upon the readiness of a friar to counsel adultery for twenty-five ducats, and the fact that in 1520 the play was produced with great success before Leo X in Rome. The Pope was so pleased with it that he asked Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici to give Machiavelli some employment as a writer. Giulio suggested a history of Florence, and offered 300 ducats ($3,750?).

The resultant Stone Florentine (1520–5) was almost as decisive a revolution in historiography as The Prince in political philosophy. It is true that the book had vital defects: it was hastily inaccurate, it plagiarized substantial passages from previous historians, it was more interested in the strife of factions than in the development of institutions, and it totally ignored cultural history—as did nearly every historian before Voltaire. But it was the first major history written in Italian, and its Italian was clear, vigorous, and direct; it rejected the fables with which Florence had embellished her origins; it abandoned the usual chronicle year-by-year plan, and gave, instead, a smooth-flowing and logical narrative; it dealt not merely with events but with causes and effects; and it forced upon the chaos of Florentine politics a clarifying analysis of conflicting families, classes, and interests. It carried the tale along on two unifying themes: that the popes had kept Italy divided to preserve the temporal independence of the papacy; and that the great advances of Italy had come under princes like Theodoric, Cosimo, and Lorenzo. That a book with such tendencies should have been written by a man seeking papal ducats, and that Pope Clement VII accepted its dedication without complaint, illustrates the courage of the author and the mental and financial liberality of the Pope.

The History of Florence gave Machiavelli occupation for five years, but it did not satisfy his longing to swim again in the muddy stream of politics. When Francis I lost everything but honor and his skin at Pavia (1525), and Clement VII found himself helpless against Charles V, Machiavelli sent letters to the Pope and to Guicciardini, explaining what could yet be done against the imminent Spanish-German conquest of Italy; and perhaps his suggestion that the Pope should arm, empower, and finance Giovanni delle Bande Nere might have delayed destiny awhile. When Giovanni died, and the German horde advanced upon Florence as a rich and plunderable ally of the French, Machiavelli rushed to the city, and, at Clement’s request, prepared a report on how the walls might be restored to make it defensible. On May 18, 1526, he was chosen by the Medicean government to head a board of five “Curators of the Walls.” The Germans, however, by-passed Florence and headed for Rome. When that city was sacked, and Clement was a prisoner of the mob, the republican party in Florence once more expelled the Medici and restored the republic (May 16, 1527). Machiavelli rejoiced, and hopefully applied for his old post as secretary of the Ten for War. He was turned down (June 10, 1527); his dealings with the Medici had lost him the support of the republicans.

He did not long survive that blow. The vital spark of life and hope flickered out in him, and left the flesh spiritless. He fell ill, suffering violent spasms of the stomach. Wife, children, and friends gathered round his bedside. He confessed to a priest and died, twelve days after his rejection. He left his family in the utmost poverty, and the Italy that he had labored to unite was in ruins. He was buried in the church of Santa Croce, where a handsome monument, marked with the words, Tanto nomini nullum par elogium—”No eulogy would do justice to so great a name”—bears witness that an Italy at last united has forgiven his sins and remembered his dream.

3. The Philosopher

Let us examine the “Machiavellian” philosophy as impartially as we can. Nowhere else shall we find so much independent and fearless thinking on ethics and politics. Machiavelli was justified in claiming that he had opened new routes on relatively untraveled seas.

It is almost exclusively a political philosophy. There is no metaphysics here, no theology, no theism or atheism, no discussion of determinism or free will; and ethics itself is soon shoved aside as subordinate to, almost a tool of, politics. Politics he understands as the high art of creating, capturing, protecting, and strengthening a state. He is interested in states rather than in humanity. He sees individuals merely as members of a state; except as they help to determine its destiny, he pays no attention to the parade of egos across the landscape of time. He wishes to know why states rise and fall, and how they can be made to defer as long as possible their inevitable decay.

A philosophy of history, a science of government, are possible, he thinks, because human nature never changes.

Wise men say, not without reason, that whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions; and thus they must necessarily have the same results.84… I believe that the world has always been the same, and has always contained as much good and evil, although variously distributed among the nations according to the times.85

Among the most instructive regularities of history are the phenomena of growth and decay in civilizations and states. Here Machiavelli meets a very complex problem with a very simple formula. “Valor produces peace; peace, repose; repose, disorder; disorder, ruin. From disorder order springs; from order, valor (virtù ); and from this, glory and good fortune. Hence wise men have observed that the age of literary excellence is subsequent to that of distinction in arms; and that… great warriors are produced before philosophers.”86 In addition to the general factors in growth or decay may be the action and influence of leading individuals; so the excessive ambition of a ruler, blinding him to the inadequacy of his resources for his aims, may ruin his state by leading it into war with a stronger power. Fortune or chance also enters into the rise and fall of states. “Fortune is the arbiter of one half our actions, but she still leaves us to direct the other half.”87 The more virtù a man has, the less will he be subject to fortune or yield to it.

The history of a state follows general laws, determined by the natural wickedness of men. All men are by nature acquisitive, deceitful, pugnacious, cruel, and corrupt.

Whoever wishes to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature whenever they find occasion for it. If their evil disposition remains concealed for a time, it must be attributed to some unknown reason; and we must assume that it lacked occasion to show itself; but time… does not fail to bring it to light…. The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always acquire when they can; and for this they will be praised, not blamed.88

This being so, men can be made good—i.e., capable of living with order in a society—only by the application, in sequence, of force, deceit, and habit. This is the origin of a state: the organization of force through army and police, the establishment of rules and laws, and the gradual formation of habits, for the maintenance of leadership and order in a human group. The more developed a state, the less force will have to be used or visible in it; indoctrination and habit will suffice; for in the hands of a capable lawgiver or ruler the people are as soft clay in the hands of a sculptor.

The best means of habituating naturally wicked men to law and order is religion. Machiavelli, whom his admirer Paolo Giovio calls irrisor et atheos, a satirical atheist,89 writes enthusiastically about religious institutions:

Although the founder of Rome was Romulus… yet the gods did not judge the laws of this prince sufficient… and therefore they inspired the Roman Senate to elect Numa Pompilius as his successor…. Numa, finding a very savage people, and wishing to reduce them to civil obedience by the arts of peace, had recourse to religion as the most necessary and assured support of any civil society; and he established it upon such foundations that for many centuries there was nowhere more fear of the gods than in that republic; which greatly facilitated all the enterprises which the Senate or its great men attempted…. Numa feigned that he held converse with a nymph, who dictated to him all that he wished to persuade the people to…. In truth there never was any remarkable lawgiver… who did not resort to divine authority, as otherwise his laws would not have been accepted by the people; for there are many good laws the importance of which is known to the sagacious lawgiver, but the reasons for which are not sufficiently evident to enable him to persuade others to submit to them; and therefore do wise men, to remove this difficulty, resort to divine authority.90… The observance of religious institutions is the cause of the greatness of republics; disregard of these institutions produces the ruin of states. For where the fear of God is wanting, there the country will be destroyed, unless it be sustained by fear of the prince, which may for a time supply the want of religion. But the lives of princes are short….

Princes and republics who wish to maintain themselves… must above all things preserve the purity of religious observances, and treat them with proper reverence.92… Of all men who have been eulogized, those deserve it most who have been the authors and founders of religions. Next come such as have established republics or kingdoms. After these the most celebrated are those who have commanded armies and have extended the possessions of their country. To these may be added literary men…. Conversely, those men are doomed to infamy and universal execration who have destroyed religions, who have overturned republics and kingdoms, who are enemies of virtue or of letters.93

Having accepted religion in general, Machiavelli turns upon Christianity and excoriates it as having failed to make good citizens. It diverted too much attention to heaven, and enfeebled men by preaching the feminine virtues:

The Christian religion makes us hold of small account the love of this world, and renders us more gentle. The ancients, on the contrary, found their highest delight in this world… Their religion beatified none but men crowned with worldly glory, such as leaders of armies and founders of republics; whereas our religion has rather glorified meek and contemplative men than men of action. It has placed the supreme good in humility and poorness of spirit, and in contempt for worldly things; whereas the other placed it in greatness of mind, in bodily strength, and in all that gives men daring.… Thus the world has fallen a prey to the wicked, who have found men readier, for the sake of going to paradise, to submit to blows rather than to resent them.94

Had the religion of Christianity been preserved according to the ordinances of its Founder, the states and commonwealths of Christendom would have been far more united and happy than they are. Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than the fact that the nearer people are to the Roman Church, the head of this religion, the less religious are they. And whoever examines the principles on which that religion is founded, and sees how widely different from those principles its present practice and application are, will judge that her ruin or chastisement is near at hand.95… Possibly the Christian religion would have been entirely extinguished by its corruption, had not St. Francis and St. Dominic… restored it to its original principles.… To ensure a long existence to religious sects or republics, it is necessary frequently to bring them back to their original principles.96

We do not know whether these words were written before news had reached Italy of the Protestant Reformation.

The rebellion of Machiavelli against Christianity is quite different from the rebellion of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, Darwin, Spencer, Renan. These men rejected the theology of Christianity, but retained and admired the Christian moral code. This attitude continued till Nietzsche, and softened the “conflict between religion and science.” Machiavelli is not bothered by the incredibility of the dogmas; he takes that for granted, but accepts the theology with a good stomach on the ground that some system of supernatural belief is an indispensable support of social order. What he rejects most decisively in Christianity is its ethic, its conception of goodness as gentleness, humility, nonresistance; its love of peace and its denunciation of war; its assumption that states, as well as citizens, are bound by the one moral code. For his part he prefers the Roman ethic, based upon the principle that the safety of the people or state is the supreme law. “Where it is an absolute 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 we must adopt whatever course will save the nation’s existence and liberty.”97 Morality in general is a code of conduct given to the members of a society or state to maintain collective order, unity, and strength; the government of that state would fail in its duty if, in defending the state, it should allow itself to be restricted by the moral code that it must inculcate in its citizens. Hence a diplomat is not bound by the moral code of his people. “When the act accuses him the result should excuse him”;98 the end justifies the means. “No good man will ever reproach another who endeavors to defend his country, whatever be his mode of doing so.”99 Frauds, cruelties, and crimes committed in order to preserve one’s country are “honorable frauds,” “glorious crimes.”100 So Romulus did right in killing his brother; the young government had to have unity, or it would be torn to pieces.101 There is no “natural law,” no “right” universally agreed upon; politics, in the sense of statesmanship, must be held completely independent of morality.

If we apply these considerations to the ethics of war, Machiavelli is sure that they make Christian pacifism ridiculous and treasonable. War violates practically all the commandments of Moses: it swears, lies, steals, kills, commits adultery by the thousands; nevertheless, if it preserves the society, or strengthens it, it is good. When a state ceases to expand it begins to decay; when it loses the will to war it is finished. Peace too long maintained is enervating and disruptive; an occasional war is a national tonic, restoring discipline, vigor, and unity. The Romans of the Republic kept themselves ever ready for war; when they saw that they would have trouble with another state, they did nothing to avoid the war, but sent an army to attack Philip V in Macedon and Antiochus III in Greece rather than wait for them to bring the evils of war to Italy.102 Virtue, to a Roman, was not humility or gentleness or peace, but virility, manliness, courage with energy and intelligence. This is what Machiavelli means by virtù.

From this point of view of a statesmanship quite freed of moral restraints, Machiavelli moves to meet what seems to him the basic problem of his time: to achieve for Italy the unity and strength indispensable to her collective liberty. He views with indignation the division, disorder, corruption, and weakness of his country; and here we find what in Petrarch’s day was so rare—a man who loved his city not the less because he loved his country more. Who was responsible for keeping Italy so divided, and therefore so helpless against the foreigner?

A nation can never be united and happy except when it obeys only one government, whether a republic or a monarchy, as is the case in France and Spain; and the one cause why Italy is not in the same condition is the Church. For having acquired, and holding, a temporal dominion, yet she has never had sufficient power or courage to enable her to seize the rest of the country and make herself sole sovereign of all Italy.*103

We have a new idea here: Machiavelli condemns the Church not for protecting her temporal power, but for not having used all her resources to bring Italy under her political rule. So Machiavelli admired Caesar Borgia at Imola and Senigallia, because he thought he saw in that ruthless youth the conception and promise of a united Italy; and he was prepared to justify any means that the Borgias might use to accomplish this heroic consummation. When he turned against Caesar at Rome in 1503 it may have been through rage that his idol had allowed a cup of poison (as Machiavelli thought) to destroy the dream.

From two centuries of disunity Italy had fallen into such physical weakness and social decay that now (Machiavelli argued) only violent means could save her. Governments and people alike were corrupt. Sexual vice had come to replace military ardor and skill. As in the dying days of ancient Rome, the citizens had delegated to others—there to barbarians, here to mercenaries—the defense of their cities and their lands; but what did these mercenary bands, or their condottieri, care for the unity of Italy? They lived and thrived by its division. They had by mutual agreement made war a game almost as safe as politics; their soldiers had inconvenient objections to being killed; and when they met foreign armies they took to their heels and “brought Italy to slavery and contempt.”105

Who, then, would make Italy one? How could it be done? Not by democratic suasion; men and cities were too individualistic, too partisan, and too corrupt, to accept union peaceably; it would have to be imposed upon them by all the methods of statecraft and war. Only a ruthless dictator could do it; one who would not let conscience make a coward of him, but would strike with an iron hand, letting his great aim justify all means.

We are not sure that The Prince was written in this mood. In the very year 1513 in which it was apparently begun, Machiavelli wrote to a friend that “the idea of Italian union is laughable. Even if the heads of the states could agree, we have no soldiers but the Spaniards that are worth a farthing. Moreover, the people would never agree with the leaders.”106 But in that same 1513 Leo X, young and rich and clever, had reached the papacy; Florence and Rome, so long enemies, were united under the Medici. When Machiavelli transferred the dedication of the book to Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, that state too had fallen to the Medici. The new Duke was only twenty-four in 1516; he had shown ambition and courage; Machiavelli might forgivably look to this reckless spirit as one who, under the guidance and diplomacy of Leo (and the instruction of Machiavelli) could accomplish what Caesar Borgia, under Alexander VI, had begun—could lead the Italian states, at least north of Naples and omitting proud Venice, into a federation strong enough to discourage foreign invasion. There is evidence that this was also Leo’s hope. The dedication of The Prince to the Medici, though probably aiming first of all to win employment for the author, could sincerely think of that family as the possible creators of Italian unity.

The form of Il principe was traditional: it followed the outline and method of a hundred medieval treatises De regimine principum. But in content what a revolution! No idealistic charge here to a prince to be a saint, no appeal to him to apply the Sermon on the Mount to the problems of a throne. On the contrary:

It being my intention to write something that shall be useful to him who comprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it. Many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, for how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with destruction amidst so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.107

The prince, therefore, must distinguish resolutely between morality and statesmanship, between his private conscience and the public good, and must be ready to do for the state what would be called wickedness in the relations of individuals. He must scorn half measures; enemies who cannot be won over must be crushed; contenders for his throne must be killed. He must have a strong army, for a statesman can speak no louder than his guns. He must keep his army in constant health, discipline, and equipment; and he must train himself for war by undertaking frequently the hardships and dangers of the hunt. At the same time he must study the arts of diplomacy, for sometimes cunning and deceit achieve more than force, and less expensively. Treaties are not to be honored when they have become a detriment to the nation; “a wise lord cannot, nor ought he, keep faith when such observance can be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it no longer exist.”108

Some degree of public support is indispensable. But if a ruler must choose between being feared without love or being loved without fear, he must sacrifice the love.109 On the other hand (say the Discorsi)“a multitude is more easily governed by humanity and gentleness than by haughtiness and cruelty….110 Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius did not require the pretorian guard nor the legions to defend them, because they were protected by their own good conduct, the good will of the people, and the love of the Senate.”111 To secure popular support the prince should patronize art and learning, provide public spectacles and games, and honor the guilds, always, however, maintaining the majesty of his rank.112 He should not give the people liberty, but should comfort them as far as possible with the appearances of liberty. Subject cities, like Pisa and Arezzo in the case of Florence, must be dealt with vigorously, even cruelly, at the outset; then, when obedience has been established, their submission may be made habitual by gentler means. Indiscriminate and prolonged cruelty is suicidal.113

The ruler should support religion, and should himself appear to be religious, whatever his private beliefs.114 Indeed, it is more important and profitable to the prince to seem to be virtuous than to be so.

Though a prince need not possess all the virtues, to seem to have them is useful; as, for example, to seem merciful, loyal, humane, religious, and sincere; it is also useful to be so, but with a mind so flexible that if the need arise he can be the contrary…. He should be careful to let nothing fall from his lips that is not instinct with the five qualities mentioned, and must appear to those who see and hear him all compassion, all faith, all humanity, all religion, all integrity…. One must color his conduct, and be a great dissembler; and men are so simple, so absorbed in present necessities, that they are easily deceived…. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few know what you are; and those few dare not oppose the opinion of the many.115

To these precepts Machiavelli adds examples. He notes the success of Alexander VI, and thinks it entirely due to marvelous lying. He admires Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain for always putting a religious front on his military enterprises. He praises the means—warlike courage and strategic skill mingled with diplomatic craft—by which Francesco Sforza rose to the throne of Milan. But above all he holds up as his supreme and almost perfect exemplar Caesar Borgia:

When all the actions of the Duke are recalled, I do not know how to blame him; but rather it appears to me that I ought to offer him for imitation to all those who are… raised to government…. He was considered cruel; nevertheless his cruelty reconciled all the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty…. Having a lofty spirit and far-reaching aims, he could not have regulated his conduct otherwise; and only the shortening of the life of Alexander, and his own sickness, frustrated his designs. Therefore he who considers it necessary to secure himself in his new principality, to gain friends, to overcome enemies by force or fraud, to make himself at once feared and loved by the people, to be followed and revered by the soldiers, to exterminate those who have power or reason to hurt him, to change the old order of things for new, to be severe and gracious, magnanimous and liberal, to destroy a disloyal soldiery and create new, to maintain friendship with kings and princes in such a way that they must help him with zeal and offend him with caution, cannot find a more lively example than the actions of this man.116

Machiavelli admired Borgia because he felt that his methods and character, had it not been for the simultaneous illness of Pope and son, would have gone far to unite Italy. Now, in concluding The Prince, he appeals to the young Duke Lorenzo, and through him to Leo and the Medici, to organize the union of the peninsula. He describes his countrymen as “more enslaved than the Hebrews, more oppressed than the Persians, more scattered than the Athenians; without head, without order, beaten, despoiled, pillaged, and torn, and overrun by foreign powers.” “Italy, left as without life, waits for him who shall heal her wounds…. She entreats God to send some one who shall deliver her from these wrong and alien insolencies.”117 The situation is critical, but the opportunity is ripe. “Italy is ready and willing to follow a banner if only some one will raise it.” And who better than the Medici, the most famous family in Italy, and now heading the Church?

Who could express the love with which Italy would hail her liberator, with what thirst for revenge, what stubborn faith, what devotion, what tears? What door would be closed to him?—who would refuse him obedience? To all of us this barbarous dominion is a stench in the nostrils. Let therefore your illustrious house take up this charge, with that courage and hope with which all just enterprises are undertaken, so that under its standard our native country may be ennobled, and under its auspices may be verified those words of Petrarch:

Virtù contr’ al furore
Prendera l’arme e sia il combatter corto,
Che l’antico valore
Negl’ Italici cuor non è ancor morto—

“Manhood will take up arms against madness, and brief may the combat be, for the ancient valor is not yet dead in the veins of Italy.”

4. Considerations

So the cry that Dante and Petrarch had sent up to alien emperors was here raised to the Medici; and indeed, had Leo lived longer and played less, Machiavelli might have seen the liberation begin. But young Lorenzo died in 1519, Leo in 1521; and in 1527, the year of Machiavelli’s death, Italy’s subjection to a foreign power was complete. Liberation would have to wait 343 years until Cavour would effect it by Machiavellian statesmanship.

Philosophers have been well nigh unanimous in condemning The Prince, and statesmen in practising its precepts. A thousand books began to appear against it on the morrow of its publication (1532). But Charles V studied it carefully, Catherine de’ Medici brought it to France, Henry III and Henry IV of France had it with them at their death, Richelieu admired it, William of Orange kept it under his pillow as if to memorize it by osmosis.118 Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote an Anti-Machiavel as a prelude to outprincing The Prince. To most rulers, of course, these precepts were no revelation, except as revealing injudiciously the secrets of their guild. Dreamers who thought to turn Machiavelli into a Jacobin fancied that he had written The Prince not to express his own philosophy but, by sarcastic indirection, to expose the ways and wiles of rulers; however, the Discourses expound at greater length the same views. Francis Bacon ventured a condoning word: “Our thanks are due to Machiavelli and similar writers, who have openly and without dissimulation shown us what men are accustomed to do, not what they ought to do.”119 Hegel’s judgment was intelligent and generous:

The Prince has often been cast aside with horror as containing maxims of the most revolting tyranny; yet it was Machiavelli’s high sense of the necessity of constituting a state which caused him to lay down the principles on which alone states could be formed under the circumstances. The isolated lords and lordships had to be entirely suppressed; and though our idea of Freedom is incompatible with the means which he proposes… including, as these do, the most reckless violence, all kinds of deception, murder, and the like—yet we must confess that the despots who had to be subdued were assailable in no other way.120

And Macaulay, in a famous essay, pictured the philosophy of Machiavelli as a natural reflex of an Italy brilliant and de-moral-ized, and long since accustomed, by her despots, to the principles of The Prince.

Machiavelli represents the ultimate challenge of a revived paganism to a weakened Christianity. In his philosophy religion becomes again, as in ancient Rome, the humble servant of a state which in effect is god. The only virtues honored are pagan Roman virtues—courage, endurance, self-reliance, intelligence; the only immortality is a fading fame. Perhaps Machiavelli exaggerated the enfeebling influence of Christianity; had he forgotten the lusty wars of medieval history, the campaigns of Constantine, Belisarius, Charlemagne, the Templars, the Teutonic Knights, and Julius II of recent memory? The Christian morality emphasized the feminine virtues because men had the opposite qualities in ruinous abundance; some antidote and counterideal had to be preached to the sadistic Romans of the amphitheater, to the rough barbarians entering Italy, to lawless peoples striving to subside into civilization. The virtues that Machiavelli scorned made for orderly and peaceful societies; those that he admired (and, like Nietzsche, because he lacked them) made for strong and warlike states, and for dictators capable of murdering by the million to enforce conformity, and of incarnadining a planet to extend their rule. He confused the good of the ruler with the good of the nation; he thought too much of the preservation, seldom of the obligations, never of the corruption, of power. He ignored the stimulating rivalry and cultural fertility of the Italian citystates; he cared little for the magnificent art of his time, or even for that of ancient Rome. He was lost in idolatry of the state. He helped to free the state from the Church, but he shared in setting up for worship an atomistic nationalism not visibly superior to the medieval notion of states subject to an international morality represented by the pope. Each ideal has broken down under the natural selfishness of men; and a candid Christian must admit that in preaching and practising the principle that no faith need be kept with a heretic (as in violating the safe-conduct of Huss at Constance and of Alfonso of Ferrara in Rome), the Church herself was playing a Machiavellian game fatal to her mission as a moral power.

And yet there is something stimulating in Machiavelli’s forthrightness. Reading him, we are brought face to face, as nowhere else so vividly, with a question that few philosophers had dared discuss: is statesmanship bound by morality? We may come to at least one conclusion: that morality can exist only among the members of a society equipped to teach and enforce it; and that an interstate morality awaits the formation of an international organization dowered with the physical power and the public opinion to maintain an international law. Till then the nations will be as beasts in the jungle; and whatever principles their governments may profess, their practice will be that of The Prince.

Looking back upon two centuries of intellectual revolt in Italy from Petrarch to Machiavelli, we perceive that its essence and basis lay simply in lessened concern for another world, and a rising affirmation of life. Men were delighted to rediscover a pagan civilization whose citizens were not worried about original sin or a punitive hell, and in which the natural impulses were accepted as forgivable elements in a vibrant society. Asceticism, self-abnegation, and the sense of sin lost their hold, almost their meaning, in the upper strata of the Italian population; monasteries languished for lack of novices, and monks and friars and popes themselves sought the joys of the earth rather than the stigmata of Christ. The bonds of tradition and authority relaxed; the massive fabric of the Church weighed more lightly on the thoughts and purposes of men. Life became more extrovert, and though this often took the form of violence, it cleansed many souls of neurotic fears and disorders that had darkened the medieval mind. The unfettered intellect disported itself happily in every field but science; the exuberance of emancipation hardly comported, as yet, with the discipline of experiment and the patience of research; that would come in the constructive aftermath of liberation. Meanwhile, among the educated, the practices of piety made room for the worship of intellect and genius; the belief in immortality was commuted into the quest for enduring renown. Pagan ideals like Fortune, Fate, and Nature encroached upon the Christian conception of God.

For all this a price had to be paid. The brilliant enfranchisement of the mind sapped the supernatural sanctions of morality, and no others were found to effectually replace them. The result was such a repudiation of inhibitions, such a release of impulse and desire, so gay a luxuriance of immorality, as history had not known since the Sophists had shattered the myths, freed the mind, and loosened the morals, of ancient Greece.

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