The Renaissance, Machiavelli and The Prince

 CEL 100 – Spring 2021


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And so we’ve arrived, all of a sudden, at “modernity.”  A propos of which, since the name of Leo Strauss has come up several times in the course of our conversations, I’ve taken the liberty of tossing into your Files both a PDF of a very famous short essay of his from a half-century ago called “The Three Waves of Modernity.”  It is only ten pages, but ten very dense pages – and so I’ve also filed my somewhat shorter, if just as dense, “Summary” of his argument.  Not required reading – just for fun.  One thing you’ll notice about Strauss’s account is that it ignores – straddles, in fact – the way that historians conventionally divide the modern era in two, into “early-modern” and “modern” sub-periods, with the French Revolution and/or the Industrial Revolution marking the boundary between the two.  As you’ll notice, by ignoring that divide, while concentrating on exceptional figures like Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, Strauss relieves himself the necessity of saying very much about the big intellectual movements that structured European intellectual life, especially in the “early-modern” period – a luxury we can’t quite afford.


Those movements were, of course, the 15h- and 16th-century Renaissance, the 16th- and 17th-century Reformation, and the 18th-century Enlightenment.  You’ll already grasp that for all their differences – one elite, one popular; one “secularizing,” one deeply “religious” – the first two had a lot in common: a return to texts from a distant past, which ended by springing people forward, to an unexpected future.  And you’ll already also know that the third and last of these movements, the Enlightenment, represented both the culmination and the cancellation of the Renaissance and the Reformation.  There’s another reason why the Enlightenment was last – because it also represented (literally) a fourth, somewhat “secret” movement – the 17th-century “Scientific Revolution” – perhaps the most important of all, even if invisible at the time, whose gravity (no pun intended) was only grasped much later.  As for the role of “reason” in all this, I bet you can sense the story: first, “ancient” reason made an explosive come-back; while with the Reformation, Christianity suddenly “rationalized” itself; only to have the Scientific Revolution reveal that reason, and thus humanity itself, was henceforth all alone in the universe – no more help from Aristotle, no more help from the Bible – just Descartes, Newton, Kant, and you and me.


The Renaissance


Well, and Machiavelli, too, of course.  That brings us to the Renaissance, about which everybody already has some notion – the effort, on the part of 14th- and 15th-century Italians (in the first instance, though the fad spread northwards  – Montaigne, Shakespeare), to imitate the culture of classical antiquity: to paint, sculpt, design buildings, write, and think like the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Let’s add to that, though, a few related specifications, less conventionally associated with the Renaissance, at least from an “art history” standpoint.  (a) As a phenomenon, this was a little different from ordinary ancestor-worship, of the type that was common all over the world during the agrarian period – in that Greco-Roman civilization was held to be dead, and also seen as more antagonistic to the host culture (Christian) than was typical.  (b) Let’s emphasize, too, that the Renaissance involved curious reversals in the ranking of cultural forms – where the ancient world tended to specialize in words and numbers (philosophy and science), its “rebirth” tended to shift its energies in the direction of pictures and plastics – images, arts, and architecture.  And (c) let’s not forget that the Renaissance involved more than just “culture”: we’ll be thinking about politics, in particular, but let’s not forget the kinds of economic innovation central to the age, from the “rebirth” of chattel slavery to the “birth” of capitalism itself.  Anyway, the Renaissance comes and goes, but Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2012), has certainly given it new life for us.


Now, let’s take another step closer to Machiavelli, and ask the question: why Italy?  The answer may seem obvious, but a necessary precondition was the defeat of any Italian feudal monarchy, the most plausible attempt at which was made by the Hohenstaufen ruler Frederick II, moving up from the south, whose efforts ended with his death in 1250.  The Papacy may have been the nominal victor here, but feudalism in Italy was really defeated by the economic power and political spirit of the great northern city-states, Milan and Florence above all.  By 1450, after endless internecine warfare, a precarious peace was established between a number independent political units: the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in the South, the Papal States in the center, and the city-states of Florence, Milan, Genoa, and Venice in the north – just to name the big and rich four, since there were plenty of others, of course.  The rest of Europe had meanwhile dissolved into chaos in fourteenth century, from which they were only just beginning to emerge at that point, leaving the Italian states a brief period of blessed freedom from external interference.  You can thus think of the Renaissance as the name for what the Italians did with that freedom.


Finally, what was the political shape of the Italian states?  Naples and the Papal states were always “principalities” – the word Machiavelli used for monarchy.  The northern city-states, on the other hand, tended to undergo a wrenching evolution: starting out predominantly as aristocratic republics, they one by one tended to fall under the control of signorie – the local dynasties that Machiavelli theorized as “new” principalities.  Take his hometown, for example.  The proud possessor of a republican constitution, Florence was firmly controlled by the Medici family, whose wealth came from banking, after 1434.  Then the great catastrophe occurred.  In 1494, a reinvigorated French monarchy invaded Italy, soon followed by the even more vigorous Spaniards.  The result in Florence was the expulsion of the Medici and restoration of the Republic, but only temporarily: when the Spanish gained the upper hand in Italy permanently in 1512, they re-installed the Medici in power there, soon enough as “dukes.”  “Liberty” was finished in Florence, as elsewhere in the Italian peninsula, which was dominated, for the next three centuries, by external powers.  A kind of afterglow lingered for a very long time, helping to spread Renaissance culture all over Europe – again, think of Shakespeare – but the thing itself was dead.


Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527


And so we arrive at Machiavelli.  It is no mean feat, of course, to make your name into a household word for “evil.”  The question of Machiavelli’s association with diabolism is something that we will want to address – is it more than just a myth?  What there is no doubt about is that Machiavelli was indeed the first of the “dark thinkers of the bourgeoisie,” whose ranks would eventually include Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Freud – social philosophers whose names are synonymous with scandal, of one kind or another.  And don’t think, thereby, that this is yet another detour away from democracy – let me just point out that the most important recent book on Machiavelli in the Anglosphere, by John McCormick, is called Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge, 2011).


As for biography, the collective catastrophe of the loss of Florentine and Italian independence was Machiavelli’s personal nightmare as well.  Born to a family of Florentine lawyers in 1469, he became secretary and Second Chancellor to the restored Republic in 1498 (just after the short episode when Florence fell under the spell of the fiery Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola).  As such, Machiavelli traveled widely in Italy, negotiating with French kings and German emperors, with Cesare Borgia and Pope Julius II; in 1507, he helped organize Florence’s new militia.  But with the return of the Medici in 1512, Machiavelli was arrested, tortured, and exiled to his farm near San Casciano.  His revenge was literary: by his death in 1527, he had written The Prince, the Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War, his chief political works, as well as a couple of sparkling comedies, The Mandragola and Clizia, and a melancholy History of Florence.  There is a lot of controversy about the relation of The Prince to the Discourses, both of which were only published posthumously, in 1532 and 1531, respectively.  The best current guess is that The Prince was written with a very specific audience and goal in mind – the Medici family, whom Machiavelli thought had a gold opportunity, before 1519, to combine control over Florence and over the Papacy – which he wanted them to use to “liberate” Italy, in some sense.  Alas, it was not to be – though here we are reading about it, all these centuries later.


The Prince


We’ll start with Machiavelli’s famous letter to his old friend Vettori, begging for a job.  If his evocation of the miseries of his exile and his devotion to the ancients doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then you are a heartless wretch.  In any case, here is a brief overview of the text as a whole in terms of its structure, key terms, and central themes:

(1) The first five chapters form a bloc, devoted to introducing the typology that governs Machiavelli’s analysis, and dispensing with the topics in which he is (seemingly) uninterested.  The first chapter reveals Machiavelli’s relentless dichotomization in all its splendor.  Chapters 3 and 5 are not without all interest: but if you put 2 and 4 together, then you have Machiavelli’s analysis of monarchy, the chief form of government in the world.  If you are alert, you will pay special attention to the differences between France and Turkey . . .

(2) But Machiavelli is really only interested in the forms of government found in contemporary Italy, the topic of chapters 6 through 11.  Above all, the late Renaissance was the world of the “new” principality, differentiated here the means of its acquisition — either by one’s own arms and “virtue,” or by “fortune.”  The examples of the former (6) include an astonishing roster of characters, the latter (7), the unforgettable Cesare Borgia.  Exceptions and anomalies follow: “crime” in 8, “constitutional” principality in 9; “ecclesiastical” in 11.  But Machiavelli’s verdict is clear enough, I think.

(3) And the lesson is rammed home forcefully in chapters 12-14, whose topic is, in fact, arms.  Here you have Machiavelli’s unrelenting assault on mercenary armies and advocacy of militias — which couldn’t possibly be more out of step with his time.  As for chapter 14 — no, that never goes out of fashion!

(4) But we have yet to come to the real scandal of The Prince.  That commences with chapter 15 and continues through chapter 23.  The outrage here was very simple – the severing of ties between politics and “virtue,” announced in 15 – the prince must learn not to be “virtuous.”  Actually it’s more complicated than that, since the apparent advocacy of vice is tempered in a number of ways: the distinction between the short- and long-run (16), the need to maintain the appearance of virtue (18), the importance of avoiding the hatred of one’s subjects (19).  Still, the slippage from the Centaur to the Lion and the Fox in 18 says it all — the world of politics and society, of human beings living together, was, for Machiavelli, beastly.  How in this wide world did he come to think that?

(5) The answer is plain to see in the last three chapters, which build to a kind of hysterical conclusion.  Chapter 24 returns us to the “problem” of Italy with a vengeance.  Chapter 25 is the philosophical center of gravity of The Prince.  Here at last is the analysis of the concept of “fortune” for which we’ve been waiting – a neo-pagan (that is to say, non-Christian) concept, to be sure, but one rendered absolutely unique (“modern,” if you like) by Machiavelli’s two unforgettable metaphors — fortune is “like a river,” and “fortune is a woman.”  The shift from nature back to the human world is startling and utterly symptomatic of Machiavelli’s impasse – which makes the “exhortation to free Italy from the barbarians” with which The Prince concludes (26), all the more vain and pathetic.  Here at last you hear two sentimental words that you don’t usually associate with Machiavelli, but which you should – “justice” and “love.”


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