Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines Niccolò Machiavelli's ideas about liberty. It considers Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (1584), which contains Machiavelli's treatment of republican liberty and is considered to be his greatest contribution to the discussion of the tensions between political power and the liberty of both the individual citizen and the community at large. Alongside the conflict between law and the liberty of the republican citizen, the chapter turns to another key point in Machiavelli's arguments about liberty—the contradictions between liberty and what he calls fortuna (good luck or good fortune). Next, the chapter studies Machiavelli's Discourses in light of the genre of the utopia, as conceived by Sir Thomas More. Finally, the chapter takes a more detailed look into Machiavelli's other famous work, The Prince (1532).
Niccolò Machiavelli: Liberty and the Law
It is impossible not to begin with Niccolò Machiavelli, whose concept of republican liberty has been at the center of so much attention in recent decades.1 With the advent of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, the liberty discourse would take a brusque turn in direction, moving toward forms of liberty of the individual conscience that would often be belied by the militancy of the religious struggles of the period and the ferocious forms of oppression only too frequently used on both sides of the religious divide. The issue of political liberty, however, continued to be raised through the whole period covered in the present volume, posing the question of how and by what means the law should provide a guarantee for the liberty of conscience that rapidly became the fundamental issue of a Europe divided in the religious sphere as it had never been before.
Machiavelli himself seems to have been very little touched by the new religious struggles already taking place in northern Europe during his lifetime. Writing in the first two decades of the sixteenth century, he was by no means the first of the Renaissance Florentines to celebrate the republican idea of liberty. Indeed, his idea of liberty developed out of a complex Florentine political experience that had been much debated in the previous century, a century that had seen Florence involved in a series of dramatic changes of political regime when the governing body of the free city or commune, ruled in the early years of the century by chancellors of extraordinary prestige such as Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni, succumbed to a period of dominion by powerful and prestigious members of the Medici family, including Cosimo il Vecchio and Lorenzo il Magnifico.2 Then, suddenly, in 1494, Florence took a different turn by initiating a new experiment in republican rule.
After an initial period of confusion, the new republic decided on the creation of the Great Council, a widely representative governing body that delegated its foreign policy to the smaller Council of Ten (the so-called Dieci di (p.12) Balìa).3 It was the Council of Ten that would employ Machiavelli on diplomatic missions after his election as second chancellor in June 1498 at the age of twenty-nine.4 Machiavelli’s active political experience would come to an abrupt end in 1512 with the fall of the Republic of Florence, followed by the return of the Medici, who put the government of the city in the hands of another Lorenzo (grandson of Lorenzo il Magnifico), shortly to become Duke of Urbino as well. From that point onward, Machiavelli, in spite of repeated attempts to return to active service on behalf of his city, had no serious political role to play; he dedicated his attention to a theoretical study of politics that some scholars have seen as developing from discussions going back to the Middle Ages.5 Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s contribution was a particularly distinguished one that—although at once much discussed, and often reviled as heretical with respect to Christian tradition—would prove to be extraordinarily influential in the centuries to come.
Paradoxically passionate at the same time as it is dispassionately detailed and precise, Machiavelli’s treatment of the theme of republican liberty is to be found above all in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Nowadays considered an epoch-making book, and Machiavelli’s greatest contribution to the discussion of the tensions between political power and the liberty of both the individual citizen and the community at large, the Discourses were too republican in spirit to be published in his lifetime, for not only Florence but the whole of Europe was witnessing the increasing entrenchment of princely and monarchical forms of power. The book would only be published four years after Machiavelli’s death, in 1531, when two separate editions appeared in Rome.6 Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s Discourses circulated widely in manuscript form in his time, and the work acquires its full significance only when read in the light of the dramatic Florentine events that inspired it.
“Happy to escape from the heat, we would go together to the most secret and shaded part of the garden, where some of us would sit down on the grass, which in that place is cool and fresh, some of us on chairs placed in the shade under the huge trees.” With these introductory words to a later work, The Art of War, Machiavelli himself remembers conversations held with friends, in the years following the fall of the republic, in the Florentine gardens known as the Orti Oricellari.7 The Discourses were composed, probably for the most part in 1516–17, when Machiavelli decided to write up some of those conversations at the request of two of those friends, Zanobi Buondelmonti and Cosimo Rucellai, to whom he sent his text as a gift (“uno presente”).8 In so doing Machiavelli underlines the importance of his political and diplomatic experience in the service of the recent Florentine republican councils. His book is not just a theory of politics but is based on actual political experience in the service of a republic: “here I am talking about things known to me, which I have learned through experience and much practice in the ways of the world.”9
(p.13) Machiavelli’s Discourses, then, are founded on memories of the Florentine Consiglio grande, or Great Council, which had started to rule the city when Piero dei Medici, son of Lorenzo il Magnifico, had been expelled by the citizens of Florence in a popular uprising: “Now men began to collect in the Piazza, and in the Pelagio were heard cries of Popolo e libertà, whilst the bell was rung for a Parlamento,” narrates Luca Landucci in his Florentine diary for Sunday, November 9, 1494.10 Although immediately on the side of the new republican regime, Machiavelli would have to wait four years before being appointed to his prestigious political post, which he then lost with the return of the Medici in 1512. It was only in the aftermath of that return that a disheartened and unemployed Machiavelli sought solace in the gardens of the Orti Oricellari, where, with his friends, he commented on the Roman histories of Titus Livy in an attempt to define the contours of what he hoped would be a more robust republican system that looked back for inspiration to ancient Rome.
Some of those friends would be put to death or would flee to exile in 1522 for their part in an unsuccessful plot against the by then entrenched Medici rule in the person of the cardinal Giulio dei Medici; Machiavelli himself declined to take part in the plot and thus remained unharmed. A contemporary historian of Florence and its history of civil discord, Filippo de’ Nerli, provides a clear account of the link between Machiavelli and this plot in a work titled A Commentary on the Civil Events That Took Place in the City of Florence from 1225 to 1537:
A certain school of young men of letters, of the highest intelligence, used to meet in the Rucellai gardens during the lifetime of Cosimo Rucellai, who died young, and of whom there were great literary hopes.
Among these was Niccolò Machiavelli; and I was one of his friends, as indeed I was a friend of them all, and often took part in their conversations. They were very active readers of literature and history, from which they learned many lessons, and it was they who persuaded Machiavelli to write that book of his about the Discourses of Titus Livy, as well as his book about the military arts. Then they started to think that, in imitation of the ancients, they ought to do something great, that would make them illustrious: and so it was that they had the idea of organizing a plot against the life of the Cardinal. In becoming plotters, they failed to pay due attention to the things said by Machiavelli about plots in his book of Discourses. If they had done so, they would not have carried out their plot, or at least would have gone about it with more caution.11
The manuscript of de’ Nerli’s book was donated to the Tuscan grand duke Francesco dei Medici in 1574 and published for the first time only in 1728. But (p.14) it is of much interest in providing an objective contemporary account of what went on in those gardens. Machiavelli had indeed written at length of plots against tyrannical princes in chapter 6 of book 3 of the Discourses, claiming that “the observation made by Cornelius Tacitus is worth its weight in gold; for he claims that men must know how to honor the past at the same time as they obey the mood of the present. That is, they must desire good princes, but they must know how to bear with them however they may be. And truly, those who do otherwise more often than not ruin themselves as well as their country.”12
These words can help in understanding how Machiavelli could write his Discourses, celebrating the liberty of republics, only shortly after he wrote The Prince. In The Prince Machiavelli had started out from a historical given: the arrival of the prince at the center of the power structure of most of the European nations of his time. Whether he liked the new prince or not was irrelevant. The return of the Medici to Florence in 1512, seen from Machiavelli’s point of view, decreed the failure of the city’s republican government to survive a general move toward monarchical rule, notwithstanding Venice’s success in surviving as a republic in the same years and well beyond. That, however, was another story. From Machiavelli’s Florentine viewpoint, the triumph of princely rule was quite simply what had come about; and The Prince is a study of what the new power structure would, and would not be likely to mean if, as he foresaw, it was to determine a large part of European history in the centuries to come.13
The Prince has become a famous text in the modern world above all for Machiavelli’s claim that politics and ethics cannot easily be conjugated together. This chilling political realism was described famously by Benedetto Croce as “politics that lie on this, or rather on that, side of good or bad morals: politics that obey laws of their own, and against which it is useless to rebel.”14 More recently, Gabriele Pedullà has claimed that Croce’s separation of politics from ethics is too clean and abstract. Machiavelli himself insisted rather on a perpetual conflict between the two that necessarily involves the good political leader in dire moral choices for which he cannot avoid taking full responsibility, both moral and political. If in The Prince Machiavelli can applaud the actions of princes such as Cesare Borgia it is because, to resolve certain specific problems, they have of necessity violated common justice and perpetrated massacres in the name of a common good (in Borgia’s case, safety of the community at large from the dangerous ambitions of a power-mongering aristocracy) recognized as such by the majority of their citizens.15 This does not mean that Machiavelli applauds massacres or cruelty as such. The desire for “good” rulers, by which he meant governors appointed by the city to rule in the interests of the city, remained his strongest and most deeply held wish. It is this desire that lies behind the urgency to the Discourses, where the analysis of the political history of ancient Greece and Rome is always subordinated to an (p.15) explicit concern with the past, present, and future state of the city of Florence itself. A deep concern with the liberty of the city—above all that of the community at large but also of its individual citizens—lies at the heart of Machiavelli’s Discourses, and most particularly its first book, which deals with the constitution of the best republics. There liberty becomes a keyword in almost every chapter.16
The most successful republics, according to Machiavelli, are those that adopt a mixed constitution like that proposed by the ancient Roman historian Polybius (one of Machiavelli’s major sources); and he notes that a republican constitution like that of ancient Athens, which was founded primarily on the power of the people (lo stato popolare), has never lasted long (1.3.6).17 The people in a good republic must collaborate with their prince and their nobles (ottimati), even if their interests are different and tensions and tumults often ensue. Much recent attention has been given to Machiavelli’s insistence that conflicts and tumults within the state are to be seen as natural manifestations of the differing interests of the different classes of citizens, and are not to be considered as negative provided they are contained and controlled by institutions or ordini designed for that purpose, such as the ancient Roman Senate. For it is precisely from such internal conflicts that laws favoring the liberty of all those concerned will eventually emerge, as happened in the republic of ancient Rome (1.4.2).18 The creation of tribunes in ancient Rome to represent the will of the people in the senate is praised by Machiavelli as one of the greatest conquests in the ongoing acquisition of freedom: the tribunes are the guarantee of the liberty of the people within the laws or the constitution (ordini) that bind the community together. For Machiavelli it is in this context of tribunal representation that the people become the guardians of the freedom of the community as a whole (1.5.2). He uses an example from the ancient world to point toward a modern concept of freedom through republican representation in a broadly parliamentary sense.
Later chapters of the first book of the Discourses are concerned with the problem of how to return to such a state of freedom once liberty has been lost to the interests of some selfishly dominant citizen or group of citizens who seize power only to pursue their own interests and ends. Machiavelli is pessimistic about the chances of such a return to liberty when the reign of tyranny has been long and brutal, for such forms of power tend to aim at producing a servile populace by reducing it to the state of beasts (1.16.1). A condition for reacquiring lost liberty is precisely that the people should not have become themselves corrupt, so that their conflicts with their ruling class, after they have succeeded in banishing their tyrants or corrupt kings, can lead to a positive outcome in the formation of a stable republic (1.18.1–2). Such a republic cannot be based on corrupt morals but must include, at all levels, a clear sense of justice ensured by laws that punish the selfish wrongdoer and award those who serve the community as a whole. The system of laws of a just republic, (p.16) based on its constitution or ordini, must be observed if the liberty of the citizen is to be guaranteed and the community to live in freedom for any length of time; otherwise desolation and ruin will ensue (1.24.1). Machiavelli is nevertheless aware that the laws imposed even by elected magistrates can only too easily become antithetical to the idea of freedom. That is why the example of ancient Rome should be followed, for “they wrote down their laws on ten tables, and before confirming them they exhibited them in public so that everyone could read and discuss them, pointing out any defect and emending them before they were put into effect” (1.40.2).
Niccolò Machiavelli: Liberty and Fortuna
If bad laws conflict with the liberty of the republican citizen, another contradiction that Machiavelli pursues in the Discourses (as well as in The Prince)—and for which he is justly famous—is that between liberty and what he calls fortuna. In the pages of the Discourses, good luck or good fortune, in the sense of favorable circumstances, is primarily linked by Machiavelli to the question of a judicious use of military strength. Without a competent military, a republic remains exposed to the whim of its enemies, and blind fortuna only too easily wins the day. On the other hand, wise laws united to a wise use of the military tend to ensure good fortune and keep bad luck at bay (1.4.1). Later on, Machiavelli links the idea of fortune to that of religious faith, claiming that a wise use of religion by a ruler ensures long-lasting respect of the ordini of a just republic and a high level of moral life—both of them elements that tend to reduce the possibility of being destroyed by the fickle whims of fortune (1.11–12). Machiavelli cites here the words of two of the most famous citizens of Florence. First he refers to Dante, who in some verses in his Purgatory had “prudently claimed” that human virtue (virtù) is rarely sufficient of itself to ensure the long life of a community and should be considered instead as a gift from God.19 Immediately after this literary reminiscence, Machiavelli refers to Girolamo Savanorola, the fiery Dominican friar whose sermons had roused the Florentine people to support the new republic of 1494, before he was cruelly burned at the stake by some who had become afraid of his hold over the city and its citizens. Machiavelli was notoriously ambiguous in his judgment of Savanorola, and in the Discourses refuses to say whether the Dominican friar was divinely inspired or not. He limits himself to noting that the Florentine people, whom he considers far from stupid, were content to believe that Savanorola’s message came to them directly from God and that this helped to rouse them to virtuous action in a delicate moment of the city’s political history.
Other pages of Machiavelli’s works show how the influence of fortuna does indeed play an important role in the histories of cities: in a poem titled Di fortuna he writes of her immense and apparently arbitrary powers.20 By (p.17) and large, however, he wants to claim for virtù (meaning not only virtue but also wisdom and ability in the management of human affairs) the possibility of warding off the forces of circumstance and fate. Machiavelli’s concept of virtù ensures the possibility of freedom of the will, even within a historical process in which the apparently inscrutable play of fortune, whether it is to be identified with the will of God or not (a subject on which Machiavelli tends to remain neutral), undoubtedly plays an important and at times a tragic part.
In the young Machiavelli this idea can be found expressed in a particularly dramatic formulation in the brief pages of one of his earliest works, written during his period of political activity on behalf of the Florentine republic. The text in question is a letter to which he gave the title Capricious Thoughts, addressed to Giovan Battista Soderini, a nephew of the Florentine republican leader, or Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini.21 Written during Machiavelli’s period as the Florentine envoy to the court of Pope Julius II, between August and October 1506, the Capricious Thoughts take as their starting point the brilliantly successful attempt of this powerful and influential pope to carry out his ambition to chase the Venetians from the region of Romagna and to neutralize the power of the local princes in Bologna and Perugia by taking over government of these areas. This outcome was unfavorable to Florence, which now had a rigorously antirepublican ecclesiastical neighbor to deal with. The papal military campaign, which Machiavelli personally witnessed, included a famous episode in which Pope Julius entered Perugia with only a few soldiers and arms, given that the king of France had refused to come to his aid. This move effectively gave the lord of Perugia, Giampaolo Baglioni, a man with a long criminal record including incest and various forms of violent oppression, the opportunity of destroying—or at least much weakening—the papacy. It was an opportunity of which Baglioni nevertheless refused to take advantage, giving rise to sarcastic comments on his “pusillanimity” on the part of Machiavelli both in his letters of this period and later in the Discourses. Florence, whose free republic Machiavelli was then serving as their official representative at the papal court, had every reason to fear the substantial increase in the territorial and political power of the papacy that the takeover by Julius II of the nearby Perugia represented; and the success of the pope in fulfilling his mission, in spite of allowing his military weakness to be made publicly evident, stimulates Machiavelli to a series of reflections on the ways in which the virtù of princes fluctuates with circumstances, and can apparently either be capriciously thwarted or equally capriciously rewarded by fortuna.
The few pages of the Capricious Thoughts respond to this moment of surprising behavior on the part of Pope Giulio II—who had evidently judged correctly the psychology of his opponent—with an initial confession on the part of Machiavelli that he still can remain puzzled by political events (non havere gustate né leggiendo né pratichando le actioni delli huomini et e modi del (p.18) procedere loro). The episode obliges him to reach the conclusion that different leaders can reach similar aims by following different means and making different choices. His classical examples are Hannibal and Scipio, the first of whom succeeded in introducing his armies into Italy through cruelty and perfidious actions while the second introduced his into Spain using piety and religion. His modern examples are Lorenzo dei Medici who succeeded in defending Florence by disarming the populace, and Giovanni Bentivoglio, who succeeded in defending Bologna by arming it. In the same way, similar tactics can be successful or a failure when used on different occasions.
Machiavelli is concerned here with trying to find a “rule” that will avoid admitting a situation of incomprehensible chaos and caprice in the political history of states. He finds this in two concepts. The first is that princes come with diverse characters and gifts, and each governs according to his particular abilities. The second—and less obvious—one is that, whatever their gifts and their methods, success in princes depends on a meeting point, or riscontro, between their aims and the opportunities open to them within their particular times: “he will be happy who allows his way of proceeding to coincide with the humor of his times, while, on the contrary, he will be unhappy who allows his actions to diverge from the humors of his times and the order of events.” Machiavelli, however, does not stop there. The situation is made more complicated by his insistence that times change more rapidly than the characters of men; what gives rise to the victory of a prince one day can become the cause of his failure on another. The conclusion that can be reached is that rulers should always carefully study the changing signs of the times, for to do so with perspicacity will ensure lasting success. But because princes are unable to change their characters, which tend to be inflexible and fixed, it has to be recognized that fortune, in creating favorable or unfavorable occasions for a prince, dominates the political scene to an extent that Machiavelli finds disturbing, as he disarmingly admits (la Fortuna varia et comanda ad li huomini, et tiegli sotto el giogo suo). Later on, in The Prince, Machiavelli would claim, a little more optimistically, that half our actions are governed by fortune but the other half can be controlled by our own free choices.22
These pages have been the subject of an influential analysis by Gennaro Sasso, who points out that ultimately fortune cannot be seen in Machiavelli as either a goddess or a transcendental force (she is no longer, as in Dante, a “minister of God’s will”), but instead as the limit imposed by historical circumstances on the freedom of human action. As such, fortune may be considered the founding principle of historical interpretation. In this way Machiavelli, who does not allow the universal centrality of humankind within the universe that the humanists had claimed, nevertheless—according to Sasso—keeps human action at center stage, for it is the changing relationships between men and their fortune, or the shape objectively assumed by their times due to the apparently capricious processes of history, both natural and political, (p.19) that founds the possibility of giving a rational explanation of the historical process itself.23
Niccolò Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More
Commentators have discussed at length to what extent Machiavelli’s Discourses, insofar as they outline the contours of the just republic, should be considered as pertaining to the genre of a utopia. The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More as he moved between the Low Countries and London on a diplomatic mission on behalf of the British king, Henry VIII, in just those years in which Machiavelli was beginning to think about his Discourses. More’s word plays with ancient Greek, whose putative parliament, the Areopagus, he found a more stimulating model for his concept of liberty than Machiavelli’s ancient Rome. Utopia means a place that is nowhere, signaling to the reader that More, who also had republican leanings, shared Machiavelli’s disillusion with the princes of his time.
It is debated whether More’s much admired and widely read Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516 under the supervision of his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, was even read by Machiavelli, though it has frequently been compared with his Discourses.24 Indeed, Utopia could well be considered as an extended comment on the reference to the “golden saying” of Tacitus so much admired by Machiavelli and quoted above, for More’s book is structured as a dialogue between two voices corresponding exactly to the contrast that Machiavelli invokes. On the one hand More offers us an idealistic voyager to distant lands, Raphael Hathloday, who finally ends up in his utopia, a perfectly governed republic. He declares that from then on he finds it impossible to live under the tyranny of any of the monarchical regimes that dominate the Europe of his time. On the other hand More appears as a more mature persona, with his own name in his own work. His aim in the dialogue is to temper his utopian traveler’s uncompromising idealism by advising him to bear with the modern European princes, however they may be, as only by doing so will it be possible to influence them to good. More’s advice to his Utopian traveler is relayed through a pregnant theatrical metaphor:
Whatever play is being performed, perform it as best as you can, and do not upset it all simply because you think of another which has more interest. … You must not force upon people new and strange ideas which you realize will carry no weight with persons of opposite conviction. On the contrary, by the indirect approach you must seek and strive to the best of your power to handle matters tactfully. What you cannot turn to good you must make as little bad as you can. For it is impossible that all should be well unless all men were good, a situation which I do not expect for a great many years to come!25
(p.20) Although More titles his work Utopia and confers on his idealistic voyager the status of its hero, the work remains, through the authorial voice of his experienced self, securely rooted in the reality of his time. Indeed, the whole of the first book of his text is composed of a description of the many elements of corruption and bad government that More sees in the England of his day. To call this work a “mere” utopia, in the sense of a naive dream of a perfect, political never-never-land, is thus to misunderstand the origin of the genre as it emerged in Machiavelli’s time. The deeply desired utopian society, which in More’s work too is republican in kind, acquires its meaning only insofar as it is compared with the unbridled ambition of the modern princes and their servile retinues. It seems equally meaningless to call Machiavelli’s Discourses a “mere” utopia in this sense, particularly in the light of his own insistence that it was born of long political practice in the ways of the world. Indeed Machiavelli founds his republican vision in the Discourses in historical realities, equally as if not more securely than More. The period of republican Rome that lay between the early times of the Roman kings and the later experience of empire is often seen by Machiavelli through an enhancing glow of admiration and desire. Nevertheless, above all through the constant reference to Livy, it is always grasped in its historical outlines and frequently becomes most meaningful when it is seen as a prelude to more modern but not always successful experiences—particularly those concerning the Italian city communes and republics.
Machiavelli is even prepared to concede, as More does in the passage quoted above, that the contemporary “drama” recited on the political stage by the new prince may not always be of a totally negative kind. Apart from the possibility that the prince could be virtuous in the sense of governing in the best interests of his people (a possibility that Machiavelli also entertains at times, though with little real hope), there are special circumstances to be considered when a previously free and well-governed society has become thoroughly degenerate and corrupt. Although Machiavelli repeatedly claims that “the multitude is wiser and more constant than a prince” he nevertheless considers it impossible, or at least extremely difficult, that deeply corrupt cities should remain free republics or ever succeed in recreating themselves as such. He is even of the opinion that corrupt cities would do well to incline more toward strong princely rule than rule by the people “in order for those men whose insolence leads them to ridicule the law, rather than being corrected by it, to be restrained by a power of a princely nature” (1.18.4).26 This passage seems to have been found of particular interest by the famous Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary of Machiavelli’s who, in his chapter-by-chapter comment of 1530 on Machiavelli’s Discourses, remarks that “in similar cases [i.e., when cities become deeply corrupt] it may be necessary to stain one’s hands with blood, but it would be better if such a necessity were never to arise.”27
(p.21) Far from authoring “mere” utopias, these were men who were desperately seeking ways of grappling with the overbearing, princely power structure that increasingly dominated their times. More, although clearly aware of the dangers of court life under the rule of a prince like Henry VIII, would agree to undertake the political career offered to him, rising to its summit in 1529 when he succeeded Thomas Wolsey as lord chancellor of England. The breaking point of his suppleness was reached, however, when Henry turned his back on the papacy, founding a national church whose authority in the religious sphere More was not prepared to accept. There had to be limits, and More knew when his had been reached. He disobeyed the king’s command by refusing to swear an oath of faithfulness to the new Anglican Church in the name of his freedom to make his own religious choices. All that remained for him was to place his head on the executioner’s block with dignity and determination.
More’s death would not change the course of events, but the Catholic Church would recognize its value to their cause by making him into a martyr and a saint. Yet More was by no means a believer in religious freedom and toleration as today we understand it, and as he himself had praised it in his Utopia, where he claims it is essential that religion be peacefully discussed. In later years More reacted strongly against the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, writing a series of anti-Protestant diatribes that made him into one of Luther’s most bitter enemies. More is furthermore known to have approved of the physical and moral oppression of heretics to the Catholic faith. One commentator has written of “the exasperated and savage authoritarianism that makes the later More an uncomfortable and formidable exponent of the church’s point of view.”28 The story of More’s last years demonstrates how extraordinary fortitude and heroism in the name of one’s own beliefs is something quite different from the recognition of the right of others to believe differently from oneself.
Machiavelli, for his part, by no means despised the power of religion to mold the moral habits and ethical seriousness of social and political communities. Indeed he praised those lawgivers, such as Moses, Numa, and Lycurgus, who had founded their societies on sound religious beliefs. He was, however, less severe and more flexible than More when it came to defining what beliefs should be considered acceptable and what should not. In a still much quoted essay, Isaiah Berlin found the modernity of Machiavelli precisely in his lack of interest in metaphysical or theological issues, considering him ultimately a pagan believer in the gods—rather than in God—as were Cicero and Livy, the ancient Roman writers by whom he admitted explicitly to have been inspired.29 More recent studies of Machiavelli have tended to underline his place within the Christian and specifically the Catholic world. Maurizio Viroli goes so far as to claim that, according to Machiavelli, the good citizen must love his earthly country “in order to prepare himself for the heavenly country to come.”30 Whether this was the case or not, Machiavelli was destined to be (p.22) harshly reviled through the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, which he had mercilessly attacked in the Discourses as one of the major causes of the political chaos of his times. The church, Machiavelli thought, had favored the rise of the new princes and the consequent demise of republican freedom by dedicating too little attention to political arts and histories: for centuries “our religion has found the greatest good in humility, abjection, and in despising worldly things” (2.2.2).
Refusing, on the contrary, to abandon the sphere of “worldly things,” Machiavelli himself would try unceasingly to find a way to serve the new Medici regime, however uncongenial he may have found their princely form of rule. The attempt was only a partial success. Although he eventually found the favor of cardinal Giulio dei Medici, who would later become Pope Clement VII, he obtained mostly commissions of an intellectual nature—above all an invitation in 1520 to write a history of Florence that he would publish as the Fiorentine Histories. This made him into a kind of official city historian but served only partially to bring him back to the center of Florence’s political life. Indeed, his willingness to enter into dealings with the Medici led to him to being considered with suspicion by the remaining Florentine republicans, who managed to return briefly to power in the troubled year of 1527, which saw the sack of Rome. It is significant that Machiavelli was not reinstalled in his previous position of secretary to the Dieci di Balìa. He died later the same year.
In spite of the pessimism that pervades the vision of both More’s utopian traveler and Machiavelli himself, there remained a deep conviction in both men that the virtù of a wise leader could prevail over the apparent caprices of fortune to give a rational meaning to the political history of states. When the new princes made this meaning politically void by cultivating only their own power and ambition, men with the education of a More or a Machiavelli could fall back on the power of the word, for rhetoric and eloquence, seen as essential tools of a virtuous public life, had already been cultivated by the European humanist movement for a century or more.31 When Machiavelli’s political career came to an end he knew where to look for the tools of a new trade: the study of ancient histories and the writing of new books in which to put forward alternative ways of organizing society and political power that would assure the survival of those republican liberties that the modern princes were threatening to trample underfoot.
The Rule of the Prince
The Florentine republic that Machiavelli served fell in 1512, when the Lega Santa (an anti-French alliance among Pope Julius II, the people of Venice, and Ferdinand II of Aragon) returned the city to Medici rule. Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in 1513, is widely considered today—especially in the English-speaking world—to have been a handbook of political advice to the new (p.23) Medici. The Prince, however, is far more than a handbook of advice; it is more in the nature of a close analysis of the logic of a power structure which, as Machiavelli so clearly saw, was going to dominate the European scene for many years—even centuries—to come.
As with the later Discourses we have in Machiavelli’s own words a celebrated description of the personal situation in which he wrote it. In one of the most famous letters in the Italian literary canon, dated December 10, 1513, Machiavelli wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori, Florentine ambassador to the papal court in Rome. The letter was written from Machiavelli’s small farm just outside Florence, where he had taken refuge after the brief period of imprisonment and torture that he suffered in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the republic; Machiavelli had not only lost his post as secretary to the Dieci di Balia but was also suspected (probably unjustly) of participating in a plot to assassinate the new Medici rulers. He was released in the general amnesty that celebrated in Florence the election to the papacy of cardinal Giovanni dei Medici, who became Pope Leo X.32 Written while still aching from the pain of those recent events, the letter narrates in vividly realistic language how Machiavelli has been getting up early in the morning to catch plover using treacle as bait; how he expects to kill from two to six plover in a morning; how this pastime has come to an end because the plover have gone elsewhere, and how surprised he is to find himself missing such an uncouth activity, so far from his usual habits. Now all he has to do in the early morning is to go into his woods to converse with his woodcutters, who are usually immersed in some quarrel with their neighbors. Machiavelli’s opinion of the countrymen in their commercial dealings is clearly less favorable than his opinion of the by now departed birds, and he decides not to sell his wood to anyone in the future.
In search of solace, he goes to a well to drink, and into a bower where he reads the love poems of Dante, Petrarch, Ovid, or Tibullus, thinking of his own past amorous passions. On the road once again, he passes by the village inn and speaks to those he finds on his way, taking note of their various moods and humors. Back in his house he lunches with his household on the simple fare that his small property provides. Then he returns to the inn, where he plays cards and dice with the meager company he finds there: a bird catcher, some millers, and a couple of men from the nearby kiln. The cards and games of dice give rise to furious accusations and quarrels. Machiavelli admits to participating in these humble conflicts with a kind of furious passion, finding in them some measure of relief as he imagines himself chastising the evil fortune that has struck him, in the hope of putting it to shame. Only with the arrival of dusk in the evening does he retire to his study and, wrapped in his ceremonial cloak, converse with the ancient writers on affairs of state.33
During a long winter of such days, Machiavelli tells his friend, he had written a little pamphlet titled De principatibus. Vettori might like to read it, and perhaps even present a copy to Giuliano dei Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s (p.24) youngest son, to whom Machiavelli is thinking of dedicating it. In the event, Giuliano died in 1516, and The Prince was finally dedicated to the young Lorenzo dei Medici, a grandson of Lorenzo il Magnifico, who had been designated by the new pope as the governor of Florence. The Medici refused to respond to Machiavelli’s request to continue what had been a distinguished diplomatic and political career in the previous republican regime. Nevertheless, Lorenzo became the leader seen by Machiavelli as a possible solution to Florence’s institutional crisis, and even, in the famous rhetorical exhortation of the last chapter, the redeemer (the word is used by Machiavelli himself) of a newly unified state of Italy.
From the beginning, a large part of the Machiavelli discussion has centered on the problem of how to reconcile this famous (or according to some, infamous) book of advice to those concerned with wielding princely power, with the pervading republicanism of both Machiavelli’s previous political experience and his later masterpiece, the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Some critics have tried to solve the dilemma by underlining the tragic turn of fortune that had suddenly left Machiavelli destitute and without an occupation, so justifying the pragmatic realism with which he attempted to return to the world of politics through soliciting the favor of the new princes in power. In a well-argued essay that discusses Machiavelli’s urgent personal need to return to active political service in the light of a project for the freedom and autonomy of the Italian Peninsula as a whole, Albert Russell Ascoli stresses the importance of chapter 15. The chapter represents a radical change of direction from the earlier chapters, which had tended to consider brute force and the possession of one’s own arms as political priorities. It is here that Machiavelli stresses the importance of “real truth” (la verità effettuale) in political discourse rather than political fantasy (stati che si sono immaginati), underlining his own potential uses as a councilor precisely because he understands the realities of politics (quello che si fa) without wasting too much time on ideal possibilities (quello che si dovrebbe fare). The final pages of Ascoli’s essay are of particular interest, for they contrast the dedicatory letter of The Prince—to Lorenzo and through him to the Medici pope Leo X, from whom Machiavelli is requesting an occupation in the political life of the times—to his later letter of dedication of the Discourses to Buondelmonti and Rucellai, who are not princes themselves though they deserve to be on account of their innumerable good qualities. Ascoli sees the Machiavelli of the Discourses as intent on avoiding his previous mistake in trying to talk to those who could have showered riches and honors on him because they actually govern a kingdom (although they are not really capable of doing it well) rather than speaking to those who do not govern anything (but would know how to do it well if only they were given a chance).34
Another thesis that posits some kind of change of heart between the desperate pragmatism surrounding the composition of The Prince and a later, (p.25) more traditional republican stance is put forward by Robert Black, who considers the harsh political realism of The Prince as Machiavelli’s most original contribution to the political discourse. It is in The Prince that Machiavelli theorizes his conviction that, especially in moments of grave crisis or corruption in the state, violence and even cruelty can become political necessities that the prince (who in any case, according to Black, is to be seen as tyrannical by definition) may have to resort to if he is to stay in power rather than repudiating them in the name of a traditional ethics. Usually translated into English as the famous “Machiavellian” dictum—”the end justifies the means”—this uncompromising insistence on the predominating importance of political realities over ethical values in affairs of state has given rise over the centuries to the myth of a diabolical “Machiavel.” One way of avoiding the issue has been to concentrate attention on the Discourses rather than The Prince. According to Black, however, the excessive emphasis placed by many commentators on Machiavelli’s later, more “virtuous” republicanism is to be deplored as a mistaken effort to whitewash away the most radically innovative aspects of Machiavelli’s thought.35
Among Italian commentators, especially in the impressive amount of material published on Machiavelli in 2013 (five hundred years since the composition of The Prince), a somewhat different thesis has prevailed that sees no contradiction or hiatus between Machiavelli’s lifelong republicanism and his analysis of princely power. Machiavelli’s biographer, Gennaro Maria Barbuto, has written that there really is no “republican Machiavelli” who can be contrasted with a “monarchical Machiavelli,” making him (in The Prince) into a turncoat concerned only with favoring his own personal fortunes. The sentiment is echoed by Gian Mario Anselmi in a luminous reading of The Prince presented in a dense volume published by the Enciclopedia Italiana to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of The Prince. According to Anselmi, the contradictions and lacerations that some critics have seen between The Prince and the Discourses are to be considered as “methodologically outdated.” Giorgio Inglese, one of the major experts on the textual problems relating to The Prince, considers the text as a “front door” leading directly into the Discourses,36 for both principalities and republics were political realities of the early modern world, which (as precisely the recent example of Florence’s failure to preserve its republican institutions showed) was clearly manifesting a tendency toward the disintegration of the republican city-states and a strengthening of the larger and more powerful monarchical nation-states. The Prince is a disenchanted analysis of this situation that undoubtedly removes Machiavelli’s constant concern with the liberty of both states themselves and of their citizens from center stage. At the same time, however, the subject of liberty remains a subtext, occasionally emerging explicitly as an ideal that peoples subjected to princely rule never completely forget, something that the prince himself is advised to remember and respect.
(p.26) One of the constant concerns that Machiavelli underlines in The Prince is the way, and the circumstances, in which a principality can or should preserve some form of participation of the citizens in the government of the state. The problem for the prince himself is how to allow his subjects some measure of political liberty, seen as an advisable means of ensuring their fidelity without allowing his citizens’ ambitions and desire for power to subvert his own authority. The problem is made more acute by the fact that Machiavelli sees all states as divided between a class of powerful aristocratic citizenry (ottimati) and the common people (popolo) whose ambitions tend to clash. Rather than acting according to aims dictated by the common good, Machiavelli sees the ottimati as entirely engrossed in their own ambitious desire for power, wealth, and influence, thus creating a constant danger for the peace of both the prince himself and the mass of his people. The people, on the other hand, are more likely to be stirred up by a desire for their own peace and security that the ottimati are rarely concerned with satisfying and that the prince would do well to try to ensure so as to have the people on his side. As in the later Discourses, the inevitable social and political tumults caused by these conflicting desires of the different classes of citizens are not necessarily to be seen as negative for the well-being of the state provided they are safely contained within institutions or ordini created for that purpose. When the prince succeeds in giving his state such ordini, Machiavelli sees the tyranny of princely rule giving way to what he calls a principato civile, or a civil principality (chapter 9).
From the point of view of the prince, civil principalities present obvious dangers because they allow the various classes of citizen considerable freedom of expression, which can easily take the form of a challenge to his power. The wise prince, in this context, is thus defined as one who knows how to create a state with institutions that allow expression of the often conflicting desires of the citizens while at the same time establishing his own princely power as a necessary point of reference for maintaining peace and achieving glory. One of the most positive examples of such a principality in his own times, Machiavelli claims in chapter 19 of The Prince, is the French monarchy, for its leaders have known how to secure their own power and in the meantime substantially enlarge their territory, making France into one of the most powerful nation-states in Europe. Their success in doing this, according to Machiavelli, is due to their parlements, which act as arbiters in the conflicts between the ottimati and the common people, as well as ensuring the safety of the monarch himself from the excessive ambitions of those lords who envy him his power.37
Much recent attention has been dedicated to this awareness in The Prince of the fragility of the small Italian city-states, and the emphasis Machiavelli places on the more substantial nation-states that were consolidating their power in just those years.38 It is this awareness that lies behind the remarkable prophetic rhetoric of the final chapter, in which he envisions a reunited Italy making its triumphant entry into a new world of free and autonomous nation- (p.27) states. The visionary power of Machiavelli’s rhetoric in this chapter has been an inspiration to Italian commentators from the time of the Risorgimento (the nationalist movement that would finally reunite the Italian Peninsula and make it into a free nation in the second half of the nineteenth century). A number of prestigious modern commentators, from Antonio Gramsci to Federico Chabod and from Luigi Russo to—more recently—Maurizio Viroli, have tended to read the whole text of The Prince in light of this remarkable prophetic climax.39 Such a reading may lead to something of an oversimplification of the more harsh complexities of the book’s earlier chapters. Nevertheless, it is clearly a reading that brings to the fore the theme of liberty, also in The Prince, that had seemed to remain submerged by the considerations on princely power within the state that had occupied Machiavelli’s attention until he suddenly branched out into this famous rhetorical climax of his work. It is the freedom of a nation united and strong in its autonomy and independence from the “degrading stench” of foreign dominion that Machiavelli, in these famous final pages, urges the new prince to pursue. In this sense, it is undoubtedly possible to claim that The Prince leads seamlessly on to the Discourses, where—inspired by a reading of ancient Roman authors such as Titus Livy—princely rule dissolves into the republicanism that Machiavelli himself had previously served in fact, and continues to do in words.
The later years of Machiavelli’s life saw the city becoming increasingly unquiet under a weakened Medici rule; with the election first of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s son Giovanni as Pope Leo X and then of his nephew Giulio as Pope Clemente VII, the attention of the Medici had turned primarily to Rome. The republican forces still present in Florence were once again making themselves felt, especially in the period immediately following the death in 1519 of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince. The republicans would indeed manage to return briefly to power in 1527, before the Medici finally entrenched their long hold on the Florentine levers of power in the 1530s. One work of Machiavelli’s in these years is particularly important for the theme of liberty in the state that is being considered here. Carrying the Latin title Discursus florentinarum rerum post mortem iunioris Laurentii Medices—although the text itself is in Italian—it is an officially requested report concerning the best way of governing Florence. The Discourse on the Situation in Florence after the Death of Lorenzo dei Medici Junior was requested from Machiavelli by cardinal Giulio dei Medici after the sudden death in 1519 of Lorenzo, to whom Pope Leo X had assigned the government of the city after the fall of the republic and to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince. In the wake of that unexpected death, the cardinal had been asked by his cousin the pope to take the situation of Florence in hand, and he requested the advice of a number of his fellow citizens as to how the city should best be ruled.
Machiavelli’s brief reply to this request by the cardinal assumes that there is no real hope of reestablishing a fully developed republic in Florence. The preceding (p.28) Florentine republics are judged to have been founded on weak bases and therefore should be discarded as examples on which to construct a future. The only serious prospect is for a total renovation of the political structure of the city, taking account of a political situation that has to contemplate some kind of princely rule. Machiavelli outlines the new city councils as he would like to see them, contemplating several councils that come directly under the influence of the prince while at the same time attempting to maintain as much as possible of what he realizes is, under the circumstances, a necessarily limited republican prospect. The fundamental principle underlying this proposal is the necessity to reintroduce the Great Council of citizens that the Medici had abolished when they returned to power. The importance for Machiavelli of a new Great Council is expressed in a telling paragraph right at the center of his text:
Without giving satisfaction to the whole population, no stable republic was ever founded. And the entire population of Florentine citizens will never be satisfied if the door of the council chamber is not reopened. So if the aim is to create a republic in Florence, it would be best to reopen this door and let the whole population in. Your Holiness should realize that those who might aim at taking the government of the state away from you, will want above all to open this door once more. So your best way of proceeding is to open it yourself, with decision and assurance. In this way you would deprive your enemies of the opportunity of opening it themselves, which in turn would lead to the ruin and destruction of your friends.40
Commentators on this text are fond of pointing to the sarcastic judgment of Alessandro Pazzi who, when in 1522 he was also questioned about the government that should be installed in Florence, noted that Machiavelli’s proposal was too complicated and ingenious to be viable.41 Nevertheless, Machiavelli did attempt to come to terms in this text with the reality of Medici rule by proposing a form of republic that would contemplate democratic councils while at the same time recognizing as its head the figure of a prince. Machiavelli sees the new prince as exercising control over the military and over the methods of justice, as well as giving final approval of the laws. Only over a long period of time would experience in republican methods hopefully lead to a final withering away of his princely power, giving rise to the triumph of the politics of democratic forms. For Machiavelli, even in his later years, the principal problem that always needed to be solved was that of the danger of tyrannical rule by one ambitious man, a situation that he tended to identify with unbounded princely or monarchical power.
For Machiavelli, then, right up to the end, there could be no question but that opposition to princely rule should be pursued through the establishment of the good “order” of good laws, conceived of as means of securing the liberty, (p.29) and with it the well-being of the entire community. As he had already written in the Discourses, good laws justly applied are the foundation of the liberty of healthy republics, and the only protection against the rise of a tyrant: “And this is how most tyrannies arise,” he noted; “either from the excessive desire of the people to be free, or from the excessive desire of the nobles to command. When they are not able to agree on making a law in favour of liberty, but rather one of the sides prefers to take the part of a single man, then we will see a rapid rise of tyranny.”42 (p.30)
(3.) Although the Great Council numbered about three thousand members, it has been claimed that it constituted something of a closed class, which tended to control the executive. For a history and analysis of the Great Council, see Rubenstein (1990).
(6.) For details of the publication of Machiavelli’s Discourses, see Corrado Vivanti, “Nota al testo,” in Machiavelli (2000), xlvii–li.
(7.) See “Dell’arte della guerra,” in Machiavelli (1997), 1:534: “giudicò Cosimo [Rucellai], per soddisfare meglio al suo desiderio, che fusse bene, pigliando l’occasione dal fuggire il caldo, condursi nella più segreta e ombrosa parte del suo giardino. Dove pervenuti e posti a sedere, chi sopra all’erba che in quel luogo è freschissima, chi sopra a sedili in quelle parti ordinati sotto l’ombra d’altissimi arbori.” The English translation in the text is my own.
(8.) For the much discussed problem of the exact dating of the composition of the Discourses, see the “Introduzione” in Machiavelli (2000), viii–xiii.
(9.) Machiavelli (2000), 3: “Perchè in quello io ho espresso quanto io so e quanto io ho imparato per una lunga pratica e continua lezione delle cose del mondo.” All my references to Machiavelli’s Discourses and Guicciardini’s commentary on them come from this text; the English translations are my own.
(12.) Machiavelli (2000), 234: “E veramente, quella sentenza di Cornelio Tacito è aurea che dice che gli uomini hanno ad onorare le cose passate e ad ubbidire alle presenti, e debbono desiderare i buoni principi, e comunque ei si sieno fatti tollerargli. E veramente chi fa altrimenti, il più delle volte rovina sé e la sua patria.”
(17.) On Machiavelli and Polybius, see “Polibio e Machiavelli: costituzione, potenza, conquista,” in Sasso (1967), 223–80.
(19.) See Dante’s Purgatory, canto 7, vv. 121–23 (slightly misquoted by Machiavelli).
(24.) The relationship between Machiavelli and More has been much debated, going from claims that More and Erasmus were the real “moderns” because they were more aware of the social and economic problems of their time, whereas Machiavelli tended to remain within a purely political logic, to a claim that there was no such relationship. On this subject, see Sasso (1980), 267 and n. 89, and Worden (2002). A detailed analysis of “Machiavelli e Utopia” can be found in Barbuto (2013), 287–307.
(25.) See More (1963–1997), vol. 4, Utopia, 98–99.
(26.) “La moltitudine è più savia e più costante di un principe” is the title of book 1, chap. 58 of the Discourses. See Machiavelli (2000), 123. For the comment on corrupt cities, see Machiavelli (2000), 56: “acciocché quegli uomini i quali dalle leggi, per la loro insolenzia, non possono essere corretti, fussero da una podestà quasi regia in qualche modo frenati.”
(28.) See More (1963–1997), vol. 6, The Apology, xxi.
(29.) Berlin’s essay was originally read at a meeting of the Political Science Association at Oxford in 1953 and subsequently given as a lecture at Yale University. It was published in an integral version for the first time in 1972; see Berlin (1972).
(37.) For a detailed discussion of Machiavelli’s many comments on the French, both negative and positive, see Cadoni (1974). An essential study of Machiavelli’s idea of a civil principality is “Principato civile e tirannide,” in Sasso (1988), 2:351–490; for Machiavelli’s praise of the French monarchy as a particularly successful example of a civil principality, see 388–96.
(p.180) (40.) See Machiavelli (1997), 1:741: “ Senza satisfare all’universale, non si fece mai alcuna republica stabile. Non si satisferà mai all’universale dei cittadini fiorentini, se non si riapre la sala: pero’, conviene al volere fare una repubblica in Firenze, riaprire questa sala, e rendere questa distribuzione all’universale, e sappia Vostra Santità, che qualunque penserà di torle lo stato, penserà innanzi ad ogni altra cosa di riaprirla. E pero è partito migliore che quella l’apra con termini e modi sicuri, e che tolga questa occasione a chi fusse suo nemico di riaprirla con dispiacere suo, e destruzione e rovina de’ suoi amici.”
(41.) Alessandro dei Pazzi’s discourse on the same subject, after he, too, was interrogated by cardinal Giulio dei Medici, can be found in Dei Pazzi (1842). In it he defined Machiavelli’s proposals for Florence as “insolita a quella città e stravagante” (strange for that city, and extravagant; see 429).
(42.) Machiavelli (2000), 94: “per quelle medesime cagioni che nascono la maggior parte delle tirannidi nelle città: e questo è da troppo desiderio del popolo d’essere libero, e da troppo desiderio de’ nobili di comandare. E quando è non convengano a fare una legge in favore della libertà, ma gettasi qualcuna delle parti a favorire uno, allora è che subito la tirannide surge.”