|Notes from the Introduction to the Portable Machiavelli: An
Essay on Machiavelli: (1978) Bondanella and Musa
Livy's History of Republican Rome and Plutarch's Lives
provided the models for his vision of statecraft and his faith in
citizen soldiers instead of mercenaries. Machiavelli tempers his
respect for the golden words of the past by subjecting their ideas to
practical test in the arena of Florentine politics.
rose to high political position (Secretary in the Chancery) as part of
the faction that took power in Florence after the execution of Girolamo
Savanarola (1498); for Machiavelli, Savanrola was the epitome of the
unarmed prophet doomed to failure. Cesare Borgia, the warrior son of
Pope Alexander VI, provided his model for the Prince: a leader of
boldness, resolution and cunning.
|virtu- Instead of defining virtue
according to Christian values, Machiavelli defined virtue
as ability or ingenuity which combined with fortune led to success.
1512 Machiavelli was arrested and tortured by the Medici when his
mentor Piero Solderini was overthrown. Machiavelli was exiled to the
country and began his literary career.
The occasion for the writing of The Prince:
It was the good fortune of the Medici family to have a Pope on the
throne in Rome while family members also controlled Florence and
Tuscany. Machiavelli saw an opportunity for the formation of a central
government strong enough to resist the unending invasions which kept
Northern Italy in a permanent state of war with factions allying with
and against each other as they jockeyed for power.
1561 The publication of Franesco Guicciardini's History of Italy redefines the public persona of the Borgias as the incestuous perpetrators of legendary homicides:
atheism, treachery, perversion and 'Machiavellian politics'.
|Themes of The Prince:
- The nature of man
The question of free will
The importance of individual virtu
The role of fortuna in human affairs: replaces Christian Providence
The moral attributes of the prince
The proper goals of revolutionaries
Chapters VII-VIII and Chapters XV-XVIII of The Prince (scandalous moral attributes)
famous dictum "The end justifies the means." is really a misreading of
a passage in Chapter 18 in which he argues that one must consider the
final result in any political action. He is not justifying any and all
actions that serve political ends. At one point in Chapter VIII he
describes Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, "it cannot be called virtu to kill one's fellow citizens, to betray
friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; by these
means one can acquire power but not glory." Rather, Machiavelli argues
that a successful leader must at times act outside the boundaries of
traditional ethical restraints.
On Romulus' murder of Remus (from The Discourses I, ix):
"It is indeed fitting that while the action accuses him, the result
excuses him; and when this result is good, as it is with Romulus, it
will always excuse him; for one should reproach a man who is violent in
order to destroy, not one who is violent in order to mend things."
If violence is committed in the interest of the people rather than private advantage, then it is good.
He half agrees with Pico della Mirandolla that humans rule at least
part of their destiny. Fortune smiles like a lady on the energetic and
ambitious young man. And the occasion will then arise when a man can
take action that not only furthers his ambitions but also leads to a
more stable and secure state. Like the occasion that the Medici
encounter in 1513.
preferred a republican state, not an authoritarian one, but in the
specific context of 1513, and the Medici's opportunity to eject foreign
invaders from Italy, he could support the idea of a single authority, a
Machiavelli and Human Nature:
emphasizes the political protagonist in his book, not broader
socio-economic forces; therefore, his assessment of human nature is
central to his philosophy. He draws a similar picture of human nature
as earlier Christian theologians who judged human nature to be corrupt,
but Machiavelli drew different conclusions: Machiavelli concludes that
human nature is irremediably bad: men are selfish, driven by an
insatiable desire for material gain, and cannot be trusted unless that
trust is based on fear. Man is also gullible and easily deceived by
appearances. Rather than draw pessimistic conclusions about the
possibilities for social harmony, Machiavelli argues that this constant
and unchanging situation makes it possible to predict and thus control
the behavior of people. The use of reason can allow rulers who are
mentally tough enough to organize, collect, study and use their
understanding of human nature as the basis for wise decisions. An
empirical science of politics could be constructed by using reason to
evaluate the mistakes of past rulers. He also identified politics with
conflict and regarded social conflict of a certain kind as a positive
The didactic value of studying human history:
Renaissance men should 'return to the past' in order to find positive
examples. The artistic and cultural renaissance could be extended to
the more practical realm of political affairs. He did not believe in
progress as we do, influenced by the Enlightenment and the Romantics.
The state could become a work of art, the product of conscious social
planning on a purely secular level.
Politics as conflict:
- Human nature is naturally acquisitive and insatiable in its desires.
- Fortune prevents most men from having sufficient virtu to obtain all of what they desire: a universal principle of economic scarcity.
- Combine both ideas and conflict is the inevitable result.
Conspiracies, invasions and wars are thus natural phenomena. Such
conflict might produce beneficial results in a properly organized
government with stable political institutions. Machiavelli sought to
refute the traditional claim that a republic was an inherently unstable
institution. A mixed form of government was preferable to principality,
aristocracy, and democracy which would degenerate respectively into
tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy.
In the Roman Republic, a healthy body politic was characterized by friction and social
conflict: the friction between plebeians and aristocrats. He proposed a dynamic
equilibrium between these forces rather than a false stability based on repression.
The inevitability of war:
the place of military affairs is paramount. Military strength is the
paramount virtue: self-sufficiency and the ability to field an army
against combined enemies. Good laws cannot exist without good armies.
Free republican governments cannot exist without a citizen's militia: a
bulwark against tyrannical power and a school to teach civic
responsibility and patriotism.
Corruption and civic instability: individual virtu is replaced by social
as the key idea: institutions, constitutions and organization of the
state. Ancient Rome's pagan emphasis on guaranteeing oaths and
instilling courage: religion as a means of political control vs.
Christianity's glorification of humility. Concentration of wealth in
the few. Factions arise when a private citizen acquires excessive
power, influence or wealth and employs it for private ends. Rome
developed institutions which channeled the conflict between haves and
In Florence conflicts
typically arose between members of the same class. Institutions enable
the various members of a society to express their interests without
resorting to faction. Machiavelli also depended upon the heroic action
of an individual leader to safeguard the interests of the society as a
whole rather than his personal ambition or the success of an individual
faction. Machiavelli supported the idea of using a dictator with
unlimited powers as long as he did not seek to modify the ordini of the state or seek an unlimited time
in power. Republican institutions are unsuited to dealing with rapidly
developing problems such as an invasion, so a dictatorship is merely a
safety valve to safeguard republican institutions.
First: Machiavelli was a political thinker who established the
theoretical autonomy of politics, separate from ethics and theology.
Second: Machiavelli was the first empirical political scientist, as influential as Galileo in his own field.