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  • Niccolò Machiavelli

    May 3, 1469 - June 22, 1527
    Part 5 of 11: Principe, Discorsi & Arte della guerra

    Machiavelli now entered upon a period of life to which we owe the great works that have rendered his name immortal. But it was one of prolonged disappointment and annoyance. He had not accustomed himself to economical living; and, when the emoluments of his office were withdrawn, he had barely enough to support his family. The previous years of his manhood had been spent in continual activity. Much as he enjoyed the study of the Latin and Italian classics, literature was not his business; nor had he looked on writing as more than an occasional amusement. He was now driven in upon his books for the employment of a restless temperament; and to this irksomeness of enforced leisure may be ascribed the production of the Principe, the Discorsi, the Arte della guerra, the comedies, and the Historie fiorentine. The uneasiness of Machiavelli's mind in the first years of this retirement is brought before us by his private correspondence. The letters to Vettori paint a man of vigorous intellect and feverish activity, dividing his time between studies and vulgar dissipations, seeking at one time distraction in low intrigues and wanton company, at another turning to the great minds of antiquity for solace. It is not easy to understand the spirit in which the author of the Principe sat down to exchange obscenities with the author of the Sommario della storia d'Italia. At the same time this coarseness of taste did not blunt his intellectual sagacity. His letters on public affairs in Italy and Europe, especially those which he meant Vettori to communicate to the Medici at Rome, are marked by extraordinary fineness of perception, combined, as usual in his case, with philosophical breadth. In retirement at his villa near Percussina, a hamlet of San Casciano, Machiavelli completed the Principe before the end of 1513. This famous book is an analysis of the methods whereby an ambitious man may rise to sovereign power. It appears to have grown out of another scarcely less celebrated work, upon which Machiavelli had been engaged before he took the Principe in hand, and which he did not finish until some time afterwards. This second treatise is the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio.

    Cast in the form of comments on the history of Livy, the Discorsi are really an inquiry into the genesis and maintenance of states. The Principe is an offshoot from the main theme of the Discorsi, setting forth Machiavelli's views at large and in detail upon the nature of principalities, the method of cementing them, and the qualities of a successful autocrat. Being more limited in subject and more independent as a work of literary art, this essay detaches itself from the main body of the Discorsi, and has attracted far more attention. We feel that the Principe is inspired with greater fervency, as though its author had more than a speculative aim in view, and brought it forth to serve a special crisis. The moment of its composition was indeed decisive. Machiavelli judged the case of Italy so desperate that salvation could only be expected from the intervention of a powerful despot. The unification of Italy in a state protected by a national army was the cherished dream of his life; and the peroration of the Principe shows that he meant this treatise to have a direct bearing on the problem. We must be careful, however, not to fall into the error of supposing that he wrote it with the sole object of meeting an occasional emergency. Together with the Discorsi, the Principe contains the speculative fruits of his experience and observation combined with his deductions from Roman history. The two works form one coherent body of opinion, not systematically expressed, it is true, but based on the same principles, involving the same conclusions, and directed to the same philosophical end. That end is the analysis of the conception of the state, studied under two main types, republican and monarchical. Up to the date of Machiavelli, modern political philosophy had always presupposed an ideal. Medieval speculation took the Church and the Empire for granted, as divinely appointed institutions, under which the nations of the earth must flourish for the space of man's probation on this planet. Thinkers differed only as Guelfs and Ghibellines, as leaning on the one side to papal, on the other to imperial supremacy. In the revival of learning, scholarship supplanted scholasticism, and the old ways of medieval thinking were forgotten. But no substantial philosophy of any kind emerged from humanism; the political lucubrations of the scholars were, like their ethical treatises, for the most part rhetorical. Still the humanists effected a delivery of the intellect from what had become the bondage of obsolete ideas, and created a new medium for the speculative faculty. Simultaneously with the revival, Italy had passed into that stage of her existence which has been called the age of despots. The yoke of the Empire had been shaken off. The Church had taken rank among Italian tyrannies. The peninsula was, roughly speaking, divided into principalities and sovereign cities, each of which claimed autocratic j urisdiction. These separate despotisms owned no common social tie, were founded on no common j us or right, but were connected in a network of conflicting interests and changeful diplomatic combinations. A keen and positive political intelligence emerged in the Italian race. The reports of Venetian and Florentine ambassadors at this epoch contain the first germs of an attempt to study politics from the point of view of science.

    Part 6: Machiavelli's Study of Man

    In this biography:
    Part 1: Early Years
    Part 2: Marietta Corsini & Cesare Borgia
    Part 3: Outlines for a New Military Organization
    Part 4: New Militia
    Part 5: Principe, Discorsi & Arte della guerra
    Part 6: Machiavelli's Study of Man
    Part 7: Medicean Princes
    Part 8: History of Florence
    Part 9: Mandragola & Clizia
    Part 10: Final Years
    Part 11: Related Articles, Sites, etc.

    This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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