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May 3, 1469 - June 22, 1527
Part 6 of 11: Machiavelli's Study of Man
At this moment Machiavelli intervenes. He was conscious of the change which had come over Italy and Europe. He was aware that the old strongholds of medieval thought must be abandoned, and that the decaying ruins of medieval institutions furnished no basis for the erection of solid political edifices. He felt the corruption of his country, and sought to bring the world back to a lively sense of the necessity for reformation. His originality consists in having extended the positive intelligence of his century from the sphere of contemporary politics and special interests to man at large regarded as a political being. He founded the science of politics for the modern world, by concentrating thought upon its fundamental principles. He began to study men, not according to some preconception, but as he found them - men, not in the isolation of one century, but as a whole in history. He drew his conclusions from the nature of mankind itself, "ascribing all things to natural causes or to fortune." In this way he restored the right method of study, a method which had been neglected since the days of Aristotle. He formed a conception of the modern state, which marked the close of the middle ages, and anticipated the next phase of European development. His prince, abating those points which are purely Italian or strongly tinctured with the author's personal peculiarities, prefigured the monarchs of the 16th and 17th centuries, the monarchs whose motto was L'état c' est moi! His doctrine of a national militia foreshadowed the system which has given strength in arms to France and Germany. His insight into the causes of Italian decadence was complete; and the remedies which he suggested, in the perorations of the Principe and the Arte della guerra, have since been applied in the unification of Italy. Lastly, when we once have freed ourselves from the antipathy engendered by his severance of ethics from the field of politics, when we have once made proper allowance for his peculiar use of phrases like frodi onorevoli or scelleratezze gloriose, nothing is left but admiration for his mental attitude. That is the attitude of a patriot, who saw with open eyes the ruin of his country, who burned above all things to save Italy and set her in her place among the powerful nations, who held the duty of selfsacrifice in the most absolute sense, whose very limitations and mistakes were due to an absorbing passion for the state he dreamed might be reconstituted. It was Machiavelli's intense preoccupation with this problem - what a state is and how to found one in existing circumstances - which caused the many riddles of his speculative writings. Dazzled, as it were, with the brilliancy of his own discovery, concentrated in attention on the one necessity for organizing a powerful coherent nation, he forgot that men are more than political beings. He neglected religion, or regarded it as part of the state machinery. He was by no means indifferent to private virtue, which indeed he judged the basis of all healthy national existence; but in the realm of politics he postponed morals to political expediency. He held that the people, as distinguished from the nobles and the clergy, were the pith and fibre of nations; yet this same people had to become wax in the hands of the politician - their commerce and their comforts, the arts which give a dignity to life and the pleasures which make life liveable, neglected - their very liberty subordinated to the one tyrannical conception. To this point the segregation of politics from every other factor which goes to constitute humanity had brought him; and this it is which makes us feel his world a wilderness, devoid of atmosphere and vegetation. Yet some such isolation of the subject matter of this science was demanded at the moment of its birth, just as political economy, when first started, had to make a rigid severance of wealth from other units. It is only by a gradual process that social science in its whole complexity can be evolved. We have hardly yet discovered that political economy has unavoidable points of contact with ethics.
From the foregoing criticism it will be perceived that all the questions whether Machiavelli meant to corrupt or to instruct the world, to fortify the hands of tyrants or to lead them to their ruin, are now obsolete. He was a man of science - one who by the vigorous study of his subject matter sought from that subjectmatter itself to deduce laws. The difficulty which remains in judging him is a difficulty of statement, valuation, allowance. How much shall we allow for his position in Renaissance Italy, for the corruption in the midst of which he lived, for his own personal temperament? How shall we state his point of departure from the middle ages, his sympathy with prevalent classical enthusiasms, his divination of a new period? How shall we estimate the permanent worth of his method, the residuum of value in his maxims?
Part 7: Medicean Princes
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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