Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance

From Baripedia

We are going to tackle the first foundation on which Hobbes will build his theory of the state, this man is Machiavelli. Machiavelli is important because he brings to political thought and philosophy a whole reflection on the aims of the state, the very foundations of the 'respublica', and he will bring a number of arguments that Hobbes will take up and use later.


Biography[edit | edit source]

Nicolas Machiavelli was born in Florence on 3 May 1469 into a well-to-do family, attached by his father to the guild of notaries and judges; his paternal forefathers held numerous positions in the government and administration of the Republic.

Of his training, we know little about his initiation to the Latin humanities and mathematics and, under the impetus of his father, a lawyer, he studied law.

Although Machiavelli's youth coincided with the prestigious reign of the most famous of the Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1469-1492), his entry into public life immediately followed the dramatic fall of the theocratic regime of the Dominican monk Jerome Savonarola (1494-1498), who had taken over from the unfortunate successor of Lorenzo, Pierre de Medici (1492-1494).

In June 1498, barely fifteen days after Savonarola's death at the stake, Machiavelli was appointed "Secretary of the Second Chancellery" of Florence and on 14 July 1498 he was appointed Secretary of the "Ten of the Supreme Authority" (Dieci di Balia), a position that was at the same time the head of an office of the Ministry of the Interior and a representative of the external mission.

It was in this capacity - which he held until 1512 when the Republican regime collapsed with the return of the Medici - that Machiavelli assumed important legations in Italy, under Catherine Sforza (1499), of Caesar Borgia (1502) and Pope Julius II (1506), but also in France with King Louis XII (1500, 1504, 1510, 1511), and in the Germanic countries with Emperor Maximilian (1507-1508), crossing Switzerland from Geneva to Constance on this occasion. Linked to the republican regime, in particular to the Gonfalonier Pierre Soderini (1502-1512), he was compromised with the latter at the time of his fall with the return of the Medici to Florence and dismissed from all his functions in November 1512; suspected of conspiracy, arrested, imprisoned and subjected to torture in February 1513, Machiavelli was banished from Florence and henceforth placed under house arrest in his country estate near San Casciano.

After 14 years of public life, Machiavelli began a forced retirement of almost 15 years, except for a few rare and ephemeral ones who returned to the Medici (1521, 1526, 1527); it was then that he composed his main works of political thought ("The Prince" [1513/1532]); the "Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Live" [1512-1519/1531], "Of Polemology" (The Art of War (1519-1520/1521) and of history with "The History of Florence" (1520-1525/1532).

Machiavelli died on 21 June 1527 and was buried in the Church of Santa Croce. His tomb bears the following epitaph: « Nicolas Machiavelli: no praise can equal this name alone ». (Tanto nomini nullum par elogium). Machiavelli, drawing on scholastic and humanist legacies, is above all a humanist. He was born in Florence, the cradle of humanism, and he will be marked by it. He will also distance himself from this tradition, but he is profoundly humanist in his education.

He studies humanity; what are the humanities? Machiavelli will study Latin, rhetoric, but above all history. Machiavelli, like all humanists, will be obsessed by history, haunted by history and more precisely the history of Rome.

In Machiavelli's second discourse, we can see that Rome is omnipresent, he develops his argumentation from the Roman experience; this obsession with ancient history, with Roman history and more precisely with the Roman Republic is a constant of humanism and humanist education. It is a statement of machiavellian thought. He was obsessed by the history of Rome, he is also haunted by Roman philosophy, i.e. authors who wrote about freedom, citizenship, human nature, such as Sallustus, Livy and Cicero, who is the master of thought of every self-respecting jurist, humanists and Machiavelli.

Machiavelli came from a well-established Florentine bourgeois family, which, after his humanist education, opened the doors to what is today called a diplomatic career. He was to join the chancellery of Florence as a diplomat.

A philosophy drawn from a wide diplomatic experience[edit | edit source]

The second element of his biography and which it is important to keep in mind in order to understand his philosophy is that it is from his diplomatic experience that from 1498 onwards he will draw the political lessons, the moral lessons, the philosophical lessons of his practical experience.

There is a very close link between his practical experience and his theoretical reflection, he is certainly not the only one, but for him this is very particularly marked; one cannot understand Machiavelli and his philosophy if one does not reflect and if one is not interested in his diplomatic experience.

His diplomatic experience consists of various missions, four of which are special, his last mission in 1508 to the Emperor in Germany. These four missions are important because after each one he will draw a moral from history that he will include in the first work of philosophy that is truly important for us, which is "The Prince".

First experience: perception in politics[edit | edit source]

The first diplomatic experience, Machiavelli, a young diplomat, was sent in July 1500 to the French court to represent and defend the interests of Florence. At the French court where Louis XII reigns, he is sent by the great dignitaries of the Republic of Florence with a diplomatic and political objective which is to ensure the neutrality of France in the quarrel between Florence and Pisa which is the other great city of Tuscany which with Milan, Venice and Siena try to rival Florence, Pisa is rather under the Spanish influence and it is a question of ensuring the neutrality of the Court of France and Louis XII.

Louis XII de France.

He presented his letters of regency, settling down and staying at the Court of France for almost nine months to defend Florence's position. He painfully obtains the support of France, but he is struck by two things: he sends letters to Florence asking for a reaction, because France would like to support Florence only under certain conditions or at least remain neutral towards Pisa.

He does not get any answer from Florence, when the answer finally arrives after several months, it is in itself released because basically, in substance, Florence's answer is to say "we are Florence, we can bring a lot to France, but not the other way round".

Time is superior is the first political lesson that Machiavelli draws from his experience at the French court is twofold.

First of all, Florence was not quick enough to react, it is important for a head of state to show responsiveness. The second thing that strikes him is the discrepancy between the perception of its importance and its real importance. In other words, what strikes Machiavelli is that Florence has a different idea of itself which is completely out of step with what people really think of Florence at the French Court.

What strikes him is that the government of Florence is convinced that it is the centre of the world, that everyone only looks at the great Florence, the discrepancy between the perception of its importance and the reality of the facts has marked Machiavelli. The first lesson is that one should never overestimate its importance on the international stage, there is politics and there is the perception that others have of this politics.

The issue of perception in politics is of paramount importance to Machiavelli.

Second experience: duplicity and treachery[edit | edit source]

Supposed portrait of Caesar Borgia by Altobello Melone. Gallery of the Carrara Academy, Bergamo.

La deuxième expérience pratique qu’il a de la diplomatie est une expérience qu’il fait en 1502, il est envoyé auprès de César Borgia qui est le fils du pape Alexandre VI ; César Borgia qui est le duc de Romagne, une province proche de Rome dont Florence craint également les velléités conquérantes. Machiavel est envoyé afin d’observer les intentions de César Borgia envers Florence.

The second lesson is that he is fascinated by Borgia, but at the same time he is frightened, he discovers a man of fierce cruelty, of a "Machiavellian" vision and above all capable of cruelty and extremely marked duplicity.

Duplicity and treachery are certainly not founding values of politics, but they can be useful for someone who wants to stay in power. Machiavelli is not the father of treachery in politics and duplicity, he is a man who paradoxically has a high idea of the state and the statesman, he only notes that sometimes being naive and idealistic as a statesman does not necessarily allow one to achieve one's political goals.

Machiavelli would, moreover, witness the fall of Caesar Borgia, who would himself be betrayed by Alexander VI's successor, Julius II, who would betray the son of his predecessor. Machiavelli will learn the lesson that one must sometimes be careful, but never make politics out of it because it leads to a pyre.

Third experience: courage and virtue[edit | edit source]

Jules II.

The third experience is the mission that Machiavelli undertook in 1506 with Julius II. The new pope who succeeded Alexander VI was tempted by an alliance with Spain against Florence and France, Florence being traditionally France's ally. Machiavelli was sent to the Court of the Holy Father to try to find out what Julius II's intentions were.

What he observed at the Court of Rome was a man extremely aware of the balance of power who showed great courage and daring in politics; Julius II took courageous and daring decisions, ready to change his alliance for the interests of the Church.

Machiavelli notes that Julius II has only one priority, which is the interests of Rome, which he defends with great courage.

The third lesson is that courage is an indispensable virtue of power. This virtue is celebrated in "The Prince" in an extremely important and constant way.

Fourth experience: strong in its decisions[edit | edit source]

Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire by Bernhard Strigel] (c 1500).

The last experience dates back to 1508 and 1510 of a diplomatic experiment in the Holy Roman Empire governed by an elected emperor and not heir to power who is Emperor Maximilian in order to ensure the neutrality of the Holy Roman Empire.

It should be noted that the Holy Roman Germanic Empire in the 16th century descended as far as Milan, occupying lands that go deep into present-day Italy. Ensuring Maximilian's good graces is politically useful for Florence.

Machiavelli goes to Maximilian's court and observes two things: firstly the emperor's weakness, he regularly changes his opinion, he is "too kind to his entourage" and if he is weak then he is susceptible to influence by his advisers, his courtiers.

In other words, Machiavelli sees power in the hands of a weak man under the influence of courtiers who make him make very bad decisions.

What strikes Machiavelli most in his German experience is the emperor's lack of personal judgement. It is striking that a man at the head of an empire is incapable of having his own judgement.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Can we draw a moral from the history of these four experiences? Is there a lesson that encompasses all four?

A reading of Machiavelli's diplomatic documents reveals that what struck him in these four experiences is that none of the protagonists, kings, heads of state, emperors, whom he met, were able to adapt to the circumstances, to anticipate in politics. What strikes Machiavellian as much in Louis XII, Caesar Borgia, Julius II as in Maximilian is the inability to adapt to circumstances, and for Machiavelli it is the fundamental weakness of their powers.

It is through adaptation that the politician can impose his vision and last in politics today. What strikes him is that Julius II has been betrayed, Caesar Borgia is dead, Maximilian is weak and will be overthrown, Louis XII will not continue in power and will be overthrown by his cousin, none will have succeeded in adapting to the circumstances.

With this in mind, Machiavelli began writing his first major theoretical work of political philosophy entitled "The Prince" - "De Principatibus" - which he completed in December 1513 under special circumstances.

In 1511, Julius II allied himself with Spain and took advantage of the presence of Spanish troops to overthrow the Republic of Florence led by a group of Florentine patricians; in 1511 - 1512, the Republic of Florence was abolished and the Medici returned to power under the aegis of Julius and the Spaniards. Machiavelli was removed from power and was released at the end of 1512 to write his first work.

Reports on Things from Germany, 1508[edit | edit source]

It is clear from this report that there are arguments that Machiavelli will use again in "The Prince".

« I know that those who learn and those who have seen the events are full of confusion and are lost in various conjectures; they do not know why the nineteen thousand men promised by the Empire were not seen, why Germany did not react to the loss of her honour, or why the Emperor was so mistaken. Everyone is therefore uncertain as to what to fear or hope for in the future, and as to the direction of things to come. »

Machiavelli reflected on the political future of Germany and the management of power in Germany, taking the German case as a typical ideal from which he would reflect on the relationship between the governed - the rulers and above all on the relationship between one state and another.

« Everyone I've heard about it agrees that if the Emperor were to benefit from one of two things: that he would change his nature or that Germany would really help him, then he would achieve all his aims in Italy, if we consider the condition of Italy. »

Basically, Machiavelli says that the emperor is missing two essential things that prevent him from being a statesman, he has the wrong nature, he is too weak and then Germany doesn't really help him.

Behind this idea there is another idea of which Machiavelli will make an important theory. It's not Germany that doesn't help him, but the circumstances, the political environment in Germany that doesn't help him, the weak power of the emperor is linked and due to his nature, but also to the circumstances that surround him, be they pontical or military. It is because he sees these two weaknesses that Machiavelli is very critical of the Emperor.

« The Emperor asks no one for advice and is advised by everyone; he wants to do everything at his own pace and does nothing his own way. For, although he never spontaneously reveals his secrets to anyone, when a problem comes to light, he is distracted from his decision by those around him and distanced from his original plan. »

We see the famous criticism about the courtiers. This weakness, this danger of being influenced by its courtiers and citizens is particularly noted in the following excerpt:

« The kind and good nature of the Emperor makes each of his relatives deceive him. One of his relatives told me that any man and anything can deceive him once, when he has noticed it. »

The key words in this paragraph are "kind" and "good nature". Machiavelli notes that being good and kind is not necessarily a quality in politics, of course on a human level, but when one is a statesman, for a politician being good and kind is not necessarily to his advantage in politics.

« In order to do your job well, you have to say what you think about both things. War is measured by men, money, organisation and fortune, and whoever has more of these things, you must believe that he will win. »

A word appears here very clearly, a word that he will turn into a real theory, an idea to which he will dedicate chapter XXV of the Prince, this word is the word "fortune". It always denounces the weakness of the Prince.

The Fortuna/Virtù ratio[edit | edit source]

There are two essential ideas here, the first is that if the nature of the emperor is weak and therefore has no power, it is necessary to have a strong statesman and to work on a political system that gives strength to power, and therefore it is necessary to think about the human virtues that give strength to power, how to change this state of affairs, how to prevent weak men and women from becoming statesmen or stateswomen.

The second is the following, we may have to force the will, the political power to dominate our opponents, but if we don't have fortune on our side we don't succeed on the political side. It's not fortune in the sense of wealth, but the "fortuna" which is a Roman goddess, the goddess of destiny, of luck.

Albrecht Dürer's engraving of Fortuna, ca 1502.

If fortune doesn't look at us valiantly, if we're unlucky in the political enterprise, we can't succeed; we must seduce this woman: the "fortuna". To seduce a woman, you need a certain number of qualities, and to seduce the goddess Fortuna, you also need a certain number of qualities.

Machiavelli is haunted by the difficulties that statesmen have in adapting to the political events of the moment. Machiavelli in "The Prince" seeks to discover what qualities are needed to stay in power. The Prince is an attempt to answer the question of nature, of the qualities needed to stay in power, these qualities are multiple and are not essentially 'Machiavellian', they are in line with the humanistic virtues he knew in his education.

Basically, in Chapter VI, Machiavelli shows very well that there are different ways of conquering power, there is a personal way by one's own means whether political or military, there are also monarchies or principalities conquered by the arms of others.

The first six chapters of the Prince are devoted to the different possible scenarios for the conquest of power. These are the least interesting chapters from the perspective of a course on power and the state.

From Chapter VII onwards, Machiavelli examines the central question of the Prince, which is how to retain power once it has been conquered, whether by legitimate or illegitimate means or by force. Machiavelli asks the question, once power has been conquered, how can power be retained, what qualities are needed, what virtues are needed?

He is going to introduce a binomial that he will keep all his life, he is going to answer the question in a double way, a certain number of qualities are needed, but to obtain these qualities it is necessary to seduce the "fortuna". In other words, there is a part that we master and a part that we don't master, which is luck. Thus, Machiavelli is going to describe to us what are the virtues necessary to seduce this goddess, to be lucky in order to be able to stay in power.

Machiavelli's question is never what are the noblest virtues to radiate his power, but the questions he asks himself are what are the virtues necessary for the "fortuna" to allow us to keep this power. There are qualities that we can control, the idea that there is somewhere an element of fatality in political power, but there is also a dimension that we cannot control. You can't control everything. It's an interesting lesson, certain cardinal virtues are necessary, it is the fatal dimension that we must have a little luck, we must conquer this fortune. In chapter XXV of the "Prince", Machiavelli addresses it.

He takes up the very traditional humanist conception of the "fortuna", he is not the first to say that one must seduce the "fortuna" to remain in power. Machiavelli will take up the humanist conception of fortune. There is a combination of virtue and fortune.

His definition of fortune is threefold, he gives an anti-Christian vision of fortune, i.e. he clearly has the idea that fortune is controllable. It is controllable in the sense that one can seduce it, one can conquer it.

Why anti-Christian? Christian philosophy says that providence is known only to God and that we have no control over God's plans. Machiavelli moves away from this, we can, if we have the right virtues, control our destiny a little: the control of our own destiny is possible if we possess certain qualities.

Machiavelli will give fortune an almost heroic connotation, he will feminise fortune. This shows very well that he really gives the feminine dimension to this goddess. He also insists on the fact that fortune alone is useless, he has a conception of fortune that only works in relation to virtue. These three elements form Machiavelli's vision of fortune.

How to maintain a state, how to stay in power, how to succeed in asserting political power? You need virtues, but you also need to master fortune.

Il Principe / De Principatibus[edit | edit source]

Machiavelli Principe Cover Page.jpg

The Prince, Chapter XXV "How much power fortune has over human things and how one can resist it", 1513[edit | edit source]

It is an important chapter, and together with chapter XV it is perhaps the most important chapter.

The title questions his ability to control his own destiny. The theologians of the time reacted strongly at that time, because only God could control destiny. Machiavelli believes that it is possible to control one's own destiny.

« I am well aware that many people have thought, and still think, that God and fortune govern the things of this world in such a way that all human prudence cannot stop or regulate its course: from which one can conclude that it is useless to deal with it with so much sorrow, and that there is nothing to do but to submit and let everything be led by fate. This opinion has spread in our time mainly as a consequence of the variety of great events that we have cited, that we are still witnessing, and that we could not foresee - so I am quite inclined to share it.

Nevertheless, not being able to admit that our free will is reduced to nothing, I imagine that it may be true that fortune disposes of half of our shares, but leaves about the other half in our power. I compare it to an impetuous river which, when it overflows, floods the plains, overturns trees and buildings, takes away land on one side and carries it away to another (...) »

Many people claim that we do not control our own destiny. For this reason, they might judge that there is no need to exhaust oneself in too many things, but to leave oneself to a few chances; those who think that we do not control our destiny advocate a kind of passivity in politics, if chance decides everything then what is the point? Machiavelli refutes this deterministic vision of history.

« This opinion has mainly spread in our time as a consequence of the variety of great events that we have cited, that we are still witnessing, and that we could not foresee. »

Because we can't explain what is happening nowadays, these men leave it to chance.

« [...] so I am quite willing to share it. Nevertheless, not being able to admit that our free will is reduced to nothing. »

For Machiavelli, men and women are capable of mastering and directing, of deciding their own destiny because there is free will. As we speak, a number of theologians continue to challenge this.

« […] I suppose it may be true that fortune has half of our shares, but leaves about half of them in our power. I compare it to an impetuous river which, when it overflows, floods the plains, overturns trees and buildings, takes away land on one side and carries it away to another. »

Fortune is an impetuous river, our destiny is not easy to control it has in the first part of this chapter XXV a stance against the Christian tradition which thought that we did not have free will.

« The same is true of fortune, which above all shows its power where no resistance has been prepared, and carries its fury where it knows there is no obstacle willing to stop it. »

We can't resist fortune where, with great difficulty, there is an uncontrolled part of our destiny, fortune is an important part of it.

« Limiting myself to these general ideas on the resistance that can be put up against fortune, and coming to more specific observations, I note first of all that it is not extraordinary to see a prince prosper one day and fail the next, without, however, having changed either his character or his conduct. »

Machiavelli tells us to look around us, heads of state are disappearing because they haven't changed their policies, but because the "fortuna" has left them.

« It seems to me that this is because, as I have already established at some length, a prince who relies entirely on fortune falls as it varies. It still seems to me that a prince is either happy or unhappy, depending on whether his conduct is or is not in conformity with the times in which he reigns. »

We have to know how to adapt, we need a certain number of qualities that will give us the "fortuna" and allow us to adapt.

The rest of the paragraph takes up the idea of the plurality of possibilities, of different destinies, and that we must know how to adapt. The "fortuna" is a woman, feminised in the language of Machiavelli; at the end of chapter XXV we can clearly see this very masculine dimension of power.

« I therefore conclude that, fortune changing, and men persisting in the same manner of acting, they are happy as long as this manner agrees with fortune; but that as soon as this agreement ceases, they become unhappy. »

I think, moreover, that it is better to be impetuous than circumspect, because fortune is a woman: to keep her in subjection, she must be treated harshly; she gives in more to men who use violence than to those who act coldly: that is why she is always a friend of young people, who are less reserved, more carried away, and who command with more audacity.

This is a very masculine conception of fortune which is a woman who is impetuous and in need of impetuosity; a prince who exploits impetuosity has every chance of attracting fortune. To seduce the woman who must be beaten into submission, a certain number of qualities are required, but what are they?

All "The Prince" appears from chapter XIII to XVIII which are chapters where Machiavelli explains the qualities required to seduce this woman that is virtue.

One of the chapters is important, it is chapter XV, because it is in chapter XV that Machiavelli develops the new virtues, the virtues of modern times. Machiavelli takes up the humanist argument, a statesman must be wise, must be ideally just, moderate and firm, which are the cardinal virtues of humanists: justice, wisdom, moderation, firmness.

In chapter XV, he rejects and overturns these humanist and very classical virtues, today it seems that he proposes other political values that are important; Machiavelli breaks with the classical model of humanist values and proposes a new catalogue of virtues.

The Prince, Chapter XV " Things for which men and especially princes are praised or blamed ", 1513[edit | edit source]

This chapter is the one in which Machiavelli repudiates, rejects the humanist tradition which is his own. In order to seduce fortune, a certain number of qualities are needed. Machiavelli questions us about these qualities and whether they are still valid?

In chapter XV, he distances himself from the humanist tradition, he announces the rupture.

« It remains to be seen how a prince should use it and behave, either towards his subjects or towards his friends. So many writers have spoken of it, that perhaps I will be accused of presumption if I speak of it again; all the more so as in dealing with this subject I will be straying from the common road. But, with the intention that I should write things that will be useful to those who read me, it seemed to me that it was better to stop at the reality of things than to indulge in vain speculation.

Many people have imagined republics and principalities such as we have never seen or known. But what is the point of these imaginations? It is so far from the way we live to the way we should live that by studying only the latter, we learn to ruin ourselves rather than to preserve ourselves. […] »

A prince who wants to maintain himself and learn not to be always good, and use it well or badly, according to necessity. He takes verbal precautions and announces his break-up. This is what Machiavelli teaches us and a simple truth, but completely new for his time.

We should be less interested in the normative dimension of power, that is to say the dimension of what must be, than in power as it is. In other words, the 'just' and the 'good' are less important than the 'useful', what is important is the reality of the power we are confronted with and not a political ideal.

We can see very clearly that he criticises the almost 'idealistic' humanist vision of power, he moves away from the 'just' vision of 'moderation'. For Machiavelli, leaders are far from the virtues of the humanities, so a state must be thought of on the basis of what is and what is not founded on an ideal. This very important theoretical argument will have repercussions in history.

« (…) and he who wants to be a good man in everything and everywhere cannot fail to perish in the midst of so many wicked people.

A prince who wishes to maintain himself must therefore learn not to be always good, and use it well or badly, according to necessity. »

To say at the time to learn to be no good was revolutionary, it overturned the political values of the time. Machiavelli showed by the phrase to learn not to be good, basically he explained his position.

« It would be very beautiful, no doubt, and everyone would agree, if all the good qualities I have just mentioned were to be found in a prince. But, as this is hardly possible, and as the human condition does not include him, he must at least have the prudence to flee from those shameful vices which would cause him to lose his States. As for the other vices, I advise him to guard against them if he can; but if he cannot, there will be no great disadvantage in allowing himself to do so with less restraint; he must not even fear that he will be accused of certain defects without which it would be difficult for him to maintain himself; for, on close examination, it is found that, as there are certain qualities which appear to be virtues and which would make the prince's ruin, so there are others which appear to be vices, and from which may nevertheless result his preservation and well-being. »

It's a very simple idea, but absolutely fundamental. There is power with its perfectly noble ideals and then there is the reality of political life, these are two notions that are sometimes incompatible because there is a real dimension to power and an immaterial dimension linked to the perception that one has of this power.

Machiavelli's great novelty is to distinguish power from the perception of this power. When he says that one must sometimes appear to be good, wise even if one is not; it is the idea that power is made of an immaterial dimension and a real perception are two different things, it is a binary dimension of power. Machiavelli has built his vision of the qualities of the Prince around the idea that there is power, but that it is linked to the perception we have of this power.

There is the reality of power and the perception we have of that power.

Many politicians are weak and give the impression of being strong and vice versa; we owe this dual dimension of power to Machiavelli, who made it a central point of his theory.

Chapters XVI, XVII, XVIII and XXIII explain and develop the virtues necessary for the prince to seduce fortune and retain power.

In this chapter XVI "Of liberality and parsimony", one must know how to be generous and sometimes less parsimonious; according to chapter XVII sometimes one must be cruel "Of cruelty and pity; and if it is better to be loved than feared, or the opposite", the title is quite symptomatic, sometimes it is better to be feared than loved.

Chapter XXIII entitled "How to flee from flatterers" refers to Machiavelli's German experience of not being lulled by courtiers.

In chapter XVIII "How Princes Should Keep Their Words" Machiavelli introduces a distinction between what he calls lion and fox, strength and cunning (p.154). Machiavelli suggests that in order to seduce fortune, in order to remain in power one must be both a lion, which is strength, and a fox, which is to say, one must know how to use cunning.

He alludes to his political experience, which marked him in particular with Caesar Borgia. Sometimes you have to use cunning and sometimes you have to use force.

Once "The Prince" had been completed, once these virtues had been explained, once the qualities of the holder of power had been reaffirmed, Machiavelli in early 1514 would try to return to power, he would try to entrust his letter "The Prince" to the Medici in order to return to power. Unfortunately, he will not succeed, his book, which will be so successful afterwards, will end up in oblivion.

Machiavelli did not succeed in returning to power, in regaining an important political function, from 1515 - 1516 he joined a group of humanists with whom he had distanced himself, trying to reflect on a question that was a little different from the question of how to remain in power.

The fall of the Republic of Florence: Speech on the first decade of Titus Livius[edit | edit source]

The Republic of Florence disappeared in 1511, the Medici came back to power, why? How is it that a republic has not managed to maintain itself? It can be explained by the games of international alliances, but according to these humanists this is not enough, they no longer want to think about the quality of the prince, but rather why the republican regime disappeared, why Florence sank, why the republican regime disappeared?

To do this, they plunge into the history of Florence, but above all into the history of Rome. He looks into the history of the Republic of Rome for questions he asks himself: why the republican regime in Florence, but more generally why republican regimes fail and sink, and what keeps them going? In other words, the question of this group of humanists is haunted by an important question: what are the conditions for the existence and prosperity of a republic? From the history of Rome, some lessons can be drawn.

Machiavelli had written another very important work entitled the "Discourse on the First Decade of Titus Livius".

There are somewhere two important works by Machiavelli, one of which is the Discourse on Titus-Life, which nuances the speech of the "Prince". Immersing oneself in the complexity of the work allows one to have a slightly different point of view. Machiavelli from 1514 - 1515 asks himself another question, he will begin to write the Discourse of the first decade of Livy and is haunted by the following question: how can republican regimes with the image of Rome in mind and by extension republican regimes endure?

In other words, what makes republics that these regimes do not corrupt themselves?

When in 1512 - 1513 the Republic of Florence was abolished and then replaced by the Medici, Machiavelli wondered why Florence was lost and whether there were any standard ideals that could be used to theorise the greatness and decadence of republican regimes? He is haunted by the idea of the foundations and causes of the permanence of the republics.

He has the example of the Roman Republic which disappeared in 27 A.D., he has the example of Florence, he has the example of Venice, and he wonders about the political conditions which allow a republic to endure and to maintain the freedom and equality of its citizens.

This implies asking a second subsidiary question, he spoke of the virtues of the Prince in "The Prince", but are there public virtues for the whole social body, in other words are there conditions under which the social body, in other words do citizens not have to have qualities in order to promote the common good?

The speeches seek to answer this series of questions:

  • condition for the existence of a republic?
  • human conditions, quality of citizens, should they have a certain number of virtues?
  • are there dangers of corruption in the republic and if so, which ones?

These are the three main questions Machiavelli reflects on when he writes his speeches. For Machiavelli, based on the example of Venice, Florence and Rome, it can be inferred that a number of conditions must be inferred for republics to last. Thus, we can see the type of regime Machiavelli favoured.

The government according to Machiavelli[edit | edit source]

The first condition is that it is first of all necessary for those in power to demonstrate a certain 'political responsibility', which must be wise, moderate and fair.

In "The Prince", he says that these are not sufficient conditions, somewhere he finds the humanist ideals that he had discarded in "The Prince", but while in the speeches he reaffirms, and this is the first condition for the existence of any republic, that the rulers must show virtues, but humanist virtues, wisdom, moderation, equity, and greatness of soul.

The first condition is that these classical humanist virtues must still be found in order for the republic to return.

The second condition is that a republic must be politically and constitutionally well organised, the political constitution must be very solid. What is needed? It simply needs a constitution that imitates, takes up the model that is a source of inspiration for everyone, the Roman model, the constitution of a republic must be mixed. In other words, there has to be a need for a solid republic based on a mixed constitution which is the Roman model.

In Machiavelli's time, it was very common to find the idea of a mixed constitution again. A mixed constitution is in Machiavelli's image, his discourse is a constitution based on three important elements of any political society: the monarchical element, the aristocratic element and the democratic element. There has to be a power that is divided between the monarchical dimension, which is a man or a woman, the aristocratic dimension, i.e. an assembly that brings together a certain elite, and then the popular dimension, which brings together representatives of the people in a more general way.

Rome was founded on this model, the consules represented the monarchical element, the senate represented the aristocratic element and the comices represented the military as well as the more popular circles. The model of the Roman constitution that all the historians of Rome have called "mixed constitution" is a model that integrates these three dimensions.

This model has been taken up by a great many legal and political theorists, the American constitution of 1787 is also based on these constituent elements of power, it is a model that is in fact a Roman model that has irrigated the entire history of philosophy and has left its mark on the history of political thought.

It is this model of a mixed constitution, because mixed between different elements, which is a constitutional order that is not a monarchy, nor an aristocracy, nor a democracy, but which is all three at the same time. It's a model that has left its mark on people's minds over several centuries, especially on the American constituents.

Machiavelli adds something new to this second condition by saying that for the system to work, for the political organisation based on a mixed constitution to work, it is crucial that political factions exist or are set up that clash. There is the idea of a political party, Machiavelli breaks with a tradition that there should be stability and unity around those in power, humanists defended the ideal of unity and stability.

Machiavelli would take up part of the theory again, adding that factions could confront each other, "freedom comes out of conflict". He fears like the plague those regimes where everyone agrees with everyone else. Machiavelli advocates disunity rather than political union, which he sees as one of the ways of preventing corruption from taking hold. Machiavelli praises political dissent, different opinions must be expressed and animate political life, such a constitution is not enough if it is not animated, animation is this form of disunity, a form of defence of the idea of debate.

The third condition given is the need to develop religious worship, but not religion, because, like the Romans, he was impressed by the sociological function of religion, he was impressed to see the Roman genius to instrumentalise religion, which in a way allows the constitution of Roman citizenship, a good Roman citizen practises the worship of gods.

Machiavelli was not interested in religious truths, but understood the social function of religion as a constructor of civil religion, which is love of the party and the republic; this feeling of belonging to a common culture is an element and a feeling that must be cultivated. Among the French there is the cult of love for the republic, the same goes for the Americans, it is something extremely strong which fundamentally, for Machiavelli, is a possibility which is to use the religious fact as a federator and unifier of an ideology of the citizen. Machiavelli seeks to use the religious fact in order to build citizenship, to build love for the republic, to build what Rousseau calls "the new man".

For Machiavelli, the cult of religion makes it possible to give coherence to a state, at present there is civic education in some schools, which is a kind of religion of citizenship, it is the function of religion as unifying the political body and the social body. Education for citizenship is a form of religion that needs to be developed like the Roman religion that succeeded in developing this Roman citizenship, in other words, religious worship has a social function that needs to be exploited in order to build modern citizenship, love of practice and love of the republic.

The fourth condition for the existence of a republic is the need to have a political regime based on law. In other words, it is the importance of law or laws in any republic, laws are needed to hold and circumscribe principles just as to circumscribe the people, it believes in the virtues of law as the guarantor of the political freedom of citizens.

Machiavelli thinks and deeply believes that the very existence of laws guarantees social and political order and a certain form of political equality as well. The notion will later become important, namely that of equality before the law, which is very dear to Machiavelli's heart, there is only a republic based on legal laws and a coherent set of laws; these laws are only legitimate and likely to guarantee freedom if everyone is involved in their organisation.

According to Machiavelli's reasoning, the law is the guarantor of the political freedom of citizens. A free republic is a republic if and only if the law voted and decided by the citizens is put in place.

There is a debate that has been irrigating contemporary political philosophy for a long time on the relationship between law and freedom, with many so-called liberal authors tending to say that the more laws there are, the less freedom there is, the very expression of laws is the state. It is a discourse that is basically taken up and declined in different forms, there are cleavages between liberals communitarian perspective and other philosophies that try to move the cursor.

Machiavelli had an inverting idea that is resurfacing today, laws are not a guarantee of servitude, in other words one can be free thanks to laws. The idea that too many laws kill freedom for Machiavelli is nonsense; one is not free against the law, but one is not free because there are few or no laws as Hobbes postulates, one is in fact free because there are laws. This way of thinking is very important in contemporary philosophy because there are a number of debates on this subject.

Machiavelli postulates that one is free as a citizen because of the law, it may encroach on individual freedoms, but it guarantees them. The notion of equality before the law for Machiavelli is at the very heart of the existence of a republic, there is only one republic in which citizens are equal before the law even if it impinges on personal and individual freedoms.

The fifth condition for the existence of the republic, which is a condition that appeals to the foreign policy of any republic, Machiavelli, curiously enough, will defend the idea that a republic must defend its existence at all costs. He will even go so far as to defend the idea that for its survival it can launch into a preventive war. In other words, following the Roman example, he thinks that the ideal of the republic in a scale of values is the supreme good, the absolute ideal. The existence and maintenance and preservation of the republic is so important that this value and this regime must be defended at all costs, even at the price of a conquering foreign policy defending the idea of a preventive war.

Preemptive wars" are for Machiavelli quite permissible, war is right from this point of view.

One must be prepared to make any sacrifice to defend this idea, in this military-style opinion Machiavelli presents another argument with the existence of a militia army. Machiavelli in his book "The Art of War" questions the status of the armies of his time in which he comments in detail on the army of the Swiss Confederation because in 1515 -1520 the Swiss were mercenaries.

Machiavelli finds this questionable, if he admires the principle of the citizen-soldier, which he believes is necessary for the very existence of a republic, he has very harsh words against Swiss mercenaries. For him the ideal republic is built on the idea of the citizen-soldier and not on the idea of mercenarism, a citizen in love with his republic will be much more inclined to defend his republic than a mercenary who will go to the limit towards the one who will pay him more. This idea of the citizen-soldier or more commonly militia army is constitutive of what will later be called the republican ideology, there are only republics based on the principle of the citizen-soldier and not on mercenarism.

Basically, Machiavelli comes full circle in his speeches and proposes a model of an ideal type of republic based on the aforementioned notions.

A sixth condition is knowledge of history. For Machiavelli, it is very important for a ruler to have historical depth in decision-making, i.e. the feeling of being part of a long-term political project. In other words, Machiavelli believes that a republic can only survive if its rulers base their political decisions not only on laws, but also on the history of the republic.

Only then can the republic not become corrupt and last.

Discourses on the First Decade of Tite-Live[edit | edit source]

Discourses on the First Decade of Tite-Live, Book One, Foreword[edit | edit source]

« I have made up my mind to set out on a road that has not yet been cleared; and if it is true that I must encounter many troubles and difficulties, I hope to find reward in the approval of those who will look favourably on my company. »

Somewhere there is a sense of fatality in Machiavelli, he is aware that he is going to defend the Republic while the Republic of Florence is dead, not all the theories of the Republic are taken into consideration.

« Isn't medicine itself the experience of doctors in ancient times, on the basis of which doctors nowadays make their judgements? However, when it has been a question of establishing order in a republic, maintaining states, governing kingdoms, regulating armies, administering war, rendering justice to subjects, we have not yet seen a prince, a republic, a captain, or citizens rely on the example of antiquity. I believe that the cause of this is to be found even less in the weakness with which the vices of our present education have plunged the world, and in the evils that prideful laziness has done to so many Christian states and cities, than in the ignorance of the true spirit of history, which prevents us, when we read it, from grasping its real meaning and from nourishing our minds with the substance it contains. The result is that those who read it are limited to the pleasure of seeing the many events it depicts pass before their eyes, without ever thinking of imitating them, judging such imitation not only difficult, but even impossible. »

Machiavelli's first argument is that history teaches us lessons, history is a guide that we must follow.

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Chapter II, Of how many species are the States and what was that of the Roman Republic?[edit | edit source]

« Wanting to make known what the forms of government in Rome were, and by what combination of circumstances they reached perfection, I will say, like those who have written on the organisation of States, that there are three kinds of government, called monarchical, aristocratic or popular. »

This paragraph corresponds to the mixed constitution, basically what it calls the State or the Roman Republic is the constitution of the Roman Republic, which is called mixed constitution.

Machiavelli says that the great philosophers, the great theorists of politics have taught that there are three ways of categorising political regimes: category of monarchy, category of aristocracy, category of democracy.

When he talks about monarchy, which regime is he thinking of? When he speaks of monarchy, and at that moment in history there are many monarchies, he thinks of France, when he speaks of aristocracy, he thinks of Venice governed by the twelve Venetian doges, a small nucleus of aristocratic families, when he uses the term democracy, he thinks of Athens. Somewhere Machiavelli says that the political ideal, the ideal constitution is a mixture of French monarchy, Venetian aristocracy and Athenian democracy.

This hybrid mixture is the famous mixed constitution.

« So I say that all these forms of government have equal disadvantages: the first three, because they have no elements of duration; the other three, because of the principle of corruption they contain. Therefore, all legislators renowned for their wisdom, having recognized the inherent vice of each, have avoided using only one of these forms of government; they have chosen one that participates in all of them, judging it to be more solid and stable, because the prince, the great and the people, governing the state together, could more easily supervise each other. »

There is here the essential idea that the 18th century theorised, the idea that all power corrupts is that "power must stop power" as Montesquieu said. This is the emergence of the principle of the separation of powers and more precisely the balance of power. In Athens, the fact that non-citizens cannot vote would make it an aristocracy and not a democracy ; the first confusion is that we should not look at Athens with our contemporary eyes, Athens is a democracy in the sense that until the advent of universal suffrage we define what a democracy is - for Planton and Aristotle - not by the principle of election, election is the element that characterises the aristocracy, but on the drawing of lots, which is the primary characteristic of democracy, the Athenians drew lots for those who were going to govern the city for a certain period of time.

In the history of political philosophy, the drawing of lots is the characteristic of democracy and democratic regimes, which might make us think that we do not live in a democracy, because it is the principle of election that supersedes the drawing of lots.

In the XVIIth century, there was a debate about whether to use the lottery, some people thought that intelligence and ability should come to power. It should be noted that the principle of election is a principle eminently attached to the aristocratic regime, democracy is based on the drawing of lots, pure democracies in the Athenian sense of the term no longer exist.

According to Rousseau "democracy is a regime for the gods and is impossible to put in place", he thought that being based on the drawing of lots it is therefore difficult to put in place.

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Chapter IV, How the disunity between the plebiscite and the senate made the Roman Republic free and powerful[edit | edit source]

Machiavelli observes that Rome managed to maintain itself because there were "political parties", even if this is an anachronism.

« I will not deny that fortune and discipline did not contribute to the power of the Romans; but one should have been careful that excellent discipline is only the necessary consequence of good laws, and that wherever it reigns, fortune, in its turn, does not delay in making its favours shine.

But let us come to the other particularities of this city. I say that those who blame the continual dissensions of the great and the people seem to me to disapprove of the very causes that kept Rome free, and that they pay more attention to the cries and rumours that these dissensions gave rise to than to the salutary effects they produced. »

Political unrest, dissension and quarrels are a guarantee of political freedom, but freedom requires a number of concessions. Dissension does not mean citizenship education.

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Chapter XVI, A people accustomed to living under the authority of a prince hardly retains its freedom, if by chance it becomes free[edit | edit source]

The word corruption comes up all the time, it is the corruption of citizenship, the idea that a republic is lost if we lose the soul of the republic, it is not because we have a free constitution that we should not ensure that it is applied.

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Chapter XVII, Having become free, a corrupt people can hardly keep its freedom[edit | edit source]

Attention must be paid to the people who corrupt themselves by giving priority to the particular interest over the general interest.

Discourse on the First Decade of Titus Lutetius, Book One, Foreword[edit | edit source]

« Perhaps I will deserve to be counted among those who are mistaken, if in these Discourses I dwell on the praises of the ancient Romans, and if I exercise my censorship on the century in which we live. Certainly, if the virtue that reigned in those times, and the vice that defiles everything in our days, were not more evident than the brightness of the sun, I would speak with more restraint, in fear of sharing the error of which I accuse others; but the thing is so obvious, that it strikes all eyes. I will therefore dare to expose without diversion what I think of these times and of ours, so that the minds of the young men who will read my writings may flee the example of some and imitate others whenever fortune presents them with the opportunity. It is the duty of an honest man to point out to others the good that the rigours of time and fortune do not allow him to do himself, in the hope that among all those who are able to understand it, there will be one who, beloved of heaven, will be able to do it.

In the previous book I have dealt with the measures taken by the Romans in relation to the internal government of the republic; in this book I shall speak of the conduct of this people in order to increase their empire. »

Machiavelli, very clearly, shows that his objective is to offer us a lesson, a political regime based on the lessons of the past. There is, deep down, an essential, central idea in him, which is that any political regime that is not based on history based on knowledge and mastery of the past is condemned to perish. This passage contains the words vice, virtue and fortune, this first idea is important, history is the driving force behind our actions and must remain so.

The second political morality is the idea that, at heart, for Machiavelli, human nature is inherently corrupt. For Machiavelli, there is scepticism about the capacity of human nature to truly seduce this fortune, in other words, Machiavelli shows us a rather pessimistic vision of the world, he gives us a number of lessons, but he concludes that it is not certain that we can do it, because the vices of the contemporary society in which he writes are too important.

His message is to take the lessons of the past, to imitate the political regimes of the past, but we should not have any illusions about human nature. There is a kind of pessimistic worldview that is a little despairing in Machiavelli. We must fight for the Republic, commit ourselves to the Republic, but remain lucid about the capacity to reform it and preserve it because human nature being made that way, the republic will end up sinking.

For Montesquieu, « all regimes will perish, Rome has perished ». Machiavelli could have said exactly the same thing two and a half centuries earlier. This almost desperate view of the world, or rather of the state and human nature, introduces the second pillar of the foundations of the modern state.

If Machiavelli, even in a somewhat despairing vision of power, offers a number of arguments - mixed constitution, virtue of the citizen, civic engagement - the second pillar that is being put in place at the same time as Machiavelli publishes "The Prince" and the speeches is the thought of the Reformation, which is also a little pessimistic.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

  • Le Prince. //
  • Discours sur la première décade de Tite-Live. //

References[edit | edit source]