34.9 What Machiavelli Thought of the World¶
And now let us consider the political consequences of this vast release and expansion of European ideas in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the new development of science, the exploration of the world, the great dissemination of knowledge through paper and printing, and the spread of a new craving for freedom and equality. How was it affecting the mentality of the courts and kings that directed the formal affairs of mankind? We have already shown how the hold of the Catholic church upon the consciences of men was weakening at this time. Only the Spaniards, fresh from a long and finally successful religious war against Islam, had any great enthusiasm left for the church. The Turkish conquests and the expansion of the known world robbed the Roman Empire of its former prestige of universality. The old mental and moral framework of Europe was breaking up. What was happening to the dukes, princes, and kings of the old dispensation during this age of change?
In England, as we shall tell later, very subtle and interesting tendencies were leading towards a now method in government, the method of parliament, that was to spread later on over nearly all the world. But of these tendencies the world at large was as yet practically unconscious in the sixteenth century.
Few monarchs have left us intimate diaries; to be a monarch and to be frank are incompatible feats; monarchy is itself necessarily a pose. The historian is obliged to speculate about the contents of the head that wears a crown as best he can. No doubt regal psychology has varied with the ages. We have, however, the writings of a very able man of this period who set himself to study and expound the arts of kingcraft as they were understood in the later fifteenth century. This was the celebrated Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). He was of good birth and reasonable fortune, and he had entered the public employment of the republic by the time he was twenty-five. For eighteen years he was in the Florentine diplomatic service; he was engaged upon a number of embassies, and in 1500 he was sent to France to deal with the French king. From 1502 to 1512 he was the right-hand man of the gonfalonier (the life president) of Florence, Soderini. Machiavelli reorganized the Florentine army, wrote speeches for the gonfalonier, was indeed the ruling intelligence in Florentine affairs. When Soderini, who had. leant-upon the French, was overthrown by the Medici family whom the Spanish supported, Machiavelli, though be tried to transfer his services to the victors, was tortured on the rack and expelled. He took up his quarters in a villa near San Casciano, twelve miles or so from Florence, and there entertained himself partly by collecting and writing salacious stories to a friend in Rome, and partly by writing books about Italian politics in which he could no longer play a part. Just as we owe Marco Polo’s book of travels to his imprisonment, so we owe Machiavelli’s Prince, his Florentine History, and The Art of War to his downfall and the boredom of San Casciano.
The enduring value of these books lies in the clear idea they give us of the quality and limitations of the ruling minds of this age. Their atmosphere was his atmosphere. If he brought an exceptionally keen intelligence to their business, that merely throws it into a brighter light.
His susceptible mind had been greatly impressed by the cunning, cruelty, audacity, and ambition of Cæsar Borgia, the Duke of Valentino, in whose camp he had spent some months as an envoy. In his Prince he idealized this dazzling person. Cæsar Borgia (1476-1507), the reader must understand, was the son of Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia (1492-1503). The reader will perhaps be startled at the idea of a Pope having a son, but this, we must remember, was a pre-reformation Pope. The Papacy at this time was in a mood of moral relaxation, and though Alexander was, as a priest, pledged to live unmarried, this did not hinder him from living openly with a sort of unmarried wife, and devoting the resources of Christendom to the advancement of his family. Cæsar was a youth of spirit even for the times in which he lived; he had early caused his elder brother to be murdered, and also the husband of his sister, Luerezia. He had indeed betrayed and murdered a number of people. With his father’s assistance, he had become duke of a wide area of Central Italy when Machiavelli visited him. He had shown little or no military ability, but considerable dexterity and administrative power. His magnificence was of the most temporary sort. When presently his father died, it collapsed like a pricked bladder. Its unsoundness was not evident to Machiavelli. Our chief interest in Cæsar Borgia is that he realized Machiavelli’s highest ideals of a superb and successful prince.
Much has been written to show that Machiavelli had wide and noble intentions behind his political writings, but all such attempts to ennoble him will leave the sceptical reader, who insists on reading the lines instead of reading imaginary things between the lines of Machiavelli’s work, cold towards him. This man manifestly had no belief in any righteousness at all, no belief in a God ruling over the world or in a God in men’s hearts, no understanding of the power of conscience in men. Not for him were Utopian visions of world-wide human order, or attempts to realize the City of God. Such things he did not want. It seemed to him that to get power, to gratify one’s desires and sensibilities and hates, to swagger triumphantly in the world, must be the crown of human desire. Only a prince could fully realize such a life. Some streak of timidity or his sense of the poorness of his personal claims had evidently made him abandon such dreams for himself; but at least he might hope to serve a prince, to live close to the glory, to share the plunder and the lust and the gratified malice. He might even make himself indispensable. He set himself, therefore, to become an «expert» in prince-craft. He assisted Soderini to fail. When he was racked and rejected by the Medicis, and had no further hopes of being even a successful court parasite, he wrote these handbooks of cunning to show what a clever servant some prince had lost. His ruling thought, his great contribution to political literature, was that the moral obligations upon ordinary men cannot bind princes.
There is a disposition to ascribe the virtue of patriotism to Machiavelli because be suggested that Italy, which was weak and divided-she had been invaded by the Turks and saved from conquest only by the death of the Sultan Muhammad, and she was being fought over by the French and Spanish as though she was something inanimate-might be united and strong; but he saw in that possibility only a great opportunity for a prince. And he advocated a national army only because he saw the Italian method of carrying on war by hiring bands of foreign mercenaries was a hopeless one. At any time such troops might go over to a better paymaster or decide to plunder the state they protected. He had been deeply impressed by the victories of the Swiss over the Milanese, but be never fathomed the secret of the free spirit that made those victories possible. The Florentine militia be created was a complete failure. He was a man born blind to the qualities that make peoples free and nations great.
Yet this morally blind man was living in a little world of morally blind men. It is clear that his style of thought was the style of thought of the court of his time. Behind the princes of the new states that had grown up out of the wreckage of the empire and the failure of the Church, there were everywhere chancellors and secretaries and trusted ministers of the Machiavellian type. Cromwell, for instance, the minister of Henry VIII of England after his breach with Rome, regarded Machiavelli’s Prince as the quintessence of political wisdom.
When the princes were themselves sufficiently clever they, too were Machiavellian. They were scheming to outdo one another, to rob weaker contemporaries, to destroy rivals, so that they might for a brief interval swagger. They had little or no vision of any scheme of human destinies greater than this game they played against one another.