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A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.


There is something surprising about the sheer number of interpretations of Machiavelli’s political opinions. There exist, even now, over a score of leading theories of how to interpret The Prince and The Discourses—apart from a cloud of subsidiary views and glosses. The bibliography of this is vast and growing faster than ever. While there may exist no more than the normal extent of disagreement about the meaning of particular terms or theses contained in these works, there is a startling degree of divergence about the central view, the basic political attitude of Machiavelli.

This phenomenon is easier to understand in the case of other thinkers whose opinions have continued to puzzle or agitate mankind—Plato, for example, or Rousseau or Hegel or Marx. But then it might be said that Plato wrote in a world and in a language that we cannot be sure we understand; that Rousseau, Hegel, Marx were prolific theorists and that their works are scarcely models of clarity or consistency. But The Prince is a short book: its style is usually described as being singularly lucid, succinct, and pungent—a model of clear Renaissance prose. The Discourses are not, as treatises on politics go, of undue length and they are equally clear and definite. Yet there is no consensus about the significance of either; they have not been absorbed into the texture of traditional political theory; they continue to arouse passionate feelings; The Prince has evidently excited the interest and admiration of some of the most formidable men of action of the last four centuries, especially our own, men not normally addicted to reading classical texts.

There is evidently something peculiarly disturbing about what Machiavelli said or implied, something that has caused profound and lasting uneasiness. Modern scholars have pointed out certain real or apparent inconsistencies between the (for the most part) republican sentiment of The Discourses (and The Histories) and the advice to absolute rulers in The Prince. Indeed there is a great difference of tone between the two treatises, as well as chronological puzzles: this raises problems about Machiavelli’s character, motives, and convictions which for three hundred years and more have formed a rich field of investigation and speculation for literary and linguistic scholars, psychologists, and historians.

But it is not this that has shocked Western feeling. Nor can it be only Machiavelli’s “realism” or his advocacy of brutal or unscrupulous or ruthless politics that has so deeply upset so many later thinkers and driven some of them to explain or explain away his advocacy of force and fraud. The fact that the wicked are seen to flourish or that wicked courses appear to pay has never been very remote from the consciousness of mankind. The Bible, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle—to take only some of the fundamental works of Western culture—the characters of Jacob or Joshua, Samuel’s advice to Saul, Thucydides’ Melian dialogue or his account of at least one ferocious but rescinded Athenian resolution, the philosophies of Thrasymachus and Callicles, Aristotle’s more cynical advice in The Politics, and, after these, Carneades’ speeches to the Roman Senate as described by Cicero, Augustine’s view of the secular state from one vantage point, and Marsilio’s from another—all these had cast enough light on political realities to shock the credulous and naïve out of uncritical idealism.

The explanation can scarcely lie in Machiavelli’s tough-mindedness alone, even though he did perhaps dot the i’s and cross the t’s more sharply than anyone before him. Even if the initial shock—the reactions of, say, Pole or Gentillet—is to be so explained, this does not account for the reactions of one who had read or even heard about the opinions of Hobbes or Spinoza or Hegel or the Jacobins and their heirs. Something else is surely needed to account both for the continuing horror and for the differences among the commentators. The two phenomena may not be unconnected. To indicate the nature of the latter phenomenon one may cite only the best known interpretations of Machiavelli’s political views produced since the sixteenth century.

According to Alberico Gentile and the late Professor Garrett Mattingly, the author of The Prince wrote a satire—for he certainly cannot literally have meant what he said. For Spinoza, Rousseau, Ugo Foscolo, Signor Ricci (who introduces The Prince to the readers of the Oxford Classics), it is a cautionary tale; for whatever else he was, Machiavelli was a passionate patriot, a democrat, a believer in liberty, and The Prince must have been intended (Spinoza is particularly clear on this) to warn men of what tyrants could be and do, the better to resist them. Perhaps the author could not write openly with two rival powers—those of the Church and of the Medici—eying him with equal (and not unjustified) suspicion. The Prince is therefore a satire (though no work seems to me to read less like one).

For Professor A. H. Gilbert it is anything but this—it is a typical piece of its period, a mirror for princes, a genre exercise common enough in the Renaissance and before (and after) it, with very obvious borrowings and “echoes”; more gifted than most of these, and certainly more hard-boiled (and influential), but not so very different in style, content, or intention.

Professors Giuseppe Prezzolini and Hiram Haydn, more plausibly, regard it as an anti-Christian piece (in this following Fichte and others) and see it as an attack on the Church and all her principles, a defense of the pagan view of life. Professor Toffanin, however, thinks Machiavelli was a Christian, though a somewhat peculiar one, a view from which Marchese Ridolfi, his most distinguished living biographer, and Father Leslie Walker (in his English edition of The Discourses) do not wholly dissent. Alderisio, indeed, regards him as a passionate and sincere Catholic, although he does not go quite so far as the anonymous nineteenth-century compiler of Religious Maxims faithfully extracted from the works of Niccolò Machiavelli (referred to by Ridolfi in the last chapter of his biography).

For Benedetto Croce and all the many scholars who have followed him, Machiavelli is an anguished humanist, and one who, so far from seeking to soften the impression made by the crimes that he describes, laments the vices of men which make such wicked courses politically unavoidable—a moralist who wrings his hands over a world in which political ends can only be achieved by means that are morally evil, and therefore the man who divorced the province of politics from that of ethics. But for the Swiss scholars Wälder, Kaegi, and von Muralt, he is a peace-loving humanist, who believed in order, stability, pleasure in life, in the disciplining of the aggressive elements of our nature into the kind of civilized harmony that he found in its finest form among the well-armed Swiss democracies of his own time.

For the great sixteenth-century neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius and later for Algarotti (in 1759) and Alfieri (in 1796) he was a passionate patriot who saw in Cesare Borgia the man who, if he had lived, might have liberated Italy from the barbarous French and Spaniards and Austrians who were trampling on her and had reduced her to misery and poverty, decadence and chaos. The late Professor Mattingly could not credit this because it was obvious to him, and he did not doubt that it must have been no less obvious to Machiavelli, that Cesare was incompetent, a mountebank, a squalid failure; while Professor Vögelin seems to suggest that it is not Cesare, but (of all men) Tamerlane who was hovering before Machiavelli’s fancy-laden gaze.

For Cassirer, Renaudet, Olschki, and Sir Keith Hancock, Machiavelli is a cold technician, ethically and politically uncommitted, an objective analyst of politics, a morally neutral scientist, who (K. Schmid tells us) anticipated Galileo in applying inductive methods to social and historical material, and had no moral interest in the use made of his technical discoveries—being equally ready to place them at the disposal of liberators and despots, good men and scoundrels. Renaudet describes his method as “purely positivist,” Cassirer, as concerned with “political statics.” But for Federico Chabod he is not coldly calculating at all, but passionate to the point of unrealism. Ridolfi, too, speaks of il grande appassionato and De Caprariis thinks him positively visionary.

For Herder he is, above all, a marvelous mirror of his age, a man sensitive to the contours of his time, who faithfully described what others did not admit or recognize, an inexhaustible mine of acute contemporary observation; and this is accepted by Ranke and Macaulay, Burd, and, in our day, Gennaro Sasso. For Fichte he is a man of deep insight into the real historical (or super-historical) forces that mold men and transform their morality—in particular, a man who rejected Christian principles for those of reason, political unity, and centralization. For Hegel he is the man of genius who saw the need for uniting a chaotic collection of small and feeble principalities into a coherent whole. His specific nostrums may excite disgust, but they are accidents due to the conditions of their own time, now long past. Yet, however obsolete his precepts, he understood something move important—the demands of his own age—that the hour had struck for the birth of the modern, centralized, political state, for the formation of which he “established the truly necessary fundamental principles.”

The thesis that Machiavelli was above all an Italian and a patriot, speaking above all to his own generation, and if not solely to Florentines, at any rate only to Italians, and that he must be judged solely, or at least mainly, in terms of his historical context is a position common to Herder and Hegel, Macaulay and Burd.1 Yet for Professors Butterfield and Ramat he suffers from an equal lack of scientific and historical sense. Obsessed by classical authors, his gaze is on an imaginary past; he deduces his political maxims in an unhistorical and a priori manner from dogmatic axioms (according to Professor Huovinen)—a method that was already becoming obsolete at the time at which he was writing. In this respect his slavish imitation of antiquity is judged to be inferior to the historical sense and sagacious judgment of his friend Guicciardini (so much for the discovery in him of inklings of modern scientific method).

For Bacon (as for Spinoza, and later for Lassalle) he is above all the supreme realist and avoider of utopian fantasies. Boccalini is shocked by him, but cannot deny the accuracy or importance of his observations; so is Meinecke for whom he is the father of Staatsraison, with which he plunged a dagger into the body politic of the West, inflicting a wound which only Hegel would know how to heal. (This is Meinecke’s optimistic verdict half a century ago, implicitly withdrawn after the Second World War.)

But for Koenig he is not a tough-minded cynic at all, but an aesthete seeking to escape from the chaotic and squalid world of the decadent Italy of his time into a dream of pure art, a man not interested in practice who painted an ideal political landscape much (if I understand this view correctly) as Piero della Francesca painted an ideal city. The Prince is to be read as an idyl in the best neoclassical, neo-pastoral, Renaissance style. Yet De Sanctis in the second volume of his History of Italian Literature denies The Prince a place in the humanist tradition on account of Machiavelli’s hostility to imaginative visions.

  1. 1

    Ernst Cassirer makes the valid and relevant point that to value—or justify—Machiavelli’s opinions solely as a mirror of their times is one thing; to maintain that he was himself consciously addressing only his own countrymen, and, if Burd is to be believed, not even all of them, is a very different one, and entails a false view of him and the civilization to which he belonged. The Renaissance did not view itself in historical perspective. Machiavelli was looking for—and thought that he had found—timeless, universal laws of social behavior.

    It is no service either to him or to the truth to deny or ignore the unhistorical assumptions which he shared with all his contemporaries and predecessors. The praise lavished upon him by the German historical school from Herder onward, including the Marxist Antonio Gramsci, for the gifts in which they saw his strength—his realistic sense of his own times, his insight into the rapidly changing social and political conditions of Italy and Europe in his time, the collapse of feudalism, the rise of the national state, the altering power relationships within the Italian principalities, and the like—would have been galling to a man who believed he had discovered eternal truths.

    He may, like his countryman Columbus, have mistaken the nature of his own achievement. If the historical school (including the Marxist) is right, Machiavelli did not and could not have done what he set out to do. But nothing is gained by supposing he did not set out to do it; and plenty of witnesses from his day to ours would deny Herder’s assertion, and maintain that Machiavelli’s goal—the discovery of the permanent principles of a political science—was anything but utopian; and that he came nearer than most to attaining them.

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