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Power in History

Sometimes, when the human race has gone through one of its colossal chapters of experience, men in the afterperiod have been so appalled by the catastrophe, so obsessed by the memory of it, that they have gone back to the story again and again, finding new angles of research, new aspects of the matter to reflect upon, as one generation succeeds another—a process of thinking and rethinking, which in special cases is capable of continuing for a thousand years and more. As a result of this, there piles up (with the passage of the generations) a tremendous accumulation of commentary on any single great historical theme.

One of the most remarkable examples of this in the history of the Western world has been the downfall of imperial Rome and the ancient “classical” culture from about the fifth century AD—a catastrophe which provoked endless discussion among historians, theologians, and philosophers through the subsequent centuries. But another significant example is provided by the Italian Renaissance which, from the end of the fifteenth century, did so much to change the play of forces among the European states, and even the character of the prevailing culture. It was to this general historical field—and, for the most part, to those larger human issues which are here in question—that Felix Gilbert gave his principal attention during a few decades from about the middle of the 1930s.

Two of the most interesting men that ever (in modern times) gave themselves to the narration or analysis of contemporary history—that is to say, the events of their own lifetimes—were Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who lived through the sorest troubles of Renaissance Italy. It took them a few years to recognize that the French invasion of Italy in 1494 was not just an ephemeral affair or something in the nature of a raid. And it needed two or three decades to convince them not only that this was to be a turning point in Italian history but also that the disaster for the freedom of city-states was going to be irretrievable. Felix Gilbert’s Italian studies have been centered chiefly on these two men. He sees Machiavelli as using history in order to find remedies for the condition of his city—Florence—and for Italy as a whole; while Guicciardini moves forward from this to a kind of direct narrative history which expounds events by simply showing how they came to happen. In other words, Gilbert is interested in the transition from the pragmatic kind of history (which looks for political teaching) to the rather different kind of study which seeks just to explain the past by putting the whole network of events into proper order.

One has been tempted to believe at times that the close study of historiography, and of men’s developing thought about the past, is not the best thing for the doctoral student to handle, and that the young researcher will place himself on firmer ground if he takes up detailed work on a straight piece of ordinary narrative history. Yet Felix Gilbert’s first research, and his first book, were on the German historian, Johann Gustav Droysen; and the first three essays in his new collection—essays which in various ways point back to his youth in Germany—are on Droysen, Otto Hintze, and Meinecke, this last having been his teacher. Moreover, one cannot escape the impression that this initial tendency of his has contributed greatly to the richness of his appreciation of the past and the reliability of his historical judgment.

At the same time these three essays (and possibly one or two others in the volume) strike the English student at least as being perhaps rather German in character, especially since they are bookish—they seem to consider books themselves to have been the key to intellectual changes—and they provide, even in the case of Meinecke, only a thin account of the man’s interior development. Even here, however, Gilbert shows himself a genuine analyst and a brilliant writer of essays, and there are few English-speaking people who would recognize in his work the very rare microscopic faults of a writer not born to the language. He seems to write fairly slowly and is a better stylist—producing a richer prose—than most historians; but he may not have learned in Wilhelmine Germany (and will hardly have been encouraged to see in the United States) that “academic thought” as such can be an accursed thing.

Gilbert’s most impressive previous work was his Machiavelli and Guicciardini of 1965, and the main part of the new volume of essays makes available to us again a number of further writings on these men. Machiavelli is chronologically the earlier of the two and among the commentators on this writer in the English-speaking world, Gilbert holds a distinguished place, partly because of the work he has done in Italy and his use of archival material there, as well as his study of other manuscript sources. More than most people he has examined the fifteenth-century antecedents and the sixteenth-century dissemination of Machiavelli’s teaching. He has expounded the Florentine institutions and the political ideas which provided the context and the impulse for Machiavelli’s own thinking. In one of his finest essays, “Bernardo Rucellai and the Orti Oricellari,” he gives a most interesting account of those discussions in the Rucellai Gardens in Florence which Machiavelli sometimes attended, and from which the Discorsi seem to have emerged.

What in modern times we generally hear too little about is Machiavelli’s competence as a practical statesman and the validity of his main explicit claim—his reiterated claim—namely, that he was the man to teach, point by point, the political actions that rulers should take in order to meet the dreadful contingencies of those difficult times. He asserted, indeed, that, if his maxims had been followed, Italy could have been prevented from drifting into those catastrophes that had already occurred.

This question about Machiavelli’s quality as a political adviser is all the more proper in view of the curious doubts about just this matter which have come down from Machiavelli’s own contemporaries, and the reservations that even some of his friends seem to have had. Felix Gilbert, referring to Machiavelli’s main statement about the matter in the introduction to the Discourses, says that Machiavelli “intended to do for politics what others had been doing for art, jurisprudence and medicine: to clarify and codify the principles which the ancients had followed.” But the final phrase in this passage might tempt one to overlook Machiavelli’s more concrete statement of his point—his claim that “the deeds of former kings, generals, citizens, ‘Legislators’ etc.” were not being sufficiently “imitated” by contemporary politicians. Indeed, his complaint was that “in establishing a republic, in maintaining a state, in governing a kingdom, in organizing an army and conducting a war…nobody nowadays makes reference to the precedents in antiquity.”

Machiavelli’s attachment to the concrete individual maxim of politics is clear when we first find signs of his teaching—in the letter of 1500 where he claims that Louis XII, in invading Italy, should have first inquired into the methods of previous conquerors. It appears again a very little later when he states in a small treatise that those who tried to deal with the rebels of the Val di Chiana ought to have followed a clear historical precedent that existed. It is in reference to specific maxims like these that we find him complaining of the neglectful conduct of his contemporaries.

Here is one of the points on which a man’s own “contemporaries”—the people he knew at the time—have a right to be heard; and Guicciardini, a man who made much more actual progress in real politics than Machiavelli—and can hardly be accused of being inferior in concrete realism—is a commentator clearly worth discussing on this issue. He wrote: Considerazioni intorno ai Discorsi del Machiavelli, and the one disappointing feature in Felix Gilbert’s remarkable book on Machiavelli and Guicciardini is that it does not press the case for this piece of contemporary criticism.

Besides querying Machiavelli’s insistence on maxims of politics (because of the rigidity involved) and deprecating his perpetual demand for the imitation of the Romans (when a small modification of conditions was sufficient to make an ancient precedent inapplicable) Guicciardini criticized Machiavelli for the cruelty of some of his maxims. He showed that in the case of one maxim the very impracticability of Machiavelli’s teaching lay in its ruthlessness, and, in general, charged him with having a preference for what he called “extraordinary and violent expedients.” To Machiavelli’s recommendation of the political methods of Cesare Borgia, Guicciardini replied that this prince’s immoralities had so shocked the Italians as to make his ultimate political success highly improbable. He added that in any case Machiavelli was always too absolute in his theses, too absolute even in his insistence that all men are wicked and that politics must be conducted on the basis of this judgment. Since it seems that, almost as soon as The Prince was actually published, there were contemporaries who argued that the political prescriptions in this work had been intended to trap the ruler into crimes that would bring about his ruin, we must be prepared to believe that men of the time knew what aspect of the book they, for their part, meant to condemn.

When modern historians, pretending to account for the unpopularity of Machiavelli in the sixteenth century, alleged that it was the supervening pieties—the coming of the fanatical Counter-Reformation—that really twisted men’s minds against this writer; or when the students of a century ago suggested that Machiavelli had only been trying to show how far he was willing to go in his devotion to the (nineteenth-century!) idea of nationality—these people forgot the degree to which his own contemporaries simply took him at his word, and judged him by his notions of practical policy.

In any case, where an author so insistently presses his own medicines upon his contemporaries, it is legitimate to call for a close examination of his own effectiveness in the political field—bearing in mind the tendency of academic writers to be overimpressed by simply the literary quality of despatches.

Yet Felix Gilbert is right when he suggests that the over-all effect of Machiavelli’s teaching, and particularly its insistence on the role of force in the entire game of politics, is intellectually of more strategic importance than the political maxims he was pressing for adoption. And it is significant that by the end of the sixteenth century—by the time of Justus Lipsius for example—the role of force in the international realm was coming to be recognized even by Christian believers, men who at the same time continued to reject Machiavelli’s offending maxims.

Both in his book Machiavelli and Guicciardini and in some of the essays in this collection, Felix Gilbert reveals his particular interest in the development of man’s thinking about the past, man’s changing attitude to his destiny. He starts with the formalities and the artificialities—the curiously “academic” character—of humanist historical writing from the beginning of the fifteenth century. He sees history at that early date as a branch of rhetoric, the value of which is to be found in “the moral guidance that it gives to men.” What the humanists called for, in fact, was historical narrative, particularly the story of a city-state, though a special stress would be laid on the conduct of a war, even the description of an actual battle. Invented speeches would be inserted at strategic points in the story to provide a commentary on what was happening or an elucidation of the purposes of one party and another. In general, authors relied “rather uncritically” on previous narrators (previous writers of books rather than documentary sources), their practice being to have one favored author as the basis for a given section of the story—one source regarded as reliable rather than the perpetual collation of this with other sources that moved over the same ground. And the real purpose of this humanist historiography was to produce political teaching, to elicit the laws that govern political action—a point particularly prominent in Machiavelli, as we have seen, but also apparent in the earlier historical work of Guicciardini.

Felix Gilbert, who has been very properly influenced by the book of Vittorio de Caprariis on Guicciardini, has paid special attention to the transition from the humanist kind of historical writing described above to a more modern type of production in which the narrator does not merely tell the story but, by that very fact, provides just what is needed as explanation. There came a point where—Machiavelli being now dead—the permanent loss of Florentine freedom, the loss also of Medici favor, drove Guicciardini himself out of politics, and not only turned him into a historian of his own times but also pushed him to the new developments in historiography.

It seems to be Gilbert’s view that the need to produce an explanation of the disaster made documentary research more necessary; concentration on the problem of causation produced the need for greater factual accuracy. In the same way the pursuit of causes and effects forced the historian to cast his net more widely, the causes of Florentine disaster not being discoverable in the history of Florence alone. The stage had to be widened to embrace the interactions of all Italy, even, to a considerable degree, the entire European scene. Guicciardini emerges from Gilbert’s work in fact as a much more important personage, as a much more important historian, than one had previously expected; though, instead of having a future to plan for, he now only had a past to explain.

The development of the new kind of historical writing had long been occurring, in fact, though at a slower pace. Much earlier in the fifteenth century, Leonardo Bruni, for example, had made a considerable use of archival material, as in the course of his discovery that Florence had not been founded by Caesar. (Incidentally, Felix Gilbert regards this as a special case and connects it with the unusual interest that the humanists showed in the founding of cities.) In any event, it happened that families in Florence would have private archives, including lists of the members of them who had held high office, these lists themselves developing on occasion into something like family histories. Families also possessed their books of ricordi, where individuals made notes of current events. Occasionally, also, there would be diaries and these would carry a good deal of miscellaneous information. The writer of local histories would be in the habit of consulting family papers such as these. Moreover the writing of Florentine histories was connected with membership of the chancellery and this meant that the public archives were close at hand. No doubt a use of documentary sources that was originally haphazard would gradually evolve into a more regularized and purposive resort to archival study.

In a similar way there had been a gradual development toward the historical ideas that underlay Guicciardini’s magnum opus and his appreciation of contemporary history. In the earliest years of the sixteenth century Bernardine Corio in his History of Milan and Bernardo Rucellai in his History of the French Invasion had recognized Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy to be an important turning point. From the 1520s, Girolamo Borgia, writing on the Italian wars, had envisaged the events of 1494 as a matter of European concern, and he had become “an important link in the evolution of ideas on the importance of the French invasion.”

Writing his Summary in the latter part of the 1520s, Francesco Vettori, who produced “the first European diplomatic history,” emphasized the interdependence of European events and carried the doctrine of Fortuna to the point where it stood for the “uncontrollable forces…ruling events.” And, says Gilbert, “in recognizing the unlimited power which Fortuna holds over events, the idea of history as an independent force was symbolized.” Man, asserting his will all the time, is helping to make history, but he acts amid a complicated texture of events which may turn success into failure, or misery into happiness. In the light of this fact, “the investigation and description of the power of Fortuna became the task which was peculiar to the historian and which he alone could fulfill.” Because of this, “historical writings could present insights which could be expressed in no other way.” In other words, the explanation of events is a thing that is disclosed through the setting and telling of the story.

Guicciardini had been developing in similar ways while all these things were proceeding, and, by 1538, when he began his own large-scale narrative, the bitter experiences of his personal and public life had added depth to his historical ideas. But it must not be assumed that historical writing from that time maintained the standards he had set in his History of Italy.

In the new volume Felix Gilbert’s writings on Machiavelli include a most interesting piece of detective work on the composition and structure of the Discorsi; and the kind of detective work which is one of his distinctions assists what he describes as “An Essay in Interpretation” on the subject of the Istorie Fiorentine, a work which he says is not “connected by any clear path with the development of modern historiography.” A number of the papers deal with neighboring fields of Italian history, particularly the Venetian; and here, for example, in a study of “Venetian Diplomacy before Pavia,” the straight narrative is supplemented first by a general critique of the policy of the city during the Renaissance, and secondly by some notes on the historiography of the subject—all of which add depth to the theme.

The whole volume illuminates the tremendous range of Felix Gilbert’s interests; and perhaps the most charming and attractive piece in the book is the essay on Politian, which is peculiarly literary in its subject matter. Its few pages, besides annotating an important moment in the history of philology, combine to produce an excellent portrait of the man himself, “one of the greatest poets of the Italian Renaissance.” A curiously interesting essay is the one on the deadliest subject of all—the very grave of the intellect—“The New Diplomacy of the Eighteenth Century.” This paper is an analysis of the conditions which, from the middle of the eighteenth century, have repeatedly led to reactions against traditional diplomacy, reactions arising partly from the over-simplifications of the philosophes, who even hoped that the relations between states might be based on commerce rather than politics, diplomacy, and war. The problem has a special relation to the United States, and the author concludes: “The history of the concept of a ‘new diplomacy’ points to an inherent problem in the American approach to foreign affairs; namely, that of being ahead or behind, but not in real contact with, the outside world.”

In general, however, Gilbert seems to be happiest with the subjects that are rather more remote, subjects which demand historical imagination; and, in spite of what is at worst great competence, it is not clear that he is at his best when dealing with the problems of current historiography.

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