Blair Worden

Politician, Know Thyself

The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made


Atlantic Books 238pp £22 order from our bookshop

Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography


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Of all the political thinkers of the Renaissance, Machiavelli is our contemporary. Historians, doing their job, insist on situating his ideas within mental and political frameworks remote from our own. They relate them to the convulsions of his native Florence in the decades following the French invasion of Italy in 1494. They explore the connections between his writings and his roles as diplomat, military organiser, political adviser and administrator. They know that he wrote, not in order to secure a place in future syllabuses in the history of political thought, but to influence events, to which his arguments were pragmatically tailored. Nonetheless he can seem almost as close to us, indeed to any age after his own, as to his contemporaries Savonarola, Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Julius II. These two books agree in saluting Machiavelli’s modernity. To Corrado Vivanti his ‘innovative form of political thought’ ranks alongside the overseas discoveries of the Renaissance, and the mental feats of Luther and Copernicus, in helping to forge ‘a new vision of the world’. To Philip Bobbitt, Machiavelli was ‘the first philosopher of the modern state’. 

The immediacy of his appeal to us is facilitated by the brisk candour of his prose, that refreshing contrast to the Ciceronian rotundities of other political essayists of the Renaissance. Yet his perspicuity, or the appearance of it, can taunt us. At least in translation his tone is as elusive as his meanings are accessible. Then there are the incongruities of argument. It is a common experience of his readers, hurtful to their intellectual morale, to wonder if statements so translucent can be as inconsistent as they look, or whether one has missed some obvious premise that would reconcile them. The discovery of consistency is a frequent goal of his interpreters. Above all they seek to square Machiavelli’s most famous book, The Prince, which seems a blueprint for tyranny, with his second most famous one, the Discourses, which denounces it. Vivanti and Bobbitt join the quest.

What seems at once excitingly and alarmingly modern to most readers is Machiavelli’s insistence that politics be understood as an autonomous art, practised in an autonomous arena of human activity. Power, as he describes it, operates independently of the workings of divine providence, and of the sanctions of virtue, natural law and natural justice, which had preoccupied medieval political commentators and were central concerns of Renaissance ones. As Francis Bacon put it, Machiavelli explained ‘what men do, not what they ought to do’. It is not that he was without ethical standards. He despised wickedness in rulers when ‘the common good’, which resides in the stability or survival of the state, did not demand it. Yet for the sake of public ‘safety’ or ‘necessity’ he was ready to endorse brutal cruelty. He took statecraft, dissimulation and the cultivation of misleading appearances to be intrinsic features of political life. His answer to protestations of virtuous intentions or to moral squeamishness can be summarised as ‘Politician, know thyself.’

The Prince, where his departure from conventional ethics is starkly voiced, seems to have raised few eyebrows on its posthumous publication in 1532, 19 years after its completion. But in 1559 the Counter-Reformation Church placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and from 1576 it attracted Protestant vilification too. The term ‘Machiavellian’ grew to denote the ‘poison’ and ‘atheism’ of his teaching. Elizabethan audiences relished the caricatures of Machiavelli’s positions which were allotted to ‘Machevill’ in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and to Shakespeare’s future Richard III, who sets ‘the murderous Machiavel to school’. When The Prince was finally printed in England in 1640 the editor had to interpolate ethical health warnings into the text.

To generations of Europeans brought up on Ciceronian injunctions to public virtue, The Prince, which mocked those precepts, was shocking indeed. Yet gradually Machiavelli’s realism won through, even to many readers with conventional moral outlooks, who absorbed something of his teaching within them. If the kingdoms that were reduced to havoc by the wars of religion were to recover their peace and security, had not their rulers an obligation to play their ruthless enemies at their own game? In the late 16th century the Flemish writer Justus Lipsius became a cult figure by advancing that argument. In the earlier and middle decades of the next century, the Huguenot grandee the duc de Rohan and the royalist Earl of Clarendon, those statesmen-authors, accommodated Machiavelli’s insights. Clarendon, the sternest of moralists and the firmest of Anglicans, let it be understood that if only Charles I had read Machiavelli the nation would have been spared its civil war.

To Bobbitt the enduring controversy about Machiavelli’s morality has obscured the true significance of his writings and their ‘relevance today’. Himself a constitutional lawyer, Bobbitt finds a missing key to Machiavelli’s thought in his ‘constitutionalism’. Bobbitt’s vocabulary has its surprises. By ‘constitutionalism’ he means not what the word normally denotes, a concern for constitutional proprieties and rights, but an impulse to develop forms of rule that would give a novel identity to the state. Machiavelli, recognising ‘the necessity and inevitability of the emergence of a new constitutional order, the modern state’, was ‘the most prescient observer and the most skilled analyst’ of ‘a profound change in the constitutional order of Europe as feudalism gave way to the first princely states’. The claim is supported by some unorthodox history. At first one supposes that Bobbitt is reviving the idea that the late 15th and early 16th centuries produced ‘new monarchies’ in France, Spain and England. Puzzlingly, however, he locates the shift towards modernity not in those countries, where such a case can be made, but in the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which shelved the conflict of Catholic and Lutheran in the Holy Roman Empire by allowing its princes to choose the religion of their states. If feudalism had a death knell, it was hardly then.

Was ‘the modern state’ really created in the Renaissance? Bobbitt puzzles us again by describing the modern state as ‘neoclassical’. The ‘neoclassical state’ is Machiavelli’s ‘intellectual and moral creation’. What Bobbitt appears to mean is that modern states, like the republican states of classical antiquity but unlike medieval monarchies, have identities separable from those of their rulers. There is something in this, but not enough to obscure the essentially personal nature of Renaissance monarchy or to cross the gulf between monarchical and republican conceptions of rule. In Machiavelli’s eyes, states can only flourish, as the Roman Republic had done, when their populations do their own fighting, rather than hiring mercenaries. Renaissance princes opted for mercenaries. On that front at least, it would be easier to portray Machiavelli’s writing as a protest against Renaissance monarchy than as a formula for it.

Bobbitt’s courageous book is the work of a thinking man. He performs a service in highlighting easily overlooked statements from Machiavelli about the need for healthy and durable forms of rule. But he cannot explain the brevity and vagueness of those prescriptions, which are the cause of their neglect. Bobbitt usefully reminds us of the improvised schemes that Machiavelli drew up for the governments of Florence and Lucca, but he struggles to identify firm principles beneath them.

Vivanti’s interest in Machiavelli’s signposts to the future is briefer. His assured ‘intellectual biography’ adroitly interweaves the life and writings, though his book has its opaque passages, at least in a translation from the Italian which would have profited from a more attentive editorial eye. He gives us a Machiavelli alive to the permanence of political flux, ever adaptable to the shifting constraints of circumstance and committed to no abstract principles. On Vivanti’s reading there is no inconsistency between The Prince and the Discourses, for Machiavelli’s republicanism, which has been much emphasised in recent accounts, was merely a preference, never a sticking point.

Bobbitt takes the republicanism more seriously. There are various ways of explaining Machiavelli’s apparent break with it in The Prince. We can say that the overriding object of the book was the liberation of Italy from foreign domination, and that when he wrote the book, soon after the Florentine Republic had collapsed, only princely leadership could have attained that goal. Or we can observe that he regarded Florence as a corrupt society and declared that only incorrupt states can sustain republican rule. Bobbitt goes further. Princes, he says, are better at ‘establishing’ states, republics at ‘maintaining’ them. Machiavelli wanted a prince to take ‘the initial step’ of establishing a state that would drive out the foreigners, but – or so Philip Bobbitt seems to leave us to infer – hoped that the ruler would then make way for a republican constitution. That would be a tidy solution, but one hard to square with either Machiavelli’s pessimism about the prospects of persuading princes to rule for the common good or his profusion of advice to them about the means to ‘maintain’ their power. For all his seeming transparency there is no pinning Machiavelli down.

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