Florentine Liberty I: Machiavelli, The Prince (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

I have already addressed Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy here and I may well come back to them later. However, in the present post I will discuss the famous Machiavelli text, which is concerned with states headed by princes rather than republics, the subject matter of the Discourses. This will itself be the the first half of a two part discussion of liberty in Florence, with a second half on Guicciardini.

The city state of Florence had a history self-government, often republican rather than princely, going back to the eleventh century, when it broke away from the control of German emperors. Its role in republican political thought goes back to the thirteenth century as does its role as an early centre of capitalism, suggesting a connection between the economic development and the movement of political thought.

The first notable republican writer was Dante’s guardian Brunetto Latini (1210-1294). That is Dante Alighieri, the author of the great epic poem The Divine Comedy, one of the very great figures in the history of European literature. So not only was Florence the focus of late Medieval republicanism and capitalism, it was a focus of the development of literature in modern European languages, and of literary Italian in general. Dante created a modern language text on a level with Homer and Virgil, so putting Italian on a level with Latin and Ancient Greek, and confirming the development of modern languages, other than the Latin of church scholars, as instruments of thought and artistic creation. Indeed Latini even has a small role in the Divine Comedy, though rather ungratefully he is placed in Hell. This seems to be based purely on his same sex activities rather than any bad character beyond breaking church positions on sexual conduct. After the secular scholar Latini, the next Florentine given a place in the history of republican political thought is Remigio dei Girolami (1235-1319), a Dominican scholar whose philosophy was influenced by Thomas Aquinas. After that the scholar and city Chancellor Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) keeps the republican tradition renewed. Detailed examination of these figures is perhaps a bit out of the scope of a historical survey series, but they certainly provide a rich tradition for Machiavelli and Guicciardini to examine and employ.

I have referred to this period in the history of Florence as late Medieval, but it can just as much be described as Renaissance. The great growth of classical learning and artistic creativity associated with the European fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had its beginnings in thirteenth century Florence and northern Italy, due to the commercial city states where there was patronage of the arts and there was contact with the Greek learning of the now highly weakened Byzantine Empire, which stemmed from Greek and Roman antiquity. Averroism, as in the legacy of the twelfth century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd known in the Latinate world as Averroes. A period of Muslim influence, or sometimes dominance in Sicily from the ninth to the thirteenth century meant that Muslim thought was part of the general Italian heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a product of Florentine republican tradition and the general Italian Renaissance. He lived through periods of secular republican, religious republican, and secular princely rule in Florence. The religious period should be given some attention, as though Machiavelli himself was highly secular (possibly a non-believer, but a variety of views exist on that issue), the events of the religious republican period made a deep impression on him. From 1494 to 1498, the politics of Florence were dominated by the Dominican friar (like Girolami mentioned above), Girolamo Savonarola, who pushed Florence towards religious purification in anticipation of apocalyptic events. The apparent craziness was accompanied by some intellectual and literary sophistication, and was not just a pure descent into fanaticism. In the end the Pope found Savonarola too troubling too ignore so that he took action that ended with the execution of Savonarola as a heretic. Despite his lack of religious enthusiasm, Machiavelli shared a belief in the special role of Florence, though his vision of the city was as the descendent and repetition of the Roman republic rather than as the starting point of a Christian apocalypse. He wanted purification of a kind, if through the placing of laws above individuals, rather than religious observance, and an end to a corrupt aristocratic domination.

The Prince both pays tribute of a kind to Savonarola as a prophet without arms and sets Machiavelli on a path of hoped for cooperation with the dominant family, the Medici who had replaced republican with princely rule, arresting and torturing Machiavelli in the process, as he was a civil servant and diplomat in the former republic. The part admiration for Savonarola comes from an antique tradition of revering founders of republics and great law givers to states of any kind. This reaches a peak in Cicero who described founders of republic as god like. However secular Machiavelli was, he was aware of ancient Jewish history as recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the law giving role of Moses, which is one model of state foundation for Machiavelli and therefore of possible conditions for liberty, since liberty requires law rather than personalised rule.

The Prince is the product of a man who though very talented at the life of a private scholar which he pursued after his political fall, wanted to be working on public affairs even under a prince rather than a republic. It is a lengthy job application to Lorenzo Piero de ‘Medici (not to be confused with his grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent) and despite composing the longest and best covering letter in all history, Machiavelli did not become a counsellor to a prince. So, we should not regard Machiavelli as a successful ‘Machiavellian’ and perhaps think again about any preconception that The Prince is some key to all knowledge in the dark arts of power and a place of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the inner workings of the state.

Machiavelli does offer his potential employer (who may never have read this extraordinary application material) some ruthless sounding advice on how a prince should gain and maintain power, including the execution of those who create the most obstacles to power. This is not exactly shocking advice for the time. The death penalty was widely used and extra-legal killings for political reasons were normal if not in line with the sort of moral standards rulers publicly proclaimed. The whole outrage of the church and others at the suppose shocking immorality of The Prince is one rather absurd and lengthy exercise in hypocrisy. There was certainly little Machiavelli could have taught Popes of the time in the darkest arts of power. Condemnation of Machiavelli was due to his making public unpleasant realities so that anyone who could read would now be aware of how kings used their power. The book was not published in Machiavelli’s time, so the torrent of vilification came after his death.

The more brutal aspects of The Prince do not even begin to match the horrors of dynastic wars and religious persecution at the time, particularly if we take into account the behaviour of colonists of the time. Machiavelli recommends none of these things which political and religious leaders of the time were willing to have on their conscience. Some passages recommend complete colonisation of newly acquired territories as one means of maintain control, in preference to partial colonisation which is as close as Machiavelli gets to advocating generalised suffering for civilians. In any case he does not recommend the kind of massacre and rapine normal at the time, and the main thrust of the argument is not towards conquest, but a state which has some community with its citizens.

Machiavelli was sceptical of the military value of walls and fortresses compared with a citizen army willing to defend its own land. Opposition to royal fortresses was opposition to one of the main forms of state control at the time. The prince is expected to dispose of individuals dangerous to assuming power, but this is advice to princes who newly have power and need to consolidate it, not advice on long term methods of government. The long term approach is to respect law, respect the property of citizens, and leave women free from forced advances. The prince is advised to hunt a lot as a means to improved military abilities, in knowing the terrain of his own land in detail so knowing how to defend it. The martial interests are presented as the prince’s main area of interest, so that the prince is more of a commander in chief of the military than a man of political power. The idea of a monarch who is mostly a chief of the military was a republican idea at the time and anticipates liberal ideas about the limited scope of any state apparatus.

The relationship between morality and political principles is where Machiavelli departs from antique republican thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero who present politics as the extension of virtue and moral principles. Machiavelli even overturns some of their ethical limits on power. He does so through a sophisticated dialogue with Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, which largely does not mention them by name but is very recognisable to those who have studied them, which was a high proportion of likely readers of Machiavelli in his own time. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to the tyrannical ruler as a wild beast or worse. This itself refers to an antique way of thinking about ethics as self-control, which puts us above the supposed level of animals. Machiavelli challenges this by advising the prince to be a mixture of human and beast, and as beast to combine the cunning of a fox with the fierceness of a lion. None of this is Machiavelli advocating tyranny, it is an appreciation of power and desire which ancient thought was not good at accommodating. The good ruler rules from a desire to pursue the good life and be a friend of citizens in ancient thinking. They could not think of power and self-referring desire except as negatives, even if their own actions went against their words. Cicero’s political career included a willingness to go to the limits of law and beyond where he saw it as necessary to defend the republic, he simply had no language to explain this in the moral terms he used. His main political work, The Republic includes the positive contribution of Scipio Africanus the Younger, the Roman general who physically destroyed the city of Cartage and slaughtered every last inhabitant.

Cicero, like other ancients, had difficulty in discussing politics as power and civilised individual action as based on desire, rather than a morality of self control, so they had little way of accommodating theories of power and desire. This is why there are no ancient writers praising commerce except maybe within very limited and constrained circumstances and then only in a very minimal way, even Seneca who was a major money lender of the whole empire. Machiavelli did have  vocabulary and understanding of power in politics and desire in human action. He was convinced that general application of moral principles about always being truthful, merciful, generous, and so on, were not adequate to understanding the possibilities of human creation in politics and in commerce. Moral outcomes mattered to him, and he is clear in The Prince that some acts are too immoral to accept for any reason, but he thought moral outcomes come from skill in political arts and in trade offs between different moral demands. If one can sincerely claim to be always purely moral and never accept a lesser evil for a greater good, then one maybe has the right to be shocked by Machiavelli, but who can claim such a thing?

The Prince conforms to the wish of a prince to have power and glory and use violence to seize power where the chance arises. However, as far as possible, it always pushes the prince to do so through through respecting the rights of citizens, working to gain their consent, respect peace and stability, and the regular application of law. The prince is urged to avoid the virtue of generosity, because the ‘generosity’ of princes comes from taxations and is therefor a burden on citizens undermining their economic welfare. So that is the wickedness of Machiavelli! Avoid so called virtues which harm those they are supposed to benefit. It is advice to the prince to work so much through law, public good, and concentrating on his military duties, that a republic is bound to emerge under the nominal rule of a prince. That is the goal of all the wickedness in service of dark power.

11 thoughts on “Florentine Liberty I: Machiavelli, The Prince (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

  1. […] It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli. […]

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