Saturday, June 3, 2017
Niccolo Machiavelli the Visionary (1892 Article)
Machiavelli the Visionary 1892
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The reader of Machiavelli's "Prince" meets with a disappointment when he turns to its author's life. Instead of finding, as he expects, a statesman of indomitable ambition, relentless will, and unscrupulous ingenuity, he finds only a timid and irresolute doctrinaire. Niccolo Machiavelli was at the mercy of his times. He dallied first with good and then with evil. Indecisive in emergencies, he brought upon himself the contempt both of the good and the bad, and so mismanaged his affairs,with all his time-serving, that he died in poverty and neglect. His book, "The Prince," was the masterly work of a theorist who lacked the one pre-eminent amiability of theorists, comparative innocence of evil. Though he was a close, accurate, and shrewd observer of all the political machinations of his time, he proved by his life that it is one thing to observe shrewdly, and quite another thing to perform skillfully. With all his cunning he was visionary—at once a cynic and an enthusiast.
Born in Florence in 1469, Machiavelli early attached himself to the political fortunes of his native city, and by the close of the century had attained the rank of second chancellor and secretary. He was employed in many embassies of varying importance, where he watched, always with interest and often with admiration, the unscrupulous courses of the Italian popes and princes, above all of Caesar Borgia. Here his reports and comments were of invaluable service to his superiors. On his return he was permitted to organize the Florentine militia. He entered on the scheme in high feather and with disinterested zeal. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his country-men put their chief confidence for protection in his native soldiery, only to find it disastrously incompetent and untrustworthy in an emergency. Even more impracticable was the extravagant scheme, with which he identified himself, of altering the course of the river Arno that hostile Pisa might be deprived of all communication with the sea; a scheme which came much nearer draining the Florentine treasury than draining the bed of the Arno. In the bitter factional struggles which soon after followed in Florence, he courageously adhered to the falling fortunes of his party till it was too late to gain any worldly advantage by desertion, when, with a sudden and futile cowardice, he made abject overtures to the conquerors, and then, as many an impoverished author has written for a pittance a treatise on the secret of wealth, so Machiavelli, his country overrun by enemies and himself in exile, attempted to pick up a little political patronage by writing an essay on the best method of acquiring a princedom.
To quote his latest biographer, no man was less Machiavellian than Machiavelli. Political self-advancement was bread and meat—the sum of life—to his ideal "Prince." So self-centered was this "Prince" that l'etat c'est moi might have been his motto. The State centered about his person, and the world centered about his State. His selfishness took on heroic proportions. Machiavelli himself, on the other hand, so far from diligently seeking self-advancement, was constantly neglecting his own interests to indulge in far-away and impossible day-dreams —in daydreams of a mighty Italian empire which should reproduce the classic grandeur of ancient Rome. He was absorbed in his visions of a future united Italy. His more humdrum moments were spent in scheming and manipulating in behalf of the rights and usurpations of his native city. Only such scraps of time as he had left were used in "looking out for number one."
Artful dissimulation was another of the characteristics of the "Prince" whom Machiavelli depicted. Offensive naivete characterized the depictor. Indeed, the very frankness of his essays shows how little of a Machiavellian Machiavelli was. Had the "Prince" himself written a book, he would have filled it, no doubt, with highly moral sentiments, that he might dupe the people. Machiavelli, when he wrote, blabbed out all his knavery. "There is a ruler at this time," says Machiavelli, "who has nothing in his mouth but fidelity and peace, and yet, had he exercised either the one or the other, they had robbed him before this both of his power and reputation." Machiavelli was so unsagacious as to have nothing in his mouth but faithlessness and intrigue. No wonder, then, that he lost both his reputation and his power. He fell far short of the duplicity of Frederick the Great, who publicly denounced the immorality of "The Prince," while secretly profiting by much of its unscrupulous advice!
In his books, indeed, Machiavelli had the courage of his immoral convictions; but in his life he lacked the audacity of evil. He had no stomach for cruelty. His letters from the bloody court of Caesar Borgia, we are told, "betray a certain agonized terror beneath a veil of cynicism." He banished the memory of horrible sights by writing ribald letters full of salacious scandal to his cronies in Florence. It was, indeed, the shamefaced consciousness of his own timidity which made him envy with an exaggerated admiration the bold, superhuman criminality of the Borgias. He belonged to that class of whom he said contemptuously: "They do not know how to be honorably bad, or perfectly good; and as a completely wicked act has some greatness or some element of generosity in it, so they cannot perform it." As the cripple often looks with envious wonder on the vigor of the bully, and occasionally mistakes bullying for prowess, so Machiavelli often mistook effrontery in evil for courage. He had enough moral scruple to keep from brazen evil; he had enough humane sentiment to be frequently amiable even to his enemies; but he had too little moral sense not to envy the more unscrupulous and hard-hearted. Their purposes were his ideals. With wonderful literary skill he magnified and depicted their aims in his imaginative sketch, "The Prince."
Machiavelli worshiped worldly success with an enthusiasm that made him visionary. He was as fanatically wedded to his theory of the salvation of society by political management as the most bigoted Anabaptist could be to his theory of an antinomian justification by faith. He held the orthodox belief in the total depravity of man. He was so convinced that all men were liars that even the most scandalous news he looked upon with some slight suspicion. He believed that men were evil by nature and good only by necessity, and trusted to a gigantic absolute despotism, maintained by force and fraud, to bring about that necessity. Such morals as he had were jesuitical; he believed that the end justified the means. But the end he had in mind was far beyond human reach, and the means he suggested were in some measure the invention of the imagination. If Machiavelli was great, it was not because he was shrewd and practical, it was because he was an imaginative thinker and a clear and audaciously frank writer.
His masterpiece, "The Prince," is not the work of a successful practical politician, as it is generally supposed to be. If there be virtue in it, it has not that virtue. But it is, in the first place, a wonderful work of art, fit to stand above the "Barry Lyndon" of Thackeray, above the "Cenci" of Shelley, by the side of the Satan of "Paradise Lost" and the Iago of Shakespeare. It has all the qualities of great art — clearness, unity, energy. It personifies remorseless ambition. It typifies in gigantic figure the politicians of Machiavelli's day. It holds a magnifying mirror up to an important aspect of nature—to the political Italy of the Renaissance—to humanity at its worst. Men have always dared to be a worse thing than they have dared to say. Machiavelli dared say it.
For a more important reason, "The Prince" is a great book. Its author had a genius for abstract reasoning. He was a born maxim-maker. He created the science of modern politics. To do it, he divorced it from all morality. But in this he did not differ in method from the old-school political economist, while much might be said for the method of both. To be sure, there can be no such thing as successful government or commerce utterly divorced from morality, just as truly as there can be nothing of merely two dimensions. Yet, as geometricians have worked out many problems in two dimensions, so Machiavelli has worked out many problems in government without any consideration of morality. It was, however, a serious practical defect in his theories that he forgot that there is some such thing as moral law even in the most depraved communities, and that the worst of men have consciences, often quite sensitive to other people's sins. The life of Machiavelli, as depicted by the painstaking and authoritative specialist, Professor Pasquale Villari, is the life of a "scholar in politics." As a text-book on government, no book compares with "The Prince" for suggestiveness, just as the work-of many another impractical theorist has furnished, in its less degree, suggestion; as a depiction of character, few books are more graphic and powerful, though that character is in part the creature of the imagination; but Machiavellianism as set forth in "The Prince," and Machiavellianism as a whole, never has succeeded in the world, and there is no likelihood that it ever will.
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