restricted access Niccolò Machiavelli
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[ 111 Niccolò Machiavelli1 “Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely.”2 This sentence, and similar sentences torn from their context, have rankled and worried the minds of men for four hundred years: the words of a retired, inoffensive, quiet Florentine patriot occupied in chopping trees and conversing with peasants on his meagre estate.3 Machiavelli has been thetormentofJesuitsandCalvinists,theidolofNapoleonsandNietzsches, a stock figure for Elizabethan drama, and the exemplar of a Mussolini or a Lenin.4 Machiavelli has been called a cynic; but there could be no stronger inspiration to “cynicism” than the history of Machiavelli’s reputation. No history could illustrate better than that of the reputation of Machiavelli the triviality and the irrelevance of influence. His message has been falsified by persistent romanticism ever since. To the humbug of every century Machiavelli is essential. And yet no great man has been so completely misunderstood . He is always placed a little askew. He does not belong with Aristotle, or with Dante, in political theory; he attempted something different . He does not belong with Napoleon, and still less with Nietzsche. His statements lend themselves to any modern theory of the State, but they belong with none. On the occasion of Niccolò Machiavelli’s anniversary, we should concernourselvesnotsomuchwiththehistoryofhisinfluence –whichismerely the history of the various ways in which he has been misunderstood – as with the nature of his thought and the reasons why it should have had such influence. “So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”5 Such words of Hobbes seem at first to be uttered in the same tone as those quoted from Machiavelli; and the two names have often been brought together; but the spirit and purpose of Hobbes and of Machia­ velli are wholly different. The Prince is often taken in the same sense as the Leviathan. But Machiavelli is not only not a philosopher of politics in the sense of Aristotle and Dante, he is still less a philosopher in the sense of Hobbes. He has the lucidity of Aristotle and the patriotism of Dante, but 1927 112 ] with Hobbes he has little in common. Machiavelli is wholly devoted – to his task of his own place and time; yet by surrendering himself to the cause of his particular State, and to the greater cause of the united Italy which he desired, he arrives at a far greater impersonality and detachment than Hobbes. Hobbes is not passionately moved by the spectacle of national disaster;heisinterestedinhisowntheory;andwecanseehistheoryaspartly anoutcomeoftheweaknessesanddistortionsofhisowntemperament.Inthe statements of Hobbes about human nature there is often an over-emphasis, a touch of spleen arising probably from some perception of the weakness and failure of his own life and character. This over-emphasis, so common in a certain type of philosopher since Hobbes’s time, may be rightly associated with cynicism. For true cynicism is a fault of the temperament of the observer, not a conclusion arising naturally out of the contemplation of the object; it is quite the reverse of “facing facts.”6 In Machiavelli there is no cynicism whatever. No trace of the weaknesses and failures of his own life andcharactermarstheclearglassofhisvision.Indetail,nodoubt,where the meanings of words suffer a slight alteration, we feel a conscious irony; but his total view was unimpaired by any such emotional colour. Such a view of life as Machiavelli’s implies a state of the soul which may be called a state of innocence. A view like Hobbes’s is slightly theatrical and almost sentimental .TheimpersonalityandinnocenceofMachiavelliissorarethatitmay well be the clue to both his perpetual influence over men and the perpetual distortion which he suffers in the minds of men less pure than himself. We do not mean that Machiavelli is wholly cold and impassive. On the contrary, he provides one more piece of evidence that great intellectual power arises from great passions. Machiavelli was not only a patriot, but his patriotic passion is the motor of his mind. It is all very well for writers like Lord Morley to present Machiavelli as a stealthy inhuman surgeon, indifferent to moral exhortation and caring only for his clinical examination.7 Lord Morley had not, like Machiavelli, seen his country torn and ravaged, humiliated not only by foreign invaders, but by foreign invaders brought in by factious native princes. The humiliation...