Niccolò Machiavelli.

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Published by DAVID NUTT
at the Sign of the Phoenix


Edinburgh: T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to His Majesty




[Sidenote: The Life of a Day.]

'I am at my farm; and, since my last misfortunes, have not been in
Florence twenty days. I spent September in snaring thrushes; but at the
end of the month, even this rather tiresome sport failed me. I rise with
the sun, and go into a wood of mine that is being cut, where I remain
two hours inspecting the work of the previous day and conversing with
the woodcutters, who have always some trouble on hand amongst themselves
or with their neighbours. When I leave the wood, I go to a spring, and
thence to the place which I use for snaring birds, with a book under my
arm - Dante or Petrarch, or one of the minor poets, like Tibullus or
Ovid. I read the story of their passions, and let their loves remind me
of my own, which is a pleasant pastime for a while. Next I take the
road, enter the inn door, talk with the passers-by, inquire the news of
the neighbourhood, listen to a variety of matters, and make note of the
different tastes and humours of men.

'This brings me to dinner-time, when I join my family and eat the poor
produce of my farm. After dinner I go back to the inn, where I generally
find the host and a butcher, a miller, and a pair of bakers. With these
companions I play the fool all day at cards or backgammon: a thousand
squabbles, a thousand insults and abusive dialogues take place, while we
haggle over a farthing, and shout loud enough to be heard from San

'But when evening falls I go home and enter my writing-room. On the
threshold I put off my country habits, filthy with mud and mire, and
array myself in royal courtly garments. Thus worthily attired, I make my
entrance into the ancient courts of the men of old, where they receive
me with love, and where I feed upon that food which only is my own and
for which I was born. I feel no shame in conversing with them and asking
them the reason of their actions.

'They, moved by their humanity, make answer. For four hours' space I
feel no annoyance, forget all care; poverty cannot frighten, nor death
appal me. I am carried away to their society. And since Dante says "that
there is no science unless we retain what we have learned" I have set
down what I have gained from their discourse, and composed a treatise,
_De Principalibus_, in which I enter as deeply as I can into the science
of the subject, with reasonings on the nature of principality, its
several species, and how they are acquired, how maintained, how lost. If
you ever liked any of my scribblings, this ought to suit your taste. To
a prince, and especially to a new prince, it ought to prove acceptable.
Therefore I am dedicating it to the Magnificence of Giuliano.'

[Sidenote: Niccolò Machiavelli.]

Such is the account that Niccolò Machiavelli renders of himself when
after imprisonment, torture, and disgrace, at the age of forty-four, he
first turned to serious writing. For the first twenty-six or indeed
twenty-nine of those years we have not one line from his pen or one word
of vaguest information about him. Throughout all his works written for
publication, there is little news about himself. Montaigne could
properly write, 'Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moy-mesme la matière de mon
livre.' But the matter of Machiavelli was far other: 'Io ho espresso
quanto io so, e quanto io ho imparato per una lunga pratica e continua
lezione delle cose del mondo.'

[Sidenote: The Man.]

Machiavelli was born on the 3rd of May 1469. The period of his life
almost exactly coincides with that of Cardinal Wolsey. He came of the
old and noble Tuscan stock of Montespertoli, who were men of their hands
in the eleventh century. He carried their coat, but the property had
been wasted and divided. His forefathers had held office of high
distinction, but had fallen away as the new wealth of the bankers and
traders increased in Florence. He himself inherited a small property in
San Casciano and its neighbourhood, which assured him a sufficient, if
somewhat lean, independence. Of his education we know little enough. He
was well acquainted with Latin, and knew, perhaps, Greek enough to serve
his turn. 'Rather not without letters than lettered,' Varchi describes
him. That he was not loaded down with learned reading proved probably a
great advantage. The coming of the French, and the expulsion of the
Medici, the proclamation of the Republic (1494), and later the burning
of Savonarola convulsed Florence and threw open many public offices. It
has been suggested, but without much foundation, that some clerical work
was found for Machiavelli in 1494 or even earlier. It is certain that on
July 14, 1498, he was appointed Chancellor and Secretary to the Dieci di
Libertà e Pace, an office which he held till the close of his political
life at fall of the Republic in 1512.

[Sidenote: Official Life.]

The functions of his Council were extremely varied, and in the hands of
their Secretary became yet more diversified. They represented in some
sense the Ministry for Home, Military, and especially for Foreign
Affairs. It is impossible to give any full account of Machiavelli's
official duties. He wrote many thousands of despatches and official
letters, which are still preserved. He was on constant errands of State
through the Florentine dominions. But his diplomatic missions and what
he learned by them make the main interest of his office. His first
adventure of importance was to the Court of Caterina Sforza, the Lady of
Forlì, in which matter that astute Countess entirely bested the teacher
of all diplomatists to be. In 1500 he smelt powder at the siege at Pisa,
and was sent to France to allay the irritations of Louis XII. Many
similar and lesser missions follow. The results are in no case of great
importance, but the opportunities to the Secretary of learning men and
things, intrigue and policy, the Court and the gutter were invaluable.
At the camp of Cæsar Borgia, in 1502, he found in his host that
fantastic hero whom he incarnated in _The Prince_, and he was
practically an eye-witness of the amazing masterpiece, the Massacre of
Sinigaglia. The next year he is sent to Rome with a watching brief at
the election of Julius II., and in 1506 is again sent to negotiate with
the Pope. An embassy to the Emperor Maximilian, a second mission to the
French King at Blois, in which he persuades Louis XII. to postpone the
threatened General Council of the Church (1511), and constant
expeditions to report upon and set in order unrestful towns and
provinces did not fulfil his activity. His pen was never idle. Reports,
despatches, elaborate monographs on France, Germany, or wherever he
might be, and personal letters innumerable, and even yet unpublished,
ceased not night nor day. Detail, wit, character-drawing, satire,
sorrow, bitterness, all take their turn. But this was only a fraction of
his work. By duty and by expediency he was bound to follow closely the
internal politics of Florence where his enemies and rivals abounded. And
in all these years he was pushing forward and carrying through with
unceasing and unspeakable vigour the great military dream of his life,
the foundation of a National Militia and the extinction of Mercenary
Companies. But the fabric he had fancied and thought to have built
proved unsubstantial. The spoilt half-mutinous levies whom he had spent
years in odious and unwilling training failed him at the crowning moment
in strength and spirit: and the fall of the Republic implied the fall of
Machiavelli and the close of his official life. He struggled hard to
save himself, but the wealthy classes were against him, perhaps afraid
of him, and on them the Medici relied. For a year he was forbidden to
leave Florentine territory, and for a while was excluded from the
Palazzo. Later his name was found in a list of Anti-Medicean
conspirators. He was arrested and decorously tortured with six turns of
the rack, and then liberated for want of evidence.

[Sidenote: After his Fall.]

For perhaps a year after his release the Secretary engaged in a series
of tortuous intrigues to gain the favour of the Medici. Many of the
stories may be exaggerated, but none make pleasant reading, and nothing
proved successful. His position was miserable. Temporarily crippled by
torture, out of favour with the Government, shunned by his friends, in
deep poverty, burdened with debt and with a wife and four children, his
material circumstances were ill enough. But, worse still, he was idle.
He had deserved well of the Republic, and had never despaired of it, and
this was his reward. He seemed to himself a broken man. He had no great
natural dignity, no great moral strength. He profoundly loved and
admired Dante, but he could not for one moment imitate him. He sought
satisfaction in sensuality of life and writing, but found no comfort.
Great things were stirring in the world and he had neither part nor lot
in them. By great good fortune he began a correspondence with his friend
Francesco Vettori, the Medicean Ambassador at Rome, to whom he appeals
for his good offices: 'And if nothing can be done, I must live as I came
into the world, for I was born poor and learnt to want before learning
to enjoy.' Before long these two diplomats had co-opted themselves into
a kind of Secret Cabinet of Europe. It is a strange but profoundly
interesting correspondence, both politically and personally. Nothing is
too great or too small, too glorious or too mean for their pens. Amid
foolish anecdotes and rather sordid love affairs the politics of Europe,
and especially of Italy, are dissected and discussed. Leo X. had now
plunged into political intrigue. Ferdinand of Spain was in difficulty.
France had allied herself with Venice. The Swiss are the Ancient Romans,
and may conquer Italy. Then back again, or rather constant throughout,
the love intrigues and the 'likely wench hard-by who may help to pass
our time.' But through it all there is an ache at Machiavelli's heart,
and on a sudden he will break down, crying,

Però se aleuna volta io rido e canto
Facciol, perchè non ho se non quest' una
Via da sfogare il mio angoscioso pianto.

Vettori promised much, but nothing came of it. By 1515 the
correspondence died away, and the Ex-Secretary found for himself at last
the true pathway through his vale of years.

[Sidenote: The true Life.]

The remainder of Machiavelli's life is bounded by his books. He settled
at his villa at San Casciano, where he spent his day as he describes in
the letter quoted at the beginning of this essay. In 1518 he began to
attend the meetings of the Literary Club in the Orti Oricellarii, and
made new and remarkable friends. 'Era amato grandamente da loro ... e
della sua conversazione si dilettavano maravigliosamente, tenendo in
prezzo grandissimo tutte l'opere sue,' which shows the personal
authority he exercised. Occasionally he was employed by Florentine
merchants to negotiate for them at Venice, Genoa, Lucca, and other
places. In 1519 Cardinal Medici deigned to consult him as to the
Government, and commissioned him to write the History of Florence. But
in the main he wrote his books and lived the daily life we know. In 1525
he went to Rome to present his History to Clement VII., and was sent on
to Guicciardini. In 1526 he was busy once more with military matters and
the fortification of Florence. On the 22nd of June 1527 he died at
Florence immediately after the establishment of the second Republic. He
had lived as a practising Christian, and so died, surrounded by his wife
and family. Wild legends grew about his death, but have no foundation. A
peasant clod in San Casciano could not have made a simpler end. He was
buried in the family Chapel in Santa Croce, and a monument was there at
last erected with the epitaph by Doctor Ferroni - 'Tanto nomini nullum
par elogium.' The first edition of his complete works was published in
1782, and was dedicated to Lord Cowper.

[Sidenote: His Character.]

What manner of man was Machiavelli at home and in the market-place? It
is hard to say. There are doubtful busts, the best, perhaps, that
engraved in the 'Testina' edition of 1550, so-called on account of the
portrait. 'Of middle height, slender figure, with sparkling eyes, dark
hair, rather a small head, a slightly aquiline nose, a tightly closed
mouth: all about him bore the impress of a very acute observer and
thinker, but not that of one able to wield much influence over others.'
Such is a reconstruction of him by one best able to make one. 'In his
conversation,' says Varchi, 'Machiavelli was pleasant, serviceable to
his friends, a friend of virtuous men, and, in a word, worthy to have
received from Nature either less genius or a better mind.' If not much
above the moral standard of the day he was certainly not below it. His
habits were loose and his language lucid and licentious. But there is no
bad or even unkind act charged against him. To his honesty and good
faith he very fairly claims that his poverty bears witness. He was a
kind, if uncertain, husband and a devoted father. His letters to his
children are charming. Here is one written soon before his death to his
little son Guido. - 'Guido, my darling son, I received a letter of thine
and was delighted with it, particularly because you tell me of your full
recovery, the best news I could have. If God grants life to us both I
expect to make a good man of you, only you must do your fair share
yourself.' Guido is to stick to his books and music, and if the family
mule is too fractious, 'Unbridle him, take off the halter and turn him
loose at Montepulciano. The farm is large, the mule is small, so no harm
can come of it. Tell your mother, with my love, not to be nervous. I
shall surely be home before any trouble comes. Give a kiss to Baccina,
Piero, and Totto: I wish I knew his eyes were getting well. Be happy and
spend as little as you may. Christ have you in his keeping.' - There is
nothing exquisite or divinely delicate in this letter, but there are
many such, and they were not written by a bad man, any more than the
answers they evoke were addressed to one. There is little more save of a
like character that is known of Machiavelli the man. But to judge him
and his work we must have some knowledge of the world in which he was to
move and have his being.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: State of Italy.]

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Italy was rotten to the core.
In the close competition of great wickedness the Vicar of Christ easily
carried off the palm, and the Court of Alexander VI. was probably the
wickedest meeting-place of men that has ever existed upon earth. No
virtue, Christian or Pagan, was there to be found; little art that was
not sensuous or sensual. It seemed as if Bacchus and Venus and Priapus
had come to their own again, and yet Rome had not ceased to call herself

[Sidenote: Superstition.]

'Owing to the evil ensample of the Papal Court,' writes Machiavelli,
'Italy has lost all piety and all religion: whence follow infinite
troubles and disorders; for as religion implies all good, so its absence
implies the contrary. To the Church and priests of Rome we owe another
even greater disaster which is the cause of her ruin. I mean that the
Church has maintained, and still maintains Italy divided.' The Papacy is
too weak to unite and rule, but strong enough to prevent others doing
so, and is always ready to call in the foreigner to crush all Italians
to the foreigner's profit, and Guicciardini, a high Papal officer,
commenting on this, adds, 'It would be impossible to speak so ill of the
Roman Court, but that more abuse should not be merited, seeing it is an
infamy, and example of all the shames and scandals of the world.' The
lesser clergy, the monks, the nuns followed, with anxious fidelity, the
footsteps of their shepherds. There was hardly a tonsure in Italy which
covered more than thoughts and hopes of lust and avarice. Religion and
morals which God had joined together, were set by man a thousand leagues
asunder. Yet religion still sat upon the alabaster throne of Peter, and
in the filthy straw of the meanest Calabrian confessional. And still
deeper remained a blind devoted superstition. Vitellozzo Vitelli, as
Machiavelli tells us, while being strangled by Cæesar Borgia's assassin,
implored his murderer to procure for him the absolution of that
murderer's father. Gianpaolo Baglioni, who reigned by parricide and
lived in incest, was severely blamed by the Florentines for not killing
Pope Julius II. when the latter was his guest at Perugia. And when
Gabrino Fondato, the tyrant of Cremona, was on the scaffold, his only
regret was that when he had taken his guests, the Pope and Emperor, to
the top of the Cremona tower, four hundred feet high, his nerve failed
him and he did not push them both over. Upon this anarchy of religion,
morals, and conduct breathed suddenly the inspiring breath of Pagan
antiquity which seemed to the Italian mind to find its finest climax in
tyrannicide. There is no better instance than in the plot of the Pazzi
at Florence. Francesco Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini decided to kill
Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici in the cathedral at the moment of the
elevation of the Host. They naturally took the priest into their
confidence. They escorted Giuliano to the Duomo, laughing and talking,
and playfully embraced him - to discover if he wore armour under his
clothes. Then they killed him at the moment appointed.

[Sidenote: Pagan influence.]

Nor were there any hills from which salvation might be looked for.
Philosophy, poetry, science, expressed themselves in terms of
materialism. Faith and hope are ever the last survivors in the life of a
man or of a nation. But in Italy these brave comforters were at their
latest breath. It is perhaps unfair to accept in full the judgment of
Northern travellers. The conditions, training, needs of England and
Germany were different. In these countries courage was a necessity, and
good faith a paying policy. Subtlety could do little against a
two-handed sword in the hands of an angry or partially intoxicated
giant. Climate played its part as well as culture, and the crude
pleasures and vices of the North seemed fully as loathsome to the
refined Italian as did the tortuous policy and the elaborate infamies of
the South to their rough invaders. Alone, perhaps, among the nations of
Europe the Italians had never understood or practised chivalry, save in
such select and exotic schools as the Casa Gioiosa under Vittorino da
Feltre at Mantua. The oath of Arthur's knights would have seemed to them
mere superfluity of silliness. _Onore_ connoted credit, reputation, and
prowess. _Virtù_, which may be roughly translated as mental ability
combined with personal daring, set the standard and ruled opinion.
'Honour in the North was subjective: _Onore_ in Italy objective.'
Individual liberty, indeed, was granted in full to all, at the
individual's risk. The love of beauty curbed grossness and added
distinction. Fraud became an art and force a science. There is liberty
for all, but for the great ones there is licence. And when the day of
trial comes, it is the Churchmen and the Princes who can save neither
themselves nor man, nor thing that is theirs. To such a world was
Machiavelli born. To whom should he turn? To the People? To the Church?
To the Princes and Despots? But hear him: -

'There shall never be found any good mason, which will beleeve
to be able to make a faire image of a peece of marble ill hewed,
but verye well of a rude peece. Our Italian Princes beleeved,
before they tasted the blowes of the outlandish warre, that it
should suffice a Prince to know by writinges, how to make a
subtell aunswere, to write a goodly letter, to shewe in
sayinges, and in woordes, witte and promptenesse, to know how to
canvas a fraude, to decke themselves with precious stones and
gold, to sleepe and to eate with greater glory then other: To
kepe many lascivious persons about them, to governe themselves
with their subjects, covetously and proudely: To roote in
idlenes, to give the degrees of the exercise of warre for good
will, to dispise if any should have shewed them any laudable
waie, minding that their wordes should bee aunswers of oracles:
nor the sely wretches were not aware that they prepared
themselves to be a pray to whome so ever should assaulte them.
Hereby grew then in the thousand fowre hundred and nintie and
fowre yere, the great feares, the sodaine flightes and the
marveilous losses: and so three most mighty states which were in
Italie, have bene dievers times sacked and destroyed. But that
which is worse, is where those that remaine, continue in the
very same errour, and liev in the verie same disorder and
consider not, that those who in olde time would keepe their
states, caused to be done these thinges, which of me hath beene
reasoned, and that their studies were, to prepare the body to
diseases, and the minde not to feare perills. Whereby grewe that
Cæsar, Alexander, and all those men and excellent Princes in
olde time, were the formost amongst the fighters, going armed on
foote: and if they lost their state, they would loose their
life, so that they lievd and died vertuously.'

Such was the clay that waited the moulding of the potter's hand.
'Posterity, that high court of appeal, which is never tired of
eulogising its own justice and discernment,' has recorded harsh sentence
on the Florentine. It is better to-day to let him speak for himself.

[Sidenote: _The Prince_.]

The slender volume of _The Prince_ has probably produced wider
discussion, more bitter controversy, more varied interpretations and a
deeper influence than any book save Holy Writ. Kings and statesmen,
philosophers and theologians, monarchists and republicans have all and
always used or abused it for their purposes. Written in 1513, the first
year of Machiavelli's disgrace, concurrently with part of the
_Discorsi_, which contain the germs of it, the book represents the
fulness of its author's thought and experience. It was not till after
Machiavelli's death, that it was published in 1532, by order of Clement
VII. Meanwhile, however, in manuscript it had been widely read and
favourably received.

[Sidenote: Its purpose.]

The mere motive of its creation and dedication has been the theme of
many volumes. Machiavelli was poor, was idle, was out of favour, and
therefore, though a Republican, wrote a devilish hand-book of tyranny to
strengthen the Medici and recover his position. Machiavelli, a loyal
Republican, wrote a primer of such fiendish principles as might lure the
Medici to their ruin. Machiavelli's one idea was to ruin the rich:
Machiavelli's one idea was to oppress the poor: he was a Protestant, a
Jesuit, an Atheist: a Royalist and a Republican. And the book published
by one Pope's express authority was utterly condemned and forbidden,
with all its author's works, by the express command of another (1559).
But before facing the whirlwind of savage controversy which raged and
rages still about _The Prince_, it may be well to consider shortly the
book itself - consider it as a new book and without prejudice. The
purpose of its composition is almost certainly to be found in the plain
fact that Machiavelli, a politician and a man of letters, wished to
write a book upon the subject which had been his special study and lay
nearest to his business and bosom. To ensure prominence for such a book,
to engage attention and incidentally perhaps to obtain political
employment for himself, he dedicated it to Lorenzo de' Medici, the
existing and accepted Chief of the State. But far and above such lighter
motives stood the fact that he saw in Lorenzo the only man who might
conceivably bring to being the vast dream of patriotism which the writer
had imagined. The subject he proposed to himself was largely, though not
wholly, conditioned by the time and place in which he lived. He wrote
for his countrymen and he wrote for his own generation. He had heard

Online LibraryNiccolò MachiavelliMachiavelli, Volume I → online text (page 1 of 31)