THE ROMANES LECTURE
DELIVERED IN THE SHELDONIAN THEATRE
June 2, 1897
THE RIGHT HON.
JOHN MORLEY, M. P.
HON. D.C.L. OXON., HON. LL.D. CAMB.
MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited
NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
All rights reserved
Edinburgh: Printed by T. and A. Constable, Printers to Her Majesty
The greatest of the Florentines has likened worldly fame to the breath of the wind that blows now one way and now another way, and changes name as it changes quarter.1 From every quarter, and all the points of the historical compass, the veering gusts of public judgment have carried incessantly along from country to country and from generation to generation, with countless mutations of aspect and of innuendo, the sinister renown of Machiavelli. Before he had been dead fifty years, his name had become a byword and a proverb. From Thomas Cromwell and Elizabeth; from the massacre of St. Bartholomew, through League and Fronde, through Louis XIV., Revolution, and Empire, down to the third Napoleon and the days of December; from the Lutheran Reformation down to the blood and iron of Prince Bismarck; from Ferdinand the Catholic down to Don Carlos; from the Sack of Rome down to Gioberti, Mazzini, and Cavour; in all the great countries all over the West, this singular shade is seen haunting men's minds, exciting, frightening, provoking, perplexing them, like some unholy necromancer, bewildering reason and conscience by riddles and paradox. So far from withering or fading, his repute and his writings seem to attract deeper consideration as time goes on, and they have never been objects of more copious attention all over Europe than in the half-century that is now closing.2
In the long and fierce struggle, from the fifteenth century onwards, among rival faiths and between contending forces in civil government, Machiavelli was hated and attacked from every side. In the great rising up of new types of life in the Church, and of life in the State, his name stood for something that partisans of old and new alike professed to abhor. The Church first tolerated, if it did not patronise, his writings; but soon, under the double stress of the Reformation in Germany on one hand, and the pagan Renaissance in Italy on the other, it placed him in that Index of forbidden books which now first (1557), in dread of the new art of printing, crept into formal existence. He speedily came to be denounced as schismatical, heretical, perverse, the impious foe of faith and truth. He was burnt in effigy. His book was denounced as written with the very fingers of Satan himself. The vituperation of the sixteenth century has never been surpassed either among learned or unlearned men, and the dead Machiavelli came in for his full share of unmeasured words. As Voltaire has said of Dante that his fame is secure because nobody reads him, so in an inverse sense, the bad name of Machiavelli grew worse, because men reproached, confuted, and cursed, but never read. Catholics attacked him as the enemy of the Holy See, and Protestants attacked him because he looked to a restoration of the spirit of ancient Rome, instead of a restoration of the faith and discipline of the primitive Church. While both of them railed at him, Catholic and Protestant each reviled the other as Machiavellist. In France national prejudice against the famous Italian queen-mother hit Machiavelli too, for his book was declared to be the oracle of Catherine de Medici, to whose father it was dedicated; it was held responsible for the Bartholomew massacre and the Huguenot wars. In Spain opposite ground was taken, and he who elsewhere was blamed as the advocate of persecution, was abominated here as the enemy of wars of religion, and the advocate of that monstrous thing, civil toleration. In England, royalists called him an atheist, and roundheads called him a Jesuit. A recent German writer has noted three hundred and ninety-five references to him in our Elizabethan literature, all fixing him with the craft, malice, and hypocrisy of the Evil One.3 Everybody knows how Hudibras finds in his Christian name the origin of our domestic title for the devil, though scholars have now long taught us to refer it to Nyke, the water-goblin of Norse mythology.4
Some divines scented mischief in the comparative method, and held up their hands at the impudent wickedness that dared to find a parallel between people in the Bible and people in profane history, between King David and Philip of Macedon. Whenever a bad name floated into currency, it was flung at Machiavelli, and his own name was counted among the worst that could be flung at a bad man. Averroes for a couple of centuries became a conventional label for a scoffer and an atheist, and Machiavelli, though he cared no more for the abstract problems that exercised the Moslem thinker, than he would have cared for the inward sanctities of Thomas à Kempis, was held up to odium as an Averroist. The Annals of Tacitus were discovered: his stern ironies on Tiberius and the rest did not prevent one school of politicians from treating his book as a manual for tyrants, while another school applied it against the Holy Roman Empire; his name was caught up in the storms of the hour, and Machiavellism and Tacitism became convertible terms.5
It is not possible here to follow the varying fates of Machiavelli's name and books. The tale of Machiavellian criticism in our own century is a long one. That criticism has followed the great stream of political events in continental Europe; for it is events after all that make the fortune of books, rather than books that create events. Revolutions in France, unification in Italy, unification in Germany, the disappearance of the Temporal Power, the activity of the principle of Nationality, the realisation of the idea of the Armed People, have all in turn and in different forms raised the questions to which Machiavelli gave such daring point. On the medallion that commemorates him in the church of Santa Croce, are the words, Tanto nomini nullum par elogium, So great a name no praise can match. We only need to think of Michelangelo and Galileo reposing near him, in order to realise the extravagance of such a phrase, and to understand that reaction in his favour has gone as intolerably far as the old diatribes against him.
It may be doubted whether in this country Machiavelli has ever been widely read. Thomas Cromwell, the powerful minister of Henry VIII., the malleus monachorum, told Cardinal Pole that he had better fling aside dreamers like Plato, and read a new book by an ingenious Italian which treated the arts of government practically. Cromwell in his early wanderings had been more than once in Italy, and he was probably at Florence at the very time when Machiavelli was writing his books at his country farm.6 But a more shining figure in English history than Cromiwell, was even more profoundly attracted by the genius of Machiavelli, and this was Bacon. It was natural that his vast and comprehensive genius should admire the extension to the sphere of civil government, of the same method which he was advocating in the investigation of external nature. 'We are much beholden,' he said, 'to Machiavel and others that wrote what men do, and not what they ought to do.' The rejection of a priori and abstract principles, and of authority as the test of truth, the substitution of chains of observed fact for syllogism with major premiss unproved—this revolution in method could not be reserved, for one department of thought. Bacon's references are mainly to the Discourses and not to the Prince, but he had well digested both.7 The Essays bear the impress of Machiavelli's positive spirit, and Bacon's ideal of history is his. 'Its true office is to represent the events themselves, together with the counsels, and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of every man's judgment.' His own history of Henry VII. is a good example of such a life as Machiavelli would have written of such a hero.8
The most powerful English thinker of Machiavelli's political school is Hobbes. He drew similar lessons from a similar experience—the distractions of Civil War at home, and the growth, which he watched during many years of exile, of centralised monarchy abroad. Less important is Harrington, whose Oceana or model of a commonwealth was once so famous, and is in truth one of the most sensible productions of that kind of literature. Harrington travelled in Italy, was much at home with Italian politics and books on politics, and perhaps studied Machiavelli more faithfully than any other of his countrymen. He tells us, writing after the Restoration, that his works had then fallen into neglect.9 Scattered through the Patriot King and other writings of Bolingbroke are half a dozen references to Machiavelli,10 but they have the air, to use a phrase of Bacon's, of being but cloves stuck in to spice the dish, and the Italian's pregnant thinking has no serious place in an author whose performances are little more than splendid beating of the wind. Hume had evidently read the Discourses, the Prince, and the History of Florence with attention, and with his usual faculty for hitting the nail on the head, he avows a suspicion that the world is still too young to fix many general truths in politics. We have not as yet had experience of 3000 years. We do not know of what great changes human nature may show itself susceptible, nor what great revolutions may come about in men's customs and principles.11
It would take a long chapter to draw a full comparison between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, who was undoubtedly set by him on some trains of thinking both in his short book on the Romans, and his more memorable book on Laws. It may be too much to say, as some critics have said, that all the great modern ideas have their beginning in Montesquieu. But this is at least true among other marked claims that might be made for him, that in spite of much looseness of definition and a thousand imperfections in detail, he launched effectually on European thought the conception of social phenomena as being no less subject to general laws than all other phenomena. Of a fundamental extension of this kind, Machiavelli was in every way incapable, nor did the state of any of the sciences at that date permit it. As for secondary differences it is enough to say that Machiavelli put the level of human character low, and Montesquieu put it high; that one was always looking to fact, the other to idea; that one was sombre, the other buoyant, cheerful, and an optimist; Montesquieu confident in the moral forces of mankind, Machiavelli leaving moral forces out, and not knowing where to look for them. Finally, 'Montesquieu's book is a study, Machiavelli's is a political act, an attempt at political resurrection.'12
When Machiavelli turned to serious writing, he was five-and-forty (b. 1469). His life had been interesting and important. For fifteen years he held the post of secretary of one of the departments in the government of Florence, where he was brought into close relations with some of the most remarkable personages and events of his time. He went four times on a mission to the King of France; he was with Cæsar Borgia in the ruthless campaign of 1502; he did the business of his republic with Pope Julius II. at Rome, and with the Emperor Maximilian at Innsbruck. The modern practice of resident ambassadors had not yet established itself in the European system, and Machiavelli was never more than an envoy of secondary rank.13 But he was in personal communication with sovereigns and ministers, and he was a watchful observer of all their ways and motives. We need not here concern ourselves with all the chances and changes of Italian policies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the long struggle between freedom and tyranny in his native Florence, Machiavelli belonged to the popular party. When they fell in 1512, and when the Medici returned, he was turned out of his post, thrown into prison, put to the question with ropes and pulleys, according to the fashion of the time, shared the benefit of the amnesty accorded when Leo X. ascended the papal throne, and withdrew to San Casciano. This was the time when he composed most of the writings that have made him famous. Here is his picture of himself, in a letter to a friend (December 10, 1513):—
'I am at my farm; and, since my last misfortunes, have not been in Florence twenty days. 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 among themselves or with their neighbours. When I leave the wood, I proceed to a well, 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 Casciano. But when evening falls I go home and enter my writing-room. On the threshold I put off my country habit, 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 Principatibus, 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.'14
Machiavelli was not meant either by temperament or principle to be a willing martyr. Not for him was the stern virtue of Dante, who accepted lifelong exile rather than restoration with dishonour, content from any corner of the earth to wonder at the sun and the stars, and under any sky to meditate all sweetest truths (le dolcissime verità). Not for the ambitious and practical politician was the choice of Savonarola, who, at the moment when Machiavelli was crossing the threshold of public life, had perished at the stake, rather than cease from his warnings that no good could come to Florence save from the fear of God and the reform of manners. Nobody had in him less of the Stoic; his private character was not more austere than the Italian morality of his day; his purse was painfully lean; his active and restless mind suffered from that 'malady of lost power' which, they say, is apt to afflict members of Opposition, and he longed to be back in the business of the State. So he dedicated his book to Lorenzo, in the hope that such speaking proof of his experience and capacity would induce the destroyers of the freedom of his city to give him public employment. His suppleness did not pay. Nothing came of the dedication for several years. Then some trivial duties were found for Machiavelli, and one important literary task was intrusted to him, the history of Florence. This he completed and dedicated to Leo X. in 1527. To the same period belongs a comedy which some have described as worthy of Aristophanes, and hardly second to the Tartufe of Molière. Like Bacon and some others who have written the shrewdest things on human conduct and the arts of success, he had made a sorry mess of his own chances and gifts. It is always interesting to watch how men take the ill-usage of the world and the miscarriages of life. Machiavelli's was one of those grave intellects, apt for serious thought, yet which easily turn to levity, console themselves for failure by mockery of themselves, and repay Fortune with her own banter. This is the vein of the brilliant burlesque and satire with which this versatile genius diversified his closing days. Still, with indomitable perseverance he clung to public things, and he now composed the dialogues on the Art of War, to induce his countrymen to substitute for mercenary armies a national militia—to-day one of the organic ideas of the European system. Amo la patria mia più dell' anima, he wrote to a friend just before his death, and one view of Machiavelli is that he was always the lion masquerading in the fox's skin, an impassioned patriot, under all his craft and jest and bitter mockery. Even Mazzini, who explained the ruin of Italy by the fact that Machiavelli prevailed over Dante, admits that he had 'a profoundly Italian heart.' In 1527 he died.
Machiavelli's active life, then, was passed in council-chambers, camps, courts; he pondered over what he had seen in the light of the few books that be had read,—Livy, Polybius, Tacitus, some portion of Aristotle's Politics, Dante, Petrarch. Nobody borrowed more, and yet few are more original. If he had ever read Thucydides, he would have recalled that first great chapter in European literature, still indeed the greatest in its kind, of reflections on a revolution, where with incomparable insight and fidelity the historian analyses the demoralisation of the Hellenic world, as it lay a prey to intestine faction and the ruinous invocation of foreign aid. These terrible calamities, says Thucydides,15 always have been and always will be, while human nature remains the same. Words cease to have the same relations to things, and their meanings are changed, to suit the ingenuities of enterprise and the atrocities of revenge. Frantic energy is the quality most valued, and the man of violence is always trusted. That simplicity which is a chief ingredient of a noble nature, is laughed to scorn. Inferior intellects succeed best. Revenge becomes dearer than self-preservation, and men even have a sweeter pleasure in the revenge that goes with perfidy, than if it were open. All this was just as true of Florence in the sixteenth century, as it was of Athens, Corinth, and Corcyra in the fifth century before Christ. The postulate of Thucydides, that human nature should remain the same, still held good, as it has held good at many a stormful period since, the social progress of the ages notwithstanding.
Whether the moral state of Italy was intrinsically and substantially worse than that of other European nations, is a question which those who know most, are least disposed to answer offhand.16 Still Italy presents some peculiarities that shed over her civilisation at this time a curious and deadly iridescence. Passions moved in strange orbits. Private depravity and political debasement went with one of the most brilliant intellectual awakenings in the history of the western world. Another dark element is the association of merciless selfishness, violence, craft, and corruption with the administration of sacred things. If politics were divorced from morals, so was theology. Modem conscience is shocked by the resort to hired crime and stealthy assassination, especially by poison. Mariana, the famous Spanish Jesuit, tells us (De Rege, i. 7) that when he was teaching theology in Sicily (1567), a certain young prince asked him whether it were lawful to slay a tyrant by poison. The theologian did not find it easy to draw a distinction between poison and steel, but at last he fell upon a reason (and a most absurd reason it is) for his decision that a poniard is permitted and white powder is not. What distinguishes the Italian Renaissance from such epochs of luxury and corruption as the French Regency, is this contempt of human life, the fury of private revenge, the spirit of atrocious perfidy and crime. 'Italian society admired the bravo almost as much as Imperial Rome admired the gladiator: it assumed that genius combined with force of character released men from the shackles of ordinary morality' (Symonds).17 Only a giant like Michelangelo escaped this deadly climate. We see the violence of Michelangelo's sublime despair in the immortal marbles of the Medicean chapel, executed while Machiavelli was still alive—Lorenzo, to whom the Prince is dedicated, silent, pensive, meditating under his helmet, with finger upon lip, some stroke of dubious war or craft, and the sombre superhuman figures of Night and Dawn and Day, proclaiming 'it is best to sleep and be of stone, not to see and not to feel, while such misery and shame endure.'
Machiavelli's merit in the history of political literature is his method. We may smile at the uncritical simplicity with which he discusses Romulus and Remus, Moses, Cyrus, and Theseus, as if they were all astute politicians of Florentine faction. He often recalls the orator in the French Constituent Assembly who proposed to send to Crete for an authentic copy of the laws of Minos. But he withdrew politics from scholasticism, and based their consideration upon observation and experience. It is quite true that he does not classify his problems; that he does not place them in their proper subordination to one another; that he often brings together facts that are not of the same order and do not support the same conclusion.18 Nothing, again, is easier than for the critic to find contradictions in Machiavelli. He was a man of the world reflecting over the things that he had seen in public life; more systematic than observers like Retz or Commynes—whom Sainte-Beuve calls the French Machiavelli—but not systematic as Hobbes is. Human things have many sides and many aspects, and an observant man of the world does not confine himself to one way of looking at them, from fear of being thought inconsistent. To put on the blinkers of system was alien to his nature and his object. Contradictions were inevitable, but the general texture of his thought is close enough.19
Machiavelli was not the first of his countrymen to write down thoughts on the problems of the time, though it has been observed that he is the first writer, still celebrated, 'who discussed grave questions in modern language' (Mackintosh). Apart from Dante and Petrarch, various less famous men had theorised about affairs of state. Guicciardini, the contemporary and friend of Machiavelli, like him a man of public business and of the world, composed observations on government, of which Cavour said that they showed a better comprehension of affairs than the author of the Prince and the Discourses.20 But then the latter had the better talent of writing. One most competent Italian critic calls his prose 'divine,'21 and a foreigner has perhaps no right to differ; only what word is then left for the really great writers, who to intellectual strength add moral grandeur? Napoleon hated a general who made mental pictures of what he saw, instead of looking at the thing clearly as through a field-glass. Machiavelli's is the style of the field-glass. 'I want to write something,' he said, 'that may be useful to the understanding man; it seems better for me to go behind to the real truth of things, rather than to a fancy picture.' Every sentence represents a thought or a thing. He is never open to the reproach thrown by Aristotle at Plato: 'This is to talk poetic metaphor.' As has been said much less truly of Montesquieu, reflection is not broken by monuments and landscapes. He has the highest of all the virtues that prose-writing can possess—save the half-dozen cases in literature of genius with unconquerable wings,—he is simple, unaffected, direct, vivid, and rational. He possesses the truest of all forms of irony, which consists in literal statement, and of which you are not sure whether it is irony or naïveté. He disentangles his thought from the fact so skilfully and cleanly, that it looks almost obvious. Nobody has ever surpassed him in the power of throwing pregnant vigour into a single concentrated word. Of some pages it has been well said that they are written with the point of a stiletto. He uses few of our loud easy words of praise and blame, he is not often sorry or glad, he does not smile and he does not scold, he is seldom indignant and he is never surprised. He has not even the mastering human infirmity of trying to persuade. His business is that of the clinical lecturer, explaining the nature of the malady, the proper treatment, and the chances of recovery. He strips away the flowing garments of convention and commonplace; closes his will against sympathy and feeling; ignores pity as an irrelevance, just as the operating surgeon does. In the phrase about Fontenelle, he shows as good a heart as can be made out of brains. What concerns Machiavelli, the Italian critic truly says, 'is not a thing being reasonable, or moral, or beautiful, but that it is.' Yet at the bottom of all the confused clamour against him, people knew what they meant, and their instinct was not unsound. Mankind, and well they know it, are far too profoundly concerned in right and wrong, in mercy and cruelty, in justice and oppression, to favour a teacher who, even for a scientific purpose of his own, forgets the awful difference. Commonplace, after all, is exactly what contains the truths that are indispensable.
Like most of those who take a pride in seeing human nature as it is, Machiavelli only saw half of it. We must remember the atmosphere of craft, suspicion, fraud, violence, in which he had moved, with Borgias, Medici, Pope Julius, Maximilian, Louis XII., and the reckless factions of Florence. His estimate was low. Mankind are more prone to evil than to good. We may say this of them generally, that they are ungrateful, fickle, deceivers, greedy of gain, runaways before peril. While you serve them, they are all yours—lives, goods, children—so long as no danger is at hand; but when the hour of need draws nigh, they turn their backs. They are readier to seek revenge for wrong, than to prove gratitude for service: as Tacitus says of people who lived in Italy long ages before, readier to pay back injury than kindness. Men never do anything good, unless they are driven; and where they have their choice, and can use what licence they will, all is filled with disorder and confusion. They are taken in by appearances. They follow the event. They easily become corrupted. Their will is weak. They know not how to be either thoroughly good or thoroughly bad; they vacillate between; they take middle paths, the worst of all. Men are a little breed.
All this is not satire, it is not misanthropy; it is the student of the art of government, thinking over the material with which he has to deal. These judgments of Machiavelli have none of the wrath of Juvenal, none of the savage truculence of Swift. They cut deeper into simple reality than the polished proverbs of the moralists of the boudoir. They have not the bitterness that hides in the laugh of Molière, nor the chagrin and disdain with which Pascal broods over unhappy man and his dark lot. Least of all are they the voice of the preacher calling sinners to repentance. The tale is only a rather grim record, from inspection, of the foundations on which the rulers of states must do their best to build.
Goethe's maxim that, if you would improve a man, it is no bad thing to let him suppose that you already think him that which you would have him to be, would have seemed to Machiavelli as foolish for his purpose as if you were to furnish an architect with clay, and bid him to treat it as if it were iron. He will suffer no abstraction to interrupt positive observation.22 Man is what he is, and so he needs to be bitted and bridled with laws, and now and again to be treated to a stiff dose of 'medicine forti' in the shape of fire, bullet, axe, halter, or dungeon. At any rate, Machiavelli does not leave human nature out, and this is one secret of his hold. He does not argue pale opinions, but passions and interests in all the flush of their action. It is, in truth, in every case,—Burke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and the rest—always the moralist who interests men most within the publicist. Machiavelli was assuredly a moralist, though of a peculiar sort, and this is what makes him, as he has been called, a contemporary of every age and a citizen of all countries.
To the question whether the world grows better or worse, Machiavelli gave an answer that startles an age like ours, that lives on its faith in progress. The world neither grows better nor worse; in fact it is always the same. Human fortunes are never still; they are every moment either going up or sinking down. But among all nations and states, the same desires, the same humours prevail, and are what they always were. Men are for travelling on the beaten track. Diligently study bygone things, and in every State you will be able to discover the things to come. All the things that have been may be again. Just as the modern physicist tells us that neither physical nor chemical transformation changes the mass nor the weight of any quantity of matter, so Machiavelli judged the good and evil in the world to be ever the same. 'This bad and this good shift from land to land,' he says, 'as we may see from ancient empires; they rose and fell with the changes of their usage, but the world remained as it was. The only difference was that it concentrated its power (virtù) in Assyria, then in Media, then in Persia, until at last it came to Italy and Rome.'
In our age, when we think of the chequered course of human time, of the shocks of irreconcilable civilisations, of war, trade, faction, revolution, empire, laws, creeds, sects, we seek a clue to the vast maze of historic and pre-historic fact. Machiavelli seeks no clue to his distribution of good and evil. He never tries to find a moral interpretation for the mysterious scroll. We obey laws that we do not know, but cannot resist. We can only make an effort to seize events as they whirl by, and to extort from them a maxim, a precept, or a principle, to serve our immediate turn. Fortune, he says,—that is, Providence, or else Circumstance, or the Stars,—is mistress of more than half we do. What is her deep secret, he shows no curiosity to fathom. He contents himself with a maxim for the practical man (Prince, xxv.), that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, for Fortune is a woman, and to be mastered must be boldly handled.
Whatever the force or the law that may control this shifting distribution of imperial destinies, nothing, said Machiavelli, could prevent any native of Italy or of Greece, unless the Greek had turned Turk, or the Italian had turned Transalpine, from blaming his own time, and praising the glories of time past. 'What,' he cries, 'can redeem an age from the extremity of misery, shame, reproach, where there is no regard to religion, to laws, to arms, where all is tainted and tarnished with every foulness. And these vices are all the more hateful, as they most abound in those who sit in the judgment-seat, are men's masters, and seek men's reverence. I, at all events,' he concludes, with a glow so rare in him, that almost recalls the moving close of the Agricola, 'shall make bold to say how I regard old times and new, so that the minds of the young, who shall read these writings of mine, may shun the new examples and follow the old. For it is the duty of a good man, at least to strive to teach to others those sound lessons, which the spite of time or fortune hath hindered him from executing, to the end that many having learned them, some one of those better loved by heaven may one day have power to apply them.'
What were the lessons? They were in fact only one, that the central secret of the ruin and distraction of Italy was weakness of will, want of fortitude, force, and resolution. The abstract question of the best form of government—perhaps the most barren of all the topics that have ever occupied speculative minds—was with Machiavelli strictly secondary. He saw small despotic states harried by their petty tyrants, he saw republics worn out by faction and hate. Machiavelli himself had faith in free republics as the highest type of government; but whether you have republic or tyranny, matters less, he seems to say, than that the governing power should be strong in the force of its own arms, intelligent, concentrated, resolute. He might be said to be for half his time engaged in examining the fitness of means to other people's ends, himself neutral. But then, as nature used to be held to abhor a vacuum, so the impatience of man is loth to tolerate neutrality. He has been charged with inconsistency because in the Prince he lays down the conditions on which an absolute ruler, rising to power by force of genius backed by circumstances, may maintain that power, with safety to himself and most advantage to his subjects; while in the Discourses he examines the rules that enable a self-governing state to retain its freedom. The cardinal precepts are the same. In either case, the saving principle is one: self-sufficiency, military strength, force, flexibility, address,—above all, no half-measures. In either case, the preservation of the state is equally the one end, reason of state equally the one adequate and sufficient test and justification of the means. The Prince deals with one problem, the Discourses with the other, but the spring of Machiavelli's political inspirations is the same, to whatever type of rule they apply—the secular state supreme; self-interest, and self-regard, avowed as the single principles of state action; material force the master-key to civil policy. Clear intelligence backed by unsparing will, unflinching energy, remorseless vigour, the brain to plan and the hand to strike—here is the salvation of States, whether monarchies or republics. The spirit of humility and resignation that Christianity had brought into the world, he contemns and repudiates. That whole scheme of the Middle Ages in which invisible Powers rule all our mortal affairs, he dismisses. Calculation, courage, fit means for resolute ends, human force,—only these can rebuild a world in ruins.
Some will deem it inconsistent, that with so few illusions about the weaknesses of human nature, yet he should have been so firm, in what figures in all our own election addresses as trust in the people. Like Aristotle, he held the many to be in the long-run the best judges; but unlike Goethe, who said that the public is always in a state of self-delusion about details, though scarcely ever about broad truths, Machiavelli declared that the public may go wrong about generalities, while as to particulars they are usually right.23 The people are less ungrateful than a prince, and where they are ungrateful, it is from less dishonourable motive. The multitude is wiser and more constant than a prince. Furious and uncontrolled multitudes go wrong, but then so do furious and uncontrolled princes. Both err, when not held back by fear of consequences. The people are fickle and thankless, but so are princes. 'As for prudence and stability, I say that a people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a prince.' Never let a prince, he said—and perhaps we might say, never let a parliament of united kingdoms—complain of the faults of a people under his rule, for they are due either to his own negligence, or else to his own example, and if you consider a people given to robbery and outrages against law, you will generally find that they only copy their masters. Above all, and in any case, the ruler, whether hereditary or an usurper, can have no safety unless he founds himself on popular favour and good-will. This he repeats a hundred times. 'Better far than any number of fortresses, is not to be hated by your people.'
It is then to the free Roman commonwealth that Machiavelli would have his countrymen turn. He found the pattern that he wanted in that strong respect for law, that devotion to country, that unquailing courage, that energy of purpose, which has been truly called the essence of free Rome. Modern Germans, for good reasons of their own, have taken to praise him, but Machiavelli has nothing to do with that most brilliant and illustrious of living German scholars, who idolises Julius Cæsar, despatches Cato as a pedant, and Cicero as a coxcomb. You will hardly find in Machiavelli a good word for any destroyer of a free government. Let nobody, he says, be cheated by the glory of Cæsar. Historians have been spoiled by his success, and by the duration of the empire that continued his name. If you follow the history of the empire, you will then know with a vengeance what is the debt of Rome, Italy, and the world, to Cæsar.
Nobody has stated the argument against the revolutionary dictator more clearly or tersely than Machiavelli. He applauded the old Romans because their policy provided by a regular ordinance for an emergency, by the institution of a constitutional dictator for a fixed term, and to meet a definite occasion. 'In a republic nothing should be left to extraordinary modes of government; because though such a mode may do good for the moment, still the example does harm, seeing that a practice of breaking the laws for good ends lends a colour to breaches of law for ends that are bad.' Occasions no doubt arise when no ordinary means will produce reform, and then you must have recourse to violence and arms: a man must make himself supreme. But then, unfortunately, if he make himself supreme by violence, he is probably a bad man, for a good man will not climb to power by such means. No more will a bad man who has become supreme in this way be likely to use his ill-gotten power for good ends. Here is the eternal dilemma of a State in convulsion.24
He forbids us in any case to call it virtue to slay fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such practices may win empire, but not glory. A prince who clears out a population—here we may think of James I. and Cromwell, and the authors of many a sweeping clearance since—and transplants them from province to province, as a herdsman moves his flock, does what is most cruel, most alien, not only to Christianity, but to common humanity. It were far better for a man, he says, to choose a private life, than to be a king on the terms of making such havoc as this with the lives of other men (Disc., i. 26).
It may be true, as Danton said, that 'twere better to be a poor fisherman than to meddle with the government of men. Yet nations and men find themselves inexorably confronted by the practical question. Government they must find. Given a corrupt, a divided, a distracted community, how are you to restore it? The last chapter of the Prince is an eloquent appeal to the representative of the House of Medici to heal the bruises and bind up the wounds of his torn and enslaved country. The view has been taken25 that this last chapter has nothing to do with the fundamental ideas of the book; that its glow is incompatible with the iron harshness of all that has gone before; that it was an afterthought, dictated partly by Machiavelli's personal hopes, and then picked up later by his defenders as whitewashing guilty maxims by ascribing them to large and lofty purpose. The balance of argument seems to me to lean this way, and Machiavelli for five-and-twenty chapters was thinking of new princes generally, and not of a great Italian deliverer. At the same time, he was not a man cast in a single mould. It may be that on reviewing his chapters, his heart became suddenly alive to their frigidity, and that the closing words flowed from the deeps of what was undoubtedly sincere and passionate feeling.
However this may be, whether the whole case of Italy or the special case of any new prince, was in his contemplation, the quality of the man required is drawn in four chapters (xv.-xviii.) with piercing eye and a hand that does not flinch. The ruler's business is to save the State. He cannot practise all virtues, first because he is not very likely to possess them, and next because, where so many people are bad, he would not be a match for the world if he were perfectly good. But he should be on his guard against all vices, so far as possible; he should at all events scrupulously abstain from every vice that might endanger his government. There are two ways of carrying on the fight—one by laws, the other by force. The first is the proper distinction of man; the second is the mark of the brute. As the first is not always enough, you must sometimes resort to the second. You must be both lion and fox, and the man who is only lion, is not wise. A wise prince neither can, nor ought to, keep his word, when to keep his word would injure either himself or the State, or when the reasons that made him give his promise have passed away. If men were all good, such a maxim as this would be bad; but as men are inclined to evil, and would not all keep faith with you, why should you keep faith with them? Nostra cattività, la lor—our badness, their badness.26 There are some good qualities which the new ruler need not have, still he should appear to have them. It is well to appear merciful, faithful, religious, and to be so. Religion is the most necessary thing of all for a prince to seek credit for. But the new prince should know how to change to the contrary of all these things, when they are in the way of the public good. For it is frequently necessary—and here is the sentence that has done so much to damn its writer—for the upholding of the State, to go to work against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion; and a new prince cannot observe all the things for which men are reckoned good.
The property of his subjects he will leave alone, for a man will sooner forgive the slaying of his father than the confiscation of his patrimony. He should try to have a character for mercy, but this should never be allowed to prevent severity on just occasion. He must bear in mind the good saying reported in Livy, that many people know better how to keep from doing wrong, than how to correct the wrongdoing of others. He ought not to let excess of trust make him careless, nor excess of distrust to make him intolerable. It would be well if he could be both loved and feared; but, if circumstances force a choice, then it is better that he should be feared. To be feared is not the same as being hated, and the two things to be most avoided are hatred on the one hand, and contempt on the other.
The universal test is reason of State. We should never condemn a man for extraordinary acts to which he has been compelled to resort in establishing his empire or founding a republic. In a case where the safety of a country is concerned, whether it be princedom or republic, no regard ought to be paid to justice or injustice, to pity or severity, to glory or shame; but putting aside every other consideration, that course alone ought to be followed which may preserve to the country its existence and its freedom. Diderot pithily put the superficial impression of all this when he said that you might head these chapters as 'The circumstances under which it is right for a Prince to be a Scoundrel.' A profounder commentary of a concrete kind is furnished by Mommsen's account of Sulla27—an extraordinary literary masterpiece, even in the view of those who think its politics most perverse. Such a Sulla was the real type of Machiavelli's reformer of a rotten State.
It has been a commonplace of reproachful criticism that Machiavelli chose for his hero Cæsar Borgia.28 Not only was Borgia a monster, it is said, but he failed. The baleful meteor flamed across the sky for little more than four years, and then went out. If only success should command admiration, Borgia and his swiftly shattered fortunes ought to be indifferent to Machiavelli and the world for which he was writing. What Machiavelli says is this—'I put him forward,' he writes, 'as a model for such as climb to power by good fortune and the help of others. He did everything that a long-headed and capable man could do, who desires to strike root. I will show you how broad were the foundations that he laid for the fabric of his future power. I do not know what better lessons I could teach a new prince (i.e. an usurper) than his example. If what he did failed in the end, it was all due to the extreme malignity of fortune.' He makes no hero of him, except as a type of character well fitted for a given task.
Machiavelli knew him at close quarters.29 He was sent on a mission to Borgia in the crisis of his fortunes, and he saw in him the very qualities of action, force, combat, calculation, resolution, that the weakness of the age required. Machiavelli was in his train when terrible things were done. Cæsar was close, solitary, secret, quick. When any business is on foot, said Machiavelli, he knows nothing of rest or weariness or risk. He no sooner reached a place, than you heard that he had left it. He was loved by his troopers, for though he meted stern punishment for every offence against discipline, he was liberal in pay, and put little restraint on their freedom. Though no talker, when he had to make a case he was so fluent and pressing, that it was hard to find an answer. He was a great judge of occasion. Bold, crafty, resolute, deep, and above all well known never to forget or forgive an injury, he fascinated men with the terror of the basilisk. His firm maxim was to seek order by giving his new subjects a good and firm government, including a civil tribunal with a just president. Remiro was his first governor in the Romagna. It is uncertain how Remiro incurred his master's displeasure, but one morning Machiavelli walked out into the market-place at Cesena, and saw Remiro, as he puts it, in two pieces, his head on a lance, and his body still covered with his fine clothes, resting on a block with a blood-stained axe by the side of it. His captains, beginning to penetrate Cæsar's designs, and fearing that he would seize their petty dominions—like the leaves of an artichoke, as he said—one by one, revolted. Undaunted, he gathered new forces. Fresh bands of mercenaries flocked to the banners of a chief who had money, skill, and a happy star. The conspirators were no match for him in swiftness, activity, or resources; they allowed him to sow the seeds of disunion among them; he duped them into making a convention with him, which they had little thought of keeping. Everybody who knew his revengeful and implacable spirit was sure that the conspirators were doomed. When Machiavelli came near one of them he felt, he says, the deadly odour of a corpse. With many arts, the duke got them to meet him at Sinigaglia. He received their greetings cordially, pressed their hands, and gave them the accolade. They all rode into the town together, talking of military things. Cæsar courteously invited them to enter the palace, then quitted them, and they were immediately seized. 'I doubt if they will be alive to-morrow morning,' the Florentine secretary wrote without emotion to his government. They went through some form of trial, and before daybreak two of them were strangled, and two others shared the same fate as soon as Cæsar knew that the Pope had carried out his plans for making away by poison with the Cardinal who headed the rebellious faction at Rome.
Let us pause for a moment. One of the victims of Sinigaglia was Oliverotto da Fermo. His story is told in the eighth chapter of the Prince. He had been brought up from childhood by an uncle; he went out into the world to learn military service; in course of time, one day he wrote to his uncle at Fermo that he should like once more to see him and his paternal city, and, by way of showing his good compatriots that he had won some honour in life, he purposed to bring a hundred horsemen in his company. He came, and was honourably received. He invited his uncle and the chief men of Fermo to a feast, and when the feast was over, his soldiers sprang upon the guests and slew them all, and Oliverotto became the tyrant of the place. We may at any rate forgive Cæsar for, a year later, making sure work of Oliverotto. When his last hour came, he struggled to drive his dagger into the man with the cord. Here indeed were lions, foxes, catamounts.
This is obviously the key to Machiavelli's admiration for Borgia's policy. The men were all bandits together. Romagna is not and never was, said Dante two hundred years before, without war in the hearts of her tyrants (Inf. xxvii. 37). So it was now. It was full, says Machiavelli, of those who are called gentlemen, who live in idleness and abundance on the revenues of their estates, without any care of cultivating them, or of incurring any of the fatigue of getting a living; such men are pernicious anywhere, but most of all are those who are lords of castles, and have subjects who are under obedience to them. These lords, before the Pope and his terrible son took them in hand, were poor, yet had a mind to live as if they were rich, and so there was nothing for it, but rapine, extortion, and every other iniquity. Whether Cæsar and the Pope had wider designs than the reduction of these oppressors to order, we can never know. Machiavelli and most contemporaries thought that they had, but German historians of to-day differ. Probably the contemporaries knew best, but nothing can matter less.
We may as well finish Cæsar's story, because we never know until a man's end, whether the play has been tragedy or comedy. He seemed to be lord of the ascendant, when, in the summer after the transaction of Sinigaglia (1503), the Pope and he were one evening both stricken with malarious fever at Rome. There was talk of poison, but the better opinion seems to be that this is fable.30 Alexander VI. died; Cæsar, in the prime of his young man's strength, made a better fight for it, but when at last he recovered, his star had set. Machiavelli saw him and felt that Fortune this time had got the best of virtù. His subjects in the Romagna stood by him for a time, and then tyranny and disorder came back. The new Pope, Julius II., was not his friend, for though Cæsar had made the Spanish cardinals support his election, Julius had some old scores to pay, and as Machiavelli profoundly remarked, anybody who supposes that new services make great people forget old injuries, makes a vast mistake. So Cæsar found his way to Naples, with a safe conduct from Gonsalvo, the Great Captain. He reaped as he had sown. Once he had said, 'It is well to cheat those, who have been masters of treachery.' He now felt the force of his maxim. At Naples he was cordially received by Gonsalvo, dined often at his table, talked over all his plans, and suddenly one night as he was about to pass the postern, in spite of the safe conduct, an officer demanded his sword in the name of the King of Castile. To Spain he was sent. For some three years he went through strange and obscure adventures, fighting fortune with the aid of his indwelling demon to the very last. He was struck down in a fight at Viana in Navarre (1507), after a furious resistance; was stripped of his fine armour by men who did not know who he was; and his body was left naked, bloody, and riddled with wounds, on the ground. He was only thirty-one. His father, who was quite as desperate an evil-doer, died in his bed at seventy-two. So history cannot safely draw a moral.31
From this digression let us return to mark some of the problems that Machiavelli raises. In one sense, we are shocked by his maxims in proportion to our forgetfulness of history. There have been, it is said, only two perfect princes in the world—Marcus Aurelius and Louis IX. of France. If you add to princes, presidents and prime ministers, the percentage might still be low. Among the canonised saints of the Roman Church, there have only been a dozen kings in eight centuries, and no more than four popes in the same period. So hard has it been 'to govern the world by paternosters.'32 It is well to take care lest in blaming Machiavelli for openly prescribing hypocrisy, men do not slip unperceived into something like hypocrisy of their own.
Take the subordination of religious creed to policy. In the age that immediately followed Machiavelli, three commanding figures stand out, and are cherished in the memories of men—William the Silent, Henry of Navarre, and Elizabeth of England. It needs no peevish or pharisaic memory to trace even in these imposing personages some of the lineaments of Machiavelli's hated and scandalous picture. William the Silent changed from Lutheran to Catholic, then back to Lutheran, and then from Lutheran to Calvinist. His numerous children were sometimes baptized in one of the three communions, sometimes in the other, just as political convenience served. Henry of Navarre abjured his Huguenot faith, then he returned to it, then he abjured it again. Our great Elizabeth, of famous memory, notoriously walked in tortuous and slippery paths. Again, the most dolorous chapter in all history is that which recounts how men and women were burned, hanged, shot, and tormented for heresy; and there is a considerable body of authors, who through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used against heretics Machiavelli's arguments for making short work with rebels, and asked with logical force why their reason of Church was not as good as his reason of State.33 In fact, how many of the wars of faith, from Monophysite, Arian, Iconoclast, downwards, have been at bottom far less concerned with opinion than with conflicts of race, nationality, and policy, and have been conducted on maxims of policy?
Frederick the Great is the hero of the most picturesque of modern historians. That strong ruler, as we all know, took it into his head to write a refutation of the Prince. 'Sir,' said Voltaire, 'I believe the very first advice that Machiavelli would have given to a disciple, would have been that he should write a refutation of his book.' Carlyle contemptuously regrets that his hero should have taken any trouble about the Italian's 'perverse little book,' and its incredible sophistries; pity he was not refuted by a kick from old Frederick William's jackboot; he deserved no more. Carlyle does not let us forget that nobody so quickly turns cynic as your high-flying transcendentalist, just as nobody takes wickedness so easily as the Antinomian who holds the highest doctrine about the incorruptibility of the spiritual nature. The plain truth is that Frederick, alike on his good side and his bad side, alike as the wise law-maker, the thrifty steward, the capable soldier, and as the robber of Silesia, and a leading accomplice, if not the inspirer, of the partition of Poland, was the aptest of all modern types of the perverse book.34 It was reserved for this century to see even that type depraved and distorted.35
The most imposing of all incarnations of the doctrine that reason of State covers all, is Napoleon. Tacitus, said Napoleon, writes romances, Gibbon is no better than a man of sounding words, Machiavelli is the only one of them worth reading. No wonder that he thought so. All those maxims that have most scandalised mankind in the Italian writer of the sixteenth century, were the daily bread of the Italian soldier who planted his iron heel on the neck of Europe in the nineteenth. Yet Machiavelli at least sets decent limits and conditions: the ruler may under compulsion be driven to set at nought pity, humanity, faith, religion, for the sake of the State, but though he should know how to enter upon evil when compelled, he should never turn from what is good when he can avoid it. Napoleon, a Cæsar Borgia on a giant scale, deliberately called evil good and good evil; and, almost alone among the past masters of all the arts of violence and fraud, he sacrificed pity, humanity, faith, religion, and public law, less for the sake of the State than to satisfy his own ravening egotism and exorbitant passion for personal domination. Napoleon, Charles IX., the Committee of Public Safety, would all have justified themselves by reason of State, and the Bartholomew massacre, the September massacres, and the murder of the Duc d'Enghien, only show what reason of State may come to in any age, in the hands of the practical logician with a knife in his grasp.36
Turn from the Absolutist camp to the Republican. Mazzini is in some respects the loftiest moral genius of the century, and he said that though he did not approve the theory of the dagger, nay he deplored it, yet he had not the heart to curse the fact of the dagger. 'When a man,' he says, 'seeks by every possible artifice to betray an old friend to the police of the Foreign Ruler, and then a working man arises and slays the Judas in the broad daylight in the public streets—I have not the courage to cast the first stone at one who thus takes upon himself to represent social justice and the abhorrence of tyranny,'37
Even in modern democracy, many a secret spring works under decorous mechanism, and recalls Machiavelli's precept to keep the name and take away the thing. An eminent man endowed with remarkable compass of mind, not many years ago a professor in this university, imagined a modern writer, with the unflinching perspicacity of Machiavelli, analysing the party leader as the Italian analysed the tyrant or the prince.38 Such a writer, he said, would find that the party leader, though possessed of every sort of private virtue, yet is debarred by his position from the full practice of the great virtues of veracity, justice, and moral intrepidity; he can seldom tell the full truth; can never be fair to anybody but his followers and his associates; can rarely be bold except in the interests of his faction. The hint is ingenious and it may perhaps be salutary, but one must not overdo it. Party government is not the Reign of the Saints, but we should not be in a hurry to let the misgivings of political valetudinarianism persuade us that there is not at least as good a stock of veracity, justice, and moral intrepidity inside the world of parliaments or congress, as there is in the world without. But these three or four historic instances may serve to illustrate the ἀπορίαι, or awkward points, that Machiavelli's writings have propounded, for men capable of political reflection, in Europe for many generations past.
If one were to try to put the case for the Machiavellian philosophy in a modern way, it would, I suppose, be something of this kind:—Nature does not work by moral rules. Nature, 'red in tooth and claw,' does by system all that good men by system avoid. Is not the whole universe of sentient being haunted all day and all night long by the haggard shapes of Hunger, Cruelty, Force, Fear?
War again is not conducted by moral rules. To declare war is to suspend not merely habeas corpus but the Ten Commandments, and some other good commandments besides. A military manual, by an illustrious hand of our own day, warns us: 'As a nation we are brought up to feel it a disgrace even to succeed by falsehood. We keep hammering along with the conviction that honesty is the best policy, and that truth always wins in the long run. These sentiments do well for a copy-book, but a man who acts upon them had better sheath his sword for ever.' One reason among others why we should keep the sword sheathed as long as we can.
Why should the ruler of a State be bound by a moral code from which the soldier is free? Why should not he have the benefit of what has been called the 'evolutionary beatitude,'—Blessed are the strong, for they shall prey on the weak? Right and wrong, cause and effect, are two sides of one question. 'Morality is the nature of things.' We must include in the computation the whole sum of consequences, and consider acts of State as worked out to their furthest results. Bishop Butler tells you that we cannot give the whole account of any one thing whatever, of all its causes, ends, and necessary adjuncts. In short, means and end are a single transaction. You must regard policy as a whole. The ruler as an individual is, like other men, 'no more than the generation of leaves, fleeting, a shadow, a dream.' But the State lives on after he has vanished. He is a trustee for times to come. He is not shaping his own life only, but guiding the long fortunes of a nation. Leaves fall, the tree stands.
Such is the defence of reason of State, of the worship of nation and empire. Everything that policy requires, justice sanctions. There are no crimes in politics, only blunders. 'The man of action is essentially conscienceless' (Goethe). 'Praised be those,' said one, in words much applauded by Machiavelli, 'who love their country rather than the safety of their souls.' 'Let us be Venetians first,' said Father Paul, 'and Christians after.'
We see now the deep questions that lie behind these sophistries, and all the alarming propositions in which they close. Does morality apply only to end and not to means? Is the State means or end? What does it really exist for? For the sake of the individual, his moral and material well-being, or is the individual a mere cog or pinion in the vast machine? How far is it true that citizenship dominates all other relations and duties, and is the most important of them? Are we to test the true civilisation of a State by anything else than the predominance of justice, right, equality, in its laws, its institutions, its relations to neighbours? Is one of the most aspects of national policy its reaction upon the character of the nation itself, and can States enter on courses of duplicity and selfish violence, without paying the penalty in national demoralisation? What are we to think of such sayings as d'Alembert's motto for a virtuous man, 'I prefer my family to myself, my country to my family, and humanity to my country'? Is this the true order? To Machiavelli all these questions would have been futile. Yet the world, in spite of a thousand mischances, and at tortoise-pace, has steadily moved away from him and his Romans.
The modern conception of a State has long made it a moral person, capable of right and wrong, just as are the individuals composing it. Civilisation is taken to advance, exactly in proportion as communities leave behind them the violences of external nature, and of man in a state of war. The usages of war are constantly undergoing mitigation. Diplomacy, though it is said even now not to be wholly purged of lying, fraud, and duplicity, still is conscious of having a character to keep up for truth and plain dealing, so far as circumstances allow. Such conferences, again, as those at Berlin and Brussels in our own day, imperfectly as they have worked, mark the recognition of duty towards inferior races. All these improvements in the character of nations were in the minds of the best men in Machiavelli's day. Reason of State has always been a plea for impeding and resisting them. Las Casas and other churchmen, Machiavelli's contemporaries, fought nobly at the Spanish court against the inhuman treatment of Indians in the New World, and they were defeated by arguments which read like maxims from the Prince.39 Grotius had fore-runners in his powerful contribution towards assuaging the abominations of war, but both letter and spirit in Machiavelli made all the other way.40 Times have come and gone since Machiavelli wrote down his deep truths, but in the great cycles of human change he can have no place among the strong thinkers, and orators, and writers, who have elevated the conception of the State, and humanised the methods and maxims of government, and raised citizenship to be 'a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.' He turned to the past, just as scholars, architects, sculptors, turned to it, but the idea of reconstructing a society that had once been saturated with the great ruling conceptions of the thirteenth century, by trying to awaken the social energy of ancient Rome, was as much of an anachronism as Julian the Apostate.
Machiavelli has been supposed to put aside the question of right and wrong, just as the political economist or the analytical jurist used to do. Truly has it been said that the practical value of all sciences founded on abstractions, depends on the relative importance of the elements rejected, and the elements retained, in the process of abstraction. The view that he rejected moral elements of government for a scientific purpose and as a hypothetical postulate, seems highly doubtful. Is he not more intelligible, if we take him as following up the divorce of politics from theology, by a divorce from ethics also? He was laying down some maxims of government as an art; the end of that art is the security and permanence of the ruling power; and the fundamental principle from which he silently started, without any doubt or misgiving as to its soundness, was that the application of moral standards to this business, is as little to the point as it would be in the navigation of a ship.
The effect was fatal even for his own purpose, for what he put aside, whether for the sake of argument or because he thought them in substance irrelevant, were nothing less than the living forces by which societies subsist and governments are strong. A remarkable illustration occurred in his own century. Three or four years before all this on secular and ecclesiastical princedoms was written, John Calvin was born (1509).41 Calvin, with a union of fervid religious instinct and profound political genius, almost unexampled in European history, did in fact what Machiavelli tried to do on paper; he actually created a self-governed state, ruled it, defended it, maintained it, and made that little corner of Europe both the centre of a movement that shook France, England, Scotland, America, for long days to come, and at the same time he set up a bulwark against all the forces of Spanish and Roman reaction, in the pressing struggles of his own immediate day. Florence, Geneva, Holland, hold as high a place as the greatest States of Europe in the development of modern civilisation; but anybody with a turn for ingenious and idle speculation might ask himself whether, if the influence of Florence on European culture had never existed, the loss to mankind would have been as deep as if the little republic of Geneva had been wiped out by the dukes of Savoy. The unarmed prophet, said Machiavelli, thinking of Savonarola, is always sure to be destroyed, and his institutions to come to nought. If Machiavelli had been at Jerusalem two thousand years ago, he would have found nobody of any importance in his eyes, save Pontius Pilate and the Roman legionaries. He forgot the potent arms of moral force, and it was with these that, in the main, Calvin fought his victorious battle. We should not, it is quite true, forget that Calvin never for an instant scrupled to act on some of those very Italian maxims, which have been counted most hateful. He was as ready to resort to carnal weapons as other people. In spite of all the sophistries of sectarian apologists, Calvin's vindictive persecution of political opponents, and his share in the crime of burning Servetus, can only be justified on principles that are much the same as, and certainly not any better than, those prescribed for the tyrant in the Prince. Still the republic of Geneva was the triumph of moral force.
In Italy Savonarola had attempted a similar achievement. It was the last effort to reconcile the spirit of the new age to the old faith, but Italy was for a second time in her history in the desperate case of being able to endure nec vitia nec remedia, neither ills nor cure. In a curious passage (Disc., iii. l), Machiavelli describes how Dominic and Francis in older days kindled afresh an expiring flame. He may have perceived that for Italy in this direction all was over. But if moral force and spiritual force is exhausted, with what hope are you to look for either good soldiers or good rulers?
The sixteenth century in Italy in some respects resembles the eighteenth in France. In both, old faiths were assailed, and new lamps were kindled. But the eighteenth century was a time of belief in the better elements of mankind. An illusion, you may say. Was it a worse illusion than disbelief in mankind? Machiavelli and his school saw only cunning, jealousy, perfidy, ingratitude, dupery, and yet on such a foundation as this they dreamed that they could build. What idealist or doctrinaire ever fell into a stranger error? Surrounded by the ruins of Italian nationality, says a writer of genius, 'he organises the abstract theory of the country with all the energy of the Committee of Public Safety, supported on the passion of twenty-five millions of Frenchmen. He carries in him the genius of the Convention. His theories strike like acts' (Quinet). But energy as an abstract theory is a bubble.
It is true to say that Machiavelli represents certain living forces in our actual world; that Science, with its survival of the fittest, unconsciously lends him illegitimate aid; that 'he is not a vanishing type, but a constant and contemporary influence' (Acton). This is because energy, force, will, violence, still keep alive in the world their resistance to the control of justice and conscience, humanity and right. In so far as he represents one side in that eternal struggle, and suggests one set of considerations about it, he retains a place in the literature of modern political systems and of European morals.
1 Purg., xi. 91-117.
Non è il mondan romore altro che un fiato
· · · · · ·
... La vostra nominanza è color d'erba,
Nought but a gust of wind is worldly fame,
2 The most complete account of the voluminous literature about Machiavelli up to 1858 is given in Eobert Mohl's Geschichte und Literatur der Staatswissenschaften, iii. 521, etc.
The latest list of the writings about Machiavelli is given by Tommasini, La Vita et Gli Scritti di N. M., i. 56-8. Sees also Villari, and Lord Acton's learned Introduction to the Prince.
Among the French contributions, Nourrisson's Machiavel (edition of 1883) seems much the most vigorous, in spite of occasional outbreaks of the curious and everlasting feeling between Frenchmen and Italians. Among political pamphlets may be named, Dialogue aux enfers, entre Machiavel et Montesquieu; ou la politique de Machiavel au 19 siècle: Par un Contemporain (1864)—an energetic exposure of the Second Empire.—Machiavel, et l'influence de sa doctrine, sur les opinions, les mœurs, de la politique de la France pendant la Révolution: par M. de Mazères; Paris, 1816—a royalist indictment of Machiavelli, as the inspirer alike of Jacobins and Bonaparte.
M. Tassin's Gianotti, sa vie, son temps, et ses doctrines (1869), published on the eve of the overthrow of the Second Empire, and seeming to use the Italian publicist mainly as a mask for condemning the French government of the day. Grianotti (1492-1572) was of Savonarola's school, and M. Tassin uses him as a foil for Machiavelli. Others of less quality are: Dante, Michel-Ange, Machiavel. Par C. Calemard de Lafayette. Paris, 1852.—Essai sur les œuvres et la doctrine de Machiavel. Par Paul Deltuf. Paris, 1867.—Machiavel, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Von Jacob Venedy. Berlin, 1850.—Written after the events of 1848 in Germany, the author's object being to show that the three writers named were the representatives of the only three possible systems of government, and of these three Machiavelli stands for all that is wicked and reactionary, Rousseau for progress and humanity. The book is composed, not from any scientific point of view, but to illustrate contemporary politics. Louis Philippe is said (p. 66) to be the greatest scholar that Machiavelli ever had, and there are a good many remarks on the death of 'Machiavellismus' in France and Germany, which have hardly been borne out by history since 1850.
3 Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama. Von Edward Meyer. Weimar, 1897, p. xi. The accomplished professor of poetry in this university, in the newly published volume of his most interesting and important History of English Poetry (ii. ch. 12), has shown how much Marlowe had studied Machiavelli, and states his view of the effect of this study as follows: 'What we find in Marlowe is Seneca's exaltation of the freedom of the human will, dissociated from the idea of Necessity, and joined with Machiavelli's principle of the excellence of virtù. This principle is represented under a great variety of aspects; sometimes in the energy of a single heroic character, as in Tamburlaine; sometimes in the pursuit of unlawful knowledge, as in Faustus; again, in The Jew of Malta, in the boundless hatred and revenge of Barabas; in Guise plotting the massacre of the Huguenots out of cold-blooded policy; and in Mortimer planning the murder of Edward II. from purely personal ambition. Incidentally, no doubt, in some of these instances, the indulgence of unrestrained passion brings ruin in its train; but it is not so much for the sake of the moral that Marlowe composed his tragedies, as because his imagination delighted in the exhibition of the vast and tremendous consequences produced by the determined exercise of will in pursuit of selfish objects.'—P. 405.
The reader will remember that Machiavelli speaks the prologue to The Jew of Malta, with these two lines:—
'I count religion but a childish toy,
It is not denied by Herr Meyer or others, that Marlowe had studied Machiavelli in the original, and Mr. Courthorpe seems to make good his contention that it was Marlowe's conception of M.'s principle of virtù that revolutionised the English drama.
4 'Old Nick is the vulgar name of the Evil Being in the north of England, and is a name of great antiquity. We borrowed it from the title of an evil genius among the ancient Danes,' etc. etc. On the line in Hudibras, 'We may observe that he was called Old Nick many ages before the famous, or rather infamous, Nicholas Machiavel was born.'—Brand's Popular Antiquities, ii. 364. (Ed. 1813.)
5 See Tommasini, i. 27-30. Our excellent Ascham declares that he honoured the old Romans as the best breeders and bringers up for well-doing in all civil affairs that ever was in the world, but the new Rome was the home of devilish opinions and unbridled sin, and one of the worst patriarchs of its impiety was Machiavelli.—Schoolmaster (1563-8), Mayor's Edition, 1863, p. 86. Fuller, quoted in Mayor's note, expresses a better opinion of Machiavelli, and says that 'that which hath sharpened the pens of many against him is his giving so many cleanly wipes to the foul noses of the pope and the Italian prelacy' (1642).
'At the beginning of the seventeenth century the Venetian senate was asked to permit the publication of Boccalini's Commentaries on Tacitus. The request was referred to five of the senators for examination. "It is the teaching of Tacitus," they said, "that has produced Machiavelli, and the other bad authors who would destroy public virtue. We should replace Tacitus by Livy and Polybius—historians of the happier and more virtuous times of the Roman republic, and by Thucydides, the historian of the Greek republic, who found themselves in circumstances like those of Venice.'"—Sclopis, Revue Hist. de droit français et étranger (1856), ii. 25.
For the literary use made of Tacitus against the Spanish domination in Italy, see Ferrari, Hist. de la Raison d'Etat, p. 315.
6 An interesting article appeared in the Nineteenth Century (December 1896), designed to show the effect of Machiavelli on the English statesmen of the Reformation. The writer admits that there is no evidence to prove that the action of Elizabeth was consciously based on a study of the Prince, but he finds, as he thinks, proof positive, that Burleigh had studied Machiavelli in a paper of advice from the Lord Treasurer to the Queen. The proof consists in such sentences as these: 'Men's natures are apt to strive not only against the present smart, but in revenging bypast injury, though they be never so well contented thereafter';—'no man loves one the better for giving him the bastinado, though with never so little a cudgel';—'the course of the most wise estates hath ever been to make an assurance of friendship, or to take away all power of enmity'; and so forth. Burleigh very likely may have read the Prince, but it is going too far to assume that a sage statesman must have learned the commonplaces of political prudence out of a book.
7 Dr. Abbott, attacking Bacon with the same bitterness with which Machiavelli was attacked three centuries since (Francis Bacon, 1885, pp. 325 and 457-60), insists that the Florentine secretary was the chancellor's master; but such criticism seems to show as one-sided a misapprehension of one as of the other. Dr. Fowler, the President of Corpus Christi College, has dealt conclusively, as I judge, with Dr. Abbott's case, in the preface to his second edition of the Novum Organum (1889), pp. 13-20, and in his excellent short monograph on Bacon (1881), pp. 41-5.
8 Mackintosh reproached Bacon for this way of treating history. Spedding stoutly defends it, rather oddly appealing to the narrative of the New Testament, as an example of the most wicked of all judgments, recounted four times 'without a single indignant comment or a single vituperative expression.'—Works, Spedding and Heath, vol. vi. pp. 8-16.
Bacon says M. made a wise and apt choice of method for government—'namely, discourse upon histories or examples; for knowledge drawn freshly, and in our view, out of particulars, findeth its way best to particulars again; and it hath much greater life in practice when the discourse attendeth upon the example, than when the example attendeth upon the discourse.'
9 Harrington's view is expressed in such a sentence as this: 'Corruption in government is to be read and considered in Machiavel, as diseases in a man's body are to be read and considered in Hippocrates. Neither Hippocrates nor Machiavel introduced diseases into man's body, nor corruption into government which were before their time; and seeing they do but discover them, it must be confessed that so much as they have done, tends not to the increase but to the cure of them, which is the truth of these two authors.'—System of Politics, ch. x.
He elsewhere compares him to one who exposes the tricks of a juggler.
10 E.g. Patriot King, pp. 106, 118. On the Policy of the Athenians, 243.
11 Essays, i. 156; ii. 391, where he remarks that historians have been almost always the friends of virtue, but that the politician is much less scrupulous as to the acts of power.
12 This sentence is Treverret's, L'Italie au 16ième Siècle, i. 179. Sainte-Beuve has a short comparison between the two in Causeries, vii. 67-70. 'Machiavelli attached himself to particular facts, and proposed expedients. Montesquieu tried to ascend to general principles, and drew from them consequences that were capable of explaining a long series of social phenomena. The Florentine secretary was a man of action, and reproduced in his writings the impressions that he had received from his intercourse with men and business. Montesquieu is always a man of the closet; he studies men in books.'—Sclopis, Revue Hist. de droit français et étranger (1856), ii. p. 18.
Comte has worked out the place of Montesquieu and of Machiavelli, Philos. Pos., iv. 178-185, and Pol. Pos. iii. 539.
13 La diplomatie au temps de Machiavel. Par Maulde-la-Clavière. 1892. 3 vols. i. 306, etc. The French gave the signal for the inevitable attack upon the ancient privileges of Latin as the language of diplomacy. At the beginning of the sixteenth century Spain strove to displace French, but did not succeed even when the Spanish power was at its meridian. In the East, the Turk would have nothing to do with Latin. A Turkish envoy to Venice in 1500, though acquainted with Latin, made it a point of honour only to speak Greek. Charles VIII. did not know Italian, and Louis XII. understood it with difficulty. Machiavelli preferred Italian to Latin.—Maulde-la-Clavière, ch. ii. and ch. vi.
14 I have used Mr. Symonds's translation, Age of the Despots, 244-6.
15 Thucydides, Bk. III. 82-4.
16 See Jacob Burckhardt's admirable work on the Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (English translation by Middlemore), ii. 211. 'Was Germany in the fifteenth century so much better, with its godless wars against the Hussites, the crimes of the Vehmgericht, the endless feuds of the temporal princes, the shameless oppression of the wretched peasant?'—Thudichum, p. 68.
17 Translation of Benvenuto Cellini, Introduction, p. xvii.
18 Janet's Hist. de la Science Politique dans ses Rapports avec la Morale, i. 539 (3rd ed.).
19 The contradictions were noted very early. Bodin's Republic appeared in 1576, and there he says: 'Machiavel s'est bien fort méconté, de dire que l'estat populaire est le meilleur; et néanmoins ayant oublié sa première opinion, il a tenu en un autre lieu, que pour restituer l'Italie en sa liberté, il faut qu'il n'y ait qu'un prince; et de fait, il s'est efforcé de former un estat le plus tyrannique du monde; et en autre lieu il confesse que l'estat de Venise est le plus beau de tous, lequel est une pure aristocratie, s'il en fut oncques: tellement qu'il ne scait à quoi se tenir (vi. ch. 4).
The argument that the Prince and Discourses are really one work is best stated by Nourrisson, ch. viii. 137-144.
'The modem study of politics, however, begins with Machiavelli. Not that he made any definite or permanent contribution to political theory which can be laid hold of as a principle fertile of new consequence. His works are more concerned with the details of statecraft than with the analysis of the state. But we find in him, for the first time since Aristotle, the pure, passionless curiosity of the man of science.—Sir Frederick Pollock in the History of the Science of Politics, ch. ii.
Tocqueville says: 'I have been reading Machiavelli's History of Florence very attentively. The Machiavel of the history is to me the Machiavel of the Prince. I do not conceive how the reading of the first can leave the least doubt as to the author of the second. In his history he sometimes praises great and fine actions, but we see that it is with him only an affair of imagination. The bottom of his thought is that all actions are indifferent in themselves, and must be judged by the skill and the success that they exhibit. For him the world is a great arena from which God is absent, where conscience has nothing to do with it, and where everybody gets on with things as best he can.'—Tocqueville, Correspond. i. 326-7.
As for Tocqueville, when he came to handle public business in difficult times, some notions with a slightly Machiavellian flavour began to lodge in his mind. For instance: 'As if you could ever satisfy men, by only busying yourself with their general good, without taking account of their vanity and of their private and personal interests.'—Souvenirs, p. 343.
'The versatility of men, and the vanity of these great words of patriotism and right with which the small passions cover themselves.'—Ib. 347.
'My secret consisted in flattering their self-love [Members of Parliament and Cabinet Colleagues], while I took good care to neglect their advice.... I had discovered that it is with the vanity of men that you can do the best business, for you often get from it very substantial things, while giving very little substance in return; you will never make as good a bargain with their ambition or their greed; but it is true that to deal profitably with the vanity of others, you must lay aside your own and look only to the success of your scheme; and this is what will always make that kind of trade very difficult.'—Ib. 361-2.
'Nations are like men; they are still prouder of what flatters their passions than of what serves their interests.'—Ib. 394.
20 Villari, ii. 368.
21 De Sanctis, Storia della Let. Ital., ii. 82.
22 Sainte-Beuve has pointed out (Port-Royal, iii. 362-3, ed. 1860) how Machiavelli is here related to Pascal. Pascal's reason allows no sort of abstraction to mix itself up with social order. He had seen the Fronde at close quarters, for he was a man of the world at that epoch. He had meditated on Cromwell. The upshot of it was to place man at the mercy of custom, and at the same time to condemn those who shake off the yoke of custom. 'Custom ought to be followed only because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just. People follow it because they think it is reasonable, and take antiquity for the proof that it is so,' etc. etc.—Pensées, Art. vi. 40. Ed. Havet, i. 82.
23 Disc., i. 47. Aristotle, Politics, iii. 11; Jowett (Notes, p. 129) has an uneasy note upon the point. On the whole, Machiavelli seems to take broader and sounder ground than anybody else.
24 Disc., i. 34, i. 18, i. 10, ii. 2.
25 Baumgarten's view is elaborately stated in his Geschickte Karls V. i.; Anhang, 522-36, and Signor Villari's answer in his Niccolò Machiavelli, ii. 496-502.
26 Mandrag, ii. 6.
Guido da Montefeltro says in the Inferno (xxvii. 75): L'opere mie non furon leonine, ma di volpe—'My deeds were those of the fox, and not of the lion.' Bacon, in a well-known passage, uses a more common figure: 'It is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine simplicity, except men know all the conditions of the serpent.'—Advancement of Learning, ii. 21, 9.
27 History of Rome, Bk. IV. ch. x. Vol. iii. pp. 380-391 (Eng. Trans.).
28 E.g. Scherer, Etudes Critiques, vi. 102, etc.
29 For this Legation, see Tommasini, i. 242-265. Villari, Bk. I. ch. v. i. 392.
See Machiavelli's picture of the Italian princes, Arte della Guerra, Bk. VII.
30 Gregorovius thinks that there are too many arguments both ways, for us to form a decided opinion.—Lucrezia Borgia, II. c. v. Pastor is confident that it was Roman fever, and goes fully into the medical question.—Gesch. der Päpste, iii. 471-2. Dr. Garnett argues strongly against poison, English Historical Review, 1894, ix. 335-9.—Creighton, iv. 43-4.
31 See Cæsar Borgia. Par Charles Yriarte. Paris, 1889.
The Borgian policy is set out with much reason and force in Bishop Creighton's History of the Popes, Bk. v. ch. xi. vol. iv. pp. 44-53. Also the character of Cæsar Borgia, pp. 64-6. Dr. Pastor, writing from the catholic point of view, does not shrink from a completely candid estimate of Alexander VI.—See Gesch. der Päpste, iii.
32 The saying of Cosmo de Medici, Ist. Fior. Lib. VII., where Machiavelli reports others of his sayings, and gives a vivid account of Cosmo.
Bacon tells us in characteristic language that Henry VII. desired to bring celestial honour into the house of Lancaster, and begged Pope Julius to canonise Henry VI.; but Julius refused, as some said, because the king would not come to his rates, more probably, however, because he knew that Henry VI. was a very simple man, and he did not choose to let the world suppose that saint and innocent were the same thing.—History of Henry VII.; Works, vi. 233 (Spedding and Heath).
33 Ferrari, Hist, de la Raison d'Etat, 300.
34 Frederick the Great of Prussia, in November 1760, published military instructions for the use of his generals, which were based on a wide, practical knowledge of the matter.... When he could not procure himself spies among the Austrians, owing to the careful guard which their light troops kept around their camp, the idea occurred to him, and he acted on it with success, of utilising the suspension of arms that was customary after a skirmish between hussars, to make these officers the means of conducting epistolary correspondence with the officers on the other side. "Spies of compulsion," he explained in this way. When you wish to convey false information to an enemy, you take a trustworthy soldier and compel him to pass to the enemy's camp to represent there all that you wish the enemy to believe. You also send by him letters to excite the troops to desertion; and in the event of its being impossible to obtain information about the enemy, Frederick prescribes the following: Choose some rich citizen who has land and a wife and children, and another man, disguised as his servant or coachman, who understands the enemy's language. Force the former to take the latter with him to the enemy's camp to complain of injuries sustained, threatening him that if he fails to bring the man back with him after having stayed long enough for the desired object, his wife and children shall be hanged and his house burnt. "I was myself," he adds, "constrained to have recourse to this method, and it succeeded."'—Maine, International Law, 150-1.
35 More than one historian has pointed out as one of the merits of Louis XI., that it was he who substituted in government intellectual means for material means, craft for force, Italian policy for feudal policy. There was plenty of lying and of fraud, but it was a marked improvement in the tactics of power to put persuasion, address, skilful handling of men, into the place of impatient and reckless resort to naked force. Since the days of Louis XI., so it is argued, we have made a further advance; we have introduced publicity and open dealing instead of lies, and justice instead of egotism.—Guizot's Hist. de la Civilisation en Europe, xi. p. 307.
36 The late Lord Lytton delivered a highly interesting address, on National and Individual Morality Compared, when he was Lord Rector at Glasgow, and he said this about the case of the Duc d'Enghien: 'The first Napoleon committed many such offences against private morality. But the language of private morality cannot be applied to his public acts without great limitations. The kidnapping of the Duc d'Enghien, and his summary execution after a sham trial, was about as bad an act as well could be. But I should certainly hesitate to describe it as a murder in the ordinary sense. Morally, I think, it was worse than many murders for which men have been tried and punished by law. But I do not think that the English Government in 1815 could, with any sort of propriety, have delivered up Napoleon to Louis XVIII., to be tried for that offence like a common criminal.'
37 Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini (ed. 1891), vi. 275-6.
38 Popular Government. By Sir Henry Maine. 1885, p. 99.
A recent German pamphlet (Promachiavell, von Friedrich Thudichum: Stuttgart, 1897) hopes for a second Machiavelli, who will trace out for us, 'with rich experiences and a genial artistic hand,' the inner soul of the Jesuit, and of the Demagogue, p. 107.
39 See an interesting chapter by Professor Nys of Brussels, Les Publicistes Espagnols du 16ième Siècle (1890).
40 Nys, Les Précurseurs de Grotius, p. 128.
During the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries Machiavelli's maxims became the centre of a large body of literature, of which the reader will find a full account in Ferrari's Hist. de la Raison d'Etat, part. ii. 5253-41.
41 The reader who seeks a competent appreciation of Calvin from the modern point of view will find it in M. Emile Faguet's Seizième Siècle (pp. 127-197), and in Mark Pattison's Essays ('Calvin at Geneva' ii. 1-41). 'Sic de Calvino scripsimus,' says one of them, quoting an old commentator, 'neque amici neque inimici.' No bad frame of mind towards all such great distant figures.
Printed by T. and A. Constable, Printers to Her Majesty
at the Edinburgh University Press
- The edition of the Prince, published by the Clarendon Press, with Mr. Burd's most competent and copious critical apparatus, and Lord Acton's closely packed introduction, supplies all that is wanted. The same Press has republished the English translation of the Prince by N. H. Thomson, who has also executed a translation of the Discourses (1883).
- 'However we brave it out, we men are a little breed.'—Tennyson's Maud, i. 5.
- See Ferrari's Hist. de la Raison d'Etat, p. 260; de Sanctis, Storia della Let. Italiana, ii. 74-89; Quinet, Révolutions d'Italie, ii. 122.