Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/236

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page needs to be proofread.

only as an author that Machiavelli has any abiding place in the world's history. He has a claim upon the attention of the modern world because, living at a time when the old political order in Europe was collapsing and new problems both in State and in society were arising with dazzling rapidity, he endeavoured to interpret the logical meaning of events, to forecast the inevitable issues, and to elicit and formulate the rules which, destined henceforth to dominate political action, were then taking shape among the fresh-forming conditions of national life.

His natural gifts marked him out as peculiarly fitted to be an intellectual pioneer. He has more in common with the political thinkers of later generations than with the bulk of his contemporaries, on whom still pressed the dead hand of medievalism. It is true, of course, that he did not stand alone; both in Italy and in France there were a few men who worked along the same lines and were approaching the same goal. Commines had nothing to learn from Machiavelli; and Guicciardini, his equal in ability and his superior in moral detachment, was harder and colder, and more logical. And there were men of lesser note, Vettori and Buonaccorsi and the long line of eminent historians from Nardi to Ammirato, who helped, each in one way or another, to break the fetters of tradition and to usher in the modern world. But there is no one among them all, except Machiavelli, who has won ecumenical renown. And the ultimate reason is that, although the area which he was able to observe was small, the horizon which he guessed was vast; he was able to overstep the narrow limits of Central Italy and Lombardy, to think upon a large scale, and to reach some real elevation of view. He made, it is true, many mistakes, and there is much in his writings that is indefensible; but, on the whole, later history has done much to justify him, and the view which is most essentially Machiavellian, that the art of government, like the art of navigation, is out of relation to morals, has hardly ever lacked authoritative support.

It was in 1513 that Machiavelli, then living in retirement near San Casciano, began the composition of those works which were to make his name famous. They are not intelligible except when considered in relation to the historical background of his life, and to the circumstances in which they were written. But for many generations the ideas which they contained were censured or defended by men who were at least partially ignorant of the epoch and of the country in which they arose, and were often mere controversialists or the accredited champions of some branch of the Church. As the doctrines of which Machiavelli was the earliest conscious exponent were so important and so comprehensive, it was inevitable that attempts should be made to appraise their absolute value; they appeared to involve not only an unfamiliar, if not wholly novel, conception of the State, but to imply also the substitution of some new standards of judgment and principles of action which, while overriding the traditional