Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/237

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

rules and the accepted authorities in the political order, might be understood to apply also to the conduct of society and to the ordinary affairs of men. The consideration of these ideas and the attempt to gauge their effects upon religion or morals or politics, and to elicit the conclusions to which they appeared to lead, engrossed attention so largely, that their historical origin was forgotten, their classical antecedents were ignored, and step by step, for more than a century, criticism drifted away from Machiavelli and concerned itself with an ill-defined and amorphous body of doctrine known loosely under the name of Machiavellism. No fair judgment of Machiavelli's works is possible, unless they are separated from the literature and the controversies which have grown up around them. It is true that the accretions of later thinkers have an importance of their own, but they are of hardly any value in Machiavellian exegesis. All the necessary materials for judgment are to be found in the writings of Machiavelli and of his contemporaries.

The doctrines of Machiavelli are not systematically expounded or adequately justified in any one of his books. It is only by piecing together the scattered notices in different writings and by comparing the forms in which similar ideas are presented at different periods, that there emerges slowly a general conception of the character of the whole. Some of these ideas were not original, but as old as the beginnings of recorded thought. In certain cases they were part of the intellectual heritage transmitted by Greece and Rome, adapted to a new setting and transfused with a new potency and meaning. Sometimes they were common to other contemporary publicists. Often they were provisional solutions of primitive problems, claiming no universal or permanent validity. Often, again, they were the expression of beliefs which among any people and at any period would be regarded as innocuous and inoffensive and perhaps even as obvious. Efforts have often been made to summarise them all in a single phrase, or to compress them within one wide generalisation. Such attempts have been always unsatisfactory, because much that is essential cannot be included. Machiavelli himself is not rightly viewed as, in the strict sense, a doctrinaire; he had no systematic theories to press. There was at no time anything rigid or harshly exclusive in his views: they were formed after slow deliberation, as experience and study widened his range or quickened his insight. They embrace elements which come from many sources, and, though they are on the whole fairly consistent, his writings contain many indications of the diffident and tentative steps by which the conclusions were reached.

Portions of Machiavelli's works were intended to form a contribution to general questions of politics and ethics: there are other portions which were more directly determined by the pressure of an unusual problem and of ephemeral conditions. In nearly all his writings the dispassionate, scientific temper of the historian or thinker who records