Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/246

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provoked criticism, and were attacked at an early period; afterwards they were, without offence, excused, defended, or outbidden.

When the original obligation of morality and the standard of action had been fixed, it remained to enquire whether men were able to do what was right, i.e. whether they were free agents. The constant recurrence of the question in Machiavelli's writings is the measure of the importance it possessed for him. He gave much consideration to this primitive problem, which he called il sopraccapo della filosofia; he perceived that it was at least necessary to devise some intellectual compromise which, while in no way claiming to offer a logical solution, should be clear and manageable enough for practical life. His examination was neither thorough nor profound; he did not distinguish the senses which the word freedom may, in this context, assume; and his reasoning was complicated by the intrusion of ideas originating in a mythological and figurative conception of Fortune, and in some measure by the lingering influences of astrology. Through all his writings runs the idea of a personified Fortune,—a capricious deity, who is not merely the expression in a figure of the incalculable element in life, but a being with human passions and attributes. Here the suggestions and examples of classical authors, and especially of Polybius, were decisive for Machiavelli, in whom after the manner of his age ancient and modern modes of thought were fancifully blended. "I am not unaware," he wrote, "that many have held and still hold the opinion that human affairs are so ordered by Fortune and by God, that men cannot by their prudence modify them; rather, they have no remedy at all in the matter; and hence they may come to think they need not trouble much about things, but allow themselves to be governed by chance. This opinion has gained more acceptance in our own times, owing to the great changes which have been seen and are seen every day, beyond all human conjecture. I have sometimes thought about this, and have partly inclined to their opinion. Yet, in order that free-will may not be entirely destroyed, I believe the truth may be this: Fortune is the mistress of half our actions, but entrusts the management of the other half, or a little less, to us." This is the solution which, running all through Machiavelli's works, gave a special propriety to the repeated antithesis of fortuna and virtu. The same meaning would be expressed in modern phraseology by the statement that men determine their own lives, but only under conditions which they neither themselves create nor are able largely to control; or, that the will makes the act, but out of a material not made by it.

Upon the basis of these data Machiavelli attempted to fix some general rule of conduct for the guidance of the individual, applicable amid all the diversified conditions under which action can take place. Considering the relation in which the agent stands to the forces among which he has to assert himself, an ideal of conduct was needed which should enable a man, who could have but a limited power of control