Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/247

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

over the conditions of his life, to succeed. Failure was the seal of Divine disapproval, and to Machiavelli, as to all Italian politicians at his time, the one unpardonable sin. The essential requisite for success was, in his judgment, a constant adaptation between the individual and the surroundings of his life. Sufficient versatility of character, thus understood, would imply a perpetual adjustment of means to the needs of the moment, the ability to reverse a policy or a principle at the call of expediency, and a readiness to compromise or renounce the ideal. The world is rich in failures, because character is too rigid. The truism "Circumstances alter cases," was interpreted by Machiavelli to mean that the pressure of external forces is usually stronger than the resistance of individual principle. This formed the rational basis of his complaints that no one who attempted to govern in Italy would alter the courses to which his genius inclined him, when facts had altered; yet any one who was sufficiently versatile would always have good fortune, and the wise man would at last command the stars and fate. In political life such reasoning led to the rejection of morality, as the plain man understands it. A ruler was to remember that he lived in a world which he had not made, and for which he could not be held responsible; he was not obliged to act on any one principle; he was not to flinch if cruelty, dishonesty, irreligion were necessary; he was exempt from the common law; right and wrong had really nothing to do with the art of government. In furnishing what appeared a reasoned justification for such tenets, Machiavelli interpreted to itself the world of contemporary statecraft, and fixed upon politics the stamp of irremediable immorality—a result to which the rejection of medieval ideas need not necessarily have led.

Such are the general principles which lie at the root of all Machiavelli's teaching, and which serve to universalise all the particular rules and maxims with which his books are crowded. They have, with hardly an exception, their roots in the ancient world, and in nearly every case it can be shown how they were transmitted to him, and how by him the old material was forged and moulded into new shapes. It remains to enquire how they were applied to the necessities of his own age and country. In 1513, Machiavelli was ruined and discredited, ready to despair of Fortune's favour, and willing to accept even the humblest position which would enable him to be of use to himself and his city. Employment was slow in coming, and during enforced leisure he devoted himself to literature. The Prince and The Discourses were begun in 1513; The Art of War was published in 1521, and the eight books of The Florentine Histories were ready by 1525. All these works are closely related; in all the same principles are implied; no one of them is any more or less immoral than any of its fellows; they supplement each other, and by precept and example enforce the same conclusions. There is reason to believe that Machiavelli himself considered The Art of War the most