Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/250

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to a people in instituting laws, in shaping civil society, in framing new statutes and ordinances, a people has the same superiority in preserving what is established." It is doubtful whether Machiavelli ever contemplated the creation of an enduring monarchy in Italy; the continuance of an absolute power would, he believed, corrupt the State. He was on the whole sanguine as to the possibilities of popular rule; he thought it reasonable to compare the voice of the people to the voice of God, and held with Cicero that the masses, though ignorant, may come to understand the truth. But the drastic reform contemplated by him could not be achieved under republican institutions, which could only work satisfactorily among a people whose character was sound. Corruption had gone too far in Italy; "it is corrupt above all other countries." Moreover "a people, into whom corruption has thoroughly entered, cannot live in freedom, I do not say for a short time, but for any time at all." By "corruption" Machiavelli understood primarily the decay of private and civic morality, the growth of impiety and violence, of idleness and ignorance; the prevalence of spite, license, and ambition; the loss of peace and justice; the general contempt of religion. He meant also dishonesty, weakness, disunion. These things, he knew well, are the really decisive factors in national life. For the restoration of old ideals and the inauguration of a new golden age, he ex hypothesi looked to the State. And the State is plastic; it is as wax in the hands of the legislator; he can "stamp upon it any new form."

The drift of such arguments is obvious. "It may be taken for a general rule that a republic or kingdom is never, or very rarely, well organised at its beginning, or fundamentally renovated by a reform of its old institutions, unless it is organised by one man.... Wherefore the wise founder of a commonwealth, who aims, not at personal profit but at the general good, and desires to benefit not his own descendants but the common motherland, ought to use every effort to obtain the authority for himself alone; and no wise intellect will ever find fault with any extraordinary action employed by him for founding an empire or establishing a republic. For though the act accuses him, the result excuses him." There were, besides, other reasons which led Machiavelli to believe that in 1513 the undivided force of a despot was needed. In every decaying State a class of men is to be found who, whether the degenerate survivors of the old feudal nobility or upstart signori with no authoritative title at all, are the enemies of all reform, and who cannot otherwise be suppressed. These gentiluomini "live in idleness and plenty on the revenues of their estates, without having any concern with their cultivation or undergoing any labour to obtain a livelihood. They are mischievous in every republic and in every country; yet more mischievous still are those who, besides being so situated, command fortified places and have subjects who obey them. The kingdom of Naples, the territory of