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Machiavelli and the survival of republics | Corrente

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Machiavelli and the survival of republics

Tony Wikrent's picture

Cross-posted from Real Economics.

A tip o' the hat to Avedon for pointing to this posting by a Renaissance scholar who has completed a year of living in Florence, explaining the historical context and significance of Machiavelli. The core theme is that Machiavelli sought above all else to protect and preserve the city of Florence, as a human triumph of art and architecture, but more importantly, as the admittedly imperfect embodiment of the idea of self government.

I found the article particularly interesting, and wanted to share it, because Gordon S. Wood, in his monumental study of the thinking and philosophy that underlie the American Revolution, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, identified Machiavelli as one of the important sources of Revolutionary thinking:

When the American Whigs described the English nation and government as eaten away by “corruption,” they were in fact using a technical term of political science, rooted in the writings of classical antiquity, made famous by Machiavelli, developed by the classical republicans of seventeenth-century England, and carried into the eighteenth century by nearly everyone who laid claim to knowing anything about politics. And for England it was pervasive corruption, not only dissolving the original political principles by which the constitution was balanced, but, more alarming, sapping the very spirit of the people by which the constitution was ultimately sustained.

The problem, of course, is that most people associate Machiavelli with duplicity, bribery, and deception in matters of government and state-craft. But as the Renaissance scholar explains, you have to understand what the "end" is in Machiavelli's famous (infamous?) phrase, "the end justifies the means."

Machiavelli did argue that the end justifies the means, and yes, he did mean it, but in his formulation “the end” was limited to one and only one very specific thing: the survival of the people under a government’s protection.

You must, of course, read the article to understand the full extent of the problems Machiavelli confronted as he struggled to ensure the survival of Florentines and Florence against nearly a dozen predatory imperial powers fighting over the spoils of Europe.



One of the books Wood cites is The Machiavellian Moment, by J. G. A. Pocock , who, as the Wikipedia entry puts it "posits a connection between republican thought in early 16th century Florence, English-Civil War Britain, and the American Revolution."According to the Wikipedia entry:

A "Machiavellian moment" is that moment when a new republic first confronts the problem of maintaining the stability of its ideals and institutions. Machiavellian thought was a response to a series of crises facing early 16th century Florence in which a seemingly virtuous state was on the cusp of destruction. In response, Machiavelli sought to revive classical republican ideals. Works like The Prince, some pre-English Civil War thinkers, and a group of American Revolutionary personalities all faced similar such moments and offered related sets of answers.

The Machiavellian Moment has come to represent the so-called republican synthesis, which holds that America was born with a fear of corruption and a desire to promote classical virtue.

Back to Wood:

Had not Machiavelli and Sidney both written that “all human Constitutions are subject to Corruption and must perish, unless they are timely renewed by reducing them to their first Principles”? The constitution’s disorder should have been an inevitable but temporary aberration, eventually correctible by the people. Yet everyone knew that the reducing the constitution to its first principles—“restoring it to its pristine Perfection”—was impossible if the people themselves had become corrupted and sunk in vice. Until the society itself had been infected, until there was “a general depravity of morals, a total alienation from virtue, a people cannot be completely enslaved.”

Our  Renaissance scholar touches this point when he or she discusses the historical foundation of Machiavelli.

Petrarch, father of Renaissance humanism, desperately wanted Florentines to love Florence as much as Romans had loved Rome, the ancient Romans that he read about in mangled copies of copies of copies of the beautiful, alien Latin of a lost world.  He read of the Consul Lucius Junius Brutus who ordered the execution of his own sons when they conspired against the Republic, while at the same time Florence was hiring noblemen from other cities to enforce her laws, and equipping these mercenary magistrates with a private fortress within the city walls (the Bargello) so they could endure siege when they arrested members of powerful Florentine families, and the families attacked to try to liberate their own.  He read of the golden peace forged by Augustus, even as rival Florentine families used meaningless factions like the Guelphs and Ghibbelines as excuses to make bloody civil war within the city’s walls.  He read of hero after hero who sacrificed their lives for Rome, as families took turns coming to power and persecuting or exiling their rivals, mingling grudges with politics in wholly selfish ways. Petrarch himself grew up in France because his father had been exiled in the squabbles between Black Guelphs and White Guelphs, and had gone to seek work in Avignon, where the French king had carried off the papacy because Rome and her neighbors were too weak to defend the capital from what had once been her own colony.  He was born in exile, as he put it, an exile in time as well as place, for his home should have been, not fractious Italy, but glorious Rome, and his neighbors Seneca and Cicero.

The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans.  If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome. 

In the Hall of Lilies (Sala dei Gigli), in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence: Donatello's Judith, celebrating the overthrow of tyrants.

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