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Machiavelli Post by :svein128 Category :Essays Author :William Cowper Brann Date :July 2011 Read :2010

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One of the best books issued this year is the thin pamphlet, you might call it, which contains Mr. John Morley's lecture on Machiavelli. It will repay any reader from what standpoint soever he may approach the character. "The veering gusts of public judgment have carried incessantly along, from country to country, and from generation to generation, with countless mutations of aspect and of inuendo, the sinister renown of Machiavelli."

Truly this man of all men, since Judas, has attained an immortality of infamy. Long was it thought that the common domestic title of the devil, "Old Nick," was an abbreviation of Machiavelli's Christian name. Hudibras fathered that myth, but now we know, Mr. Morley says, that the familiar appellation of the Evil One is a remnant of Norse mythology, deriving from Nyke, the water- goblin.

For three centuries all the evils of all political systems and policies have been attributed to the evils of Machiavelli's logic. Church and State alike have claimed he was the champion of the other's cause. He was Jesuit and atheist as it suited the turn of any vituperative polemist. He was Reformer and "Romanist" as the advocates of Rome or Reformation happened to interpret him. His is, certainly, an unique greatness. There has been in his work, as in all great works, something for all men; but that something has been always, for three centuries, something bad. It is no wonder, therefore, that there prevailed once, a belief that the Devil himself had written his chief book. I have always had an idea that Goethe in drawing Mephistopheles, glanced from the tail of his mind's eye at Machiavelli for a model. Machiaveli appears to come nearer than any human being to realizing the Goethe conception of Intellectual Evil.

The man, still, may be infamous, but--he is intensely human. The baseness of him has its basal strength in his founding upon man. He is the only realist philosopher. Besides him Bacon is a dreamer. Machiavelli was and is the master misanthrope, and,--God help us!--we must admit that his misanthropy only too well is founded on fact. He seems to have been the most perfect incarnation of that "accomplished and infamous Italy," which gave us the Borgias and the terrible Elizabethan plays of Tourneur, Webster and Ford, with their plots of incest and murder, that Italy which was a veritable Hell out of which rose the Renaissance. He was the philosophy of that Italy. He first said, in effect, that nothing succeeds like success. He first cast aside Plato and his dreaming and Aristotle and his elements. He was the father of the philosophy of "practical politics." Francis Bacon learned of Machiavelli, who "wrote what men do and not what they ought to do." This is the philosophy of fact. He dealt with men as he found them. He was a sublime, almost a diabolical opportunist I have often thought Benjamin Franklin, with his "honesty is the best policy," is another Machiavelli, only touched a little with the pharisaism of the Puritan. With the Italian anything that would win is the best policy, and this is his honest estimate of men. The best policy was the policy adopted, after looking the facts of life and of human nature squarely in the face and finding that the end was to be attained easiest either by honesty or dishonesty. To "get there," as we say, was the faith of Machiavelli.

Idea and ideal meant nothing to the author of "The Prince." What we know as "moral forces" this Italian ignored. He judged humanity by its lowest average of motive or intelligence. There was but one general law, for him, and that was that it was right to deceive, if force were of dubious effect, in affairs of State. It were well to be honest, if one could, as a ruler of the State, but it was his duty to rule and triumph by any means between the extremes of simple lying on the one hand, and poisons or other assassination on the other.

Machiavelli was born in 1469. He was a governmental secretary in Florence and met many of the strangely fine and fiendish characters of that time. He went on four missions to the King of France; was an intimate of Caesar Borgia; was an emissary of the Florentine republic to Pope Julius II, and was with Maximilian to Innsbruck. Those were stormy times, and Machiavelli studied the storms. He belonged to the popular party--and his masterpiece is a manual for tyrants. After 1512, with the return of the Medici, he lost his place, was imprisoned, was put to the torture, was amnestied by Leo X and withdrew to San Casciano, where he lived a life almost idyllic in its manner, to judge by a description from his own pen which Mr. Morley has incorporated in his lecture. It was there he wrote the book "The Prince," at forty- five, dedicating it to Lorenzo the Magnificent. The dedication was a bit of palaver to the tyrant who had destroyed Florentine freedom. It was several years before he was rewarded by a small employment and then he was commissioned to write the history of Florence which he finished and dedicated to Leo X, in 1527. Here, also, it is supposed, he wrote a comedy, much praised and unremembered. He was a shrewd man, as his writings aver, yet he made a failure of his own life, to a large extent. He was cheerful in his ill-fortune, however, and he "clung to public things," and, after his comedy, wrote the dialogues of the "Art of War," to induce his countrymen to substitute for mercenary armies a national militia--to-day one of the organic ideas of the European system. Just as Machiavelli entered public life Savonarola had gone to the stake for an idea. The spirit of Dante touched him not at all. He was a man of his time, but not of the very best of his time. And yet he wrote that he loved his country with his whole soul. Mr. Morley says, "and one view of Machiavelli is that he was always the lion masquerading in the fox's skin, an impassioned patriot, under all his craft and jest and bitter mockery. Even Mazzini, who explained the ruin of Italy by the fact that Machiavelli prevailed over Dante, admits that he had 'a profoundly heart.' " Machiavelli died in 1527.

He was a man of affairs. He had read the ancients who dealt with politics, and he assimilated what he read, Mr. Morley says that it was as true of Florence in the Sixteenth Century as of Athens, Corinth, Corcyra in the Fifth Century before Christ, as set forth in Thucydides, that it was a prey to intestine faction and the ruinous invocation of foreign aid. "These terrible calamities," says Thucydides, "always have been and always will be, while human nature remains the same. Words cease to have the same relations to things, and their meanings are changed to suit the ingenuities of enterprise and the atrocities of revenge. Frantic energy is the quality most valued, and the man of violence is always trusted. That simplicity which is a chief ingredient of a noble nature is laughed to scorn. Inferior intellects succeed best. Revenge becomes dearer than self-preservation, and men even have a sweeter pleasure in the revenge that goes with perfidy than if it were open." If any reader of the ICONOCLAST desires a splendid picture of this Italy, I refer him to Vernon Lee's "Euphorion," which pictures the land as an inferno. Mr. Morley, too, gives a vivid picture of the time, saying that Italy of that date "presents some peculiarities that shed over her civilization a curious and deadly irridescence." How one thinks of Ingalls and his "honesty in politics is an iridescent dream." To resume our Morley. "Passions moved it in strange orbits. Private depravity and political debasement went with one of the most brilliant intellectual awakenings in the history of the western world. Another dark element is the association of merciless selfishness, violence, craft and corruption with the administration of sacred things. If politics were divorced from morals, so was theology." Hired crime, stealthy assassination, especially by poison, prevailed. Contempt of human life, the fury of private revenge and the spirit of atrocious perfidy were characteristic of the luxurious Italian renaissance. Genius, according to John Addington Symonds, it was assumed, "released man from the shackles of ordinary mortality." These Italian tyrants were touched with the Neronian malady. They were mad with power, with luxury, with ennui. Flowers of Evil bloomed profusely. In Italy, fair as it was, with the poets singing everlastingly of Spring, it seemed God has forgotten the world. The demonaic fascination of the land, then, is something the reader finds difficult to shake off. You move among and hold converse with splendid cultured monsters. The church alone kept alive purity, though it did not escape corruption. I think Dante and Michael Angelo proved that the pure religious spirit was not dead in a time when it was proclaimed that "it is best to sleep and be of stone, not to see and not to feel, while such misery and shame endure." There was a spirit recognizing the "misery and shame," and that spirit was in the church. Mr. Morley admits that Michael Angelo was such a spirit and Dante wrote in "La Vita Nuova" the first, pure, spiritual love-poem of the world.

Environed thus, and with a peculiarly Italian morbidezza, or plasticity we find Machiavelli. Others before had written of politics, but Machiavelli "had the better talent of writing." He wrote to tell things clearly. Imagination he had none, as an historian, and his comedy is in Limbo. He is all intellectual strength, but the moral influence is missing. He is, says Mr. Morley, simple, unaffected, direct, vivid, rational. He is as literal as a woman. His literal statement is his finest effect of irony. Mr. Morley's analysis of the Machiavellian style is itself a masterpiece of serene expression, rising with a solemn sense of the fearful absence of all principle, as we understand it, in the work, to a richly eloquent, and even tender, tribute to the moral beauty of life. I wish I might transcribe it and I hope that many will read it. It is rarer than anything you may remember of Macaulay's essay upon the everlastingly execrable Florentine.

"Men are a little breed" might have been Machiavelli's motto. Or he might have said "the more I see of men the better I like dogs." He is remorseless in seeing only that men are ungrateful, fickle, deceivers, greedy of gain, run-aways before peril, readier to pay back injury than kindness. "Worst of all they take middle paths." Upon these, his observations, he proceeds to tell a story of a State and he tells it icily. He lays bare the foulness of man. He doesn't lecture, he does not preach, he never laughs, never scolds, is never surprised. He shows, says Mr. Morley about "as good a heart as can be made out of brains." In my opinion, that sentence is the most terrible indictment in the book. It marks him as a monster worse than Frankenstein.

Machiavelli has no opinion to argue about; nothing but men's passions as they were and are. He is alive, always and everywhere, because he shows us men. He maintains, according to Mr. Morley, that the world grows no better and no worse. There is for him no "one far-off, divine event to which the whole creation moves." Nothing for him but Power. Good and evil concern him not. He recited what we call a crime as impassively as he recited a virtue. So-and-so did such and such. This followed. That is all. He is a fatalist with no more sound philosophy than this: "It is better to be adventurous than cautious, for Fortune is a woman, and to be mastered must be boldly handled. He was a republican, but he believed that strength was the secret of government--strength in itself and in mastery of those who make up the State. No half-measures for him. The State is his idol, if he have one. The State must be supreme in will, in vigor, in intelligence; unflinching, unsparing, remorseless. The humility of Christ has no part in his scheme. He knows no mercy and no justice. One almost can admire his inhuman disregard of men. He cared as little for them as Napoleon. He scorns all gentleness. And yet he thought well of the people, of their prudence and stability. He deemed them liable to err as to generalities but apt to be right as to particulars. Our experience, I dare say, is otherwise--no matter how we stand on the financial question. "Better far," he repeats an hundred times, "than any number of fortunes is not to be hated by your people." Not to be hated! That was as near as he could come to love. He is opposed to dictators and he speaks out plainly enough, in his discourses, about the unwisdom of slaying fellow-citizens, betraying friends, being without mercy, without religion. He is conventional enough in all this. When he comes to describe the Prince, who is to save the divided State, he does so in lines that make a picture at once to fascinate and affright mankind.

The Prince must save the State. He must be as good as he can be; at least, he must have no vices that will hurt the State, i. e. endanger his government. There are but two ways to govern, by law or force. The Prince must rule by one or the other, as necessity may dictate. He must mingle the lion and the fox. A Prince cannot keep faith, if keeping faith will hurt the State. Why? Because others will not keep faith with him. "It is frequently necessary--and here is the sentence that has done so much to damn its writer--for the upholding of the State, to go to work against faith, against Charity, against humanity, against religion; and a new Prince cannot observe all the things for which men are reckoned good." Reason of State is the only universal test for an action. Anything that may preserve the State is right. I wonder what Professor Felix Adler would think of this, with his proposal to make the State "take the place of the personal deity that is passing out of men's lives. Machiavelli was a fetich worshipper of the State. Preserve the State, say Machiavelli regardless of justice, or pity, or honor! As Diderot, quoted by Mr. Morley, said of this, it is an argument which should be headed, "The Circumstances under which it is right for a Prince to be a Scoundrel."

Caesar Borgia, the fiend, was Machiavelli's model, a man who rivalled all the atrocities of the worst Roman emperors. But Borgia failed. That matters not to Machiavelli. His failure was "due to the extreme malignity of fortune." Mr. Morley's rapid sketch of Caesar Borgia, ferocious, lustful in insane ways, treacherous, splendidly vile, is a glance into the Hell that was Italy. Machiavelli was in this man's train and frankly admired him and his methods. All the men of the times seemed to be wild beasts, and Borgia was as courageous, supple and sly as those with whom he dealt. Machiavelli, to do him justice, thought that Caesar Borgia and his father, the Pope, had design to pacify and to unify Italy. They worked with the material and with the tools to hand. Men did not shudder at treachery and assassination in those days. We must judge men by their surroundings. And it is difficult, even now, vide Turkey and Greece, "to govern the world by paternosters." As Mr. Morley says, "It is well to take care lest in blaming Machiavelli for openly prescribing hypocrisy, men do not slip unperceived into something like hypocrisy of their own. Each age has its own hypocrisy. Mr. Morley traces the influences of Machiavelli, and finds them strong in William the Silent, Henry of Navarre, and Good Queen Bess. All these rulers dallied with creeds and were diplomats to the Machiavellian limit of duplicity. They burned and hanged and tortured on the plea of the strong State. Frederick, the Great, too, Mr. Morley classes as a pupil of Machiavelli, though, once, the "crank" on tall grenadiers threatened to write a refutation of "The Prince" and thereby drew from Arouet de Voltaire a characteristic mot. Napoleon, with his "reasons of State," was Machiavellian. Machiavelli presided at the shooting of D'Engheim. It was one of the last things which showed "what reason of State may come to, in any age, in the hands of a logician with a knife in his grasp."

From the influence of Machiavelli upon the Absolutists, Mr. Morley comes down to his influence in the Republican camp. Mazzini, he says "could not curse the dagger" and yet Mazzini was "in some respects the loftiest moral genius of the century." Mr. Morley does not believe that Machiavellism has pervaded party politics in Europe or America. I wonder if this be not a sample of Mr. Morley's Machiavellism--a reason of state at this time. If not Machiavellism, what, in God's name, are our platform straddles, our expediency candidates, our deals and dickers in tariff-bills, our endeavors to catch all kinds of votes from all kinds of "interests." I am not a silverite, but the regular Democrats made and out-and-out platform and did not hedge. I am a Democrat and glad that, though it "split us wide open," we fought out the issue just as we fought out the slavery issue. True Democrats, gold or silver, despise only the Machiavellists who talk of compromise. Machiavelli seems to have seen but one side of life--the worse. He knew but one kind of men--Italians of the sixteenth century. They were not normal. It is true that Nature is not moral, but if Machiavelli be right it were just as well that we should return to the conditions of life in Stanley Waterloo's "Story of Ab." Whether Nature be moral or not, at least men are. We must look at the facts. We have civilized our code of warfare. The greatest living diplomat is Leo XIII, and no one deems that he succeeds by deceit. Bismark says there is no success in lying, in diplomacy. Reasons of State are not, in the common consent of mankind, good reasons per se. "Talleyrand was false to every one but true to France." He was an avatar of Machiavelli, and he is despised, universally.

The Roman State has passed away. The Venetian and the Florentine States have passed. All the supreme States have vanished and they begun to fade just as soon as the Machiavellian idea began to prevail. The State is not the end of the existence of people. The State must grow broader and broader until, let us hope, we shall see "the parliament of man, the federation of the world." Our sympathy with Cuba, with the Armenians, with Ireland, with Poland, rises up to refute Machiavelli and his right of the State to crush for mere pleasure of power. "If Machiavelli had been at Jerusalem two thousand years ago, he would have found nobody of importance save Pontius Pilate and the Roman legionaries," says Mr. Morley. He forgot the moral force of the world. Machiavelli's fault is the Renaissance fault. The Renaissance turned to the past to reconstruct everything, and it copied, save in its architecture, only Antiquity's faults. It became diseased, trying to adjust itself to dead things. Life itself became corrupted; the Renaissance was to a large extent a birth out of degeneration.

Machiavelli was a scientist--a vivisectionist I should say. He preached, with a vengeance, the survival of the fittest. He is vital in his books today because he stands for the vitality of men's passions. He saw them and studied them and knew them. But upon passions nothing ever was builded. They shift and change. They cannot give a foundation of permanency to a State. They were the essence of that chaos out of which he thought to bring order in anarchic Italy, working on them and on them alone. Cunning, jealousy, perfidy, ingratitude, dupery were the instruments with which he would fashion out a State. And he knew that the State so wrought could not last, for he said the world grew no better; what made his State destroyed it, inevitably. Machiavelli ignored charity, which is in itself, justice, fidelity, gratitude, honesty and all the virtues. He was a man without hope and a man without love. What a great sad mad man he was, indeed. St. Louis, November 15.

(The end)
William Cowper Brann's essay: Machiavelli

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