Summary by Lewis G. Miller
A few week ago we uploaded ‘Machiavelli’s Enemies,’ a slightly exaggerated title but covering an important issue. In Chapter 15, as we discussed in the preceding episode, Machiavelli sought to distance himself from a number of particular elements in the scholarship on governance. Firstly, Machiavelli wanted a political code which functioned within the limits of the real world, not an idealised state. Secondly, Machiavelli wanted to view humans as imperfect and limited in their abilities to rise above all sin. Thirdly, political action is to be dictated by what is necessary in particular times, acting wrongly if the ends justify the means. But who are these scholars he was distancing himself from?
Before I go through those books, I thought I’d outline my imperfect methodology. In Florence’s centre is the Laurentian Library, which holds many of the city’s oldest books. Find some books on the topic of governance, and look through its collections, and you’ll find books that people in that age were likely exposed to. There is no empirical link between Florence owning a book in Machiavelli’s time and him reading it, or discussing it, but such a method allows us to narrow the potential number of books he might have been exposed to somewhat. As he doesn’t cite his references, I can only speculate.
The first, perhaps the most obvious, work Machiavelli distances himself from is that of the Bible. Machiavelli’s relationship with religion is something one can read a great deal of conflicting opinions upon, but what is a clear distinction of Machiavelli from his predecessors is that Kings do not rule to be free from sin. Often, early ‘Mirrors for Princes’ were written by Christian scholars, such as Giles of Rome’s De Regimine Principum (On the Rule of Princes) or Augustine of Hippo’s De Civitate Dei (The City of God). Machiavelli’s indifference to sin, should it secure the state, is a clear move away from Christian teachings, as is his code of limited generosity for political purposes, rather than for a Christian love for charity for spiritual reasons.
The other two scholars who come to mind, and which Machiavelli no doubt came into contact with, are Plato and Aristotle. When talking about ‘ideal societies,’ the hypothetical Republic created by Plato in his book ‘The Republic’ springs to mind, alongside his often abstract manner of discussing politics and virtue. Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’ are worth a mention too, of which there are plenty of essays online surrounding the disagreements between its contents and ‘The Prince’s’.
The main scholar we discuss in this episode is dear old Cicero, whose work ‘De Officiis’ is something of a forgotten classic. Its forgotten nature is why I chose to look at him specifically, and what makes his work so intriguing. We know that Machiavelli’s father borrowed a copy for himself a few times in the 1470s, as well as can see that the book was widely read and referenced throughout this time period, so it seems likely that Machiavelli likely learned something from his works.
Cicero’s argument, to simplify it somewhat, is that good leadership and reputation requires the leader to be virtuous in the sense that they must be honest, keep their promises, be generous, self-controlled and avoid harming others. Politically, the respect and care which Princes receive from their citizens through showing such virtues causes the ruled to more readily follow them. Cicero advises against rule through fear, surmising that ‘him whom they fear, they hate; and him who all men hate they would see dead.’
Yet Machiavelli’s relationships to these texts is more nuanced that mere opposition. Machiavelli’s ideas on generosity is instrumental, but both his and Cicero’s generous Prince are both so within their means and without the need for over-taxation. Machiavelli uses a similar approach to Cicero on the concept of fortune too, of which Cicero writes ‘Is anyone unaware that Fortune plays a major role in both success and failure? When we coast on her favouring breeze, we are borne to the outcome which we desire, but when she blows in our faces we are in deep trouble.’
As always, we go into much more detail in this episode, particularly on the issue of Cicero and Machiavelli. In our next few episodes, we begin our discussion of Machiavelli’s most famous chapters on fear, parsimony, and dishonesty.