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Machiavelli: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Machiavelli: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Machiavelli in just one hour.Niccolò Machiavelli’s work remains misunderstood – synonymous with wicked scheming and underhand politics – nearly 350 years after his death. His philosophy of statecraft was scientific and highly rational, leaving sentiment, and ultimately morality, to one side. His advice is as relevant to modern politics as it was during the Renaissance – and reflects many profound and disturbing truths about the human condition.Here is a concise, expert account of Machiavelli’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Machiavelli’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Machiavelli in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u3f413c48-1f02-5a57-a930-f3a1f6b6fbc0)

Title Page (#u28b62247-c7ac-5e24-8b23-76b69026347d)

Introduction (#uc02f2e2f-09e6-5324-9675-5c963b07c845)

Machiavelli’s Life and Works (#ub95efce9-e12f-5cf1-9a14-47f5eceb9a23)

Afterword (#litres_trial_promo)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Machiavelli’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Machiavelli’s Life and Times (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Introduction (#ulink_c5e87014-de72-5381-8d90-3805de439a4e)

Machiavelli’s name sends a shiver down the spine. More than 350 years after his death it remains almost synonymous with evil. Yet Machiavelli was not an evil man. And as we shall see, his political philosophy was not evil in itself. It was just extremely realistic.

Our reaction says something about us rather than about Machiavelli. The philosophy of statecraft that he put forward aimed at being scientific. This meant there was no room for sentiment or compassion – or even, ultimately, morality.

Machiavelli’s masterpiece, the single short work for which he will always be remembered, is The Prince. This is a book of advice to a prince on how to run his state. It is highly rational, psychologically perceptive, and addresses the heart of the matter with no nonsense. If you are a prince running a state, your chief aim is to remain in power and run your state to your best advantage. Machiavelli sets down how to do this, using a wealth of historical examples, and with a complete lack of sentimentality. No pussyfooting about: here’s the formula.

Machiavelli’s political philosophy intimately reflects his life, times, and circumstances. Most of his life was spent deeply involved in the politics of Renaissance Italy. As his life progresses, we see the lineaments of his philosophy beginning to emerge, feature by feature, until suddenly he falls from grace and is stripped of all that he considers to be his life. Bereft, and in complete despair, he sits down and writes his masterpiece, The Prince. In just a few months of supreme inspiration, he delivers himself of his entire political philosophy, complete and intact. Its harshness reflects the harshness of the political life he has seen, as well as the harshness of the blow he has just experienced. But this is more than just a political philosophy of its time. Machiavelli’s thought pinpoints a central aspect of the political philosophy of all time – from Alexander the Great to Saddam Hussein. And as we shall see, it also reflects one of the most profound, and profoundly disturbing, truths of the human condition.

Machiavelli’s Life and Works (#ulink_809cd9b5-87d9-519e-bfc3-cfe7f30c7306)

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. He came from an old Tuscan family, which had in the past achieved some eminence – though his was not one of the great powerful families of Florence, such as the Pazzi bankers or the Medici. And by the time Niccolò arrived on the scene, his branch of the family had fallen on hard times.

Machiavelli’s father Bernardo was a lawyer who had fallen foul of the tax man and been declared an insolvent debtor. As such he was forbidden by law from practicing his profession. But no lawyer can be expected to take the law literally. Bernardo managed to practice on the quiet, offering cut-rate service for those who found themselves in an impecunious position similar to this own. His only other source of income was the small estate he had inherited, seven miles south of Florence on the road to Siena. This was an idyllic spot amidst the Tuscan hills, but the grapes and goat cheese hardly provided enough cash to support a family. Life was austere at casa Machiavelli. As Niccolò later remarked: ‘I learned to do without before I learned to enjoy’. Bernardo could afford no formal education for his son. Occasionally a scholar on hard times would be hired as a tutor. But Bernardo had not always been a broken-down lawyer. He had his own library, and young Niccolò was soon reading extensively, especially in classical texts. The pale, deprived boy found his imagination fired by the wonders of ancient Rome.

The isolated child gave way to a solitary adolescent with an apprehensive, sidelong look, which made him appear curiously guilty. He became aware of the world around him: coolly measuring himself against it, measuring it against what he knew from his reading. Even in his isolation he couldn’t help realising his superior intelligence. Likewise, he quickly perceived the new humanist outlook that was beginning to permeate so many aspects of the city around him. Florence was emerging from the intellectual torpor of medieval life: the city felt awake, alive, self-confident. Italy was leading Western civilization into the Renaissance. It was possible to dream that Italy might again be united and great, as it had been in the days of the Roman Empire. The perceptive young Niccolò began seeing (and imagining) resemblances between the city around him and Rome at the height of its power: the Rome of the second century A.D., in the era leading up to Marcus Aurelius, stoic philosopher, general, emperor. This was the period when the empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to Hadrian’s Wall, when the Senate still had sufficient power to make itself heard, when the citizens of Rome had been happiest and most prosperous. Heady stuff for a quicksilver young mind whose broken father could provide no role model. Instead, history would provide a more abstract dream.

Machiavelli’s understanding of the heyday of the Roman Empire was not clouded by the rhetoric of an erudite teacher. Yet he certainly attended some of the public lectures given by the great humanist scholars who were then making Florence the intellectual centre of Europe. Characteristic of these was the poet and humanist Politian, protégé and close friend of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Politian was one of the finest poets of the post-Dante era, his verse combining rhetorical flourishes of classical brilliance with the directness and vivacity of everyday Florentine Italian. The scholars at the University of Florence quickly learned how to mimic this elegant poesy. Unhampered by intellectual fashion, Machiavelli began turning this same Florentine Italian into a more clear and direct prose, combining formal manner with popular usage. The Italian language was in its infancy. It had evolved from Florentine dialect less than two centuries earlier, displacing Latin as the literary language. Yet it had already produced its greatest poet (Dante), and in Machiavelli it was now about to produce its finest prose writer.

After the public lectures the young scholars would linger in the Piazza della Signoria, swapping opinions, the latest news on the affairs of the day, gossip. The cool young man with the snide look was soon noticed. His ironic barbs, his witticisms (especially at the expense of the clergy), his piercing intellectual insights, all made their mark. Just as he intended they should. Niccolò knew what he was doing: he was establishing himself. (And almost without realising it, he was also creating himself.) He may have had only modest social standing, but he knew he was better than any of them. His mockery provided a suitable mask for such contemptuous conceit. And in his own way Machiavelli soon established himself as the life and soul of the party. The way to succeed was to win popularity. Only the more perceptive among his friends noticed the cool heart that lay behind the mask. Either through pity, respect, or curiosity, this often endeared him to them all the more. A cool heart was a rare phenomenon among the volatile young bloods of Renaissance Florence.

But how was it that Florence, of all places, had become the centre of the Renaissance? Here was a city with little political or military clout, yet it had achieved an influence out of all proportion to its provincial standing.

The obvious answer is money. The Florentine merchant bankers, such as the Medici, Pazzi, and Strozzi families, controlled the new technology of their age. Merchant banking was the revolutionary communication technology of its time. Its development during the fourteenth century had gradually transformed trade and communication throughout Europe. Wealth could be transmitted, in the form of credit or bank drafts, from one end of the continent to another, freeing trade from the customary restraints of barter or cash payment. Silks and spices arriving overland from the Far East at Beirut could be purchased by means of financial transfer and shipped to Venice.

The second oldest profession is the middleman, and one of the invariable rules of money-handling is that some of it always adheres to each hand through which it passes. Sealskins and whale oil, shipped from Greenland to Brugge, could be used to pay papal dues, which could then be transferred by banker’s draft to the Vatican in Rome. And here lay the heart of the matter. Papal revenues were extracted from parishes, dioceses, and rulers throughout Christendom – which, regardless of national borders, then stretched from Portugal to Sweden, from Greenland to Cyprus. Only the greatest banking houses, with trusted branches along the trade routes throughout Europe, could handle the transfer of such widespread income, from its far-flung sources, along the converging tributaries, to its ultimate mouth. Inevitably there was great competition for this prize account, involving all the usual skills associated with great banking enterprises: political chicanery, bribery, creative accounting, and so forth. And by 1414 the Medici had finally secured the big one: they were the papal bankers. Similar manoeuvres enabled the Medici family to gain control of the ostensibly democratic republican government of Florence. By 1434 Cosimo de’ Medici was not only the richest man in Europe, but Florence had become his own private princedom in all but name.

The city now flourished as never before, achieving international renown. The local coin, the florin (named after the city), became the dollar of its day. Among the chaos of European coinage (where countries frequently had several different currencies in circulation), the florin was recognised as the international monetary standard. Similarly, financial transaction played its role in establishing the Florentine dialect as the Italian language. Money soon bred a self-confidence that cast aside the traditional medieval outlook, ignoring the intellectual stranglehold of the church. Biblical homilies concerning wealth (‘It is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter heaven,’ etc.) were reinterpreted in the light of current reality: the pages of the Medici banking ledgers were blatantly headed: ‘In the name of God and profit.’

But cash alone didn’t account for Florence’s preeminence. It was how the cash was spent. The Medicis’ close association with the church gave them access to the intimate workings of this flourishing commercial organisation (even cardinals had bank accounts devoted purely to expenditure on their mistresses). Despite such disillusioning disclosures, the Medici remained firm and unquestioning believers in Christianity. Yet the fact remained that the central function of banking – namely, usury – was expressly and unequivocally forbidden by the Bible. (‘Thou shalt not lend thy money for interest.’ Leviticus 24:37. ‘Do not take usury.’ Exodus 22:25, and so on and so forth.)

As Cosimo de’ Medici became older, he became increasingly perturbed. To assuage his guilt (and perhaps buy himself a lesser period of hellfire and damnation) he began lavishing extravagant sums on refurbishing churches, building new ones, and decorating them with the finest works of art. The Medici became the greatest private patrons of the arts the world has ever seen. Painting, architecture, literature, scholarship – all flourished as a result of Medici beneficence.

The new humanist self-confidence and generous patronage combined with, and encouraged, a resurgence in the learning of ancient Greece and Rome. This was the real Renaissance (literally ‘rebirth’). During the Middle Ages the remnants of classical learning that had survived in Europe had become smothered in the teachings of Scholasticism, the original texts obscured by centuries of Christian ‘interpretation’. But other texts that had survived in the Middle East now began reaching Europe. Their clarity and learning came as a revelation. Philosophy, the arts, architecture, mathematics, literature – all were to be transformed by this rebirth of ancient knowledge. Our entire way of seeing the world was transformed. Existence was no longer just an endurance test in preparation for the next world, it was an arena in which one displayed one’s skills. The young Machiavelli lapped it up. Here was his opportunity. He would see life as it is, not as it ought to be.

Meanwhile Florence began attracting the finest talents in Italy, which at the time was culturally the most advanced country in Europe. During the latter years of the fifteenth century, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli all worked in Florence. Minds of the calibre of Leonardo were attracted to the city. And Florence gave, too: among Machiavelli’s friends was Amerigo Vespucci, who was to become an early explorer of the New World (which is called after his Christian name). The great future historian of Italy, Francesco Guicciardini, was also a friend, and together he and Machiavelli attended public lectures given by the greatest Renaissance philosopher of them all, the dazzlingly brilliant Pico della Mirandola, another protégé of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Pico challenged the finest minds in Europe to debate his conclusions with him when, at just twenty-three, he achieved the accolade of being accused of heresy by the pope himself, and was to die at just thirty-one. Machiavelli was not alone in admiring Pico, whom Michelangelo referred to as ‘a man almost divine’. Pico’s orations and treatises on such subjects as human dignity are the epitome of Renaissance thought. They succeed in combining Christian theology, the finest elements of classical philosophy, and curious remnants of hermetic thinking (such as alchemy, magic, and ideas from the Cabala). On the other hand, his thinking was often highly scientific. And his attack on astrology (in fact, from a religious point of view) was to have a formative effect on the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler in his ideas on planetary motion.

This curious mixture of Christian theology, classical thought, embryonic scientific attitude, and medieval magic was typical of contemporary thinking. The Renaissance marks the definitive break between the Middle Ages and the Age of Reason. It straddles both eras, and many of the finest minds of this period contained elements of both ages. Shakespeare’s world, for instance, is intoxicated with a heady brew of humanistic individualism and medieval superstition. (Not for nothing did classical French taste regard him as a barbarian until well into the nineteenth century.) Likewise, the new science of chemistry relied for its methodology upon the techniques of alchemy.

Machiavelli was to be something of an exception here. Possibly owing to his self-education, he retained a mind of his own. His writings were to be largely (and scandalously) free of illusion or superstition, though his letters reveal that he did subscribe, perhaps semi-ironically, to the usual nonsense of astrology and current Florentine superstitions.

The apotheosis of Renaissance Florence was achieved under Lorenzo the Magnificent, who reigned from 1478 until the year Columbus reached America. Lorenzo the Magnificent was the grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, by then know as pater patriae (father of the country). Lorenzo undoubtedly lived up to his appendage. Statesman, patron of the arts, and poet, his achievement in any one of these spheres would have ensured him a place in Italian history. The citizens of Florence appreciated the greatness he was bringing to their city, and he in turn encouraged a resplendent, carefree atmosphere with regular carnivals, spectacular processions, and tournaments. The perceptive Guicciardini described Lorenzo as ‘a benevolent tyrant in a constitutional republic’.

Yet beneath the surface glitter Florentine society retained its darker side: bitter scheming and a testosterone-fueled social volatility. The peacock costumes of silk hose and velveteen doublets were worn with daggers and swords. These may have been for show (as Freud would have recognised), but they were not merely ornamental. Eruptions of sudden and deadly violence were all too frequent.

Machiavelli himself would certainly have witnessed the worst of these: the so-called Pazzi Conspiracy. This occurred in 1478, just after the Pazzi family had managed to take over as papal bankers. (Lorenzo was as magnificent a spender as his grandfather had been a saver: even his most loyal supporters recognised that he was temperamentally not cut out to be a bank manager.) Having taken over the main money supply, the Pazzi were now determined to take over Florence as well.

The Pazzi family hatched a plot to assassinate Lorenzo and his younger brother Giuliano during Easter Mass, while their confederate, the archbishop of Pisa, was to occupy the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the elected council and the gonfalonier (the official elected ruler of the city). Members of the Medici and Pazzi families headed the Easter procession, mingling casually arm in arm as they entered the cathedral. On the given signal (the elevation of the Host by the priest), the Pazzis abruptly unsheathed their daggers. Giuliano was stabbed to death before the altar, one of his assassins attacking him in such a frenzy that he plunged his knife into his own leg and was unable to take further part in the proceedings. At the same time Lorenzo frantically defended himself with his sword while his companion Politian came to his aid. The intervention of his poet-friend saved Lorenzo’s life, and he managed to escape into the sacristy with only a slice-wound to the neck.

Meanwhile, less than a quarter of a mile away in the Palazzo Vecchio the other part of the plot was unfolding. The archbishop of Pisa, dressed in full episcopal regalia, set off upstairs to the council chamber, followed unobtrusively by the other Pazzi conspirators. He encountered the gonfalonier, who immediately became suspicious and called the guards. The archbishop was seized and questioned. As soon as the gonfalonier discovered what was happening, he peremptorily ordered the archbishop to be hung. The cleric was bound and flung out the window in full episcopal regalia with a rope around his neck. A moment later his leading Pazzi confederate was flung out after him, also with a rope around his neck. The jeering crowd below watched as the two bound men dangled from the overhanging window, desperately biting into each other in the attempt to save themselves. In the distance could be heard a baying chorus from outside the cathedral, as the crowd tore the remaining conspirators apart limb from limb.

The effect of such a scene on the young Machiavelli can only be imagined. He had witnessed history, an event that would never be forgotten. It was quick, decisive, and horrific. And victory went to the one who had acted quickest, most decisively, and most horrifically. (Do unto others as they would do unto you – but do it first, and do it conclusively.) Such was Machiavelli’s formative political education.

But even the Florentines were eventually to tire of such sensational public entertainments. The popularity of the Medici waned, and external events inflicted serious defeats. In 1494, just two years after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Medici lost control and were forced to flee the city. This event was precipitated by the entry of the French king Charles VIII and his victorious troops into Florence, an unheard-of event. Although the occupation of Florence by Charles VIII proved largely symbolic, and ended in a few days, it marked a new phase in Florentine politics. Wars had become serious: the city was in danger of losing its independence to a foreign power. Standing among the silent crowds as Charles VIII rode in triumph through the streets, his lance held high, Machiavelli felt deeply shamed to see his city so humiliated. He felt shame as a Florentine and shame as an Italian. Here was yet another formative political lesson taking place before his eyes. (Only a united Italy could repel the might of the French.)

With the Medici gone, Florence now fell under the influence of the firebrand priest Savonarola, who railed against the corruption of the papacy (a rich source indeed for sermons on the frailties of the flesh). The Ayatollah Khomeini of his day, Savonarola introduced a regime of hellfire sermons and hell-on-earth abstinence. The joyous days of festivals and spectacular assassination attempts were over. Savonarola instituted ‘the bonfire of the vanities’. Citizens surrendered their fine artworks and fine attire to the blazing pyre (though they prudently withheld their finest artworks and finest attire for another day).
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