Machiavelli and traditional renaissance humanist ideas

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The late 14th through 16th centuries were a period of substantial political, economic, and religious reform in the European continent. The reform movement occurring at this time would later be coined the Renaissance or Rebirth, referring to the revival of antiquity and the humanities within European society. Renaissance scholars, artists, and writers were infatuated with the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and in particular, the emphasis of the ancient texts on the individual and statesmanship.

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Two Renaissance scholars who were particularly outspoken in their interest of these texts from antiquity were Niccolo Machiavelli and Baldassare Castiglione. Both authors were devout students of Roman literature from the likes of Thucydides and the famous orator and humanist Cicero. Cicero and the two renaissance authors had much in common which is perhaps why Cicero’s work had such a profound impact on them. In the year 60 BC, the empire of Rome was facing imminent threats from Lusitania and many other rogue nations. Cicero was very outspoken in his opposition of enemies of the state such as Mark Anthony and made very clear to the people of Rome in his speeches the guidelines for what an honorable and virtuous ruler and citizen must look like. Similarly, in Machiavelli and Castiglione’s time, Italy was under constant siege from nations such as England and France and Machiavelli made it a point in his The Prince to thoroughly lay out the parameters for an ideal individual and strong ruler of Italy. Ultimately, the common thread amongst the works of Castiglione, Machiavelli, and Cicero is the emphasis on how self-improvement and human achievement can benefit society and the individual.

The 1430’s were a tumultuous time in the Italian empire. Alexander Borgia had bribed his way into the papal office and there was a large power vacuum within which no central government or monarchy existed. Italy essentially consisted of many semi-autonomous city-states ruled by oligarchical families. This deeply troubled Machiavelli who was prompted to immediately seek out a position in the Florentine republic. Simultaneously, Machiavelli observed the groundwork of the Florentine Republic and published literature which called people to deeply reconsider how the government was being run and controlled. Machiavelli’s most famous work is titled The Prince wherein he lays out his apprehensions with the current political state of Italy and how they can be fixed. At this time of its publication, The Prince was highly criticized by clergymen and Italian humanists who challenged Machiavelli on the ethics of the work. The most famous and highly criticized line perhaps in the entire book comes in chapter 18 when Machiavelli writes Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result(The Prince Chapter 18, 74). In a sense, Machiavelli is defying traditional renaissance humanist ideas and in a sense stating that the end result of any action can therefore justify the means taken to get to that end result. Typical Renaissance humanist ideas are highly glorifying of mankind and encourage sincerity, morality, and trustworthiness amongst every child of God.

Here, however, Machiavelli is relaying quite a different message. Machiavelli recognizes the inherent corruption of Humans and urges the ruler of Italy to be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Machiavelli encourages deception, and a twisted form of prudence that allows the Prince to be praised for a job well done, and avoid blame for a negative situation. Most radically, however, Machiavelli poses that a Prince must not have any moral attachment or obligation to his own people. He claims that the kingdom can often achieve stability and cohesion without being loyal and benevolent to the masses. He claims that some of the best rulers are those without significant virtues: The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Additionally, Machiavelli fired back at his critics who claimed some of his ideas were too radical. He claimed that traditional Renaissance humanists preached upon a over-idealized and unrealistic view of the world. Machiavelli claims that he depicting what reality is like, and how a Prince can best suit himself for the wretch and deception that is inevitable in the real world. After studying antiquity for many years, Machiavelli claims that his foremost interest is in establishing New Monarchies that are created by a Prince through his own due diligence.

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