“The World’s Great Age begins anew
A Work in Exile
the golden years return,
The Earth like a snake doth renew
Here winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
~ P.B. Shelley, “Hellas”
“I have been censured for using analogy to excess, for using it in its mythological form concurrently with the scientific method of reasoning, for using it as a substitute for reasoning, and using it, in its mythological form, at all. I have also been offered an acquittal on condition of my agreeing to be labeled a poet, or even a musician, rather than a historian. I plead guilty.” – Arnold J. Toynbee, Study of History, “Reconsiderations”, v.12, p. 37 (Oxford, 1961)
Like many of our historical categorizations in the West, the term “Renaissance
” never had grand connotations in the period to which it refers. First coined by French historian E.J. Delecluze, he used it to describe the flowering of several small Italian republics in the 15-16th centuries as its cultural elite revived a long buried Hellenism
. Toynbee asserts, in fact, there have been many renaissances in history, which occur whenever there is “an encounter between a grown-up civilization and the ghost of its long-dead parent.” Many writers, each in their own time, shrink before such a monumental vision of the past. They deny tradition, they focus on the minutia or trivia of the day, they escape into fantasy or unreason. But the rare ones begin a dialogue with the past, be it poetic and sweeping or practically philosophical. They extract the lessons, recast the events, rethink the implications. And no greater example of this can be found from the Renaissance
itself than the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius
, written over ten lonely years in exile by Niccolo Machiavelli
Machiavelli died in obscurity in 1527
, still awaiting his recall to the Italian courts of power. The only respite for the last part of his life was history. Like other Latinate exiles (both Ovid
suffered the same fate), M. worked diligently in his isolation, producing first The Prince
, then his The Art of War
, as well as poetry and a brilliant comedy Mandragola
. But his coup de grace
is without a doubt his Discourses
. They completely eclipse in scope and depth the often pithy prescriptions and simplification offered in The Prince
, and in fact amend or even correct many of the political leanings still often attributed to him. That earlier book, after all, was little more than a 16th century version of a consultant’s report to management, a kind of stream-lined primer for aristocrats preoccupied with gossip, gambling and gorging.
”The majority of those who read history take pleasure only in the variety of the events which history relates, without ever thinking of imitating the noble actions, deeming that not only difficult but impossible – as though Heaven, the sun, the elements had changed…and were different from what they were in ancient times.” ~ N. Machiavelli, Discourses, fr. the Introduction, Book I, 105.
In contrast, his careful commentary and elaborations on early Rome (as presented to him by the Augustan Age historian Livy) is an interstitial, elaborate masterstroke, the quality of which had probably not been last seen in Christendom since Augustine penned his City of God
. But whereas Augustine had obsessed over Rome’s collapse (and more specifically hoped to refute the notion that Christianity was somehow to blame), Machiavelli wants to extricate the reasons for Rome’s rise and how those lessons might be applied to his own Italy specifically, or any state searching for greatness. This may sound a reasonable pursuit to our ears, but at the time, such an undertaking would have been deemed impossible: the Medieval chroniclers had long lost all but the most tenuous grasp of Antiquity
’s events, and knew only their local lines and Biblical exegesis upon the past. Machiavelli must have seemed at best a mystic, but more likely a sorcerer, for claiming such an acute vision of the past.
“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind – for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see – and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” – Livy, intro. Book I.
For anyone even vaguely familiar with the politics of Machiavelli, or at least those applied to him by tradition, reading the Discourses provides one with quite a jolt. The trademark bleak realism
is still there, M. wracked as he was with the punishment of speaking his mind: “…men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature…men act right only upon compulsion.” (I, iii, 117-8) This is the same man, after all, who first quipped it must be better to be feared than loved. But the granularity of his approach is better articulated here, and his intuitive exercises more poignant. The sixth chapter of the first book, for example, launches a counter-historical question: what other form of government – Venetian
perhaps – might have kept the Roman imperium
alive. He quickly derives the paradox of all empires, and all political might, that “to have removed the cause of trouble from Rome would have been to deprive her of her power.” (127)
In the chapters to follow (still the first book), he goes on to disabuse his readers’ common misconceptions about Rome: that the city that would govern the world began as a modest immigrant settlement at best (I, viii), that the Roman elites always seemed to prefer their leaders to be schemers instead of sober (I, x), that religious piety, not dour discipline, was the key to the Roman outlook and her peoples' success (I, xi). This last maxim is elaborated carefully, lest readers accuse M. of his old cynicism toward religion, and he writes: “And as the observance of divine institution is the cause of the greatness of republics, so the disregard of them produces their ruin – for where the fear of God is wanting, there the country will come to ruin.” (148)
Now this certainly is not the Machiavelli most of his acolytes like to emphasize. Just like Toynbee four centuries later, any political thinker who underscores religion tends to be sneered at, but as Marx wrote once, “religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world,’ and any historian who sidelines spirituality in favour of the secular is overlooking a vast element of human life. Even in Machiavelli’s own time, commerce and political posturing seemed to be sweeping any real spirituality aside, and he was sickened by his countrymen’s crass materialism
, writing “there is not greater indication of the ruin of a country than to see religion condemned.” (I, xii) Hardly a neo-realist
aphorism, here M. is showing his own humanist
colours, so often wrapped up in his own dark formulations; though he cannot resist a last dig, pointing out that “the nearer people are to the Church of Rome
, which is the head of our religion, the less religious they are.” (151) His point finally is that religion is the greatest pillar of any republic, and certainly he gets no more glee out of displaying this as when he outlines the importance of auspices and soothsaying in Rome’s military. (I, xiii) We are given wonderful accounts of the Pollari
, for example, the sacred birds fed before any prospective battle to see if the omens were on the Roman side.3
All that said, the true insight M. brings to the reader through his commentary on Livy lies in his ability to abstract higher principles from the materials of the past. In the whole eight books of the work, he never once quotes Livy verbatim, never inserts a single stumbling passage or side note. He is speaking directly to his audience, and at times comes far closer to sounding like Luther than Livy, like when he writes “one man cannot live long enough to have time to bring a people back to good habits which for an length of time has indulged in evil ones.” (I, xvii) That nebulous term, corruption
, so often offered up as an explanation for failed states, declining powers and debased peoples is nowhere better outlined than by Machiavelli and his take on Roman power:
”For after the Romans had subjugated Africa and Asia, and had nearly reduced all of Greece to their obedience, they felt assured of their liberty … this security and the weakness of the conquered states caused the Roman people no longer to bestow the consulate according to the merits of the candidates, but according to favour … after that they descended from those who were more favoured to those who knew how to entertain … to such as had most wealth and power, so that the truly meritorious became wholly excluded.” (I, xvii)
What is so compelling here is how articulate M. can be in extrapolating general principles from historical moments, effectively secularising an approach practiced almost exclusively on religious writings for almost a millennium up to his time. From the waning political savvy of citizens to differing levels of justice
– “…no well ordered republic should ever cancel the crimes of its citizens by their merits…” – M. is everywhere attuned to what the past is whispering. With Livy acting as his Virgil
, Machiavelli descends into antiquity looking for greater truths, seemingly finding them everywhere he casts his light. His approach is almost psychological, Freudian, in its scrutiny, as when he confronts the unstoppable appetite of some men for power (I, xxxvii) regardless of the riches and fealties they already have. And the depth of his reading, for the time, is staggering. “All evil examples have their origins in good beginnings,” (I, xlvi) is Machiavelli reporting on Livy
as he quoted Caesar
recorded by Sallust
; a perfect example of the inter-textual workings of the Discourses
. He quotes Dante as freely as he does Tacitus, cites Nicias’ opposition to the Peloponnesian War’s invasion of Sicily as coherently as he discusses Florentine conspiracies. And this is all still just in the first book.
However, the most stirring discovery to be uncovered in the book (and my reason for reading it) is to find how deeply and determinedly Machiavelli defends the principles of universal justice
, civil freedom
and legal liberty
– not in some smug, backhanded way, not as a means to a political end – but as the real bulwarks of any true Republic. Again, this is not the Machiavelli most commentators tend to cite or confront. Chapter 58 of the first book is titled simply, “The People Are More Constant and Wiser Than Princes” in which he gives a stirring defence of democratic
principles and a harsh condemnation of those who dismiss the masses as fools: “The general prejudice against the people results from the fact that everybody can freely and fearlessly speak ill of them.” (266) Over the next seven books of the work, there are innumerable other adages and expositions4
, but this argument on the behalf of the People, whom Machiavelli sees as essentially the heart of the State, is a constant thread throughout. How this pivotal belief of his is overshadowed by his earlier work is difficult to explain, but it certainly means M. is denied much of the credit he deserves, dismissed as he is by many as authoritarian
and conniving. He deserves another hearing.
Ibid., 242. All citiations from Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livius
(NY: 1950), tr. C.E. Detmold
He still got into trouble though, getting the big Antichrist
label from the Roman Catholic Church
. And of course his conclusion is precisely the opposite of Toynbee, who concluded the energies of any civilization are best directed towards the aims established by religion (or universal churches, as he insists on calling them). While people didn’t call Toynbee the Devil for that, most historians quietly concluded he’d gone a little funny. Writing a 6000 page history of the world will do that I suppose.
Of course, there were times when the boys were really spoiling for a fight and side-stepped this memorial tradition – the consul Papirus picked off the chief bird-keeper himself as he led the Romans against the Samnites and Appius Pulcher
, in the first Punic War
, was equally peeved to see the birds auspiciously choosing not to eat their feed. “Then let us see whether they will drink,” he said before pitching them into the sea. His legion was obliterated by the Carthaginians soon after.
A sampling of faves: the price of Predominance
is being at perpetual Defence (II, i); men, for the sake of gaining Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them (II, ii); why Rome, not Sparta
, became a true Empire (II, iii); The Changes of Religion and of Languages, Together with the Occurrence of Deluges and Pestilences, Destroy the Record of Things (II, V); the plight of Scythia
and the barbarians (II, viii); the nature and structure of the Roman legions (II, xvi); whether gunpowder’s invention would erase the possibility of valour in combat (II, xvii); Keeping the State rich and the Citizen Poor as the Basis for any Great Empire
(II, xix); why the Romans never built castles or citadels in the regions they conquered (II, xxiv); Be Content with Victory
, for when the Aim goes further, You will Lose (II, xxvii); Fortune Blinds the minds of Men when She does not wish them to resist (II, xxx); a guide to Conspiracies (III, vi); triangular diplomacy
(III, xi) … and so on and so on.