Friday, May 22, 2015

Not Machiavellian At All

Res Publica
Not Machiavellian At All
by David Trumbull -- May 15, 2015

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June, 21 1527) was an Italian historian, politician, diplomat and philosopher. He was a high official in the government of the Republic of Florence during the times when the Medici family governed the republic.

He wrote several books and it is from the content of one of his books, The Prince, that we get the adjective Machiavellian, which describes as "characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty." For example --

In Chapter 5, he advises the conquering prince that a conquered republic must be utterly reduced, because history shows that more clement treatment fails to hold the territory.

In Chapter 7, rather than condemning, he cites the notorious Cesare Borgia as one to be imitated.

In Chapter 8 he says that a prince who rises through wickedness may, nevertheless, hold his principality securely if injuries are inflicted all together and not spread out over time.

In Chapter 15 Machiavelli advices the prince to follow vice if so doing brings security and virtue would bring ruin.

In Chapter 17 he says it is better to be clement than cruel, however, some cruelty is necessary and justified to maintain order and to withstand the violence that will break forth when there is not firm leadership.

In Chapter 20 he says that sometimes it's a good idea to pick a fight with another prince, just so you can look good when you defeat him.

If the only thing from Machiavelli you read is The Prince, then you might well conclude that his political philosophy is diabolical. That would be unfortunate, for Machiavelli's writings in support of republics and of freedom are much more extensive than his one, thin volume on how a prince may conquer and hold territory.

The key to understanding Machiavelli's The Prince is in the final chapter. It's a call for a reunited Italy, free of oppression by foreign occupiers. Italy was cut up into several city-states that were constantly at war with each other. The French and the Spaniards seeing opportunity invaded and ruled extensive tracks of the peninsula. Machiavelli dedicated the book to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici (September 12, 1492 – May 4, 1519) the ruler of Florence, and exhorted Lorenzo to raise an army, drive out the foreigners, even if that meant crushing some of the independent republics and principalities. To Machiavelli, the choice was clear, either the nominally independent states would be forever in peril from each other and from foreign invaders, or they could lose their independence but gain freedom. Lorenzo did not take up Machiavelli's cause of a united Italy, and Italian reunification had to wait until the 19th century.

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