Harvey Mansfield - Machiavelli’s enterprise

Machiavelli's philosophical musings on truth are just was important as his work on politics.
Five hundred years ago, on December 10, 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a letter to a friend in Rome describing one day in his life as an exile from Florence and remarked casually that he had just completed writing The Prince. This momentous book, together with its companion, the Discourses on Livy, neither published until after his death, announces an enterprise affecting all human beings today: the creation of the modern world.

Machiavelli is famous for his infamy, for being “Machiavellian,” but his importance is almost universally underestimated. The extent of his consequence is not appreciated and the size of his ambition is little known. He makes it possible, even easy, to suppose that his ambition is confined to place-hunting with Lorenzo de’ Medici and service as drill-master of the Florentine republic—as if his thought was bounded by his employment opportunities. Of course everyone senses his greatness as a writer, a master of Italian prose with a gift for an acute phrase, often worth citing for effect but almost never actually avowed for use. “I am a Machiavellian” is something one doesn’t hear. But in addition to his insights, which in truth are deliberately exaggerated, he does not receive much respect as a guide to the future. But a guide with foresight is just what Machiavelli is, if one adds that he made the future to which he guides us.

To see how important Machiavelli was one must first examine how important he meant to be. In the Discourses he says he has a “natural desire” to “work for those things I believe will bring common benefit to everyone.” A natural desire is in human nature, not just in the humans of Machiavelli’s time, and the beneficiaries will be everyone, all humanity—not just his native country or city. He goes on to say that he has “decided to take a path as yet untrodden by anyone.” He will benefit everyone by taking a new path; he is not just imitating the ancients or contributing to the Renaissance, that rebirth of the ancients, though obviously his new path makes use of the them. In the middle of The Prince he declares: “I depart from the orders of others,” also emphasizing his originality. One soon learns that he departs from the tradition of thought that begins with Greek, or Socratic, philosophy, as well as from the Bible. All this he refers to elsewhere as “my enterprise.”

There is an uneducated view of Machiavelli responsible for his evil reputation as “Machiavellian,” held by people who have not read a word of his but would instinctively recoil if they did at the practice of dirty tricks that he repeatedly recommends. Then there is an educated view of Machiavelli scholars who have read his books—a view that is primarily devoted to refuting and repudiating the uneducated view. To do this, the scholars latch on to one of Machiavelli’s own excuses, such as that the murder of your inconvenient brother may be for the common good, or they excuse him by taking an objective stance from outside his words. From the standpoint of science it is said that he was only trying to understand, not to judge, or from the outlook of history that he was only reflecting his times, not facing permanent problems. All these excuses diminish his importance and result in a very great underestimation of Machiavelli. They reduce him from something extraordinary, recognized in the uneducated view, to someone who is ordinary in his context, which was the Italy of his day—its disunity, its corrupt popes, and its humanist and other authors, who provided him with intellectual equipment. I shall set forth the idea that Machiavelli was not caused by his context, but was the cause of a context, our context... read more:

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