From a historical perspective, the tradition of modern political thought emerged against the backdrop of the Renaissance. And Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian philosopher, is hailed as the first modern political thinker and is called the ‘Child of the Renaissance.
Some other non-flattering but famous names, by which he is known as being ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and ‘The Despot’s Tutor’.
So what is the Renaissance, and why did it lead to the rise and fall of Machiavelli?
The Nature Of Renaissance
Renaissance is a French word which means rebirth or revival. In European history, it refers to a period of cultural revival which began in the late 14th century in Italy and travelled to France in the 15th and to England and Germany in the 16th centuries.
Broadly speaking, the Renaissance was a humanist movement that spread to the spheres of literature and art - paintings, sculpture and architecture, music, education, scientific learning, philosophy, social and political thought, et cetera.
It is the transition from the Middle or Dark Age to the modern age.
Earlier, an individual’s life was bound by his predetermined status based on lineage, but the fresh developments in the economic sphere paved a way for his freedom from his pre-existing obligations.
People began considering new ideas and appreciating inventions. Machiavelli tried to incorporate the cultural values promoted by the Renaissance into the realm of political thinking.
He was the first to do this, but he also propounded certain standards of statesmanship, which are interpreted, reinterpreted and sometimes misinterpreted and handle his reputation and his disrepute.
In a letter to Piero Soderini, he wrote, “Because the times and human affairs are constantly changing, whereas men do not alter their ideas and ways of life,…... a man that should be so wise to understand the times and the order of things, accommodating himself to them would always have good fortune.”
‘The Prince’ Dnd Defamation
The Medicis were the feudal rich folks of Italy, and Machiavelli wanted them as his patrons to succeed.
He was imprisoned for being friends of the Soderini family, which was overthrown. To gain favour from the Medicis, he wrote his famous monograph ‘The Prince’ in 1513, which was addressed to Lorenzo de Medici, the son of Piero de Medici.
Although he wrote several other books after this, his reputation rests on this book in particular. In this book, Machiavelli has propounded two different rules of conduct, one for the Prince that is the ruler and the other for the ordinary people.
Accordingly, people should remain sincerely committed to conforming to conventional morality. However, the Prince should only remain committed to the interest of the state and simply pretend to follow morality without being bound by it in his actual conduct.
This duplicity is considered the hallmark of Machiavellianism. Using foul tactics in politics is older than formal politics itself. Machiavelli just brought the subject to light in his book.
He essentially differentiated politics and ethics, which were treated as the same person’s journey and destination previously. He defined his method as ‘drawing maximum or rules for successful political behaviour from history and experience.’
Monarch Supporter Or Just Pragmatic?
Machiavelli was a Republican, as one can see from his book ‘Discourses The First 10 Books Of Titus Livius’. When this book is read alongside The Prince, it establishes that in his view- that the Republic was the ideal form of government.
Discourses: The First 10 Books Of Titus Livius elaborated on the conditions of founding and maintaining it. The condition he places in a Republic is that it can be founded only when people themselves are virtuous. Where people are vicious, as with Italy in Machiavelli’s time, the founding of a Republic was not practical.
So, in ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli recommended the founding of a monarchy, which was practicable under the prevailing conditions.
One fact, which is mostly avoided in the discussion, is that he recommended the use of unethical means only when it was necessary. Such means were not glorified and were to be used only for the people’s benefit by the ruler.
Machiavellianism simply provides a system of rules for the acquisition and maintenance of power. It is like a handbook of carpentry which supplies a system of technical rules for the working of wood.
If a person who has mastered these rules uses them to break into houses or for other illicit activities, one cannot hold the handbook responsible for the reversal of moral standards. Or can it?