Sunday, August 10, 2008

Machiavelli and Humanism

This is a quite neglectful piece, another in a long line of "I haven't quite figured out what I want to say." In retrospect, and as my interest in what we now call "Early Modern European" studies increases, Machiavelli is interesting for his very use of the prowess/fortune distinction, which I spent only a paragraph on but is clearly the only thing I found interesting at the time. Humanism and the initial recovery of our Greek past and flowering of literary and scholarly work is pretty well neglected in philosophy departments, and it's too bad. The creation of the dialectic between rationalism and empiricism that Descartes initiated is interesting, and certainly provides something more easily taught in classrooms, but the work of the humanists is the kind of optimism about human potential that the pragmatists had in our ability to change our fortunes.


When Machiavelli wrote during the Renaissance, the intellectual landscape was shaped by individualism and a growing optimism for mankind’s potential. This landscape is best characterized by the humanist movement. While the humanists preached of man’s limitless potential, Machiavelli wrote of man’s self-centeredness and life-long game of king-of-the-hill: “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit… The bond of love is one which men, wretched as they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so.”[1]

Machiavelli can best be seen as synthesizing the humanist’s optimism in the form of the potential of the Prince with his own cynicism of mankind. In this way, Machiavelli ends up being pessimistic of human nature, but optimistic of individual potential.

When Machiavelli’s cynicism of mankind and his optimism of the Prince show they seem to be just that: cynicism of mankind and optimism of the Prince. When Machiavelli makes sweeping generalizations about mankind he seems to be describing either the default nature of men or possibly some sort of herd mentality. For instance, when Machiavelli makes his great generalization about men (being ungrateful, fickle, liars, etc.) he does seem to be stating that all men are like this. But he also gives us a laundry list of qualities that men can hold: “Some are held to be benefactors, others are called grasping; some cruel, some compassionate; one man faithless, another faithful;…”[2] and on and on. This would imply that some men actually do hold these qualities, in spite of Machiavelli’s own generalization. On the other hand, to describe the herd variation of Machiavelli’s generalizations, he says, “…the populace by nature is fickle;…”[3] and he describes mercenaries as being “disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal;…”[4] Here he seems to be describing how men act in these particular groups.

The main thing to draw from this is that Machiavelli seems to consider the individual and the mankind in general separately. When considering the general state of mankind he says “…men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you…”[5], but when considering the individual he says, “one man lascivious, another chaste; one guileless, another crafty; one stubborn, another flexible;…”[6] The key to Machiavelli’s separation is his conception of prowess.

Nowhere does Machiavelli really give prowess a proper definition, but simply fleshed out, prowess is the summation of an individual's talents and abilities. All men have the capacity for prowess, be it a tremendous lack of or profusion. Prowess is one of two things that set men apart from each other. The other, fortune, is the uncontrollable forces of nature or society. While fortune can give and take away without any consultation with an individual, prowess is at the beck and call of those who have it. Prowess is what allows individual expression.

Now, Machiavelli typically spoke of prowess in conjunction with politics, but prowess clearly seems to be Machiavelli’s expression of the humanist trend of individuality and potential. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, another Renaissance writer, wrote God as having said to Adam, “You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will, in whose hand We have placed you, shall ordain for yourself the limits of you nature.”[7] Clearly Pico saw mankind in a favorable and optimistic light. Mankind’s prowess, to Pico, is limitless and, because of mankind’s free will, so is Man’s individuality. Machiavelli is more reserved in his proclamation of mankind’s individuality and it seems centered on those with prowess, namely, the Prince. Nevertheless, he says, “All things have conspired to your greatness. The rest is up to you. God does not want to do everything Himself, and take away from us our free will and our share of the glory which belongs to us.”[8] Compared to another Renaissance writer, Pietro Paolo Vergerio, Machiavelli seems pretty well in line with humanist tradition. Vergerio wrote on education and liberal arts and said, “we call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains, and develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men…”[9] Here can be seen Machiavelli’s prowess in the way of “those highest gifts of body and mind.”

So Machiavelli compares relatively well to the other optimistic writers of the time, but does that mean that Machiavelli was optimistic of human nature? On the whole, Machiavelli was not. However, he was optimistic of the large capacity that individuals held to escape that nature. All told, while Machiavelli may have believed that men were generally fickle and ungrateful, he also believed that there were individual men who could transcend this fickleness and become great men and, indeed, princes.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. George Bull, New York: Penguin, 1999, 54.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume B 1300 to 1815, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999, 343.

[8] Machiavelli, 83.

[9] Pietro Paolo Vergerio, “Concerning Character,” quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume B 1300 to 1815, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999, 343.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful summary of Machiavelli's humanism. It is composed quite nicely. Actually, it's exceptional for web-posting. I enjoyed it. :)


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