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ON THE WRITINGS OF MACHIAVEL. * - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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ON THE WRITINGS OF MACHIAVEL.*
Literature, which lies much nearer to the feelings of mankind than science, has the most important effect on the sentiments with which the sciences are regarded, the activity with which they are pursued, and the mode in which they are cultivated. It is the instrument, in particular, by which ethical science is generally diffused. As the useful arts maintain the general honour of physical knowledge, so polite letters allure the world into the neighbourhood of the sciences of morals and of mind. Wherever the agreeable vehicle of literature does not convey their doctrines to the public, they remain as the occupation of a few recluses in the schools, with no root in the general feelings, and liable to be destroyed by the dispersion of a handful of doctors, and the destruction of their unlamented seminaries. Nor is this all:—polite literature is not only the true guardian of the moral sciences, and the sole instrument of spreading their benefits among men, but it becomes, from these very circumstances, the regulator of their cultivation and their progress. As long as they are confined to a small number of men in scholastic retirement, there is no restraint upon their natural proneness to degenerate either into verbal subtilties or shadowy dreams. As long as speculation remained in the schools, all its followers were divided into mere dialecticians, or mystical visionaries, both alike unmindful of the real world, and disregarded by its inhabitants. The revival of literature produced a revolution at once in the state of society, and in the mode of philosophizing. It attracted readers from the common ranks of society, who were gradually led on from eloquence and poetry, to morals and philosophy. Philosophers and moralists, after an interval of almost a thousand years, during which they had spoken only to each other, once more discovered that they might address the great body of mankind, with the hope of fame and of usefulness. Intercourse with this great public, supplied new materials, and imposed new restraints: the feelings, the common sense, the ordinary affairs of men, presented themselves again to the moralist; and philosophers were compelled to speak in terms intelligible and agreeable to their new hearers. Before this period, little prose had been written in any modern language, except chronicles or romances. Boccacio had indeed acquired a classical rank, by compositions of the latter kind; and historical genius had risen in Froissart and Comines to a height which has not been equalled among the same nation in times of greater refinement. But Latin was still the language in which all subjects then deemed of higher dignity, and which occupied the life of the learned by profession, were treated. This system continued till the Reformation, which, by the employment of the living languages in public worship, gave them a dignity unknown before, and, by the versions of the Bible, and the practice of preaching and writing on theology and morals in the common tongues, did more for polishing modern literature, for diffusing knowledge, and for improving morality, than all the other events and discoveries of that active age.
Machiavel is the first still celebrated writer who discussed grave questions in a modern language. This peculiarity is the more worthy of notice, because he was not excited by the powerful stimulant of the Reformation. That event was probably regarded by him as a disturbance in a barbarous country, produced by the novelties of a vulgar monk, unworthy of the notice of a man wholly occupied with the affairs of Florence, and the hope of expelling strangers from Italy; and having reached, at the appearance of Luther, the last unhappy period of his agitated life.
The Prince is an account of the means by which tyrannical power is to be acquired and preserved: it is a theory of that class of phenomena in the history of mankind. It is essential to its purpose, therefore, that it should contain an enumeration and exposition of tyrannical arts; and, on that account, it may be viewed and used as a manual of such arts. A philosophical treatise on poisons, would in like manner determine the quantity of each poisonous substance capable of producing death, the circumstances favourable or adverse to its operation, and every other information essential to the purpose of the poisoner, though not intended for his use. But it is also plain, that the calm statement of tyrannical arts is the bitterest of all satires against them. The Prince must therefore have had this double aspect, though neither of the objects which they seem to indicate had been actually in the contemplation of the author. It may not be the object of the chemist to teach the means of exhibiting antidotes, any more than those of administering poisons; but his readers may employ his discoveries for both objects. Aristotle* had long before given a similar theory of tyranny, without the suspicion of an immoral intention. Nor was it any novelty in more recent times, among those who must have been the first teachers of Machiavel. The Schoolmen followed the footsteps of Aristotle too closely, to omit so striking a passage; and Aquinas explains it, in his commentary, like the rest, in the unsuspecting simplicity of his heart. To us accordingly, we confess, the plan of Machiavel seems, like those of former writers, to have been purely scientific; and so Lord Bacon seems to have understood him, where he thanks him for an exposition of immoral policy. In that singular passage, where the latter lays down the theory of the advancement of fortune (which, when compared with his life, so well illustrates the fitness of his understanding, and the unfitness of his character for the affairs of the world), he justifies his application of learning to such a subject, on a principle which extends to The Prince:—“that there be not any thing in being or action which should not be drawn and collected into contemplation and doctrine.”
Great defects of character, we readily admit, are manifested by the writings of Machiavel: but if a man of so powerful a genius had shown a nature utterly depraved, it would have been a painful, and perhaps single, exception to the laws of human nature. And no depravity can be conceived greater than a deliberate intention to teach perfidy and cruelty. That a man who was a warm lover of his country, who bore cruel sufferings for her liberty, and who was beloved by the best of his countrymen,† should fall into such unparalleled wickedness, may be considered as wholly incredible. No such depravity is consistent with the composition of the History of Florence. It is only by exciting moral sentiment, that the narrative of human actions can be rendered interesting. Divested of morality, they lose their whole dignity, and all their power over feeling. History would be thrown aside as disgusting, if it did not inspire the reader with pity for the sufferer,—with anger against the oppressor,—with anxiety for the triumph of right;—to say nothing of the admiration for genius, and valour, and energy, which, though it disturbs the justice of our historical judgments, partakes also of a moral nature. The author of The Prince, according to the common notion of its intention, could never have inspired these sentiments, of which he must have utterly emptied his own heart. To possess the power, however, of contemplating tyranny with scientific coldness, and of rendering it the mere subject of theory, must be owned to indicate a defect of moral sensibility. The happier nature, or fortune, of Aristotle, prompted him to manifest distinctly his detestation of the flagitious policy which he reduced to its principles.
As another subject of regret, not as an excuse for Machiavel, a distant approach to the same defect may be observed in Lord Bacon’s History of Henry the Seventh; where we certainly find too little reprehension of falsehood and extortion, too cool a display of the expedients of cunning, sometimes dignified by the name of wisdom, and throughout, perhaps, too systematic a character given to the measures of that monarch, in order to exemplify, in him, a perfect model of kingcraft; pursuing safety and power by any means,—acting well in quiet times, because it was most expedient, but never restrained from convenient crimes. This History would have been as delightful as it is admirable, if he had felt the difference between wisdom and cunning as warmly in that work, as he has discerned it clearly in his philosophy.
Many historical speculators have indeed incurred some part of this fault. Enamoured of their own solution of the seeming contradictions of a character, they become indulgent to the character itself; and, when they have explained its vices, are disposed, unconsciously, to write as if they had excused them. A writer who has made a successful exertion to render an intricate character intelligible, who has brought his mind to so singular an attempt as a theory of villany, and has silenced his repugnance and indignation sufficiently for the purposes of rational examination, naturally exults in his victory over so many difficulties, delights in contemplating the creations of his own ingenuity, and the order which he seems to have introduced into the chaos of malignant passions, and may at length view his work with that complacency which diffuses clearness and calmness over the language in which he communicates his imagined discoveries.
It should also be remembered, that Machiavel lived in an age when the events of every day must have blunted his moral feelings, and wearied out his indignation. In so far as we acquit the intention of the writer, his work becomes a weightier evidence of the depravity which surrounded him. In this state of things, after the final disappointment of all his hopes, when Florence was subjected to tyrants, and Italy lay under the yoke of foreigners,—having undergone torture for the freedom of his country, and doomed to beggary in his old age, after a life of public service, it is not absolutely unnatural that he should have resolved to compose a theory of the tyranny under which he had fallen, and that he should have manifested his indignation against the cowardly slaves who had yielded to it, by a stern and cold description of its maxims.
His last chapter, in which he seems once more to breathe a free air, has a character totally different from all the preceding ones. His exhortation to the Medici to deliver Italy from foreigners, again speaks out his ancient feelings. Perhaps he might have thought it possible to pardon any means employed by an Italian usurper to expel the foreign masters of his country. This ray of hope might have supported him in delineating the means of usurpation; by doing which he might have had some faint expectation that he could entice the usurper to become a deliverer.—Knowing that the native governments were too base to defend Italy, and that all others were leagued to enslave her, he might, in his despair of all legitimate rulers, have hoped something for independence, and perhaps at last even for liberty, from the energy and genius of an illustrious tyrant.
From Petrarch, with some of whose pathetic verses Machiavel concludes, to Alfieri, the national feeling of Italy seems to have taken refuge in the minds of her writers. They write more tenderly of their country as it is more basely abandoned by their countrymen. Nowhere has so much been well said, or so little nobly done. While we blame the character of the nation, or lament the fortune which in some measure produced it, we must, in equity, excuse some irregularities in the indignation of men of genius, when they see the ingenious inhabitants of their beautiful and renowned country now apparently for ever robbed of that independence which is enjoyed by obscure and barbarous communities.
The dispute about the intention of The Prince has thrown into the shade the merit of the Discourses on Livy. The praise bestowed on them by Mr. Stewart* is scanty, that “they furnish lights to the school of Montesquieu” is surely inadequate commendation. They are the first attempts in a new science—the philosophy of history; and, as such, they form a brilliant point in the progress of reason. For this Lord Bacon commends him:—“the form of writing which is the fittest for this variable argument of negotiation, is that which Machiavel chose wisely and aptly for government, namely, discourse upon histories or examples: for, knowledge drawn freshly, and in our view, out of particulars, findeth its way best to particulars again; and it hath much greater life on practice when the discourse attendeth upon the example, than when the example attendeth upon the discourse.” It is observable, that the Florentine Secretary is the only modern writer who is named in that part of the Advancement of Learning which relates to civil knowledge. The apology of Albericus Gentilis for the morality of The Prince, has been often quoted, and is certainly weighty as a testimony, when we consider that the writer was born within twenty years of the death of Machiavel, and educated at no great distance from Florence. It is somewhat singular, that the context of this passage should never have been quoted:—“To the knowledge of history must be added that part of philosophy which treats of morals and politics; for this is the soul of history, which explains the causes of the actions and sayings of men, and of the events which befall them: and on this subject I am not afraid to name Nicholas Machiavel, as the most excellent of all writers, in his golden Observations on Livy. He is the writer whom I now seek, because he reads history not with the eyes of a grammarian, but with those of a philosopher.”*
It is a just and refined observation of Mr. Hume, that the mere theory of Machiavel (to waive the more important consideration of morality) was perverted by the atrocities which, among the Italians, then passed under the name of ‘policy.’ The number of men who took a part in political measures in the republican governments of Italy, spread the taint of this pretended policy farther, and made it a more national quality than in the Transalpine monarchies. But neither the civil wars of France and England, nor the administrations of Henry the Seventh, Ferdinand and Louis the Eleventh (to say nothing of the succeeding religious wars), will allow us to consider it as peculiarly Italian. It arose from the circumstances of Europe in those times. In every age in which contests are long maintained by chiefs too strong, or bodies of men too numerous for the ordinary control of law, for power, or privileges, or possessions, or opinions to which they are ardently attached, the passions excited by such interests, heated by sympathy, and inflamed to madness by resistance, soon throw off moral restraint in the treatment of enemies. Retaliation, which deters individuals, provokes multitudes to new cruelty; and the atrocities which originated in the rage of ambition and fanaticism, are at length thought necessary for safety. Each party adopts the cruelties of the enemy, as we now adopt a new discovery in the art of war. The craft and violence thought necessary for existence are admitted into the established policy of such deplorable times.
But though this be the tendency of such circumstances in all times, it must be owned that these evils prevail among different nations, and in different ages, in a very unequal degree. Some part of these differences may depend on national peculiarities, which cannot be satisfactorily explained, but, in the greater part of them, experience is striking and uniform. Civil wars are comparatively regular and humane, under circumstances that may be pretty exactly defined,—among nations long accustomed to popular government, to free speakers and to free writers; familiar with all the boldness and turbulence of numerous assemblies; not afraid of examining any matter human or divine; where great numbers take an interest in the conduct of their superiors of every sort, watch it, and often censure it; where there is a public, and where that public boldly utters decisive opinions, where no impassable lines of demarcation destine the lower classes to eternal servitude, and the higher to envy and hatred and deep curses from their inferiors; where the administration of law is so purified by the participation and eye of the public, as to become a grand school of humanity and justice; and where, as the consequence of all, there is a general diffusion of the comforts of life, a general cultivation of reason, and a widely diffused feeling of equality and moral pride. The species seems to become gentler as all galling curbs are gradually disused. Quiet, or at least comparative order, is promoted by the absence of all the expedients once thought essential to preserve tranquillity. Compare Asia with Europe;—the extremes are there seen. But if all the immediate degrees be examined, it will be found that civil wars are milder, in proportion to the progress of the body of the people in importance and well-being Compare the civil wars of the two Roses with those under Charles the First: compare these, again, with the humanity and wisdom of the Revolution of sixteen hundred and eighty-eight. Examine the civil war which led to the American Revolution: we there see anarchy without confusion, and governments abolished and established without spilling a drop of blood. Even the progress of civilization, when unattended by the blessings of civil liberty, produces many of the same effects. When Mr. Hume wrote the excellent observations quoted by Mr. Stew art, Europe had for more than a century been exempt from those general convulsions which try the moral character of nations, and ascertain their progress towards a more civilized state of mind. We have since been visited by one of the most tremendous of these tempests; and our minds are yet filled with the dreadful calamities, and the ambiguous and precarious benefits, which have sprung from it. The contemporaries of such terrific scenes are seldom in a temper to contemplate them calmly: and yet, though the events of this age have disappointed the expectations of sanguine benevolence concerning the state of civilization in Europe, a dispassionate posterity will probably decide that it has stood the test of general commotions, and proved its progress by their comparative mildness. One period of frenzy has been, indeed, horribly distinguished, perhaps beyond any equal time in history, by popular massacres and judicial murders, among a people peculiarly susceptible of a momentary fanaticism. This has been followed by a war in which one party contended for universal dominion, and all the rest of Europe struggled for existence. But how soon did the ancient laws of war between European adversaries resume the ascendant, which had indeed beer suspended more in form than in fact! How slight are the traces which the atrocities of faction and the manners of twenty years’ invasion and conquest have left on the sentiments of Europe! On a review of the disturbed period of the French Revolution, the mind is struck by the disappearance of classes of crimes which have often attended such convulsions;—no charge of poison; few assassinations, properly so called; no case hitherto authenticated of secret execution! If any crimes of this nature can be proved, the truth of history requires that the proof should be produced. But those who assert them without proof must be considered as calumniating their age, and bringing into question the humanizing effects of order and good government.
[* ] From the Edinburgh Review, vol. xxvii. p. 207.—Ed.
[* ] Politics, lib. v. c. iii.
[† ] Among other proofs of the esteem in which he was held by those who knew his character, we may refer to the affectionate letters of Guicciardini, who, however independent his own opinions were, became, by his employment under the Popes of the House of Medici, the supporter of their authority, and consequently a political opponent of Machiavel, the most zealous of the Republicans.
[* ] In the Dissertation prefixed to the Encyclopædia Britannica.—Ed.
[* ] De Legat. lib. iii. c. ix.