Acton on Machiavelli
Mr. Burd has undertaken to redeem our long inferiority in Machiavellian studies, and it will, I think, be found that he has given a more completely satisfactory explanation of The Prince than any country possessed before. His annotated edition supplies all the solvents of a famous problem in the history of Italy and the literature of politics. In truth, the ancient problem is extinct, and no reader of this volume will continue to wonder how so intelligent and reasonable a man came to propose such flagitious counsels. When Machiavelli declared that extraordinary objects cannot be accomplished under ordinary rules, he recorded the experience of his own epoch, but also foretold the secret of men since born. He illustrates not only the generation which taught him, but the generations which he taught, and has no less in common with the men who had his precepts before them than with the Viscontis, Borgias, and Baglionis who were the masters he observed. He represents more than the spirit of his country and his age. Knowledge, civilisation, and morality have increased; but three centuries have borne enduring witness to his political veracity. He has been as much the exponent of men whom posterity esteems as of him whose historian writes: “Cet homme que Dieu, après l’avoir fait si grand, avait fait bon aussi, n’avait rien de la vertu.” The authentic interpreter of Machiavelli, the Commentarius Perpetuus of the Discorsi and The Prince, is the whole of later history.
Michelet has said: “Rapportons-nous-en sur ceci à quelqu’un qui fut bien plus Machiavéliste que Machiavel, à la republique de Venise.” Before his day, and long after, down almost to the time when a price was set on the heads of the Pretender and of Pontiac, Venice employed assassins. And this was not the desperate resource of politicians at bay, but the avowed practice of decorous and religious magistrates. In 1569 Soto hazards an impersonal doubt whether the morality of the thing was sound: “Non omnibus satis probatur Venetorum mos, qui cum complures a patria exules habeant condemnatos, singulis facultatem faciunt, ut qui alium eorum interfecerit, vita ac libertate donetur.” But his sovereign shortly after obtained assurance that murder by royal command was unanimously approved by divines: “A los tales puede el Principe mandarlos matar, aunque esten fuera de su distrito y reinos.—Sin ser citado, secretamente se le puede quitar la vita.—Esta es doctrina comun y cierta y recevida de todos los theologos.” When the King of France, by despatching the Guises, had restored his good name in Europe, a Venetian, Francesco da Molino, hoped that the example would not be thrown away on the Council of Ten: “Permeti sua divina bontà che questo esempio habbi giovato a farlo proceder come spero con meno fretta e più sodamente a cose tali e d’ importanza.” Sarpi, their ablest writer, their official theologian, has a string of maxims which seem to have been borrowed straight from the Florentine predecessor: “Proponendo cosa in apparenza non honesta, scusarla come necessaria, come praticata da altri, come propria al tempo, che tende a buon fine, et conforme all’ opinione de’ molti.—La vendetta non giova se non per fugir lo sprezzo.—Ogn’ huomo ha opinione che il mendacio sia buono in ragion di medicina, et di far bene a far creder il vero et utile con premesse false.” One of his countrymen, having examined his writings, reports: “I ricordi di questo grand’ uomo furono più da politico che da christiano.” To him was attributed the doctrine of secret punishment, and the use of poison against public enemies: “In casi d’ eccessi incorrigibili si punissero secretamente, a fine che il sangue patrizio non resti profanato.—Il veleno deve esser l’ unico mezzo per levarli dal mondo, quando alla giustizia non complisse farli passare sotto la manaia del carnefice.” Venice, otherwise unlike the rest of Europe, was, in this particular, not an exception.
Machiavelli enjoyed a season of popularity even at Rome. The Medicean popes refused all official employment to one who had been the brain of a hostile government; but they encouraged him to write, and were not offended by the things he wrote for them. Leo’s own dealings with the tyrant of Perugia were cited by jurists as a suggestive model for men who have an enemy to get rid of. Clement confessed to Contarini that honesty would be preferable, but that honest men get the worst of it: “Io cognosco certo che voi dicete il vero, et che ad farla da homo da bene, et a far il debito, seria proceder come mi aricordate; ma bisognerebbe trovar la corrispondentia. Non vedete che il mondo è ridutto a un termine che colui il qual è più astuto et cum più trame fa il fatto suo, è più laudato, et estimato più valente homo, et più celebrato, et chi fa il contrario vien detto di esso; quel tale è una bona persona, ma non val niente? Et se ne sta cum quel titulo solo di bona persona.—Chi va bonamente vien trata da bestia.” Two years after this speech the astute Florentine authorised The Prince to be published at Rome.
It was still unprinted when Pole had it pressed on his attention by Cromwell, and Brosch consequently suspects the story. Upon the death of Clement, Pole opened the attack; but it was not pursued during the reaction against things Medicean which occupied the reign of Farnese. Machiavelli was denounced to the Inquisition on the 11th of November 1550, by Muzio, a man much employed in controversy and literary repression, who, knowing Greek, was chosen by Pius V. for the work afterwards committed to Baronius: “Senza rispetto alcuno insegna a non servar ne fede, ne charità, ne religione; et dice che di queste cose, gli huomini se ne debbono servire per parer buoni, et per le grandezze temporali, alle quali quando non servono non se ne dee fare stima. Et non è questo peggio che heretica dottrina? Vedendosi che ciò si comporta, sono accetate come opere approvate dalla Santa Madre chiesa.” Muzio, who at the same time recommended the Decamerone, was not acting from ethical motives. His accusation succeeded. When the Index was instituted, in 1557, Machiavelli was one of the first writers condemned, and he was more rigorously and implacably condemned than anybody else. The Trent Commissioners themselves prepared editions of certain prohibited authors, such as Clarius and Flaminius; Guicciardini was suffered to appear with retrenchments; and the famous revision of Boccaccio was carried out in 1573. This was due to the influence of Victorius, who pleaded in vain for a castigated text of Machiavelli. He continued to be specially excepted when permission was given to read forbidden books. Sometimes there were other exceptions, such as Dumoulin, Marini, or Maimbourg; but the exclusion of Machiavelli was permanent, and when Lucchesini preached against him at the Gesù, he had to apply to the Pope himself for licence to read him. Lipsius was advised by his Roman censors to mix a little Catholic salt in his Machiavellism, and to suppress a seeming protest against the universal hatred for a writer qui misera qua non manu hodie vapulat. One of the ablest but most contentious of the Jesuits, Raynaud, pursued his memory with a story like that with which Tronchin improved the death of Voltaire: “Exitus impiissimi nebulonis metuendus est eius aemulatoribus, nam blasphemans evomuit reprobum spiritum.”
In spite of this notorious disfavour, he has been associated with the excesses of the religious wars. The daughter of the man to whom he addressed The Prince was Catharine of Medici, and she was reported to have taught her children “surtout des traictz de cet athée Machiavel.” Boucher asserted that Henry III. carried him in his pocket: “qui perpetuus ei in sacculo atque manibus est”; and Montaigne confirms the story when he says: “Et dict on, de ce temps, que Machiavel est encores ailleurs en crédit.” The pertinently appropriate quotation by which the Queen sanctified her murderous resolve was supplied, not by her father’s rejected and discredited monitor, but by a bishop at the Council of Trent, whose sermons had just been published: “Bisogna esser severo et acuto, non bisogna esser clemente; è crudeltà l’ esser pietoso, è pietà l’ esser crudele.” And the argument was afterwards embodied in the Controversies of Bellarmin: “Haereticis obstinatis beneficium est, quod de hac vita tollantur, nam quo diutius vivunt, eo plures errores excogitant; plures pervertunt, et majorem sibi damnationem acquirunt.”
The divines who held these doctrines received them through their own channels straight from the Middle Ages. The germ theory, that the wages of heresy is death, was so expanded as to include the rebel, the usurper, the heterodox or rebellious town, and it continued to develop long after the time of Machiavelli. At first it had been doubtful whether a small number of culprits justified the demolition of a city: “Videtur quod si aliqui haeretici sunt in civitate potest exuri tota civitas.” Under Gregory XIII. the right is asserted unequivocally: “Civitas ista potest igne destrui, quando in ea plures sunt haeretici.” In case of sedition, fire is a less suitable agent: “Propter rebellionem civitas quandoque supponitur aratro et possunt singuli decapitari.” As to heretics the view was: “Ut hostes latronesque occidi possunt etiamsi sunt clerici.” A king, if he was judged a usurper, was handed over to extinction: “Licite potest a quolibet de populo occidi, pro libertate populi, quando non est recursus ad superiorem, a quo possit iustitia fieri.” Or, in the words of the scrupulous Soto: “Tunc quisque ius habet ipsum extinguendi.” To the end of the seventeenth century theologians taught: “Occidatur, seu occidendus proscribatur, quando non alitur potest haberi tranquillitas Reipublicae.”
This was not mere theory, or the enforced logic of men in thrall to mediæval antecedents. Under the most carnal and unchristian king, the Vaudois of Provence were exterminated in the year 1545, and Paul Sadolet wrote as follows to Cardinal Farnese just before and just after the event: “Aggionta hora questa instantia del predetto paese di Provenza a quella che da Mons. Nuntio s’ era fatta a Sua Maestà Christianissima a nome di Sua Beatitudine et di Vostra Reverendissima Signoria, siamo in ferma speranza, che vi si debbia pigliare qualche bono expediente et farci qualche gagliarda provisione.—È seguito, in questo paese, quel tanto desiderato et tanto necessario effetto circa le cose di Cabrieres, che da vostra Signoria Reverendissima è stato si lungamente ricordato et sollicitato et procurato.” Even Melanchthon was provoked by the death of Cromwell to exclaim that there is no better deed than the slaughter of a tyrant; “Utinam Deus alicui forti viro hanc mentem inserat!” And in 1575 the Swedish bishops decided that it would be a good work to poison their king in a basin of soup—an idea particularly repugnant to the author of De Rege et Regis Institutione. Among Mariana’s papers I have seen the letter from Paris describing the murder of Henry III., which he turned to such account in the memorable sixth chapter: “Communicò con sus superiores, si peccaria mortalmente un sacerdote que matase a un tirano. Ellos le diceron que non era pecado, mas que quedaria irregular. Y no contentandose con esto, ni con las disputas que avia de ordinario en la Sorbona sobre la materia, continuando siempre sus oraciones, lo preguntò a otros theologos, que le afirmavan lo mismo; y con esto se resolviò enteramente de executarlo. Por el successo es de collegir que tuvo el fraile alguna revelacion de Nuestro Señor en particular, y inspiracion para executar el caso.” According to Maffei, the Pope’s biographer, the priests were not content with saying that killing was no sin: “Cum illi posse, nec sine magno quidem merito censuissent.” Regicide was so acceptable a work that it seemed fitly assigned to a divine interposition.
When, on the 21st of January 1591, a youth offered his services to make away with Henry IV., the Nuncic remitted the matter to Rome: “Quantunque mi sia parso di trovarlo pieno di tale humilità, prudenza, spirito et cose che arguiscono che questa sia inspiratione veramente piuttosto che temerità e leggerezza.” In a volume which, though recent, is already rare, the Foreign Office published D’Avaux’s advice to treat the Protestants of Ireland much as William treated the Catholics of Glencoe; and the argument of the Assassination Plot came originally from a Belgian seminary. There were at least three men living far into the eighteenth century who defended the massacre of St. Bartholomew in their books; and it was held as late as 1741 that culprits may be killed before they are condemned: “Etiam ante sententiam impune occidi possunt, quando de proximo erant banniendi, vel quando eorum delictum est notorium, grave, et pro quo poena capitis infligenda esset.”
Whilst these principles were current in religion as well as in society, the official censures of the Church and the protests of every divine since Catharinus were ineffectual. Much of the profaner criticism uttered by such authorities as the Cardinal de Retz, Voltaire, Frederic the Great, Daunou, and Mazzini is not more convincing or more real. Linguet was not altogether wrong in suggesting that the assailants knew Machiavelli at second hand: “Chaque fois que je jette les yeux sur les ouvrages de ce grand génie, je ne saurais concevoir, je l’avoue, la cause du décri où il est tombé. Je soupçonne fortement que ses plus grands ennemis sont ceux qui ne l’ont pas lu.” Retz attributed to him a proposition which is not in his writings. Frederic and Algernon Sidney had read only one of his books, and Bolingbroke, a congenial spirit, who quotes him so often, knew him very little. Hume spoils a serious remark by a glaring eighteenth-century comment: “There is scarcely any maxim in The Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted. The errors of this politician proceeded, in a great measure, from his having lived in too early an age of the world to be a good judge of political truth.” Bodin had previously written: “Il n’a jamais sondé le gué de la science politique.” Mazzini complains of his analisi cadaverica ed ignoranza della vita; and Barthélemy St. Hilaire, verging on paradox, says: “On dirait vraiment que l’histoire ne lui a rien appris, non plus que la conscience.” That would be more scientific treatment than the common censure of moralists and the common applause of politicians. It is easier to expose errors in practical politics than to remove the ethical basis of judgments which the modern world employs in common with Machiavelli.
By plausible and dangerous paths men are drawn to the doctrine of the justice of History, of judgment by results, the nursling of the nineteenth century, from which a sharp incline leads to The Prince. When we say that public life is not an affair of morality, that there is no available rule of right and wrong, that men must be judged by their age, that the code shifts with the longitude, that the wisdom which governs the event is superior to our own, we carry obscurely tribute to the system which bears so odious a name. Few would scruple to maintain with Mr. Morley that the equity of history requires that we shall judge men of action by the standards of men of action; or with Retz: “Les vices d’un archevêque peuvent être, dans une infinité de rencontres, les vertus d’un chef de parti.” The expounder of Adam Smith to France, J. B. Say, confirms the ambitious coadjutor: “Louis XIV. et son despotisme et ses guerres n’ont jamais fait le mal qui serait résulté des conseils de ce bon Fénelon, l’apôtre et le martyr de la vertu et du bien des hommes.” Most successful public men deprecate what Sir Henry Taylor calls much weak sensibility of conscience, and approve Lord Grey’s language to Princess Lieven: “I am a great lover of morality, public and private; but the intercourse of nations cannot be strictly regulated by that rule.” While Burke was denouncing the Revolution, Walpole wrote: “No great country was ever saved by good men, because good men will not go the lengths that may be necessary.” All which had been formerly anticipated by Pole: “Quanto quis privatam vitam agens Christi similior erit tanto minus aptus ad regendum id munus iudicio hominum existimabitur.” The main principle of Machiavelli is asserted by his most eminent English disciple: “It is the solecism of power to think, to command the end, and yet not to endure the means.” And Bacon leads up to the familiar Jesuit: “Cui licet finis, illi et media permissa sunt.”
The austere Pascal has said: “On ne voit rien de juste ou d’injuste qui ne change de qualité en changeant de climat” (the reading presque rien was the precaution of an editor). The same underlying scepticism is found not only in philosophers of the Titanic sort, to whom remorse is a prejudice of education, and the moral virtues are “the political offspring which flattery begat upon pride,” but among the masters of living thought. Locke, according to Mr. Bain, holds that we shall scarcely find any rule of morality, excepting such as are necessary to hold society together, and these too with great limitations, but what is somewhere or other set aside, and an opposite established by whole societies of men. Maine de Biran extracts this conclusion from the Esprit des Lois: “Il n’y a rien d’absolu ni dans la religion, ni dans la morale, ni, à plus forte raison, dans la politique.” In the mercantile economists Turgot detects the very doctrine of Helvetius: “Il établit qu’il n’y a pas lieu à la probité entre les nations, d’où suivroit que la monde doit être éternellement un coupegorge. En quoi il est bien d’accord avec les panégyristes de Colbert.”
These things survive, transmuted, in the edifying and popular epigram: “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht.” Lacordaire, though he spoke so well of “L’empire et les ruses de la durée,” recorded his experience in these words: “J’ai toujours vu Dieu se justifier à la longue.” Reuss, a teacher of opposite tendency and greater name, is equally consoling: “Les destinées de l’homme s’accomplissent ici-bas; la justice de Dieu s’exerce et se manifeste sur cette terre.” In the infancy of exact observation Massillon could safely preach that wickedness ends in ignominy: “Dieu aura son tour.” The indecisive Providentialism of Bossuet’s countrymen is shared by English divines. “Contemporaries,” says Hare, “look at the agents, at their motives and characters; history looks rather at the acts and their consequences.” Thirlwall hesitates to say that whatever is, is best; “but I have a strong faith that it is for the best, and that the general stream of tendency is toward good.” And Sedgwick, combining induction with theology, writes: “If there be a superintending Providence, and if His will be manifested by general laws, operating both on the physical and moral world, then must a violation of those laws be a violation of His will, and be pregnant with inevitable misery.”
Apart from the language of Religion, an optimism ranging to the bounds of fatalism is the philosophy of many, especially of historians: “Le vrai, c’est, en toutes choses, le fait.” Sainte-Beuve says: “Il y a dans tout fait général et prolongé une puissance de démonstration insensible”; and Scherer describes progress as “une espèce de logique objective et impersonelle qui résout les questions sans appel.” Ranke has written: “Der beste Prüfstein ist die Zeit”; and Sybel explains that this was not a short way out of confusion and incertitude, but a profound generalisation: “Ein Geschlecht, ein Volk löst das andere ab, und der Lebende hat Recht.” A scholar of a different school and fibre, Stahr the Aristotelian, expresses the same idea: “Die Geschichte soll die Richtigkeit des Denkens bewähren.” Richelieu’s maxim: “Les grands desseins et notables entreprises ne se vérifient jamais autrement que par le succès”; and Napoleon’s: “Je ne juge les hommes que par les résultats,” are seriously appropriated by Fustel de Coulanges: “Ce qui caractérise le véritable homme d’état, c’est le succès, on le reconnaît surtout à ce signe, qu’il réussit.” One of Machiavelli’s gravest critics applied it to him: “Die ewige Aufgabe der Politik bleibt unter den gegebenen Verhältnissen und mit den vorhandenen Mitteln etwas zu erreichen. Eine Politik die das verkennt, die auf den Erfolg verzichtet, sich auf eine theoretische Propaganda, auf ideale Gesichtspunkte beschränkt, von einer verlorenen Gegenwart an eine künftige Gerechtigkeit appellirt, ist keine Politik mehr.” One of the mediæval pioneers, Stenzel, delivered a formula of purest Tuscan cinquecento: “Was bei anderen Menschen gemeine Schlechtigkeit ist, erhält, bei den ungewöhnlichen Geistern, den Stempel der Grösse, der selbst dem Verbrechen sich aufdrückt. Der Maassstab ist anders; denn das Ausserordentliche lässt sich nur durch Ausserordentliches bewirken.” Treitschke habitually denounces the impotent Doctrinaires who do not understand “dass der Staat Macht ist und der Welt des Willens angehört,” and who know not how to rise “von der Politik des Bekenntnisses zu der Politik der That.” Schäfer, though a less pronounced partisan, derides Macaulay for thinking that human happiness concerns political science: “Das Wesen des Staates ist die Macht, und die Politik die Kunst ihn zu erhalten.” Rochau’s Realpolitik was a treatise in two volumes written to prove “dass der Staat durch seine Selbsterhaltung das oberste Gebot der Sittlichkeit erfüllt.” Wherefore, nobody finds fault when a State in its decline is subjugated by a robust neighbour. In one of those telling passages which moved Mr. Freeman to complain that he seems unable to understand that a small State can have any rights, or that a generous or patriotic sentiment can find a place anywhere except in the breast of a fool, Mommsen justifies the Roman conquests: “Kraft des Gesetzes dass das zum Staat entwickelte Volk die politisch unmündigen, das civilisirte die geistig unmündigen in sich auflöst.” The same idea was imparted into the theory of ethics by Kirchmann, and appears, with a sobering touch, in the Geschichte Jesu of Hase, the most popular German divine: “Der Einzelne wird nach der Grösse seiner Ziele, nach den Wirkungen seiner Thaten für das Wohl der Völker gemessen, aber nicht nach dem Maasse der Moral und des Rechts.—Vom Leben im Geiste seiner Zeit hängt nicht der sittliche Werth eines Menschen, aber seine geschichtliche Wirksamkeit ab.” Rümelin, both in politics and literature the most brilliant Suabian of his time, and a strenuous adversary of Machiavelli, wrote thus in 1874: “Für den Einzelnen im Staat gilt das Princip der Selbsthingabe, für den Staat das der Selbstbehauptung. Der Einzelne dient dem Recht; der Staat handhabt, leitet und schafft dasselbe. Der Einzelne ist nur ein flüchtiges Glied in dem sittlichen Ganzen; der Staat ist, wenn nicht dieses Ganze selbst, doch dessen reale, ordnende Macht; er ist unsterblich und sich selbst genug.—Die Erhaltung des Staats rechtfertigt jedes Opfer und steht über jedem Gebot.” Nefftzer, an Alsatian borderer, says: “Le devoir suprême des individus est de se dévouer, celui des nations est de se conserver, et se confond par conséquent avec leur intérêt.” Once, in a mood of pantheism, Renan wrote: “L’humanité a tout fait, et, nous voulons le croire, tout bien fait.” Or, as Michelet abridges the Scienza Nuova: “L’humanité est son œuvre à elle-même. Dieu agit sur elle, mais par elle.” Mr. Leslie Stephen thus lays down the philosophy of history according to Carlyle, “that only succeeds which is based on divine truth, and permanent success therefore proves the right, as the effect proves the cause.” Darwin, having met Carlyle, notes that “in his eyes might was right,” and adds that he had a narrow and unscientific mind; but Mr. Goldwin Smith discovers the same lesson: “History, of itself, if observed as science observes the facts of the physical world, can scarcely give man any principle or any object of allegiance, unless it be success.” Dr. Martineau attributes this doctrine to Mill: “Do we ask what determines the moral quality of actions? We are referred, not to their spring, but to their consequences.” Jeremy Bentham used to relate how he found the greatest happiness principle in 1768, and gave a shilling for it, at the corner of Queen’s College. He found it in Priestley, and he might have gone on finding it in Beccaria and Hutcheson, all of whom trace their pedigree to the Mandragola: “Io credo che quello sia bene che facci bene a’ più, e che i più se ne contentino.” This is the centre of unity in all Machiavelli, and gives him touch, not with unconscious imitators only, but with the most conspicuous race of reasoners in the century.
English experience has not been familiar with a line of thought plainly involving indulgence to Machiavelli. Dugald Stewart raises him high, but raises him for a heavy fall: “No writer, certainly, either in ancient or in modern times, has ever united, in a more remarkable degree, a greater variety of the most dissimilar and seemingly the most discordant gifts and attainments.—To his maxims the royal defenders of the Catholic faith have been indebted for the spirit of that policy which they have uniformly opposed to the innovations of the reformers.” Hallam indeed has said: “We continually find a more flagitious and undisguised abandonment of moral rules for the sake of some idol of a general principle than can be imputed to The Prince of Machiavel.” But the unaccustomed hyperbole had been hazarded a century before in the obscurity of a Latin dissertation by Feuerlein: “Longe detestabiliores errores apud alios doctores politicos facile invenias, si eidem rigorosae censurae eorum scripta subiicienda essent.” What has been, with us, the occasional aphorism of a masterful mind, encountered support abroad in accredited systems, and in a vast and successful political movement. The recovery of Machiavelli has been essentially the product of causes operating on the Continent.
When Hegel was dominant to the Rhine, and Cousin beyond it, the circumstances favoured his reputation. For Hegel taught: “Der Gang der Weltgeschichte steht ausserhalb der Tugend, des Lasters, und der Gerechtigkeit.” And the great eclectic renewed, in explicit language, the worst maxim of the Istorie Fiorentine: “L’apologie d’un siècle est dans son existence, car son existence est un arrêt et un jugement de Dieu même, ou l’histoire n’est qu’une fastasmagorie insignifiante.—Le caractère propre, le signe d’un grand homme, c’est qu’il réussit.—Ou nul guerrier ne doit être appelé grand homme, ou, s’il est grand, il faut l’absoudre, et absoudre en masse tout ce qu’il a fait.—Il faut prouver que le vainqueur non seulement sert la civilisation, mais qu’il est meilleur, plus moral, et que c’est pour cela qu’il est vainqueur. Maudire la puissance (j’entends une puissance longue et durable) c’est blasphémer l’humanité.”
This primitive and everlasting problem assumed a peculiar shape in theological controversy. The Catholic divines urged that prosperity is a sign by which, even in the militant period, the true Church may be known; coupling Felicitas Temporalis illis collata qui ecclesiam defenderunt with Infelix exitus eorum qui ecclesiam oppugnant. Le Blanc de Beaulieu, a name famous in the history of pacific disputation, holds the opposite opinion: “Crucem et perpessiones esse potius ecclesiae notam, nam denunciatum piis in verbo Dei fore ut in hoc mundo persecutionem patiantur, non vero ut armis sint adversariis suis superiores.” Renan, outbidding all, finds that honesty is the worst policy: “En général, dans l’histoire, l’homme est puni de ce qu’il fait de bien, et récompensé de ce qu’il fait de mal.—L’histoire est tout le contraire de la vertu récompensée.”
The national movement which united, first Italy and then Germany, opened a new era for Machiavelli. He had come down, laden with the distinctive reproach of abetting despotism; and the men who, in the seventeenth century, levelled the course of absolute monarchy, were commonly known as novi politici et Machiavellistae. In the days of Grotius they are denounced by Besold: “Novi politici, ex Italia redeuntes qui quavis fraude principibus a subditis pecuniam extorquere fas licitumque esse putant, Machiavelli plerumque praeceptis et exemplis principum, quorum rationes non capiunt, ad id abutentes.” But the immediate purpose with which Italians and Germans effected the great change in the European constitution was unity, not liberty. They constructed, not securities, but forces. Machiavelli’s time had come. The problems once more were his own: and in many forward and resolute minds the spirit also was his, and displayed itself in an ascending scale of praise. He was simply a faithful observer of facts, who described the fell necessity that governs narrow territories and unstable fortunes; he discovered the true line of progress and the law of future society; he was a patriot, a republican, a Liberal, but, above all this, a man sagacious enough to know that politics is an inductive science. A sublime purpose justifies him, and he has been wronged by dupes and fanatics, by irresponsible dreamers and interested hypocrites.
The Italian Revolution, passing from the Liberal to the national stage, at once adopted his name and placed itself under his invocation. Count Sclopis, though he declared him Penseur profond, écrivain admirable, deplored this untimely preference: “Il m’a été pénible de voir le gouvernement provisoire de la Tuscane, en 1859, le lendemain du jour où ce pays recouvrait sa liberté, publier un décret, portant qu’une édition complète des œuvres de Machiavel serait faite aux frais de l’état.” The research even of our best masters, Villari and Tommasini, is prompted by admiration. Ferrari, who comes so near him in many qualities of the intellect, proclaims him the recorder of fate: “Il décrit les rôles que la fatalité distribue aux individus et aux masses dans ces moments funestes et glorieux où ils sont appelés à changer la loi et la foi des nations.” His advice, says La Farina, would have saved Italy. Canello believes that he is disliked because he is mistaken for a courtier: “L’ orrore e l’ antipatia che molti critici hanno provato per il Machiavelli son derivati dal pensare che tutti i suoi crudi insegnamenti fossero solo a vantaggio del Principe.” One biographer, Mordenti, exalts him as the very champion of conscience: “Risuscitando la dignità dell’ umana coscienza, ne affermò l’ esistenza in faccia alla ragione.” He adds, more truly, “È uno dei personaggi del dramma che si va svolgendo nell’ età nostra.”
That is the meaning of Laurent when he says that he has imitators but no defenders: “Machiavel ne trouve plus un seul partisan au XIXe siècle.—La postérité a voué son nom à l’infamie, tout en pratiquant sa doctrine.” His characteristic universality has been recognised by Baudrillart: “En exprimant ce mauvais côté, mais ce mauvais côté, hélas, éternel! Machiavel n’est plus seulement le publiciste de son pays et de son temps; il est le politique de tous les siècles.—S’il fait tout dépendre de la puissance individuelle, et de ses facultés de force, d’habileté, de ruse, c’est que, plus le théâtre se rétrécit, plus l’homme influe sur la marche des événements.” Matter finds the same merits which are applauded by the Italians: “Il a plus innové pour la liberté que pour le despotisme, car autour de lui la liberté était inconnue, tandis que le despotisme lui posait partout.” And his reviewer, Longpérier, pronounces the doctrine “parfaitement appropriée aux états d’Italie.” Nourrisson, with Fehr, one of the few religious men who still have a good word for the Secretary, admires his sincerity: “Le Prince est un livre de bonne foi, où l’auteur, sans songer à mal, n’a fait que traduire en maximes les pratiques habituelles à ses contemporains.” Thiers, though he surrendered The Prince, clung to the Discorsi—the Discorsi, with the pointed and culminating text produced by Mr. Burd. In the archives of the ministry he might have found how the idea struck his successful predecessor, Vergennes: “Il est des choses plus fortes que les hommes, et les grands intérêts des nations sont de ce genre, et doivent par conséquent l’emporter sur la façon de penser de quelques particuliers.”
Loyalty to Frederic the Great has not restrained German opinion, and philosophers unite with historians in rejecting his youthful moralities. Zimmerman wonders what would have become of Prussia if the king had practised the maxims of the crown prince; and Zeller testifies that the Anti-Machiavel was not permitted to influence his reign: “Wird man doch weder in seiner Staatsleitung noch in seinen politischen Grundsätzen etwas von dem vermissen, worauf die Ueberlegenheit einer gesunden Realpolitik allem liberalen oder conservativen, radikalen oder legitimistischen, Doktrinarismus gegenüber beruht.” Ahrens and Windelband insist on the virtue of a national government: “Der Staat ist sich selbst genug, wenn er in einer Nation wurzelt,—das ist der Grundgedanke Machiavelli’s.” Kirchmann celebrates the emancipation of the State from the moral yoke: “Man hat Machiavelli zwar in der Theorie bekämpft, allein die Praxis der Staaten hat seine Lehren immer eingehalten.—Wenn seine Lehre verletzt, so kommt diess nur von der Kleinheit der Staaten und Fürsten, auf die er sie verwendet.—Es spricht nur für seine tiefe Erkenntniss des Staatswesens, dass er die Staatsgewalt nicht den Regeln der Privatmoral unterwirft, sondern selbst vor groben Verletzungen dieser Moral durch den Fürsten nicht zurückschreckt, wenn das Wohl des Ganzen und die Freiheit des Vaterlandes nicht anders vorbereitet und vermittelt werden kann.” In Kuno Fischer’s progress through the systems of metaphysics Machiavelli appears at almost every step; his influence is manifest to Dr. Abbott throughout the whole of Bacon’s political writings; Hobbes followed up his theory to the conclusions which he abstained from; Spinoza gave him the benefit of a liberal interpretation; Leibniz, the inventor of the acquiescent doctrine which Bolingbroke transmitted to the Essay on Man, said that he drew a good likeness of a bad prince; Herder reports him to mean that a rogue need not be a fool; Fichte frankly set himself to rehabilitate him. In the end, the great master of modern philosophy pronounces in his favour, and declares it absurd to robe a prince in the cowl of a monk: “Ein politischer Denker und Künstler dessen erfahrener und tiefer Verstand aus den geschichtlich gegebenen Verhältnissen besser, als aus den Grundsätzen der Metaphysik, die politischen Nothwendigkeiten, den Charakter, die Bildung und Aufgabe weltlicher Herrschaft zu begreifen wusste. — Da man weiss, dass politische Machtfragen nie, am Wenigsten in einem verderbten Volke, mit den Mitteln der Moral zu lösen sind, so ist es unverständig, das Buch vom Fürsten zu verschreien. Machiavelli hatte einen Herrscher zu schildern, keinen Klosterbruder.”
Ranke was a grateful student of Fichte when he spoke of Machiavelli as a meritorious writer, maligned by people who could not understand him: “Einem Autor von höchstem Verdienst, und der keineswegs ein böser Mensch war. — Die falsche Auffassung des Principe beruht eben darauf, dass man die Lehren Machiavells als allgemeine betrachtet, während sie bloss Anweisungen für einen bestimmten Zweck sind.” To Gervinus, in 1853, he is “der grosse Seher,” the prophet of the modern world: “Er errieth den Geist der neuern Geschichte.” Gervinus was a democratic Liberal, and, taken with Gentz from another quarter, he shows how widely the elements of the Machiavellian restoration were spread over Europe. Gentz had not forgotten his classics in the service of Austria when he wrote to a friend: “Wenn selbst das Recht je verletzt werden darf, so geschehe es, um die rechtmässige Macht zu erhalten; in allem Uebrigen herrsche es unbedingt.” Twesten is as well persuaded as Machiavelli that the world cannot be governed “con Pater nostri in mano,” and he deemed that patriotism atoned for his errors: “Dass der weltgeschichtliche Fortschritt nicht mit Schonung und Gelindigkeit, nicht in den Formen des Rechts vollzogen werden konnte, hat die Geschichte aller Länder bestätigt.—Auch Machiavellis Sünden mögen wir als gesühnt betrachten, durch das hochsinnige Streben für das Grosse und das Ansehen seines Volkes.” One censor of Frederic, Boretius, makes him answerable for a great deal of presuming criticism: “Die Gelehrten sind bis heute in ihrem Urtheil über Machiavelli nicht einig, die öffentliche Meinung ist hierin glücklicher.—Die öffentliche Meinung kann sich für alle diese Weisheit beim alten Fritz bedanken.” On the eve of the campaign in Bohemia, Herbst pointed out that Machiavelli, though previously a republican, sacrificed liberty to unity: “Der Einheit soll die innere Freiheit—Machiavelli war kurz zuvor noch begeisterter Anhänger der Republik — geopfert werden.” According to Feuerlein the heart of the writer was loyal, but the conditions of the problem were inexorable; and Klein detects in The Prince, and even in the Mandragola, “die reformatorische Absicht eines Sittenspiegels.” Chowanetz wrote a book to hold up Machiavelli as a teacher of all ages, but especially of our own: “Die Absicht aber, welche Machiavel mit seinem Buche verband, ist trefflich für alle Zeiten.” And Weitzel hardly knows a better writer, or one less worthy of an evil name: “Im Interesse der Menschheit und gesetzmässiger Verfassungen kann kaum ein besseres Werk geschrieben werden. — Wohl ist mancher in der Geschichte, wie in der Tradition der Völker, auf eine unschuldige Weise um seinen verdienten, oder zu einem unverdienten Rufe gekommen, aber keiner vielleicht unschuldiger als Machiavelli.”
These are remote and forgotten names. Stronger men of the imperial epoch have resumed the theme with better means of judging, and yet with no harsher judgment. Hartwig sums up his penetrating and severe analysis by confessing that the world as Machiavelli saw it, without a conscience, is the real world of history as it is: “Die Thatsachen selbst scheinen uns das Geheimniss ihrer Existenz zu verrathen; wir glauben vor uns die Fäden sich verknüpfen und verschlingen zu sehen, deren Gewebe die Weltgeschichte ist.” Gaspary thinks that he hated iniquity, but that he knew of no righteousness apart from the State: “Er lobte mit Wärme das Gute und tadelte mit Abscheu das Böse; aber er studirte auch dieses mit Interesse.—Er erkennt eben keine Moral, wie keine Religion, über dem Staate, sondern nur in demselben; die Menschen sind von Natur schlecht, die Gesetze machen sie gut.—Wo es kein Gericht giebt, bei dem man klagen könnte, wie in den Handlungen der Fürsten, betrachtet man immer das Ende.” The common opinion is expressed by Baumgarten in his Charles the Fifth, that the grandeur of the purpose assures indulgence to the means proposed: “Wenn die Umstände zum Wortbruch, zur Grausamkeit, Habgier, Lüge treiben, so hat man sich nicht etwa mit Bedauern, dass die Not dazu zwinge, sondern schlechtweg, weil es eben politisch zweckmässig ist und ohne alles Bedenken so zu verhalten. — Ihre Deduktionen sind uns unerträglich, wenn wir nicht sagen können: alle diese schrecklichen Dinge empfahl Machiavelli, weil er nur durch sie die Befreiung seines Vaterlandes zu erreichen hoffte. Dieses erhabene Ziel macht uns die fürchterlichen Mittel annehmbar, welche Machiavelli seinem Fürsten empfiehlt.” Hillebrand was a more international German; he had swum in many European waters, and wrote in three languages. He is scarcely less favourable in his interpretation: “Cette dictature, il ne faut jamais le perdre de vue, ne serait jamais que transitoire, et devrait faire place à un gouvernement libre dès que la grande réforme nationale et sociale serait accomplie. — Il a parfaitement conscience du mal. L’atmosphère ambiante de son siècle et de son pays n’a nullement oblitéré son sens moral. — Il a si bien conscience de l’énormité de ces crimes, qu’il la condamne hautement lorsque la dernière nécessité ne les impose pas.”
Among these utterances of capable and distinguished men, it will be seen that some are partially true, and others, without a particle of truth, are at least representative and significant, and serve to bring Machiavelli within fathomable depth. He is the earliest conscious and articulate exponent of certain living forces in the present world. Religion, progressive enlightenment, the perpetual vigilance of public opinion, have not reduced his empire, or disproved the justice of his conception of mankind. He obtains a new lease of life from causes that are still prevailing, and from doctrines that are apparent in politics, philosophy, and science. Without sparing censure, or employing for comparison the grosser symptoms of the age, we find him near our common level, and perceive that he is not a vanishing type, but a constant and contemporary influence. Where it is impossible to praise, to defend, or to excuse, the burden of blame may yet be lightened by adjustment and distribution, and he is more rationally intelligible when illustrated by lights falling not only from the century he wrote in, but from our own, which has seen the course of its history twenty-five times diverted by actual or attempted crime.
- Acton as a Professor
- Acton as an Historian of Freedom
- Acton on Machiavelli
- Acton on Moral Judgements in History
- Acton’s Education
- Acton’s Ideas as revealed by his Correspondence
- Acton’s Inaugural Lecture on History
- Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity
- Acton, The History of Freedom in Christianity
- Acton-Creighton Correspondence (1887)
- Acton: A Biographical Memoir