Machiavelli’s Fall To The Top

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“Let everyone flee from courts and governments, for there is no road that takes a man faster to weeping over what he longed-for when once he has gained it.”

The above is a quotation from Niccolo Machiavelli’s poem, On Ingratitude Or Envy.  And the man, as he so often did, knew what he was talking about. In his life-time, Machiavelli went from the high of being a respected, second-tier government official to the low of — not just falling from favor– but of being severely tortured by his city’s government.  Miles J. Unger writes in Machiavelli: A Biography that, “Machiavelli’s misfortune was to be a devoted servant of the state in an age when the state was dysfunctional.”

In 1494, the ruler of Milan, Ludovico, was stupid enough to invite the French into the Italian peninsula to seize the territory of the city of Naples– a rival city of Milan. The king of France, Charles The Eighth, was more than happy to oblige… only the French armies wreak much more havoc that just conquering Naples. They also wind-up accomplishing regime-change in Florence, Machiavelli’s home-city. Unger credits the devastation unleashed by the conquering French with the ending of the Italian Renaissance.

In Unger’s view, the tidal wave of French victories washing over the peninsula was due in large part to the anachronistic nature of the politics of the area. A new kind of political beast was emerging in the world– the Nation-State, and the countries of England and France were at the head of pack.  Italy, on the other hand, was still hundreds of years away from developing modern statehood; instead, the land of the Latins was a collection of rival City-States that included: Naples, Venice, Florence, Milan, Pisa, and the Papal States, to name a few.  And these tiny states, similar to the Greek City-States of the Ancient World, were constantly bickering and warring with one another.

When the armies of Charles The Eighth conquered Florence, Savonarola, the great Christian dissident, stepped into the power vacuum.  Unlike other Italian leaders, Savonarola welcomed open-armed the French conquerors, calling them the liberators of Florentines from the unrighteous rule of the Medici clan– the family which had been ruling Florence at the time of the invasion.

It seems that Savonarola was, relatively at least, not all that bad of a ruler. The average man approved of his doings, even of his notorious “bonfire of the vanities” on 27 February 1496, and it was Savonarola who established the Great Council to govern Florence.

Nevertheless, Savonarola was a thorn in the side of Pope Alexander (patriarch of the notorious Borgia clan, and played by Jeremy Irons in the tawdry series). Savonarola was always going-about pointing out how perfidious and profligate the Church had become.  

Alexander thought he could entice Savonarola into the fold by offering him a Cardinalship, but Savonarola– an apparently sincere dude– turned him down.  So Alexander excommunicates him.

Later, Savonarola will fall from power after he is challenged to walk through fire to prove that he has been chosen (or at least approved of) by God.  The fire-walk never happens, and the masses turn on Savonarola.  He is imprisoned and tortured and forced to admit that he is nothing but a great big liar.

As the politics of Florence twists and turns during the next few years (and as a SECOND French invasion storms into Italy), Machiavelli always seemed to find himself on the wrong side of history. At one point, his name ends-up on a list of people of questionable enthusiasm for the new regime, and Machiavelli is imprisoned and tortured… One of the tortures was apparently having his shoulders dislocated in the following manner:  his hands were tied behind his back, and a rope run behind him from his bound wrists up to a beam overhead;  he was then suddenly dropped and left there, suspended there from his wrists, his arms torn from their sockets.

In truth, Machiavelli was never a great partisan for any side.  However, he was honestly and deeply attached to his beloved City-State of Florence.  He never achieved top-level power or managed to siphon much wealth from the State, largely, says Unger, because “he was singularly incapable of playing the devious games he recommended to others as the way to get ahead.”  Machiavelli had a sharp tongue and an apparent disregard for tact, and was notorious for his irreverence and for exposing “the bankruptcy of shopworn pieties.”

Machiavelli seems to have been loyal to his friends and to his city, though he felt this loyalty was part of the reason for his political failures, stating that “my loyalty and my honesty are proven by my poverty.”  Elsewhere he writes (and I think I believe him) that “I love my city more than my own soul.”

Machiavelli was released from prison during the jubilation that generally pervaded Florence after it was announced that a Medici would ascend to the Papal throne.  With his energies diverted from what he felt was their natural outlet– government-work– Machiavelli turned to writing, including poetry and plays, as an outlet.  In fact, Machiavelli was better known in his own life-time as a satirist than as a philosopher of government. His play, La Mandragola was performed frequently in Venice and Rome.

The first lines from this play are illuminating as to Machiavelli’s frame of mind during this period:

“And if this material– since really it is slight– does not benefit a man who likes to seem wise and dignified, make this excuse for him, that he is striving with these trifling thoughts to make his wretched life more pleasant, for otherwise, he doesn’t know where to turn his face, since he has been cut off from showing other powers with deeds, there being no pay for his labors.”

I feel that these lines are a true confessional from Machiavelli, displaying frankly and before all his mental and emotional state.

One of the literary works accomplished by Machiavelli after his exile from political life was, of course, The Prince.  Right away, the book– and thus its author– made enemies.  According to Unger, a contemporary of Machiavelli explained that the rich hated The Prince because it gave directions, they felt, on how a government could best seize their property… and the poor hated the The Prince because, they felt, it gave directions on how a government could best take-away their liberties.

Additionally, Machiavelli has the honor of being one of the first authors banned by the Catholic Church, The Prince being placed on the Papal Index Of Prohibited Books in 1559.

Today, Machiavelli is near the top of the list of well-known and respected philosophers of state-craft, and is credited with being one of the first of a new, worldly sort of philosopher.  Unger writes of Machiavelli that “more than any writer before him, he brought philosophy down off its pedestal to where it could make it real difference in the lives of real people.”  And Unger quotes Francis Bacon’s contention that “we are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.” 

As an example of just how far ahead of his time Machiavelli was, it will be about 250 years  before Adam Smith writes Wealth Of Nations— a book on economics which was, even in its day, still unusual for being a philosophical book about real-life.

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