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Victor Nuovo: Introducing Machiavelli: Ancients to Moderns

Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.
To begin to understand Machiavelli (1469–1527), one must try to imagine what life was like in Italy during his lifetime. 
Historians describe the period as a time of transition, the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the modern era. It was a period of war and political disorder brought on by the rise of nation-states, their imperial expansion and by cruel religious conflict. Italy was a battleground; its independent cities became pawns in a contest between predatory nations surrounding her: France, Spain, The Holy Roman Empire—which would later devolve into Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose troubles climaxed in the first World War. And there were the Swiss, who also entertained desires to become masters of Italy; and the Popes and militant princes, who were major players in the struggle for political power in Europe.
Niccolò Machiavelli was a poet, playwright, a citizen and sometime public official of Florence, and the author of what we now regard as classics of political philosophy — particularly, The Prince, and Discourses on Livy. 
Scholars describe Machiavelli as the first modern political thinker. Yet his mind was filled with Classical learning in which he found solace and consolation. His study was his refuge, which he describes in a letter to a friend:
“When evening has come, I return to my house and enter my study. At the door, I remove my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, lovingly received by them, I feed on the food that alone is mine and for which I was born. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity answer me. And for the peace of four hours, I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, poverty does not worry me, and death does not terrify me.”
What distinguishes him as a modern figure are not the literary sources of his thinking, which were for the most part ancient, but his advocacy of a political morality that seems contrary to the political morality of the ancients. He did not commend the city as a school of virtue, but as a bastion, a safe place amid the ravages surrounding its walls. Thomas Hobbes, who read and admired Machiavelli, followed suit, and counseled that founders of a civil society must be sure to observe the first law of nature: “make peace and keep it.” He was not scrupulous about the means to achieve this end; political necessity or reasons of state overruled moral scruples.
Machiavelli was acutely aware of the danger that expanding nations posed to Florence, his native city, and to Italy. He was a patriot. He was also aware of the surrounding danger and of the danger within, of the ambitions of conquerors and of local magistrates. 
He was a realist, doubtless not the first one, but the first to incorporate realism systematically into political thinking, whose first concern was not “what ought to be,” but “what is.” Like a physician caught up in a deadly epidemic, he carefully sought political remedies to the real dangers confronting his city. Political history and a clear-headed assessment of current conflicts were the objects of his study in his search for these remedies. This realism became a decisive feature of prominent political thinkers from Machiavelli to Madison.
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There is another basic feature that differentiates ancients and moderns. They differ in how they construe the universe. 
Plato and Aristotle imagined that the material universe was finite, perfectly formed and eternal. Plato supposed that its meaning resided in the transcendent archetypes that endowed it with form, order and goodness. Aristotle imagined that the universe was inspired by a transcendent intelligence, which gave it order and purpose. 
Modern cosmology represents the universe in a radically different way, although its primary sources are rooted in an ancient conjecture that has been refined and amply confirmed through scientific evidence during the last century and a half. Nature is conceived as a limitless power capable of generating worlds upon worlds throughout a constantly expanding space-time. There is no meaning to this process; it is, for all we know, without beginning or end or purpose — a ceaseless process producing worlds, galaxies and lesser cosmic systems in an endless sequence. Our planet, our solar system, galaxy, and universe are mere moments in a never-ending sequence. Our existence is here and now, and if it is to have any meaning or purpose, we must provide it. 
This idea has its roots in early Greek philosophy, before Plato and Aristotle. These early Greek philosophers became curious about the nature of things; indeed, in the course of their enquiries, chemical and astronomical, and tentative explanations, they invented the modern idea of nature. The most complete account of their thoughts was captured by the Roman poet Lucretius in his epic poem, De rerum natura. The poem was forgotten and virtually lost; Poggio Bracciollini, a Florentine and Renaissance scholar, discovered a manuscript of it in a German monastery. It was copied and widely disseminated; Machiavelli made a copy for his own use and added comments on it in the margins; the copy now resides in the Vatican Library.
Lucretius’ poem contained the seeds of modern thought, not only in physics and cosmology, but in law and the theory of government. On this account, there is no eternal law and no ideal form of government. Law and the institutions of government are conventional things, schemes of order and fairness imagined, proposed and mutually accepted as suitable means of establishing peace and stability in an otherwise troubled social world. They are experiments in living. 
It is against this intellectual background that we can begin to understand what Machiavelli has written, and while not all that we read may please us, all of it is instructive; his writings are a mirror of humanity, of the world, and of how and how not to live in it together.
Author’s postscript: Someone reading this essay may think that in writing about ancients and moderns, I have ignored what came between: The Middle Ages. Indeed, if I were writing a history of political thought, this would be a serious, unforgivable omission. The gap has been filled by the work of R.W. and A.J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, a lovely work, learned, clear and concise, and available online. 
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