Renaissance Humanism: Machiavelli and More

The distinction between "the way we really live and the way we ought to live" is central to the treatment of modernity in my "Modern Europe and the U.S." survey as is that between "the real truth" and "what people have imagined." Both recur in our treatment of the Scientific Revolution, particularly in the case of Galileo, and of the Enlightenment. The first half of the course ends with a comparison of Madison and Robespierre in which students look at Robespierre's defense of terror as necessary to create a republic of virtue and at Madison's comment that "if men were angels, government would not be necessary." So this assignment is very much a building block for much of the rest of the course. The passages from Barzun serve as introductions to the works the students are about to sample. The title, "Learning to See," emphasizes the connection Machiavelli himself drew between perspective in painting and realism in politics.

Sept. 26: Learning to See Discussion

The PrinceWe will begin our discussion with this passage from Machiavelli’s The Prince:

I hope it will not be thought presumptuous if a man of low social rank undertakes to discuss the rule of princes and lay down principles for them. When painters want to represent landscapes, they stand on low ground to get a true view of the mountains and hills; they climb to the tops of mountains to get a panorama over the valleys. Similarly, to know the people well one must be a prince, and to know princes well one must be, oneself, of the people.

—Niccolò Machiavelli to the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici, Dedication to The Prince


1. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, chapters xiv–xix, xxi–xxiii
2. Thomas More, Utopia excerpts
3. Barzun, pp. 117–128, 255–259

UtopiaSubmit notes addressing Machiavelli’s claim at the beginning of Chapter XV of The Prince, “On The Reasons Why Men Are Praised Or Blamed—Especially Princes,” that he intended “to differ . . . from what others have said” by going “after the real truth of the matter” rather than “repeat what people have imagined.” There is “such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin. . . .” Choose specific passages which, in your estimation, show something about how Machiavelli located “the real truth”? Based upon the passages you chose, comment on how closely his description of princely conduct paralleled that offered by More. Again, choose two or three specific passages from Utopia. We will explore this further in class by looking at how Machiavelli and More described the sorts of advisors princes surrounded themselves with.

It should be clear that both Machiavelli and Thomas More took seriously the role of advisor to the Prince. Both served in that capacity. Both wrote about the role in The Prince (chapter xxii) and in Utopia. Machiavelli wrote that choosing the right advisors is one of the most important challenges facing a prince. He can, Machiavelli continued, scarcely expect to hold on to power unless he chooses well. In addition to being intelligent and willing to tell the prince the truth, an advisor, Machiavelli wrote, must also put the prince’s interests before all others. The challenge to the prince was to be able to recognize the good servants/secretaries and not be fooled by those seeking his favor via flattery. Raphael, the traveler to Utopia, rejected More’s suggestion that he put his wisdom and experience at the service of a prince. A prince, he said, would  never accept the advice he would give. Princes only listen to those who flatter them. They never listen to advisors who tell them what they do not wish to hear.

A King and his FoolThe following is an introduction to that topic. Above is an illustration from the original edition of Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly by Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein painted several of the most famous portraits of the age, including Erasmus, Thomas More, and Henry VIII. The goddess Folly, according to Erasmus, maintained: A Wise Man should Abstain from Public Business.

Is not war the very root and matter of all famed enterprises? And yet what more foolish than to undertake it for I know not what trifles, especially when both parties are sure to lose more than they get by the bargain? For of those that are slain, not a word of them; and for the rest, when both sides are close engaged “and the trumpets make an ugly noise,” what use of those wise men, I pray, that are so exhausted with study that their thin, cold blood has scarce any spirits left? No, it must be those blunt, fat fellows, that by how much the more they exceed in courage, fall short in understanding.

. . .But counsel, you’ll say, is not of least concern in matters of war. In general I grant it; but this thing of war is not part of philosophy, but managed by parasites, panders, thieves, cutthroats, plowmen, sots, spendthrifts, and such other dregs of mankind, not philosophers. . .

Hans Holbein the Younger