The Rise of Modern Philosophy

By Anthony Kenny | Go to book overview
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9
Political Philosophy

Machiavelli's Prince

Two works of the decade 1511–20 mark the beginning of modern political philosophy: Machiavelli's Prince and More's Utopia. Both books are very different from the typical scholastic treatise which seeks to derive, from first principles, the essence of the ideal state and the qualities of a good ruler. One is a brief, stylish, how-to manual; the other is a work of romantic fantasy. The two works stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum. A Machiavellian prince is an absolute autocrat, while Utopia holds out a blueprint for democratic communism. For this reason, the two treatises can be regarded as setting out the parameters for subsequent debate in political philosophy.

It should be said, however, that The Prince was not Machiavelli's only political work. He also wrote discourses on Livy in which he set out recipes for republican government parallel to his recipes for monarchical rule. In the course of those discourses he enunciates the following principle:

When a decision is to be taken on which the whole safety of one's country
depends, no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness
or cruelty, to praise or shame. All other considerations should be set aside, and
that course adopted which will save the life and preserve the freedom of one's
country.1

Salus populi suprema lex—'the welfare of the people is the highest law'—was not a wholly new doctrine. Cicero had proclaimed it in theory and acted

1 Quoted in Janet Coleman, A History of Political Thought from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
(2000), p. 248.

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