Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Definition, Division, and Difference in Machiavelli's Political Philosophy

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Definition, Division, and Difference in Machiavelli's Political Philosophy

Article excerpt

This article aims to illuminate a striking characteristic of what may be loosely termed, for the moment, Machiavelli's literary style. Machiavelli uses this construction as a way of formulating his thoughts and conducting his arguments. As Federico Chabod demonstrated decades ago in his study of Machiavelli's method, it recurs throughout his writings and is frequently deployed in his two major texts of political theory, II Principe and the Discorsi sopra la prima deçà di Tito Livio.1 I concentrate on II Principe, because here the construction is implicated in theoretical work which has enduring consequences for the elaboration of Machiavelli's political philosophy. In my conclusion, I will return to underline this point.

To illustrate the characteristic in question, we should turn not, however, to II Principe but to a much earlier example of its presence in Machiavelli's writing which has been at the center of the relevant historiography. Machiavelli began his political career as second chancellor of the Florentine Republic on June 19, 1498. The office charged him with overseeing the administration and defense of the Florentine dominion. The "chancery ambience" at the time, as Robert Black has shown, was "thoroughly permeated with humanism."2 During the previous hundred years, "a humanist background had become essential" for recruitment into it.3 Chancery documents were now deeply inflected by the ars rhetorica, a central component of the studia humanitatis. Machiavelli's entry into public service in the department in 1498 would have been unthinkable had he not acquired the requisite rhetorical education as a youth, in part under the instruction of an eminent humanist teacher, Ser Paolo Sasso da Ronciglione.4

In office, Machiavelli produced a brief report in July 1503 entitled Del modo di trattare i popoli della Valdichiana ribellati, on the recent insurrection in Arezzo and the surrounding area which formed part of Florence's subject territories.5 Machiavelli drew on Livy to substantiate his recommendation that, when faced with such rebellions, the Florentines should consider the example of the ancient Romans, whose expertise in the techniques of imperial domination had made them "masters of the world."6 Machiavelli unfolds his argument in a manner which will become prominent in his political theory. He starts with a commonplace: "I have heard it said that history is the mistress of our actions, especially those of princes."7 In view of this wisdom, he continues, we should do well to attend to one of history's basic lessons, namely that "the world has always been inhabited in similar fashion by men who have always had the same passions."8 Given this factupon which he will insist later-Machiavelli presses his case for a close imitation of the Roman example. He adds that the world has been perennially populated by masters and servants: "there have always been those who serve and those who command."9 Having made this fundamental distinction, Machiavelli then classifies the former group into "those who serve willingly, those who serve unwillingly, and those who rebel and are recaptured."10 It is the manner in which the ancient Romans handled the third of these categories of subjects which Machiavelli wants to underline in his discussion of how to treat the recent disorder in the Florentine dominion.

My principal claim is that Machiavelli's characteristic method of ramifying his arguments through successive divisions is derived from the canons of Roman classical rhetoric, and that it needs to be classified accordingly. The procedure is deeply ingrained in Machiavelli's thinking and is further evidence of the extent of the debt which his political philosophy owes to the Roman ars rhetorica. The content and shape of this debt have been fruitfully explored recently.11 But we have perhaps only begun to scratch the surface of a rich relationship between this Renaissance thinker and Roman rhetorical theory.

This observation certainly applies to my analysis of the rhetorical construction of II Principe in Roman Monarchy and the Renaissance Prince. …

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