A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
MACHIAVELLI

§ 1. INTRODUCTORY

IN the porch of the sixteenth century stands the enigmatic figure of Niccolo Machiavelli, a figure that, for centuries to come, was sinister and a rock of offence. No writer, probably, has been so persistently used and abused or so little understood. From beginning to end of the sixteenth century rolled over him a chorus of denunciation, which continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Echoes of it are heard even now. He found, it is true, defenders; but for the most part these seem to have understood him as little as those who condemned. The misunderstanding of him was due partly to sheer ignorance of his writings. Few or none of those who, in the sixteenth century, denounced him, had read his works or had read any of them but the misleading Principe.1 It was due, also, to ignorance of the conditions under which he wrote and to the fact that those conditions passed so rapidly away that, even in Italy, only a few years after his death, his writings, once so topical, had lost their bearing. But the failure to understand was due perhaps yet more to the man's own intellectual attitude and mode of dealing with things. For indeed that attitude of his was a challenge to sixteenth-century thought as a whole. What he implied shocked the men of his time outside Italy even more, perhaps, than what he said. People felt that he was, in their language, an atheist; and that his method of approach to every sort of question and his whole system of values, involved a negation of all their assumptions and a denial of the validity of their way of thinking.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, the year of the accession to power in the city of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the year of the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon with Isabella of Castile. His family was of Tuscan nobility, not wealthy, but possessed of a competence. He seems to have held no office under the Medici,

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1
Osorio knew next to nothing: De Nobilitate Christiano ( 1552). Possevino ( 1592) and Ribadeneya ( 1595) appear to have known nothing at all. Gentillet Antimachiavel ( 1576) is little better informed.

-447-

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