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Machiavelli and History


The story is the basis of political thought of Machiavelli. By rejecting the usual self-righteousness of historiography and by not fundamentally sharing the traditional view of the idealization of antiquity, Machiavelli research in History the reasons for the political failure of his time.

A harsh criticism of Renaissance historians

Machiavelli was rocked in his childhood by the humanist theories of Roman historians and poets who accepted as an axiom the superiority and exemplary nature of Antiquity. Yet, while being convinced that valuable lessons could be drawn from ancient history, he expresses suspicion about this idealization of Antiquity.

This theory seems to him both attractive and frustrating: he readily admits the fragmented and fleeting nature of historical information and describes the philosophies in vogue in his time (cyclical recurrence, immutable human passions, celestial influences, laws of nature, destiny. ..) like fictions providing false excuses to console oneself for failures and difficulties.

Instead, he offers a critique of history based on how social conflict has shaped power and its abuses. For all that far from proposing a Marxist reading of history before its time, which would situate the conflict at the level of two antagonistic classes, his analysis of Ancient Rome and the Florentine conflicts focuses on the distinction between the struggles established within a framework. institutional and those carried out with the instruments of private power (political favoritism, wealth, clans ...) within a single "class" that holds power.

Machiavelli insists on the fact that History, used wisely, must show how the perpetual search for the privatization of power (especially by the elites) caused both the collapse of the Roman Empire and the failures of the ruling class of Italy of its time. However, human passions and the need to retain power for the Prince, which are the causes, are not understood as the engines of destiny.

Building a prosperous state

According to him, there are 3 types of governance possible for a State: Monarchy, Aristocracy or Democracy. The nature of Man inclining towards evil rather than good, these 3 formats can be corrupted and give way respectively to Tyranny, Oligarchy or Anarchy.

This is why an ideal government would be a mixture of these 3 types, more difficult to corrupt, such as the one established in Sparta by the mythical legislator Lycurgus.

Machiavelli describes in a particularly insightful way in his Speeches on the First Decade of Livy the policies instituted by the rich holders of power in order to keep it and make their fortunes grow. In the permanent conflict of nations which opposes the haves, conservatives of power, to the plebs who want to acquire it, Machiavelli clearly takes sides for the haves and abounds in favor of the methods used to retain power, in particular the need to maintain a powerful divine worship: the fear of the Gods pushes men to do good and makes them more docile. He also adds that neglect of religion is the first sign of the decline of a state.

Lessons Learned

If Machiavelli refuses to believe in the exemplarity of Antiquity, he nevertheless deplores the inability of his contemporaries to learn from the Ancients. According to him, Italy's repeated failures to emerge from the crises that are shaking it stems in particular from its neglect to draw lessons from Antiquity.

Although fearing to fall into the same pitfalls as those he accuses of excessively praising the ancient times, Machiavelli nevertheless admits that Italy's present is inferior to its distant past.

As evidenced by certain extracts from the Speeches on the First Decade of Livy, where he asserts in particular that "the virtue which reigned in those times, and [...] the vice which defiles everything nowadays, were no more manifest than the clarity of the sun ".

This sudden anger, directed mainly against the leaders of Italy (secular as well as religious), is not based on the analysis of the cycles of growth, a historical materialism on the power of chance or of faith; it is the result of a careful study of the failures of those responsible for this catastrophe. In a sense, this conception of individual responsibility in history is fully modern. For example, it will find echoes in authors as different as Carlyle, for whom it is the great men who make history, or in the existentialism of Sartre, in which Man, pure freedom, would show bad faith. by reading history based on the notion of fate or laws.

Machiavelli's almost sickly insistence on the breaks between the ancient and modern eras, the disappearance of Italian cultural heritage and the fragmentary nature of historical memory is all the more astonishing as it does not correspond to his point of view on the 'Roman, Florentine or Italian history.

Why then integrate these arguments into his writings? Some see it as a form of bluff, like in poker: perhaps he wanted to encourage his readers to criticize these theories, because he himself admitted to appealing to them out of intellectual weakness when the meaning of history seemed to him particularly irrational and inexplicable. .

For further

- Speech on the first decade of Livy, by Nicolas Machiavelli. CIPP, March 2015

- Machiavelli, by Jacques Heers. Perrin, May 1985


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