Machiavelli and Classical Literature

"Machiavelli and Classical Literature," Review of National Literatures, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 1970).


I shall speak somewhat less briefly on La Vita de Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, For this graceful little work reveals Machiavelli s moral taste in a more direct or simple and more condensed manner than his great works. At the same time it reveals Machiavelli s relation to the two major trends or schools of classical moral or political thought with unusual explicitness, I cannot show this without going beyond the limits that I set for myself in this paper, but this flagrant transgression will be tacitly justified by the sequel. Castruccio is presented by Machiavelli as the greatest man of post-classical times: he would have surpassed Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, and Scipio had he been born in antiquity. He lived forty-four years, like Philip and Scipio. He surpassed Philip and Scipio because he rose to greatness from “a low and obscure beginning and birth.” He resembled the men of the first rank who either were all reposed to wild beasts or else had fathers so contemptible that they made themselves sons of Jupiter or of some other god. Having been found as a baby by the sister of a priest in her garden, he was raised by her and her brother and destined for the priesthood. But as soon as he was fourteen years old, he left the ecclesiastical books and turned to arms. He found favor in the eyes of the most distinguished man of the city, a Ghibelline condottiere, who took him into his house and educated him as a soldier. In the shortest time Castruccio became a perfect gentleman, distinguishing himself by his prudence, his grace, and his courage. When on the point of dying his master made him the tutor of his young son and the guardian of his property, Castruccio had no choice but to make himself the ruler of his city. He won brilliant victories, rose to be the leader of the Tuscan and Lombard Ghibellines. and eventually almost became prince of Tuscany. He never married lest love of his children prevent him from showing due gratitude to the blood of his benefactor. After having described Castruccio’s beginning, life, and death, Machiavelli devotes half a page to a description of his character and thereafter more than three pages to a collection of witty remarks made by Castruccio or listened to by him.  These sayings reveal to us Castruccio’s mind. There are altogether thirty-four such sayings. Almost all-thirty-one-can be traced to Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Famous Philosophers. Needless to say, Machiavelli does not mention Diogenes Laertius nor the philosophers whose sayings he borrows and adapts to his purpose. This silence agrees with the fact that he very rarely refers to philosophy and philosophers: in the Prince and the Discourses taken together, there occur only one reference to Aristotle and one to Plato. Of the sayings reproduced at the end of the Castruccio, a single one stems from Aristotle. The Aristotelian saying is surrounded on each side by two sayings of a certain Bion. Bion was a pupil of the notorious atheist Theodoras and was himself a man of many wiles, a sophist of many colors, and so shameless as to behave like an atheist in the company of his fellows. The five sayings referred to are surrounded on one side by fifteen sayings of the Cyrenaic Aristippus and on the other by eleven sayings of the Cynic Diogenes. Aristippus and Diogenes shared an extreme contempt for convention as opposed to nature. The mind of Machiavelli’s exemplary prince, as revealed by the witty remark made by or listened to by that prince, reminds us most strongly of such undignified philosophers as Aristippus and Diogenes and hardly at all of Aristotle. These sayings reveal in an ironical manner Machiavelli’s own innermost thought: they point to a thought at the center of which Aristotle is kept in bonds or overwhelmed by Bion, and of which the periphery consists of a shocking moral teaching. We could and, I believe, we should interpret this pointer as follows: Machiavelli breaks with the Great Tradition of moral and political philosophy, the tradition founded by Socrates and culminating in the work of Aristotle; he breaks with the tradition according to which there is natural right. Instead he opts for the classical alternative, for the view that all right is conventional. In contradistinction to Aristippus and Diogenes, Machiavelli is a political philosopher, a man concerned with the good society; but he understands the good society by starting from the conventionalist assumption, from the premise of extreme individualism : man is not by nature political, man is not by nature directed toward political society. Machiavelli achieves a synthesis of the two classical traditions. He achieves that synthesis by going over to a new plane from the plane on which all classical thought moved. To use what is almost his own expression, he discovered a new continent different from the only continent that was known prior to him.