Review of Leonardo Olschki: Machiavelli the Scientist

Review of Machiavelli the Scientist, by Leonardo Olschki, Social Research, Vol. 13, No. 1 (March 1946).  Reprinted in What Is Political Philosophy?


According to Olschki, however, Machiavelli was primarily interested in elaborating” a new science of man which anticipated in spirit and mental procedure Galileo’s foundation of a new science of nature,” and “his scientific mind…is revealed…by the abstract quality of his thought and his power of generalization.” Olschki asserts that Machiavelli was concerned with the “how,” and not with the “why” or the causes of political
phenomena; that he made of politics “a system of universal rules,” that is, of “intrinsic laws to be discovered by an inductive method of thinking”; and that he succeeded in this because he was able to reduce “the nature of [political] phenomena to two principles or agents,” namely, fortuna and virtù.

One cannot say that Olschki provides the analysis of Machiavelli’s science which he almost promises in the sentence  quoted at the beginning of this review. He scarcely goes beyond the assertions summarized in the foregoing paragraph. No evidence is submitted to prove the contention that Machiavelli was a “scientist” as distinguished from a teacher of practical statecraft. The fact (if it is a fact) that the “lasting interest in his work” depends upon his “scientific mind” in Olschki’s sense of the term, does not, of course, prove that for Machiavelli himself” science” as distinguished from practical statecraft was the focal point. His constant preoccupation with what princes or republics should do, as distinguished from what they frequently or generally do, seems rather to show that Olschki’s thesis is fundamentally wrong and that the distinction on which it is based is misleading….

But in spite of its deficiencies Olschki’s thesis is not without a certain value. One or two generations ago it was taken for granted that there is a fundamental difference between pre-modern political philosophy and modern political philosophy, and that Machiavelli played a decisive role in the emergence of the latter. Recent research has been inclined to see the “historical continuity” rather than the break with the tradition- for example, the kinship of The Prince with the traditional mirrors of princes, rather than the fundamental difference between them- and thus to blur the epoch-making character of Machiavelli’s work. Olschki rightly objects to this tendency. But he does not do justice to its sound element, which is the principle that Machiavelli’s work must be understood historically, that is, in its own light, and not in the light, say, of nineteenth century social science.