The English Face of Machiavelli
The most important use to which Machiavelli's writings were put in England between 1640 and 1660 was as comment on the principle of rule by a single person.
It is in no way surprising that this aspect of Machiavelli should have struck men forcibly at this particular time, for it was the de facto quality of political rule which was in the forefront of his mind. If the king is king de jure, if political discussion is centred on the question of his 'rights'and their limitation, Machiavelli is irrelevant; this question had not concerned him during the age of tyrants which was his Italian background. But as soon as the de jure nature of kingship begins to be questioned, as soon as there is even the suggestion of an alternative to hereditary monarchy, we have begun to move towards the Machiavellian ambit of de facto political power.
It is not surprising, therefore, that after the Grand Remonstrance Machiavelli began to be seen in a new light and his ideas to be evaluated within a new context in England. This is not to suggest that 1641 marks a well-defined break in the continuity of English political thought. On the contrary, the sixteen-forties represent, more than anything else, a period of unsuccessful groping for an alternative to the rule of Charles Stuart. Unsuccessful, because it was not long before King Charles had to be replaced by King Oliver, and King Oliver by Charles II. It seemed that in seventeenth-century England there could be no viable alternative to the rule of one man.
Nevertheless, these changes involved a process of re-evaluation of the institution of monarchy. Divine right as a valid justification for the rule of one man became increasingly inadequate once the rupture between King and Parliament had become an established fact. Yet, if the king was not God's lieutenant, responsible for his actions to God alone, and not to men, what was he?
The question was never answered satisfactorily, but the very fact that it had to be asked drew the attention of some men to the practical realities of single rule and away from the problem of its ethical or theological justification. Thus their attention was inevitably focused on an aspect of Machiavelli which had not seemed relevant or important earlier. It is in this light that we shall consider Machiavellian comment on Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.
This comment, as we shall see, was divided naturally between favourable and unfavourable. In all three instances Machiavelli was used both as attack and defence. How was this possible?
In order to answer this question, we must first consider Machiavelli's own attitude vis-a-vis single rule. Despite the sophistical intricacies of modern criticism, there is no difficulty here. What is obvious is Machiavelli's preference for a republican form of government. If, however, the political life of a people has reached a certain stage of corruption, it will no longer be possible to achieve or maintain this, and the only alternative to anarchy will be the rule of a single strong man. It is with this latter alternative that only part of The Discourses, but all of The Prince is concerned. In order to set himself up and maintain himself, Machiavelli suggests, the ruler must know how to do evil, he must be prepared to be wicked when the situation demands. Nowhere does Machiavelli attempt to justify evil, to transmute it into 'good' by equating it with 'reason of state' or some other such device. Evil is evil, unequivocally, but it is also one of the necessities of single rule. Machiavelli has stated his views on this quite clearly. In chapter 26 of book I of The Discourses, he wrote:
Such methods are exceedingly cruel, and are repugnant to any community, not only to a Christian one, but to any composed of men. It behoves, therefore, every man to shun them, and to prefer rather to live as a private citizen than as a king with such ruination of men to his score. None the less, for the sort of man who is unwilling to take up this first course of well doing, it is expedient, should he wish to hold what he has, to enter on the path of wrong doing. Actually, however, most men prefer to steer a middle course, which is very harmful; for they know not how to be wholly good nor yet wholly bad, as in the next chapter will be will be shown by means of an example.Machiavelli's chosen example was Giovampagolo Baglioni's failure to have Pope Julius II killed when he had him in his power. From it, he drew the moral again, with a significant extension:
So they concluded it must be due to men not knowing how to be either magnificently bad or perfectly good; and that, since evil deeds have a certain grandeur and are openhanded in their way, Giovampagolo was incapable of performing them.There is a key here to Machiavelli the political artist, admiring performance for its own sake. But nowhere does he attempt a slide, a rapprochement. To Machiavelli, as firmly as to the theologians whom he ignored, good was good and evil was evil. It was the ragion di stato school, coming after Machiavelli, who invented a special moral scale for statesmen.
Thus The Prince simultaneously fulfils two functions. It shows the man who wishes to play this wicked game how best to act, but in doing so it necessarily constitutes a criticism of those who wish to play at all. Now, it is obvious from the fact that Machiavelli never seeks to justify evil means but merely puts them forward as necessary, that he was aware of the double-edged nature of the sword he had forged. Therefore, to ask whether Machiavelli intended The Prince as a guide to rulers, or as a criticism of them, is unreal. The answer is: both. And, as we shall see, Englishmen in the seventeenth century fastened on to either meaning, as their immediate political purposes demanded.