Essay: Machiavelli and Cicero

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It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Cicero’s writings or his historical significance as an example in politics and in rhetoric for Italian Humanist and Renaissance culture. Machiavelli, well-educated in the classics, drew from Cicero the inspiration for embarking on a project of education of a new ruling class: Machiavelli’s “principe nuovo” is new when compared to his contemporary counterparts, imbued with Christian and Humanist notions of virtue; however, the “principe nuovo” has an old soul, since the new notion of prudence elaborated by Machiavelli has its roots in classical images of ethical and political virtue, in Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. Machiavelli, just like Cicero, felt that what he had not been able to do in deeds with his political action at the service of the Florentine republic, he could do through his writings: putting his knowledge of men and politics, his expertise gained through practical experience and constant reading of ancient authors at the service of his fellow-countrymen, peers and patrons. The novelty of Machiavelli’s teaching consists in advocating a new kind of prudence, which consists in the capacity to do evil in view of a good and elevated purpose: to save, preserve and aggrandize the State.

I also intend to examine the differences between Machiavelli and Cicero in regards to their perception of the very nature of man itself, for their political and personal beliefs no doubt stemmed from the way they percieved their peers, contemporaries and rulers and it would be foolish to discuss these without also looking at what these beliefs were based on. Machiavelli however cannot by any means be considered to have subscribed to the school of stoic thought. The Prince could well be considered the very anti-thesis of stoic thought. . I will primarily be using of course Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and his Discourses but will also be using Cicero’s De Officiis, as well as his some of Letters and will be focusing particularly on his later speeches, especially the Caesarian speeches which will be of particular significance.

We must also consider that while many modern scholars subscribe to the belief that Machiavelli was not a republican, a point of view that when looking at The Prince is easily understood. However one must consider that The Prince was written when Machiavelli was in need of a new benefactor, likely Cosimo de Medici, the rising star of the Medicis and a man whose princely aspirations were well known. The extremes that a prince must follow, as suggested in the book, can be interpreted as warnings rather than endorsements for when read with The Discourses, a far more moderate and republican approach to governance seems to emerge. The new rising thought of Machiavelli as a republican is something that must be examined for afterall Cicero is undoubtedly one of the great republicans of history. Yet while Machiavelli seems to also incline towards republicanism he is not above critiqueing Cicero for what he clearly believes are mistakes he made not only in his writings but also in his very actions.

I will however be starting off with an overview of Machiavellis education for without this education, and the appreciation of the ancient philosophers and writers and their ways of thinking it so clearly imparted upon him, he would not have become the Renaissance polymath that we study and revere today. It is also of importance that we understand and appreciate that Machiavelli was indeed a well-educated man for many of his detractors will point out that he was one of a very select number of Humanist writers who wrote his treatises and the main body of his work in the vernacular, in this case Italian, and would be considered by some as making his work of lesser value by simple virtue of not being written in the proper, Latinate style of the time. His education would also have marked him out as being worthy of entering into conversaton and debate with his fellow politicos and writers of the time as well as being the means by which he would initially gain employment.

Machiavelli, among his other qualities, happened to be a well educated man in letters, endowed with a refined ear and an expert hand at the art of writing. Machiavelli received a traditional education in the classics for a man of his time and status: As a young child he was taught Latin, which he used very comfortably as an adult and often wrote both in his native Italian and Latin to his friends and also in his official works. We know the names of some of his earliest teachers and from his father’s diary we learn which books were in his house and which other were borrowed or somehow circulated in the house and we can infer some of what he may have read as a child and young man.*

We also know that after his forced retirement from active politics, caused by the return of the Medici family to Florence in 1512, Machiavelli attended the literary meetings held in the Orti Oricellari, the gardens of Bernardo Rucellai’s house, which hosted the Florentine Platonic Academy after its move from the Medici’s villa of Careggi. This participation shows us without any doubt, in case that his literary output was not evidence enough, that Machiavelli was genuinely interested in literary, philosophical and political questions which he liked to debate with those of his peers who shared similar interests. We can consequently come to the logical assumption that sometimes he may not have had a first hand knowledge of certain texts, which he then would have become aware of, or in some cases simply furthered his understanding of such texts, through these conversations. This image of a man of letters in constant conversation with ancient authors is confirmed by what Machiavelli himself tells us about his free time. To take only one instance: the famous dedicatory letter of the Prince is full of classical suggestions and thoughts that sprang from the minds of great writers of antiquity. Its opening passage is taken after Isocrates’ oration To Nicocles 1-2*. Machiavelli’s statement there that he did not make use of “other allurements or extrinsic adornments” is again a reprise of Isocrates, this time Philip 27-28*; his choice not to use “bombastic or magnificent words” refers to Horace, Ars Poetica 97, where it is said that the ampullae are bombastic expressions; while “varietà della materia e gravità del subietto” refers to the Rhetorica ad Herennium and to Cicero’s De Oratore, where variation and gravitas are described as the two qualities which should always be present in a public discourse; the humble style which follows from these prescriptions is the style suited to teaching according to Quintilian.*

We may provisionally conclude that Machiavelli was a truly dedicated Renaissance man, well read and eloquent, who borrowed from the classics a style and certain expressions for rhetorical reasons, in order to make his prose more elegant and suited to his audience. Far more significantly and to the point, Machiavelli was in nigh perpetual conversation, with classical authors, from whom he drew inspiration and against whom he defended some of his most famous ideas.

There is as a consequence a twofold influence of classical authors on Machiavelli, one positive and one negative. This influence is, however, remarkably strong and I think we should take Machiavelli seriously when he states that the ancients were superior in most departments to the moderns and when he consequently advocates a return to ancient modes and ways, in politics, religion, morality and military art: his ‘revolution’ is in fact a return to the ancient. Such twofold influence can be distinctly detected in Machiavelli’s relation to such a fundamental author for the Humanist culture as Cicero.*

Machiavelli appropriated certain insights of Cicero while he openly rejected other ideas of his, which he found mistaken; he debated subjects that had been examined and given a classic solution by Cicero. The relation between the two thinkers is strong and polemical –and therefore worth further investigation. Since both authors were also first rank politicians in their respective countries, we may start from their opinion on the importance of political education. Humanist thinking and rhetoric followed Cicero in making the orator a paradigmatic hero: For Cicero the orator, the statesman, is the epitome of a capacity which is unique of human beings, that of creating laws and operating for the common good through eloquence;* the statesman is both a man of letters and of action, the rise of elegant speech and thoughtful discourse brought mankind out of their primal, bestial condition where violence stands in place of eloquence and the mighty was right by simple virtue of his might.

The condottiere Francesco Colonna in the Art of War is exactly such a complex character, a general who is also a man of letters and an orator, capable to quote Frontinus, Plutarch and Xenophon, dexterous on the battlefield as well as eloquent in spurring the soldiers to fight.

The renowned Victorian editor of the Prince Lawrence A. Burd* had already drawn the readers’ attention to the dependence of certain ideas of Machiavelli from topics examined by Cicero in his works. For instance, Machiavelli’s treatment “on liberality and thriftiness” in The Prince* is strongly influenced by Cicero’s considerations of liberality in the De Officiis. This work was particularly congenial to Machiavelli and “operates like a shadow text for parts of The Prince”* it contained a lengthy praise of political life, together with famous arguments in support of a possible reconciliation or rather harmonization and identification of the interests of the individual and that which would benefit the state or rather the common good. The possible reconciliation of honesty and neccesity, the honourable and the expedient, was not a novel idea for Cicero, who had already argued for it in his De Inventione and in the De Oratore*. In the De Officiis Cicero went on to state that there is one simple rule for all cases in this matter, namely “that which seems expedient must not be morally wrong; or, if it is morally wrong, it must not seem expedient”.* In the De Officiis Cicero also maintained that liberality, when supported with one’s personal wealth, destroys its own source, causes impoverishment and forces one to rob other people, thereby becoming a source of hatred instead of love for a politician; these considerations are obviously very similar to those put forth by Machiavelli on this subject.* It is at this level, however, that the two authors part way, for Cicero goes on to link true liberality with moral duty and right ; Machiavelli, on the other end of the spectrum is notoriously uninterested in the moral consequences for the individual and looks at the practical and political result of liberality: he therefore suggests to the prince, if he is “prudent”, not to care about being considered thrifty. On the other hand, it is against Cicero’s teaching that Machiavelli’s famous admonishment concerning the duty to keep one’s word is directed. In examining this topic in a passage in the De Officiis, Cicero maintained that it was of the utmost importance to stand by what one had sworn even in war; he deplored at the same time those who commit injustice through fraud and violence , which he personified with the fox and the lion, respectively.* In the final lines of Book I, then, Cicero concluded his account by vociferously stating that the political caste should not have priority over everything, including temperance and moderation: for there are certain actions which are so despicable or so evil that a man of wisdom and learning would never commit them, not even to save his country. For Cicero the question can in practice be set aside because he cannot conceive of situations in which the country may ask the wise man to do such actions.* It seems evident that part of chapter 18 of the Prince aims at refuting Cicero’s doctrine, which would have come to mind to all contemporary readers. This is even more evident because the beginning of the chapter, the topic examined and structure of the argument clearly refer to Cicero’s treatment of loyalty and the prohibition of fraud, which should not be used even in war. Machiavelli, on the contrary, after stating that there are “two ways of fighting”, one through laws the other through force, one typical of men the other of beasts, goes on to say that the constraints of politics force the prince “to know how to use the beast”*. This very obvious homage to Cicero, although it is designed to refute his argument and actually to overturn it, serves its purpose well in lending gravitas to the subject at hand. Machiavelli seems to be saying that when the statesman is faced with the possibility of the destruction of the State, he is entitled to any and all means neccessary to ensure the survival of the state. It may be interesting to note that Cicero, in his turn, was accused to have used glib, if not illegal means to have Catilina and his cronies declared enemies of the Roman republic. Machiavelli would have commented that “the country is well defended in whatever way it is defended, either with ignominy or with glory”.* Similarly, the question of what makes the statesman more influential and capable whether it be love or fear, is thoroughly examined first by Cicero. Quoting his beloved Ennius, Cicero had stated that there is nothing more suited to preserve one’s power and the State than the love of one’s fellow-countrymen; while there is nothing more alien than fear, because fear generates hatred and thus the desire to see the hated statesman dead*. Cicero went on to produce the case of Caesar in order to show that the people’s hatred brings about death, even in the case of an individual person as mighty and powerful as Caesar was.* In chapter 17 of the Prince Machiavelli examines this subject but deems it very important to make a crucial correction: he separates fear from hate and famously maintains that what is important is “not to be hated by the people”; this will remain one of his deepest convictions as it is repeated in many places and in many works. On the other hand, Machiavelli is persuaded that fear constitutes a stronger bond than love, in consideration of men’s notorious unreliability and selfishness; most times –he considers in a sad vein in Discourses III, people follow and obey those who make themselves feared more than those who make themselves loved. Being loved, feared or hated depends on the qualities of the statesman and here the visions of the two thinkers diverge completely.

For although Cicero is adamant in maintaining that pretence and appearance are not conducive to real glory because they are soon discovered, Machiavelli overturns Cicero’s argument completely and utters one of his most famous statements: since human beings judge by the appearances and “everyone sees what you look like but few touch what you are” what matters is to appear virtuous; indeed, he adds with unabashed consistency, if one actually possesses certain virtues it is impossible to refrain from employing them in ones life; in politics, however, it is better to “seem to possess them” so that one can exercise them or not according to the necessity of the circumstances.* It is important to note that Machiavelli is not replacing Cicero’s virtues with a “technique” rather, he is replacing Cicero’s virtues with a different virtue, a new kind of carefulness which consists in the capacity to do evil in view of a good and higher purpose, nay the most important purpose: to save, preserve and improve the State. This new virtue is the result of a process of political education which starts with the identification of the final goal of political activity, its summum bonum –the preservation of the State; which is different from the preservation of the ruler’s own power, although the two ends may sometimes coincide. Having a rather dark and even narcissitic view of humanity, Machiavelli believes that without the authority of the State and law and the resultant order it guarantees, no good life, no virtuous or ethical life of any kind, indeed no life of any form at all is possible. This virtue enables the statesman to remain ‘good’ even when he commits evil deeds; namely, it enables him to identify correctly those critical events in which there are no honourable or ethical means to preserve the State and therefore it is unavoidable to use unjust, illegal and immoral means. Machiavelli uncovered an insoluble dilemma: he realized that not all concepts, be they vital or insignificant will neccessarily function in concert with one another and therefore acknowledged that ultimately the desired outcome must be placed before all other considerations.* Machiavelli therefore warns his prospective new ruler that by entering politics he may wind up damning his very soul. This is because the virtues and ends of Christian morality are different from those demanded by logical politics, a realm in which there is an element of necessity which Machiavelli brings to the fore and emphasizes repeatedly: the new prince, in order to preserve the State, is often forced “to act against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion”. He must therefore be able to “enter evil, if necessary”.* Evil remains evil in Machiavelli’s vision and human beings inevitably will be confronted with a tragic choice: if they want to follow the injunctions of Christian religion, they should refrain from entering politics; if they do enter this most precarious of arenas, they must be aware that it may, if not certainly, be required from them to act in a way that is utterly inimical to their eternal salvation and the sanctity of their soul, a matter not taken lightly in those days.

Machiavelli revealed how politics is the realm of tragic existential choices.* The contrast between the two thinkers on this subject is exemplified by their different judgement on Romulus and the killing of his brother Remus. For Cicero, when Romulus “decided that it was more expedient for him to reign alone than to share the throne with another, he slew his brother”: blinded by a false appearance of utility, he showed no piety or humanity and committed a terrible crime.* Machiavelli, once again in opposition to his mentor and ancient contemporary, while still considering Romulus’ action a crime, excuses it on the ground that it was committed to create a new political arrangement, a republic, and therefore for the well-being of the country and the common good: “it follows therefore that, while the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him”.

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