So, who is this Machiavelli guy anyway? And why does he have such a bad reputation?
To figure out what made him so bad, I had to drag him out of my dustbin of history—the vague recollection of a history major who took a Renaissance history course way back in 1988. All I could think of was his reputation for writing an allegedly nasty little book, The Prince.
But surely a book with a bad reputation wasn’t enough to give him such notoriety, to make him worthy of study, was it? Of course not. Machiavelli was more than a one-hit wonder. He played a central role in establishing the foundations of humanism, especially when it came to our modern understanding of history.
Reimagining the study of history
Along with contemporaries like Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Guicciardini and Jean Bodin, Machiavelli’s histories reimagined the past and gave back to history its “causal autonomy,” autonomy medieval scholastics usurped in their need to root through Greek and Roman classics for evidence of God’s divine plan, according to historian Eugene Rice’s The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559.
“Recourse to God’s providential plan or to direct intervention by God in order to explain historical events became rarer,” Rice writes. “The explanations advanced by Bruni, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini are usually natural rather than supernatural, involving causes rooted in the appetites of individuals or in the ambitions of particular social or political groups.”
Before the Renaissance, Rice says, medieval scholars “divided history into an age of darkness and error and an age of light and truth.,” For medieval scholars, studying both ages revealed the progress of God’s divine plan for humanity — it was bleak before Jesus came along.
Renaissance historians, according to Rice, split history into three distinct periods: ancient, medieval and modern. By doing so, these historians exercised a value judgment against medieval thought, one that “reversed the traditional metaphor of light and darkness. Antiquity, so long considered dark because it was the time of pagan error, became in this new vision of the past an age of light; while the period after the decline of Rome was branded an age of cultural decadence and barbarism. Correspondingly, the humanists represented their own age as a new historical epoch of a special kind: a renaissance — an age of light after darkness, awakening after sleep, rebirth after death.”
This new way of thinking about history contextualized it. It made the past, past, as William Faulkner might say. It alleviated medieval thought of its provincialisms and anachronisms.
Eliminating anachronism helped uncover fact from fiction and began to hold truth to power. It allowed humanist scholars and educators like Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus to develop methods of textual analysis to uncover inconvenient truths. Valla notably exposed false claims of fiefdom in the Donation of Constantine, a forged document that allegedly granted the papacy extensive property in Italy, thus strengthening the Church’s political power. In turn, Erasmus argued against a scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, an idea within Christendom that was controversial until “interpolated into the New Testament after the Council of Nicaea,” Rice says.
This form of textual criticism “is the concrete embodiment of an historical sense and represents the beginning of modern ‘scientific history’,” Rice says. Such criticism further secularized the study of history. “Instead of being an illustration and justification of God’s ways to man, history was, in [the Renaissance historians’] view, a guide to life.”
Machiavelli is explicit about this view in The Prince, “As for intellectual training, the prince must read history, studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former. Above all, he must read history so that he can do what eminent men have done before him: taken as their model some historical figure who has been praised and honored; and always kept his deeds and actions before them.”
This is a key reason we still study history. Or should. To remember the past in order to avoid its mistakes, to improve our leadership skills in whatever field we’re in. But, to study history is more than that. It takes us away from ourselves into other lives, as novels or movies or art does. It takes us away from provincialism, away from seeing the world in the narrow scope of home. It takes us away from a dangerous anachronism — the past is dead: how I cringe at evangelicals wanting to live as if we were in the first century or at the voices of Southerners who want to preserve “heritage,” who don’t want to rid themselves of old times not forgotten, for whom the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.
When I read history or watch a well put-together documentary series like Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War: A Film, I see the world as it was, and how it got to the present. I wince when I hear President Johnson declined to reveal that he learn Nixon has colluded with. South Vietnamese President Thieu to stall peace talks until after the U.S. election. For Johnson, that would reveal his less-than-scrupulous methods of getting the dope on Nixon’s treasonous act.
I choke up watching veterans touch The Wall and trace their fallen brothers’ names. I feel their anger and the increasing anger of the anti-war movement at a government that for more than a decade lied to perpetuate a war they knew was unwinnable. I see the roots of our current divide and worry that we might not ever heal from this gaping wound. Finally, I see the depth of humanity, its folly and its triumphs — the sorts of things Machiavelli saw and wrote about in his time with perhaps the hope someone might learn from them.
Part III coming soon.