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The Middle Ages or the Medieval Period of European history are notorious as the Dark Ages as well.  They have been vilified and castigated to good effect for a long time now, so much so that any discussion of them is bound to reach only one conclusion; that time in history is not to be discussed with any pride.  However, the Renaissance that followed it is spoken of with great admiration and in it many people see the seeds of the Modern period of European history that has done not just the Europeans but the whole of humanity itself very proud.  With the Renaissance one finds the birth of a new confidence in man and his abilities to decipher the mysteries of the universe, which, hitherto, were not considered friendly to exploration.  The turnaround in perceptions had everything to do with revival of classical learning, which once again placed in the hands of man tools which displayed an imminent potential to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  The famous historian of ideas G.W. Southgate says, “The movement which marked the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times is called the Renaissance, and it occurred mainly in the fifteenth century.  The Renaissance was revival of the learning of ancient times, but it was also more than that.  A spirit of inquiry developed, a spirit of freedom in thought and action, men were no longer content to accept without questioning the teachings, the superstitions, and the customs of the past.  There was a tendency, increasing in strength as time went on, to develop a critical attitude towards medieval institutions”.[1]

The Renaissance saw the emergence of a rudimentary capitalist economy and this was a consequence of a change which began in the later Middle Ages.  “In the later Middle Ages, a gradual and almost imperceptible change took place.  The crusades, the growth and extension of commerce, the development of cities, the consolidation of national monarchy, all these, and doubtless other factors, contributed to the change.  By the opening of the sixteenth century, both the manorial system and the guild system were in decay.  Landlords instead of exacting personal services and payment in kind from their serfs and tenants, were receiving money rents from free tenants and hiring agricultural labourers”.[2]  To put it more succinctly a money economy had come into being.  The surplus capital generated in this way began to be reinvested to improve agricultural output and commercial activities.  Added to this were geo-political conditions which expedited the emergence of the nascent form of capitalism.  No discussion would be complete if one were to not mention the contribution of the early scientific method to the emerging capitalism during the Renaissance and it is almost a categorical imperative to mention the Paduans from the University of Padua when talking about these developments and their relation with the scientific method.  Brehier says, “The University of Padua, dependent after 1405 on the Most serene Republic of Venice which named and discharged matters without the intervention of the church, remained a strong hold of intellectual freedom during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  The inquisition itself and later the Jesuits who founded a college there saw their power annulled by the Venetian senate: there the secular state became the protectors of philosophers and early scientists”.[3]

The above point is of great significance for not only does it point to the fact that there was an emerging capitalism but also an emerging secularism, two of the main pillars on which the modern civilization has been supported and progress made.  It is also indicative of how there was a movement towards humanism, which is a belief in the capabilities of the human being and a movement towards a new morality that was derived out of this humanism and the necessity to lift the controls of the church.   In order to comprehend this better it is of great sense to invoke the name of Pompanazzi, the most famous of the Paduan masters.  His most famous question was: assuming that we possess no divine revelation what idea are we to formulate conceiving man and his place in the Universe?  He found his answer in Aristotle.  “In his De immortalitate animae he not only demonstrates that the intellectual soul, inseparable from the sensitive soul, must be mortal like the body, but he also draws practical conclusions from his demonstration: man has no supernatural end and must take as his end humanity itself and his daily tasks; he must find in the love of virtue and ignoring of evil a sufficient motive for action, he must know that it is the legislator who, knowing man’s penchant for evil and considering common good, has decided that the soul is immortal, not through his concern for truth, but through his propriety and his desire to lead men to virtue”.[4]  This particular passage is more than an ample demonstration of the emerging spirit of humanism and the necessity to govern oneself without relying on the supernatural.  This is also the setting for a new morality not based in religion but in the furtherance of the spirit of humanity.  It also the setting for Machiavelli to emerge and attempt successfully the disjunction between Christian ethic and politics.  The expression Christian ethic or Christian morality is used after due and complete consideration.  One must remember that in Europe the morality and ethics of the medieval period were derived from those of Christianity, when Christianity proclaimed that the true Emperor of the world was God and that the church was his only representation on earth.  This was the dominating paradigm of thinking for a very long time and all human conduct was assumed to be based in the principles of morality that were revealed by God and not rationally arrived at by human beings.

Before proceeding further one very important point should be stated and that pertains to the development of political thinking during the Renaissance.  For an age that initiated the revival of classical learning there was not much development in the field of political literature.  While it is easy to cite innumerable artists and litterateurs one cannot think of anyone but Machiavelli and Gucciardini as far as political thinking is concerned.  And Gucciardini did not scale the heights that Machiavelli did.  The spirit of Humanism is very obvious in Machiavelli.  In that sense he is the true successor of great Renaissance Humanists such Leon Battista Alberti who addressed men in these words. “To you is given a body more graceful than other animals, to you power of apt and various movements, to you most sharp and delicate senses, to you wit, reason, memory like an immortal God”.[5]  Thus the Renaissance is characterized by:

1.  The emancipation of reason from the religio-cultural bondage of many centuries.  A warm and dynamic desire to learn from nature and experience and to apply reason, rather than from God and the Bible can be found in the Renaissance.

2.  A new era of interest in man and his world along with the interest in God dominated the Renaissance culture.  Instead of tracing all values to God alone (as was done in the medieval period) human beings began to understand their world through secular values and reconstitute their life, social and political in the light of reason.  Rational enlightenment and warm humanism are the two significant features which dominated the immortal creation of the masters of the Renaissance.

And Machiavelli was most certainly one of those masters.  Leo Strauss insists in this “Thoughts on Machiavelli” that the doctrines of the Prince are simply ‘immoral’ and that their author can only be characterized as a ‘teacher of evil’.  This may not be true at all.  In order to understand Machiavelli one must go back to the birth of the humanist spirit.  “Contemporaneously with humanistic moral philosophy there arose a realistic politics which rejected everything concerning the divine right of the princes and contracts between the princes and their subjects, which refused to see in society anything other than the play of human forces and the collision of passions.  The prime example of the new politics of the era is the The Prince, the famous work of Niccolo Machiavelli, who gives us the fruits of experience he acquired as a diplomatic agent of the Florentine Republic”.[6] This passage of Quentin Skinner’s sets a tone for a different understanding of Machiavelli.  He has greater sympathy in his understanding of Machiavelli.  He further says, “The main reason for the shocking tone Machiavelli tends to employ lies in his deeply pessimistic view of human nature.  He declares that ‘One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit.  So it is hardly surprising that he feels a special obligation to warn the prince that, since men are commonly such ‘wretched creatures’, he will have to be ready to act in defiance of the conventional pieties if he wishes to remain secure”.[7]

It may appear that Machiavelli poses a paradox.   While he seems to be influenced by the humanist spirit, his conception of human nature appears almost like a critique of humanism.  This makes the understanding of Machiavelli all the more difficult and complex.  “Despite his enjoyment of paradox, however and undoubted fondness for throwing off shocking asides, it seems something of a vulgarization of Machiavelli’s outlook to label him a preacher of evil.  He is far from wishing to take evil for his good and he seldom says anything to imply the conventional virtues should not be regarded as admirable in themselves”.[8] However, the question of the paradox does not remain fully answered.  In order to get a better understanding of the reason behind the creation of the seeming paradox and still calling Machiavelli, one will have to take into consideration Machiavellli’s disgust for the church into consideration.  In this way Machiavelli was the true pre-cursor of Friedrich Nietzsche because the latter like the former did not believe in the portrayal of the human being by the Christian church and the Bible. Both Machiavelli and Nietzsche felt that the perception of man as sinner by birth and therefore incapable of good acts, was limiting the potential of the human being to discover his true nature and ability.  It is for this reason that they argue the way they do.

Machiavelli lived and flourished at a time when Italy was seeing the coming into being of a new age and new ideas.  He for his own reasons, wanted the dawn of the new age to accomplish certain goals for Italy.  For this, he worked with zeal to see that his goal, the unification of Italy, took place at the earliest.  So he advocated certain things which went against some of the set norms of Christian society.  Here it should be remembered that even though the new civilization had begun, the traces of the old were still quite strongly entrenched.  Therefore, it was but natural that Machiavelli came in for some very severe criticism when he tried to set aside those old values and considerations.  In the Prince where he is discussing ecclesiastical principalities he says, “It now remains to discuss ecclesiastical principalities and here the difficulties which have to be faced occur before the ruler is established, in that such principalities are won by prowess or by fortune but are kept without the help of either.  They are maintained, in fact, by religious institutions, of such a powerful kind that, no matter how the ruler acts and lives, they safeguard his government.  Ecclesiastical princes alone possess states, and do not need to defend them, subjects and do not need to govern them.  And though their states are not defended they are not taken away from them; and their subjects being without government do not worry about it and neither can nor hope to overthrow it in favour of another.  So these principalities alone are secure and happy”.[9]

Machiavelli’s main problems with the church rose out of its lack of accountability to the people it governed.  He believed that the problems of the Church were due to the kind of people it bred; perverse and lusting for power.  He does not mind the church being great as long as it does not interfering with the running of the political machinery.  In fact, from his point of view, the church lost its pristine glory mainly because it began interfering in temporal and political matters.  The double standards of the church were there for him to see.  The principles of ethics and morality that the church advocated were not followed by the members of the church itself.  The very same morality that subjugated the people liberated the members of the clergy, a situation not acceptable to Machiavelli.  Therefore he wanted to create a new morality that was consistent with the spirit of humanism and that which would help men attain their true potential.  It is as a part of this new morality that Machiavelli asked for the separation of the spiritual from the temporal.  In his other work “Discourses” Machiavelli shows his preference to the old Roman religion which was more supportive of the values of humanism.

In the second book of the “Discourses”, Machiavelli says, “Our religion has tended to glorify humble and contemplative men rather than the men of action.  Moreover, it has claimed that the highest good lies in humility, humbleness and contempt of human beings”.[10]This shows Machiavelli clearly attacking Christianity just the way in which Friedrich Nietzsche attacked it in his Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Genealogy of Morals.  This point becomes clearer when his views on Roman religion are seen in the Discourses.  He says, “The Roman religion claimed that it lay in greatness of spirit, physical strength, and in all those things tending to make men brave”.[11] Machiavelli goes on to state, “If our religion demands courage of a man, it demands it so that he may be able to suffer rather than do anything bold”.[12] Machiavelli’s new morality therefore is a reversion to the old.  In that he sees a possibility of men being of action and satisfying his desire for a unified Italy which was clearly consistent with the early burgeoning capitalism and wanting to keep foreigners from trade in the various principalities of Italy.

[1] Southgate, G.W., Modern European History 1453-1661, London, England, Dent and Sons., 1972,p.xvi

[2] Hayes, C.J.H, Modern Europe upto 1870, New Delhi, India, Surjeet Publications, 1982.p.p 94-95

[3] Brehier, Emile, The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Chicago, USA, The University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 228

[4] Ibid p.p 228 -229

[5] Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, Middlesex, England, Penguin Books Ltd.,1987 p. 76

[6] Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought Vol.I, Renaissance, London, England, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 134

[7] Ibid.p. 137

[8] Ibid.

[9] Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, Middlesex, England, Penguin Books Ltd., 1983, p. 74

[10] Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Discourses, New York, USA, Bantam Books Ltd., 1981,p.p.115-116

[11] Ibid.p.116

[12] ibid