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Farewell to Fortune

  • Anthony Parel


Machiavelli's argument in chapter 25 of The Prince for resisting Fortune is no longer persuasive. The reason is that it is based on the outmoded Ptolemaic cosmology. With that cosmology long discarded, it is time to discard the political philosophy based on it. But discarding the political philosophy does not mean discarding the chapter. On the contrary, we should study the chapter with renewed diligence as part of the history of Machiavelli's political philosophy. The distinction between his political philosophy and the history of his political philosophy is critical here.



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1 Croce, Benedetto, What Is Living and What Is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel, trans. Ainslie, Douglas (London: Macmillan, 1915).

2 Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, ed. Robbins, F. E. (London: Loeb Classical Library, 1980), xii.

3 Machiavelli, Niccolò, Legazioni e commissarie, vol. 2, ed. Bertelli, Sergio (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1964), 649n4 (hereafter Bertelli).

4 The text of Machiavelli's letter does not exist, but the text of Vespucci's reply is available. See Machiavelli, Tutte le opere, ed. Martelli, Mario (Florence: Sansoni, 1971), 1063–64 (hereafter Martelli).

5 Martelli, 1164.

6 Savonarola, Contra astrologiam divinatricem (Venice, 1513), 10.

7 For a brief account of these debates, see Parel, A. J., The Machiavellian Cosmos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 1125. Also Parel, Ptolémée et le chapitre 25 du Prince,” in L'enjeu Machiavel, ed. Sfez, Gérald and Senellart, Michel (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001), 1541; and Human Motions and Celestial Motions in Machiavelli's Historiography,” in Niccolo Machiavelli: Politico, storico, letterato, ed. Marchand, Jean-Jacques (Rome: Salerno, 1996), 363–88.

8 Roberto Ridolfi, Guicciardini's biographer, tells us how the learned historian carried with him for daily consultation “a quarto volume of hundreds of pages,” drawn up by his astrologer, in which the whole of his life, past and future, was examined (Ridolfi, The Life of Francesco Guicciardini, trans. Grayson, Cecil [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967], 5859). Even though in his Ricordi he expressed skepticism about astrology, in his Cose fiorentine he noted in the margins: “Consult the astrologers for the moment of the origin and building of Florence” (ibid., 60).

9 Machiavelli, Il principe, ed. Burd, L. Arthur, with an introduction by Lord Acton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1891; repr. 1968), 355.

10 Machiavelli, The Chief Works and Others, trans. Gilbert, Allan (Durham: Duke University Press, 1965), 1:406–7 (hereafter Gilbert).

11 Gilbert, 3:1445.

12 Gilbert, 3:1461.

13 Gilbert, 2:747.

14 Tetrabiblos 2.117–19.

15 Ibid., 3.221.

16 Ibid., 2.161n1.

17 For Tedaldi's letter advising Machiavelli on the best time to attack Pisa, see his letter of 5 June 1509, in Martelli, 1107. Machiavelli actually entered Pisa on 8 June 1509—three days after Tedaldi had written his letter. See Ridolfi, R., The Life of Niccolo Machiavelli, trans. Grayson, Cecil (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), 108.

18 Gilbert, 1:90.

19 For the text of the Ghiribizzi, see Gilbert, 2:895–97; Martelli, 1082–83.

20 Gilbert, 2:748.

21 Ibid., 748–49.

22 Hörnqvist, Mikael, Machiavelli and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 236, 239, 248, 252, 254. Italics in original.

23 Tetrabiblos 1.39.

24 Ibid., 4.451–53.

25 Cumont, Franz, Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans (New York: Dover, 1960), 61.

26 Bertelli, 2:912.

27 Bertelli, 1:353.

28 Gilbert, 2:897.

29 Discourses 3.9; Gilbert, 1:453.

30 Bertelli, 2:655.

31 Martelli, 948.

32 For an example of a nonhistorical interpretation of the term “impetuous,” see Hörnqvist, Machiavelli and Empire, 234–54.

33 Gilbert, 1:92.

34 Ibid., 1:453.

35 Ibid., 1:90.

36 Ibid., 1:92.

37 Chabod, Federico, Machiavelli and the Renaissance, trans. Moore, David (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 2223.

38 For an example, see Pitkin, Hanna, Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 148–53.

39 Brown, Alison, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 74.

40 Rahe, Paul, “In the Shadow of Lucretius: The Epicurean Foundations of Machiavelli's Political Thought,” History of Political Thought 28 (2007): 3055; and Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 3245.

41 Monsignor Jose Ruysschaert, the vice-prefect of the Vatican Library, brought to the attention of Sergio Bertelli and Franco Gaeta, then (1950s) working on the Feltrinelli edition of Machiavelli, the existence of this transcript (MS Rossi 884). Bertelli published two articles on the transcript in the Rivista storica italiana, in 1961 and 1964.

42 Brown, Return of Lucretius, 74.

43 Ibid., 74–75.

44 Ibid., 85.

45 Ibid.

46 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, ed. Rouse, W. H. D. (London: Loeb Classical Library, 1966), 100n.

47 Bergson, Henri, The Philosophy of Poetry: The Genius of Lucretius, ed. Baskin, Wade (New York: Wisdom Library, 1959), 17. Greenblatt, Stephen, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: Norton, 2011), 188–89, gives an account of the meaning of the term “swerve,” but does not tell anything about its arbitrary and invented character.

48 Mansfield, Harvey Jr.'s translation, in Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 109.

49 It is also worth noting that recent secondary literature sees no link between Lucretius and Machiavelli. The relevant chapters of The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Gillespie, Stuart and Hardie, Philip (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), make no mention of Machiavelli—he is not even in the index. Neither Jill Kraye nor Quentin Skinner, in their magisterial articles in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. Schmitt, Charles and Skinner, Quentin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), notices any influence of Lucretius on Machiavelli. Miles J. Unger, Machiavelli's most recent biographer, makes no mention of Lucretius either (Unger, Machiavelli: A Biography [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011]). It is of course possible that these scholars missed something very important about Machiavelli and Lucretius; but the present state of our knowledge of the intellectual context of Machiavelli's thought does not support the view that the theory of atomic swerve had any influence on his philosophy of free will.

50 See, for example, Garin, Eugenio, Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life, trans. Jackson, Carolyn and Allen, June (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983); Grafton, Anthony, Cardano's Cosmos: The World and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); and Westman, Robert S., The Copernican Revolution: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

I thank Barry Cooper and Michael Keren, both of the University of Calgary, and John von Heyking of the University of Lethbridge for their very valuable comments on the first draft of this article.

Farewell to Fortune

  • Anthony Parel


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