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15 - Machiavelli’s afterlife and reputation to the eighteenth century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2010

John M. Najemy
Affiliation:
Cornell University, New York
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Summary

In book 2, chapter 5, of the Discourses, Machiavelli argues that Christianity was unable to eradicate the glorious deeds of pagan antiquity because it continued to use the Latin language. If, instead, Christian writers “had been able to write in a new language, the other persecutions they carried on indicate that we should have no record of things past.” With this sardonic observation, Machiavelli signals his awareness that revolutions in political thought are first and foremost revolutions in language: transformations in the way we speak about politics can themselves produce a new understanding of political action. Machiavelli was not of course the first to write about politics in the vernacular. His innovation was instead to inaugurate an entirely new “discourse” about politics, one that eviscerated the reigning humanist pieties and recommended force and fraud to tyrants and republics alike. Machiavelli boldly announces this innovation in both his major political works. In The Prince, he says he is the first to analyze the “verità effettuale” of politics; in the Discourses (book 1, preface) he claims to “enter upon a path not yet trodden by anyone” and to discover new “modes and orders.” Although his bid for fame was not heard in his lifetime, it was remarkably prophetic of his afterlife and reputation. In Machiavelli's time, Aristotle was the most famous political thinker in the West; in our time, Machiavelli is.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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