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6 - Machiavelli’s Discourses and Prince

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2014

Thomas L. Pangle
Affiliation:
University of Texas, Austin
Timothy W. Burns
Affiliation:
Baylor University, Texas
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Summary

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) is the hinge of fate in the history of political philosophy. He is the first thinker to break fundamentally with both the biblical and the classical outlooks on political life. He thereby lays down the most basic moral and philosophic foundations of what came to be called “modernity.” Subsequent “modern” philosophers profoundly modify, and often attack, his teachings. But they do so on grounds that he establishes.

In rejecting both classical philosophy and the Bible, Machiavelli does not by any means ignore them. He is constantly, if often only implicitly, arguing with these received authorities that he is rebelling against – to show how inadequate they are to explain the human phenomena. In order to understand Machiavelli, one must reflect constantly on his critical engagement with the tradition. But one must never lose sight of the proclamation of radical originality that he trumpets in the preface to the first part of his most capacious work: “I have decided to enter by a path, which, as yet not trodden by anyone, if it brings me trouble and difficulty, could also bring me reward through those who consider humanely the end of these labors of mine.”

Machiavelli’s Puzzling Initial Self-Presentation

To be sure, this extraordinary boast of originality is immediately followed by an apparent expression of modesty. Perhaps, Machiavelli adds, “poor talent, little experience of present things, and weak awareness of ancient things” may make “this attempt of mine defective and not of much utility,” but the attempt “will at least show the path to someone who with more virtue, more discourse and judgment, will be able to fulfill this intention of mine.” On close inspection, we see that Machiavelli does not actually say that the problem is his own limitations; he may be referring to the limitations in his audience. He certainly makes it clear that the fulfillment of his intention depends on “virtue” as well as “discourse” and “judgment.”

Type
Chapter
Information
The Key Texts of Political Philosophy
An Introduction
, pp. 173 - 222
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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References

Mansfield, Harvey C. and Tarcov, Nathan, Discourses on Livy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996)
The Prince, we recommend the translation by Mansfield, Harvey C., second edition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998)

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