Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: Dedication and Preface

SEE THE END OF THIS POST FOR AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

 

Machiavelli to Zanobi Buodelmonti and Cosimo Rucellai

Member’s of Machiavelli’s circle, the Orti Oricellari [1], Zanobi and Cosimo are told that they are receiving the best Machiavelli has to offer, the greatest thing he has written (to date). In a typically bold move, Machiavelli encourages them to remember that if there are problems with the writing they are as much to blame as he is. Whatever his failings as an author, they are the ones who “have forced me to write what I would never have written for myself”(Letter).

Machiavelli also defends dedicating his work to his friends, rather than to princes or political rulers as was the “common usage of those who write.” This common usage is mistaken, he argues, since very often such dedications are based on “ambition and avarice” and full of praise for the sorts of people who ought to be condemned. Instead, Machiavelli has “chosen not those who are princes but those who for their infinite good parts deserve to be” (Letter).

Machiavelli himself was no stranger to the more traditional form of introduction, writing in his dedication of The Prince to Lorenzo the Magnificent:

Men who are anxious to win the favour of a Prince nearly always follow the custom of presenting themselves to him with the possessions they value most…. Now, I am anxious to offer myself to Your Magnificence with some token of my devotion to you, and I have not found among my belongings anything as dear to me or that I value as much as my understanding of the deeds of great men, won by me from a long acquaintance with contemporary affairs and a continuous study of the ancient world; these matters I have very diligently analysed and pondered for a long time, and now, having summarized them in a little book, I am sending them to Your Magnificence. [2]

Interestingly, both forms of book dedication have fallen out of practice. Book dedications these days are largely aimed at family members and close friends, regardless of political status or personal virtue. I’ll admit that, while I find Machiavelli’s candor somewhat refreshing, I don’t know how I would react to opening a book and seeing something along these lines on the first page:

Never mind my spouse, children, parents, teachers, or close friends. I dedicate this book to John Smith, a member of my discussion group, who is a good and noble person. Any mistakes in this book are his fault. 

 

First Book: Preface

According to Mansfield’s note, Machiavelli’s opening paragraph is not found in early editions of the Discourses but does exist in his own handwriting as “the only surviving autograph fragment of the discourses.” [3] This makes sense, as it is basically a recapitulation of the dedicatory epistle, with the addition of the note that any errors are the result of either his own lack of ability or his ignorance of the subject matter. He hopes that at the very least, he will open a door to new ways of thinking about the common good (“those things I believe will bring common benefit to everyone,” I.Preface.1) that other, more competent writers will walk through.

In the preface proper, Machiavelli explains that his project is to bring into the political sphere the reality that already exists in law, medicine, and other human sciences—that is, a modern foundation for politics built according to the wisdom and success of the classical world.

To be sure, contemporary political leaders claim to respect the great men of Greece and Rome, but the ancients “are rather admired than imitated.” While across the board in other disciplines we see a flourishing of the rediscovery of ancient wisdom, in politics “neither prince nor republic may be found that has recourse to the examples of the ancients” (I.Preface.2).

But why is this the case? Having rejected several possible explanations (including both the specific influence of Christianity and the general influence of human laziness), Machiavelli argues that this deficiency has two causes: first, a kind of ignorance “from not having a true knowledge of histories, through not getting from reading them that sense nor tasting that flavor that they have in themselves” (I.Preface.2). Far too many people read the texts and enjoy the quaint (or less quaint) stories, but fail to really understand the lessons found therein.

Second, our instinct is to assume that the conditions and events we observe in the ancient world are so different from our own that we have no hope of replicating their success. We judge “that imitation is not only difficult but impossible—as if heaven, sun, elements, men had varied in motion, order, and power from what they were in antiquity” (I.Preface.2). Machiavelli aims in the Discourses on Livy to correct this misconception by a close and careful exposition of the text.

This last point may be the most interesting one to keep an eye on as we go through the Discourses. While I certainly do love the ancient world, there is something to be said for letting context affect action. It was a very different time, and while I happen to believe that human nature is fairly constant (which is no commendation of human nature), our circumstances are as different from ancient Rome as Machiavelli’s were from Mycenean Greece. Even more, I’m still working through exactly what kind of inspiration one ought to take from the study of ancient history. While one may (should!) read the classics and become a more humane and liberal individual, I’d hesitate to say that whatever personal improvement results is based on one becoming more like an ancient Roman.

 

Coyle Neal is the newest contributor to Nomocracy in Politics and is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

 

Endnotes:

[1] For more on this circle of Renaissance humanists, see chapter three of Quentin Skinner’s Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction or chapter seven of Robert Black, Machiavelli (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[2] Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. George Bull (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 3.

[3] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 5. For the rest of the posts in this series, any citations from this translation will be in-text and include only the book, chapter, and paragraph number. For example, “Considering thus how much honor is awarded to antiquity…” would be followed by (I.Preface.2).

 

UPDATE

As you may or may not have noticed, there was an error in the original schedule published in the post announcing this project. This has been corrected, and the updated schedule is available as a PDF here: Discourses on Livy Reading Schedule—Updated (and yes, the lack of symmetry in the schedule does bother me…)

14 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: Dedication and Preface”

  1. gabe

    Question:

    Will these essays be complied in a distinct *folder* so that one may access them should schedule prevent reading the essays in sequence?

    Reply
    • Peter Haworth

      Gabe,

      For now, just go the “Search” option on the site’s home page and type “Discourses,” “Coyle Neal,” or some other relevant key word. This should produce a list of the relevant works in the series.

      I will discuss the distinct-folder idea and various other possibilities with our tech administrator.

      Best,
      Peter

      Reply
  2. Peter Haworth

    Coyle,

    In reading your notes on the Dedication and Preface, a few items came initially to mind (all citations from the recommended free online edition here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/machiavelli-the-historical-political-and-diplomatic-writings-vol-2):

    (1) Distinction between the dedications of the THE PRINCE and the DISCOURSES. What do the differences (in light of the works) tell us about Machiavelli’s purposes? This issue is very important for evaluating whether Machiavelli might have an esoteric purpose in either work, especially in THE PRINCE. Consider the following passage from dedication in the DISCOURSES: “In doing this, I give some proof of gratitude, although I may seem to have departed from the ordinary usage of writers, who generally dedicate their works to some prince; and, [92] blinded by ambition or avarice, praise him for all the virtuous qualities he has not, instead of censuring him for his real vices, whilst I, to avoid this fault, do not address myself to such as are princes, but to those who by their infinite good qualities are worthy to be such; not to those who could load me with honors, rank, and wealth, but rather to those who have the desire to do so, but have not the power. For to judge rightly, men should esteem rather those who are, and not those who can be generous; and those who would know how to govern states, rather than those who have the right to govern, but lack the knowledge.” What does this tell us about what Machiavelli is seeking to accomplish in THE PRINCE give that there he is dedicating his work “to some prince”? Is Machiavelli here admitting that he was (in writing THE PRINCE) “blinded by ambition or avarice” for the sake of attaining “honors, rank, and wealth”? Is he admitting that he withheld (in THE PRINCE) overt “censur[e]” of “Magnificent Lorenzo” who does not have real “virtuous qualities” but mostly just “real vices” for the sake currying favor? Even more, do Machiavelli’s claims here in the dedication of the DISCOURSES suggest that he is giving will be giving his real views about the politics he favors and understands to be ideal, which will likely be quite different from the positions taken in THE PRINCE? The history of the two works is also relevant, and please correct me if this timeline is problematic. Machiavelli began the DISCOURSES in 1513 and, then, interrupted this project to write THE PRINCE, which was presented to Lorenzo sometime before his death in 1519. Machiavelli, then, finally finished the DISCOURSES in 1521. The above analysis, which presumes that Machiavelli’s dedication in the DISCOURSES reveals clues to what he was doing in THE PRINCE, requires that Machiavelli wrote the dedication to the DISCOURSES well after he understood his purpose and project in writing THE PRINCE. If he wrote the dedication to the DISCOURSES after completing that project (or sometime significantly after beginning it), then this is possible.

    (2) Machiavelli’s strong stated assumptions about the applicability of the examples from ancient world to his own renaissance world given sufficient similarities in human nature and nature itself. Again, if the DISCOURSES is Machiavelli’s more explicit work where he communicates his true views on politics (without esoterically masking his real purposes), then maybe he really does believe in the direct applicability of the ancient past to his renaissance present. Of course, even if a comparison between the DISCOURSES and THE PRINCE suggests that real views/purposes of the author are more explicit and less hidden, this does not mean that the former work is also completely exoteric. Even in the DISCOURSES written to friends (rather than princes), he might make deceptive claims to advance subtle and secret purposes.

    Reply
    • gabe

      Peter:

      A question:

      What if anything may have transpired during the 8 years between the start of Discourses, with the hiatus for the Prince, and ultimately publication of the Discourses.
      What political activity occurred? A somewhat turbulent time, yes – did anything happen to perhaps change Machiavelli’s perspective, thinking, or even sense of security such that he could be more open(?) or less esoteric?

      Reply
  3. Khalil Habib

    This is off to a great start! Thank you Coyle and Peter for organizing this. What I have to add at this point is written in haste (apologies) — and, in the spirit of Machiavelli’s dedicatory letter, is Peter’s fault if it is no good. (That is my poor attempt at a joke).

    I wonder if the following passage from the dedicatory may shed light on the kind of audience Machiavelli is addressing in the Discourses, as opposed to the more experienced, ruthless ruler in the Prince: “In doing this, I give some proof of gratitude, although I may seem to have departed from the ordinary usage of writers, who generally dedicate their works to some prince; and, [92] blinded by ambition or avarice, praise him for all the virtuous qualities he has not, instead of censuring him for his real vices, whilst I, to avoid this fault, do not address myself to such as are princes, but to those who by their infinite good qualities are worthy to be such; not to those who could load me with honors, rank, and wealth, but rather to those who have the desire to do so, but have not the power. For to judge rightly, men should esteem rather those who are, and not those who can be generous; and those who would know how to govern states, rather than those who have the right to govern, but lack the knowledge.” I wonder, in other words, if Machiavelli is speaking to or attempting to educate those who are moved to enter politics with a noble sense of gratitude, and who may look down upon those who approach politics “blinded by ambition or avarice,” flattery, false sense of honor, etc., but feel as though they may be worthy of honors and position on basis of certain moral qualities, as the dedicatory letter seems to appeal to those who approach politics with more high minded view of human nature. The tone of the dedicatory letter seems to suggest this. Might this help to explain the surface difference between the teaching in the Prince and the presentation of Machiavelli’s teaching in the Discourses? I for one would be curious to see how Machiavelli continues to present his teaching on politics through this framing dedicatory letter. Those are my two cents for the time being.

    Reply
    • Peter Haworth

      Khalil,

      This is very interesting. Based on your comments, one might wonder whether both dedications are aimed at flattering their respective audiences. According to the logic of such a possibility, one should avoid presuming from the outset that one of the works is a better candidate for expressing Machiavelli’s real and favored views on politics.

      On the other hand, the case for THE PRINCE being itself a “Machiavellian” political action aimed at winning favor, unloading bad advice on Medici’s to disrupt their regime, etc., benefits from how such ulterior possible motives are easily identifiable; whereas, we find it more difficult to identify a “Machiavellian” motive for engaging in sleight of hand with respect to the DISCOURSES. In DISCOURSES, which is a very long book (compared to THE PRINCE), and that took many years to produce, Machiavelli might really be producing his republican magnum opus.

      Reply
  4. Christopher Anadale

    One more observation for this mix: Maurizio Viroli, in his biography of NM, attributes the “bitter but firm” dedication to Lorenzo’s ignoring The Prince entirely. The powerful having proved unsympathetic, NM addresses the virtuous. (Apologies if the Preface says something similar–I do not have the Mansfield edition on my shelf.)

    Reply
  5. Peter Haworth

    All:

    Gabe, just asked a great series of questions above (in a reply to me) about what historically happened in Machiavelli’s world between the start and end his writing of the DISCOURSES. Rather than add such research to my large docket of projects, it is more more prudent to re-pose this to the larger group. Here is Gabe’s series of questions:

    “What if anything may have transpired during the 8 years between the start of Discourses, with the hiatus for the Prince, and ultimately publication of the Discourses. . . . What political activity occurred? A somewhat turbulent time, yes – did anything happen to perhaps change Machiavelli’s perspective, thinking, or even sense of security such that he could be more open(?) or less esoteric?”

    Can anyone help answer this?

    Reply
  6. Coyle Neal

    Excellent comments folks, and yes anything that goes wrong IS Peter’s fault 😉

    To reply to a few points/questions raised:

    1) These posts will be accessible as a group by clicking on the “Machiavelli” tag.

    2) One topic lots of scholarly ink has been spilled over is the exact chronology of Machiavelli’s writings. (And sorry folks, I’m just not going to wade into that discussion–Renaissance Italian textual criticism is far too arcane a field for my tastes.) The point is, it can be a bit of a challenge to tie specific events in Machiavelli’s life to his works. Even when he does tell us specific things about himself, well, he’s not always all that trustworthy.
    To make things even more difficult, both The Prince and The Discourses exist at least in rudimentary form prior to their composition as formal works (whenever that was). Which means that most of Machiavelli’s public life is fair game for trying to figure out what idea was influenced by which event. Again, far too arcane for my tastes. (It gets easier with Hobbes: Spanish Armada, English Civil War. The end.)

    3) It might be helpful to remember that The Prince and The Discourses are different at the very least because they:
    a) are dealing with different–albeit occasionally overlapping–subjects (i.e. principalities vs. republics). This isn’t to say they have different ideas, in some ways they really are just different versions of the same book. But at least on the surface they have a wide-ish gulf between them.
    b) are both unpolished (especially The Prince ); unlike some of Machiavelli’s other works, he seems never to have gone back and done the clean-up work as was his usual practice.
    c) are being used to different ends. The Prince is for the purposes of job application; The Discourses is for an academic conference. I know, I know, those are anachronistic comparisons, but they might help explain the different feel between the two texts with forcing us to say that one of them represents the “true” Machiavelli, while the other is just for public consumption.

    And for the record, neither of them was for “public consumption” in quite the way we think of it. The printing press was around (Machiavelli’s father was a great proponent of it, though Machiavelli himself rarely used it for his own writings), but both of these works were intended for only limited consumption by a potential employer or by friends and associates. That doesn’t mean that Machiavelli is being either totally honest or putting on a facade, it just means that he’s not really concerned with whether all people at all times and all places can understand the points he’s trying to make.

    4) I’ll hold off responding to Peter’s second comment about human nature until more of The Discourses has been covered, but I suspect this will end up being a key one through the book. Obviously we all think there is some value to reading about the past, else a Machiavelli project like this wouldn’t exist. But I’m still unsure how best to balance the actual events of history with the lessons found therein. I find the direct approach definitely suspect (I do NOT think we need to establish a Tribuinte today, as much as I enjoy Cola Di Rienzo’s attempts to do just that), but I also think we can’t apply the lessons of history without the events…

    Anyway, hopefully this discussion will continue, because you folks have great things to say!

    Reply
  7. Erik Root

    From the Dedication: Machiavelli claims he’s writing about “practical” matters and things learned and read in a “worldly” fashion. In that, the Discourses and the Prince are similar and have the same aim—to lower our sights and our horizons from the Divine Madness of the Good. Therefore, I disagree with Coyle Neal in point three. The ends for Machiavelli are the same in many respects—they are at once an all out attack on the Ancients and The Faith.

    Reply
    • gabe

      With this you are in agreement with Leo Strauss, who although recognizing Machiavelli’s influence and genius, also recognized the assault he was making on the ancients and faith (Athens and Jerusalem).
      I will be anxious to see what Coyle Neal reveals about this.

      Reply
      • Coyle Neal

        I suspect that the only thing I’ll ultimately reveal is general disappointment in my revelations 🙂

        That said, I’d agree with Erik Root that there IS a unity in Machiavelli’s writings, and that it is probably contrary to the worldview (ugh, that is NOT one of my preferred terms) of Christianity .
        And with that said, I might quibble about how much out of line Machiavelli is with some ancient thought. He is at least in step with the ancient Romans, who would have been quite happy with a political philosophy of “Mess up your enemies and look awesome while you’re doing it.” Which was (and is) very much contrary to the Christian virtue of humility.

  8. gabe

    Coyle / All:

    A friend recommended an essay by Berlin on Machiavelli:

    http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/machiavelli.pdf

    Berlin, in a nutshell, argues that Machiavelli embraced paganism as a counter to Christianity (an oversimplification to be sure) and that he may be better understood if one parses morality into a “civic” morality and an “individual” morality – and that per Machiavelli the two are incompatible – in fact mutually destructive of each other.

    Question: Been years since I read Machiavelli – is this an approach / conception / construct that will be helpful to me as we proceed through these essays?

    Reply

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