Both Machiavelli and Don Quixote can be said to have contributed greatly to the period of the renaissance. In their different settings, they both seem to uphold the same views on the concepts of providence, prudence, fortune, and virtue. Don Quixote, in his madness, actually manages to defend the predictability of life or the deterministic view of history, thus upholding prudence. Machiavelli, whose book the prince has been termed as the handbook of evil, portrays the turmoil in politics and Christianity in Western Europe in the 16th century period. This essay thus compares and contrasts Machiavelli and don Quixote and their contribution to renaissance values.
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Biographers have rich documentation of Niccolo di Bernado de Machiavelli; a key figure in the rise of the Italian Renaissance. Born in Florence, Italy in 1469, he led a fairly uneventful life, serving as a secretary in the Florentine government before rising quickly through the ranks to the position of a diplomat. He became a political philosopher, a musician, a poet, and a playwright. The renaissance period was a time of rebirth in Knowledge; of change in the thinking and perceptions of individuals and in Italy, it was rife with political conflict, blackmail, and violence that involved the cities of Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples the Papacy, and neighboring countries like France, Spain and the Roman Empire. It was against this background that Machiavelli made known his political thoughts, producing his first works, the Prince, a political treatise that called for Italian unity and the end of foreign domination (Hale, p. 1-5).
Don Quixote is a character in an early Novel by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The character Don Quixote starts off as a retired gentleman in his fifties leading a quiet life but due to too much reading on chivalry, he becomes obsessed with it duly renaming himself as Don Quixote and setting off as a knight errant in search of an adventure. Though he is viewed as being insane, he manages to secure a side-kick Sancho Panza with whom he encounters a series of adventures. Towards the end of the novel, he regains his sanity but suffers from Melancholy from which he never recovers until his death (Higuera, p. 1-2).
Though one is real and the other fictional, Machiavelli and Don Quixote are often quoted together. Machiavelli’s most famous work, the Prince, is seen to resemble Don Quixote who is viewed as a determined idealist, and Machiavelli as a cunning political strategist.
The key concepts of the Renaissance theory of history are prudence, providence, virtue, and fortune. The providential scene in which don Quixote seeks refuge is of great relevance in renaissance historiography. The strong belief in divine providence (from God) declined during the renaissance period. Don Quixote’s career decline hallmarks the decline of providence as he is no longer capable of revealing the supernatural pattern of events. The decline of providence undermines the theology of history but it can appeal to secular and even naturalistic patterns of recurrence (Macphail, p. 8).
As Macphail points out, the ability to recognizing these patterns of change in history and applying them to practical affairs is known in the renaissance as prudence so in attributing his defeat to imprudence, don Quixote evokes this concept of the renaissance as explained by Machiavelli in his book, the Prince. In chapter 25, Machiavelli asks whether or not people are free to resist fortune through the exercise of prudence and virtue. He proposes that humans should reserve half of their action to prudence and the other half to fortune. As an example, he attributes Rome’s success to its political and social organization, a show of prudence, and proposes it as a model for renaissance Italy. However, the views prudence as inefficient as he recognizes that the key to resisting fortune, to achieving prudence, is a certain measure of adaptability that is hard to come by. Don Quixote also demonstrates a mistrust of chance and defends the deterministic view of history through his errant travels which convince us that history has no plot.
Machiavelli and Don Quixote exhibit certain similar aspects in their reasoning. In his book, the prince, Machiavelli describes how a prince can gain and control power within his jurisdiction. His writing is directed to a new prince as opposed to a hereditary one who faces no real task in leadership save for the maintenance of already existing institutions. The prince is a guide to acquiring and keeping power, sometimes achievable by cruel actions; but the end justifies the means as sometimes good comes out of evil. However, he does not do away with morality completely (Higuera, p. 74).
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The adventures of Don Quixote have exhibited Machiavellian implications which Higuera has successfully pointed out. Like Machiavelli, Don Quixote also feels that peace must be established through the use of arms, something he terms to his sidekick Sancho as “cruelty well used”. To him, peace cannot be based on natural plenty or on men respecting their national sense of justice. All things in life are obtained through struggle, even on the political front which has become very competitive. He asserts that the reason why most men now enjoy their things in peace is that at some point in some past, their predecessors killed or scared those who had had what they wanted or wanted what they had. Thus war is perceived to not be a necessarily bad thing. If all good things come from war, then it is only reasonable to engage it even though considered evil; the end justifies the means. This view of war was upheld by Don Quixote because it was prevalent in the author Cervante’s days and was based on Machiavelli’s thinking. Don Quixote actually admits to Sancho that he contemplates certain crimes that will enable him to become an emperor and in the process of talking to his friend, points out some Machiavellian reasoning thus:
“In kingdoms and provinces that are newly conquered, the spirits of the inhabitants are never so calm nor so much on the side of the new lord, that there be no fear of their trying some novelty to change things once again and once again, as they say, to try fortunes; and so it is necessary that the new possessor have understanding enough to govern for himself and valor enough to offend and defend himself in all circumstances ”.
This shows a great similarity with a passage in the Prince as quoted by Higuera. In the first opening of chapter three where Machiavelli asserts that;
“but the new (i.e., newly conquered) principality is that which presents difficulties…its alterations arise in the beginning from a natural difficulty that is in all new principalities, and that is that men willingly change masters (hoping for the better and this belief makes them take up arms against them”.
On the other hand, Cervante’s novel does not seem to completely side with Machiavelli. Cervante upholds the virtue of the soul that cannot be reconciled to the kind of political efficacy that Machiavelli preaches. In the novel, Don Quixote’s ideals are demonstrated thus: love as service, adventurousness. Loyalty to valor and generosity (Higuera, pp. 87-88).
His concepts have been termed Machiavellian, a term that actually implies evil cunning, and strategy. While both Machiavelli and Don Quixote are different in their character, one is mad and the other fake, one real and the other fictional, they have both contributed greatly to the period of the renaissance and can be said to have been instrumental in the changes that came about.
- Higuera, Henry. “Eros and Empire: Politics and Christianity in Don Quixote. Rowman An Littlefield, 1995”. 1997. The Carventes Society of America. Web.
- Macphail, Eric. “Don Quixote and the Plot of history.” Comparative Literature. 1995.
- Hale, J.R. Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy. London: English Universities Press, 1961.