The new understanding of the world in Renaissance consisted primarily in the fact that the thinkers of the Renaissance began to relate to the problem of human completely differently than Christian theologians. Christian theocentrism was being replaced by Renaissance anthropocentrism, when a person, personality problems become the center and goal of all cognition and thinking in general (Gilbert 1965). In particular, Machiavelli was guided in his writings not by the abstract ideas of the triumph of good and God, but by the real experience of a concrete life, ideas of usefulness and expediency.
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Observations of life led Machiavelli to the deepest conviction that human is a purely selfish being, in all his actions guided only by his own interests. In The Prince, he claimed that “men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony” (Machiavelli 2013, 32). Having abandoned purely religious and philosophical discussions on these topics, he soberly and rigidly formulated certain rules and norms of human society, which, in his opinion, determine the life of each individual person.
An individual person appears in the works of Machiavelli in all his unvarnished, soberly assessed reality, with his good intentions and evil deeds. Most clearly these ideas were expressed by the Florentine thinker in discussions on the topic of power and the importance of the sovereign (Gilbert 1965). The state itself, in the understanding of Machiavelli, arose as a result of the same egoistic nature of human. The state is a supreme power capable of putting a rather strict limit to the egoistic aspirations of individuals and thereby saving them from self-destruction. People, guided by the interest of self-preservation, create a state.
Nicolo Machiavelli admits that real government is impossible without violence, without the most sophisticated actions. He says that the wise ruler of the state “being compelled by necessity, must be ready to take the way of evil” (Machiavelli 2013, 43). Characterizing the “new sovereign,” he writes that such a ruler must combine in one person the qualities of a lion capable of overthrowing any enemy, and a fox capable of deceiving the biggest sly man. However, it should be emphasized that Machiavelli has no chanting of violence and cruelty. Moreover, from his point of view, cruelty and violence are justified only when they are subordinate to the state interests, when the purpose of their application is the state order. Cruelty is intended to correct, not destroy, the Florentine thinker claims.
The philosophical and political teachings of Machiavelli provoked mixed reactions in Europe of that era. His preaching of a free, selfish person, reflections on the rights and possibilities of secular sovereigns led to a sharp rejection of his teaching by the Roman Catholic Church (Haren 2018). At the same time, outwardly condemning Machiavelli, many European politicians actually, in their own rule, used all the means that Machiavelli wrote about. This does not mean that they were based on the work of Machiavelli, but only shows how realistic he was in analyzing the essence of power and the laws of governing society.
In Renaissance thinking, there is no unequivocal answer to the question of the person’s position in the space between society and the state, as well as the understanding a person as a morally acting subject. It is, nevertheless, necessary to emphasize the fact that the way of life was understood here as an active one from both political and social points of view. The goal was to achieve individual and social happiness (Stacey, 2013); here we are dealing with the harmonization of individual interests and the requirements of universal benefit.
In a sense, his moral and practical views were necessary. After all, Machiavelli was a witness to the crisis of humanism, when there is a conflict between ideals and the emerging new reality. Due to the depravity of the individual and society, many moral principles and rules that have a long tradition have been questioned. The issue of order, its stability, and peace was connected not only with power, but also with the need to correct the practice of civilian life.
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Also, it referred not only to the help of morals, customs, but also ethical concepts, norms, and principles. The sociological framework of the Renaissance and its culture is connected with this. Only some thinkers managed to develop normatively justified proposals for resolving newly emerging moral issues. This is the essential difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the Renaissance, the conditionality of an ethical theory on social change is typical.
Representatives of humanism put forward ethical qualities based on examples provided by history. When thinking about the dignity of human, they turned to Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Cicero. This humanistic orientation perceived philosophy as a doctrine of the order of the human community (Stacey 2012). Life in a civil society of the emerging Italian city-republics is the subject of many ethical treatises on topics such as family, morality, virtue, justice and sensus communis. The existence of the personality was associated with a community of citizens in which the personality can improve. Humanistic ethics seeks morally responsible behavior ‑ active individuals should be guided primarily by virtue and, thus, civic life should be supported.
In Machiavelli, valor is not an antique or Christian virtue, but the active ability of a person to overcome any laws (including the laws of fortune) in order to achieve the goals. For effective confrontation with fate, a person must have enormous internal energy, since only greater than fortune energy can overcome it (Machiavelli 43). If people are immoral in nature, managing them on the basis of virtues will lead to collapse.
Another problematic position is as follows: the sovereign must look to have the above good qualities, but, in fact, he should not have them. He should only appear in the eyes of people the one who possess them. The question about the purpose of this arises and about the possibility of explanation. This is such a situation when the sovereign with his authority and majesty shows the importance of virtues from the point of view of civil life. Citizens are fully engaged in their activities ‑ craft, trade, financial operations.
For the stability of the political community, he must attract them, instill virtues into them. Advocacy should be dynamic and mainly effective. Although these are people of acts, rationally thinking, they do not have time for long sermons on morality. However, at the right time, they need not only to be awarded and encouraged, but, above, all to be interested.
Another Renaissance thinker, Francesco Guicciardini, went even further than Machiavelli in his political thought. He was arguing that “If war can destroy a war, then even war is permissible; if killing can kill killing, then even killing is advisable” (Guicciardini 2009, 163). One should recall that the flagship of democracy and human rights ‑ the United States ‑ applies these principles in practice in peacekeeping operations in zones of military conflicts and in domestic politics in the 21st century, using the death penalty. It should be noted that Guicciardini was himself an experienced political figure holding important government posts and saw politics and politicians not only in theory.
Like Machiavelli, he freely expressed his point of view on the problems of interest to him, was not afraid to be frank, giving assessments of one or another political event. Guicciardini, like Machiavelli, did not tire of repeating that democracy should not grow into anarchy, and governance should remain in the hands of experienced and knowledgeable people. Democratic, or popular rule, for Guicciardini, is one of the greatest disasters.
The controversial issue today is the possibility of applying the ideas of Machiavelli in a modern democratic society. Today, there is debate about the applicability of his political teachings in the context of modern politics. Western political scientists say that Machiavelli’s ideas regarding measures and means are not relevant, justified, and permitted in modern politics.
However, analyzing the socio-political context of the Renaissance, as well as the similarity of the views of Machiavelli with some other authors of the era, one can conclude that the immoral image of Machiavelli is nothing more than a distortion of the significance of one who observed the authority on his own experience and suggested that what really worked. His view on effective leadership helps to understand the tools, philosophy necessary to achieve the goal within the philosophy of political realism. The latter has transformed today into neorealism, but retained the core of its ideology and internal motivation.
Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini Politics and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Charleston, SC: BiblioLife, 2009.
Haren, Michael. An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Political Thought: From Ambrose and Augustine to Machiavelli and More. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
Stacey, Peter. Roman Monarchy and the Renaissance Prince. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.