[Link] Machiavelli in historical context

by Cyan 7y31st Jul 201217 comments

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In modern usage, the name "Machiavelli" is a byword for cynical, selfish scheming. In this post, a Renaissance scholar places Machiavelli the human being into historical context, illuminating that Machiavelli was not cynical so much as desirous of an accurate map of the territory, and not selfish at all but rather relentlessly goal-oriented. (The post starts slowly -- that's historical context for ya.) In writing Il Principe, Machiavelli (quite possibly unintentionally) committed to posterity two major breakthroughs, which we would now call (i) the creation of modern political science and history and (ii) the introduction of utilitarian/consequentialist ethics. 

Consequentialism 

In 1498, at the age of 29, Machiavelli was made a high official of the Florentine analogue of the State Department/Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His job was to shut up and do the impossible:

  • Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
  • Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
  • Go!
And thus did Machiavelli come to invent consequentialism.

Modern Political Science

1508. The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest.  Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield.  Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe.  If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources.  How will it fall out?  Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France?  Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg?  Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French?  Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean?  Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried?  (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.)  All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove.  He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations.  At last a courier rushes in with the news.  The day has come.  The alliance has formed.  It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.
O_O      ????????
Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.

 

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