Machiavelli the English Way

Niccolò Macchiavelli, The Works of the famous Nicholas Machiavel, Citizen and Secretary of Florence Written originally in Italian, and from thence newly and faithfully translated into English

Published by John Starkey, Charles Harper und John Amery (London), 1680

Statue of shrewd thinker Machiavelli in the Uffizi in Florence. Photo: Frieda / CC BY-SA 3.0

From 1521 until 1525, Niccolò Macchiavelli wrote his history of the republic of Florence. It was the cardinal Giulio de Medici who had given him the order. The author, who was living in exile at the time, received 57 florins each year, which really isn’t a lot of money. But he could hope that afterwards his employer – of course only if the result was satisfactory – would give him a lucrative office when he ascended to the papal throne as Clement VII in 1523.

This initial situation alone shows that Macchiavelli was not planning a historical work in the modern sense. Neutrality and objectivity became less important than the wish to please a Medici.

That is why Macchiavelli designed the story as an example, as an instance to show that a degenerate republic – which he perceived Florence to be – could only be rescued through the intervention of the very best.

In doing so, the classically educated author was well within the realm of the ancient mindset, following Polybios (200-118 BC), who had introduced the sequence of anacyclosis: What starts out as democracy becomes ochlocracy, the reign of disunited plebs, which is then subdued in a sensible reign by the best, the monarch.

And the best? Well, that was of course a member of the family of the Medici. After all, Macchiavelli wanted to keep his employment!

But why was this very old story suddenly relevant again in 1680? It was simply because forms of government were also competing in London. The absolutist ruler Charles I had been executed. Oliver Cromwell had established a reign of the puritans. Then Charles II had returned. And somewhere in between the British Parliament was dreaming of a constitution to protect the citizens against the absolutist ruler and the constricting state.

Because Charles II was doing what rulers have always done and will always do, when they want to suppress free expression of opinion. Arresting the intellectuals under flimsy pretences and throwing them into prison without a trial. Charles II for example ducked out of every kind of judicial assess, as the Habeas Corpus Act demanded. Parliament was fighting against this. And the publishers of this book were fighting against it as well. With this book, they gave an example to all fighting politicians, what had to ensue if they could not agree in the fight against the tyrant.

Translating eight volumes from Italian to English and printing them does not happen overnight. Thus when the books were published in 1680, the Habeas Corpus Acts had already been decided in favour of Parliament. Maybe the book about a torn Florence could still become an influential cautionary tale, though. After all, the English Parliament became a strong political force which should leave the kings or queens with little more than a representative role.