On re-reading Machiavelli after 30 years

Time flies. It is now well over thirty years since, in History 101 (Medieval and Renaissance History), I first read Machiavelli. I not only read The Prince, but also an abridged version of The Discourses.

I then wrote an essay on the cyclical nature of history in The Discourses, which got me a distinction, and which, many years later (about 21 to be most exact), I discovered was totally wrong. I only made that discovery when I read Harvey C. Mansfield’s essay Machiavelli and the Idea of Progress, which challenges the idea the teenage version of me asserted that Machiavelli held a cyclical view of history as also held by the ancients, and that his views included, due to the intervention of Christianity and its eschatology, a sense of process towards an end goal.

I do wonder whether the very well regarded renaissance history lecturers at Monash in that period (which was doing world leading research into renaissance Italy at the time), were aware of that eschatological element, or whether it was just something which was not considered as suitable for a first year syllabus.

I also, at that time, read a few extra writings contained within my Penguin edition of The Portable Machiavelli. After all, it was a long commute home from Clayton, and in the age before smartphones, a book was a good way to while away the time on a bus or train. I remember in particular reading La Mandrangola, or, in English, The Mandrake Root, a play I now know to be inspired by ancient comedians such as Plautus. At the time, I found La Mandrangola to be almost laugh out loud funny in parts.

So, today being both a rainy day and a public holiday, I pulled out my slightly battered old volume of Machiavelli and re-read La Mandrangola. It is still is funny, and my Latin now is almost good enough that I tried to translate the few Latin passages for myself before looking to the footnotes, and hopefully it still seems only as cynical to me now at almost 52 as it did to me at 19 (a sign that I have not grown more cynical as I get older).

I could not help but chuckle to myself wryly at the passage where they ascertain that the priest they need for the scam is morally flexible, when they offer him money to persuade an abbess to administer a pregnant girl with something to cause a miscarriage (ie clergy actively involving themselves in abortion on demand) and he gives his reply:

Timoteo: So be it in God’s name. May everything you wish be done and all of it for God’s sake and for the sake of charity. Give me the convent’s address, the potion, and, if you want, the money so that it can start doing some good.

Ligurio: Now you are beginning to be the priest I thought you were. Take this portion of the money.

I think you get the general gist. Machiavelli was a man of the Renaissance and he was more skeptical about clergy and the church than many others of a generation earlier, or of a less educated class.

Incidentally, the photo of a statute of Machiavelli at the top of this post is one I took in Florence when I was there in August 2016. Time flies and I wonder when it will be practical to visit Italy again.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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