Machiavelli as a Humanist:
Examples and Lessons Learned
June 1, 2008
Niccolo Machiavelli a Renaissance thinker? or Political Philosopher? Machiavelli went from poverty to a Florentine politician by observing what leaders do wrong and guiding others on how to gain, maintain and streamline power. Machiavelli’s intellectual life was dominated by three men: Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. These famous men were part of Machiavelli’s day-to-day life, as they were close friends of his father. They were a large influence to Machiavelli in his early adulthood and throughout his career. Marsilio Ficino was the son of Cosimo de’ Medici’s physician and was best known for his translations of Plato, as well as his attempt to show the harmony of Christianity with Neo-platonic thought. Ficino presided over the intellectual milieu of verbal jousting and textual citation in the Medici court. He became a priest in 1473 and later began the Christian religion. Ficino wrote to leaders, as well as the Pope, hoping to convince them to fulfill their duty at a time when dishonesty in the Catholic Church was great.1 Angelo Ambrogini, known as Poliziano, was born into a family of jurists. He studied Latin and Greek with the best of teachers of the day. At age 16, he translated four books of the Iliad into Latin hexameter which earned him the title Homericus juvenis. His publications included not only essays and poetry in Latin, but verse and a play, Orfeo, in Italian. He became the tutor of the Medici family’s children. Poliziano followed through with many political missions and, with the help of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, they searched the northern Italian cities for books and manuscripts for the Medici library.2
1, 2 Roger D. Masters, Fortune is a River (New York: Plume, 1999) 54-55.
The most famous humanist of this time, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, was the youngest son of the Count of Mirandola. In learning Hebrew, he came to believe that the Kabbala contained proof of Christian mysteries. Around the age of 23, he published some important work of nine hundred questions and theological answers, known as Pico’s 900 Theses, the Evolution of Traditional and Religious and Philosophical Systems. His aim was to reconcile religion and philosophy.3 Just prior to his death, Giovanni gave up his worldly goods to travel the world as a mendicant. Giovanni not only was an Italian philosopher, but was also a scholar, Neoplatonist and humanist. Machiavelli was also influenced in his thinking and career path by Marcus Tullius Cicero and Titus Livius, known as Livy. These two were influential to Machiavelli through their writing. Livy was born in 59 BC. He was a Roman historian who wrote a monumental history of Rome. Machiavelli used Livy’s books as a basis for Discourses. This was Machiavelli’s most important work which contains the whole of his political thought and his ideas about how a great and free republic is built.4 Discourses intent was to explain the framework and advantages of a republic, a form of government based on popular consent and control. Cicero who was born on January 3, 106 BC was a Roman Statesman, political theorist, lawyer and philosopher. Machiavelli and Cicero prove to be two people who are part of the same political party desiring
4Maurizio Viroli, Niccolo’s Smile A Biography of Machiavelli (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) 7.
the same goals of that political party. Machiavelli’s library holds many pieces of literature from both Cicero and Livy. He believed in their ways of thinking and tried to carry it forward into his caring them forward in his day. Machiavelli came to view the humanist of Florence’s thoughts as contrary to the lessons of classic antiquity and an obstacle to the beneficial exercise of political authority. Both sought to develop theories of nature and human nature that...
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