Machiavelli and Erasmus Compared
by GENNADY STOLYAROV II
Two scholars who lived simultaneously during the Renaissance could be considered the principal representatives of two colossally different schools of thought, humanism and pragmatism, which may be termed diametrical opposites in many respects. In their theories regarding government, war, toleration, and the perception of the individual, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) differed dramatically, though with a few curious convergences on certain particular issues. Machiavelli on Government
Niccolo Machiavelli’s political advice to Lorenzo de Medici the Younger, as outlined in The Prince (1513), amounted to a theoretical exposition of “realpolitik,” a separation of politics from ethics and the direction of politics toward the “practical” enhancement of the state’s power. All moral considerations are, according to Machiavelli, secondary or outright irrelevant. Whenever virtue or pretense at virtue serve a ruler’s practical ends, they should be followed, but even simple honesty is not an absolute for a Machiavellian statesman. "It's good to be true to your word, but you should lie whenever it advances your power or security—not only that, it's necessary." (The Prince.) Though Machiavelli was a man of republican convictions, and a high-ranking diplomat and statesman for the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, he concerned The Prince primarily with the tactics and dynamics appropriate to an absolutist ruler. Machiavelli’s professed motivation for this was a desire to see Italy united in an age when armed strife between the French and Spanish monarchies was wreaking devastation upon it. For this end, he was willing to sacrifice the republican ideal to a strong government capable of such unification, and aimed The Prince at his former political rivals, the Medici, who had tortured him prior to his exile from Florence. As his model for an ideal ruler, Machiavelli uses Cesare Borgia, a ruthless autocrat who frequently employed tactics of treachery, deceit, conquest, and assassination to carve out a sfere of influence for himself in the Papal States. For Machiavelli, it is more important that a ruler inspire fear in his subjects rather than love, for those who fear a ruler can be coerced to aid him when there is need, whereas those who merely admire the ruler may often be inclined against supporting him by petty interests dictating to the contrary. Nevertheless, Machiavelli counsels rulers to avoid inspiring hatred within their subjects and thus to refrain from inflicting harm arbitrarily. He advises that executions be performed rarely, and only to obtain the maximum possible deterrent effect against criminal acts by the rest of the population, and that a ruler abstain from expropriating his citizens at all costs, for “people more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance.” It must be emphasized, however, that Machiavelli thought this not out of respect for individual rights or human decency, but for sheer utilitarian reasons. While The Prince serves as a manual for autocratic rulers, Machiavelli’s later opus, Discourses on Titus Livy (published posthumously in 1531), explores the operations of a republic. Analyzing the early days of the Roman Republic, Machiavelli does not hesitate to praise virtuous acts performed by various Roman politicians, but focuses primarily on the optimal practical efficiency with which such acts can be achieved. Historians who favor Machiavelli tend to claim that the Discourses are a more accurate reflection of Machiavelli’s actual political convictions, which were concerned with both virtue and pragmatism, and that The Prince had been just a Machiavellian ploy to get into the good graces of the Medici family. Erasmus on Government
The portrait of the ideal ruler presented by Desiderius Erasmus differs starkly from Machiavelli’s in its emphasis in virtue and moral...
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