IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Guicciardini Refutes Machiavelli

Francesco Guicciardini was a contemporary of Machiavelli’s, fourteen years his junior, who had long experience of public life in Renaissance Italy. Guicciardini, a Florentine like Machiavelli, wrote many important works, of which his History of Italy is most renowned. Students will often gain exposure to Machiavelli, especially his Prince, but not to Mr. G. This is unfortunate. Guicciardini wrote a series of commentaries on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy that show vital differences in their perspectives on the ruthless ways of contemporary Italian politics, with Guicciardini correcting some of Machiavelli’s extravagances. For all of Machiavelli’s brilliance, Guicciardini offers a sounder view of the political life and of the relationship between politics and ethics. All in all, he is the better instructor. (Article length: 4100 words)

Guicciardini disputes Machiavelli’s account of human nature and calls into question the practical adaptability of many of Machiavelli’s maxims. His perspective is that of a seasoned practitioner--he continued to work in important positions when, after 1512, Machiavelli had been thrown out in the cold. Guicciardini was especially struck by the difference between theory and practice, and he saw Machiavelli, in his Discourses, sometimes falling victim to solutions remote from the practicalities. But like Machiavelli, he could be acerbic toward those people drawn entirely to the contemplative life: “How many are there of good understanding who either forget their knowledge or cannot put it to good use. Their understanding is useless, for it is like having a treasure in a chest which one is never allowed to take out.” (35)

These selections are drawn from Francesco Guicciardini: Selected Writings, edited and introduced by Cecil Grayson, and translated by Margaret Grayson (Oxford University Press, 1965). This edition contains both his “Considerations on the ‘Discourses’ of Machiavelli,” written in 1530 after Machiavelli’s death, and the last version of his Ricordi or Reflections, a set of short observations and maxims he worked on at various times in his life. (Below, a number alone after the selection refers to the number of the Ricordi--there were 221 of them if the number is preceded by "p", the selection is from the "Considerations" and the reference is to the page number of the Grayson edition.) 
Guicciardini gave in his Reflections a simple expression of his political outlook: “I want to see three things before I die, but I doubt whether I shall see any of them, no matter how long I live. I want to see a well-ordered republic in our city, Italy liberated from all the barbarians, and the world delivered from the tyranny of these wicked priests” (B-14). Machiavelli and he agreed on the tyranny of Roman priests and the need to liberate Italy from the barbarians (i.e. the successive waves of French, Spanish, Swiss, and German troops that had trooped into the Regnum Italicum after the French intervention in 1494). Crucially, however, Machiavelli and Guicciardini disagreed on the question of Italy’s unification.

One can never speak ill enough of the Roman court, for it is an infamy, a pattern of all the opprobrium and vituperation of the world. And I also think it is true that the greatness of the Church, that is, the authority lent her by religion, has been the cause of Italy never having fallen under a monarchy. For on the one hand it has enjoyed such credit that it has been able to assume leadership and call up as many foreign princes as it liked against those who sought to oppress Italy. On the other hand stripped of her own arms the Church was not strong enough to establish a temporal dominion, or only one willingly allowed her by others. But I really do not know whether its not becoming united under one rule has been this country's luck or misfortune. For, if as a republic, unity could have brought glory to the name of Italy and happiness to the ruling city, it would have meant disaster for all the others, for under the shadow of that city they could not attain any greatness, as it is the custom of republics not to share the fruits of their liberty and rule with any other than their own citizens.
And although Italy, divided into many states, has at various times suffered many calamities which under a single rule it might have avoided, though the barbarian invasions were at their height at the time of the Roman Empire, nevertheless in all these periods she has had so many more flourishing cities than she could have had under a single republic, that I think unification would have been more unfortunate than fortunate for her.
Such an argument is not valid for a kingdom, which is more common to all its subjects; hence we see France and many other provinces live happily under a king. Yet it may be due to some destiny of Italy or the temperament of its people, strong and intelligent, that it has never been easy to subject this province to any rule, even before the Church was here. Rather it has always naturally desired freedom, and I do not believe there is any record of another power possessing it entirely, except the Romans who subjugated it with great violence and military prowess. And when the republic decayed and the emperors declined in ability, they easily lost possession of Italy. Hence if the Roman Church has opposed unity I would not easily agree that it was the misfortune of this province, since it has preserved her in that way of living nearest her most ancient habit and inclination. (pp. 81-82)
Guicciardini had a more generous conception of human nature than Machiavelli; what Machiavelli had said, in both the Discourses and the Prince, about the wickedness of men was quite wrong, and from this much followed about the nature of leadership. Guicciardini’s observations on this score are relevant to the leader of any enterprise you care to name, but especially so to governments, businesses, and schools.
It is advanced too absolutely [by Machiavelli] that men never do good except when forced to, and that anyone organizing a republic should assume them all to be wicked, for there are many who, even when they could do ill, do well, and all mankind is not wicked. It is true that in organizing a republic, or anything else, one should take care to prevent anyone harming it who might wish to, not because all men are always wicked, but as a precaution against those who are. In this context one should consider that all men have a natural inclination to goodness, and, all other things being equal, like good better than evil, and if any have a different tendency, it is so far contrary to what is normal for others, and against the first object given us by nature, that he must rather be called monster than man. And thus everyone is naturally inclined to goodness, but because our nature is fragile and we meet at every step in life with hazards which may turn us away from well-doing, such as lust, ambition, and avarice, wise men foreseeing this danger, where they have been able to remove the chance of men's evil-doing, have done so. And where they have not been able to do so completely, for it cannot be done always, indeed very rarely, they attach another remedy, that is, inducing to do well by rewards, and discouraging from doing evil by penalties. (pp. 66-67)
[Of the first importance is] to consider the nature of the people you rule, for some are so noble and generous of spirit that they obey more readily with kindness than fear, others on the other hand are full of a sort of hardness and cannot be moved by kind treatment, but must be tamed and broken with severity. There is no doubt that one must adapt one's methods to these according to their nature, and on this subject Frederick Barbarossa, a most excellent prince born in Germany and who had lived a long time in Italy, used to say that the two greatest nations in the world were the German and the Italian, but that each had to be ruled by a different method, because the Germans were arrogant, insolent, and of such a nature that if one were gentle with them they attributed it to fear rather than kindness. On the other hand the Italians were more amenable and pleasant, and so constituted that harshness aroused their indignation rather than fear. Hence it was necessary sometimes to forgive their misdemeanours and proceed with kindness. The Germans had to be punished with severity, for otherwise they would become overbearing. (p. 122)
Machiavelli had observed that “in a republic not yet corrupted it is helpful to freedom for the people sometimes to punish one whom they should have rewarded”; Guicciardini took sharp issue with that and introduced a necessary distinction Machiavelli had overlooked:
Every kind of ingratitude and injustice is always pernicious and the republic must be ordered in such a way that the good are always honoured and the innocent not alarmed. I agree that it is a lesser error to abstain sometimes out of suspicion from trusting the good, than to place oneself in the hands of the wicked; but this reason does not make the lesser evil good when there is no necessity to choose either. (p. 97)
Guicciardini objected, as we all should object, to Machiavelli’s extreme partiality for “extraordinary and violent methods.” Discussing Machiavelli’s observation that “a new prince in a city or province taken by him, must make everything new,” Guicciardini insisted on the weakness invariably incurred by force:
Violent remedies, though they make one safe from one aspect, yet from another . . . involve all kinds of weaknesses. Hence the prince must take courage to use these extraordinary means when necessary, and should yet take care not to miss any chance which offers of establishing his cause with humanity, kindness, and rewards, not taking as an absolute rule what [Machiavelli] says, who was always extremely partial to extraordinary and violent methods. (p. 92)
Machiavelli provides an account of the Roman conquest over neighboring Italian cities emphasizing the deceit the Romans practiced. Guicciardini shows the implausibility of Machiavelli’s account, and points out the obvious limitations, in life and in statecraft, to a policy of fraud:
I do not call it fraud if the Romans made pacts with the Latini such that they might endure their rule with patience. This was not because the Latini did not notice from the first that under the colour of equal confederation there lay servitude; but being helpless and not treated in such a way as to make them desperate, persuaded them to wait, not until they recognized the objectives of the Romans, which they would have had to be very stupid not to realize from the first, but until such time as with increased numbers of men and being really expert in military discipline they might hope to be able to meet the Romans as equals. It was therefore prudence, not fraud, on the part of the Romans, to treat the Latini fairly; and I think it very true that without such arrangements and prudent ways of going about things not only may one seldom rise from a lowly condition to great fortune, but one would even be hardly likely to preserve one's power. But as for fraud, it may be questionable whether that is always a good means of attaining power, for while by deception one may bring off some fine things, too often a reputation for deceit spoils one's chances of attaining one's ends. (p. 113)
Guicciardini offers trenchant advice on matters of war and peace. Advocates of military intervention, even on behalf of the worthiest of causes, should take note. This is just about as important as anything you can read in the New York Times.
You should be most careful about entering into new business or enterprises, for once begun one is forced to continue. Hence it often happens that men are led into difficulties, when if they had previously suspected the eighth part of them they would have run a thousand miles. But once embarked it is not in their power to withdraw. This occurs most often in enmities, in factious strife, in wars. One cannot take too much care and thought before embarking on such, or any other, affairs. (152)
In any war there is no greater enemy than entering into it in the belief that it is as good as won. For even if wars appear very easy and certain they are subject to a thousand accidents, which are made worse if those involved are not ready with courage and resources—as they would have been if they had considered the war difficult from the very beginning. (180)
Guicciardini objected to Machiavelli’s bookish ways, his propensity to lay down a sweeping rule for which there are obviously many exceptions, or which would have a different meaning if applied in different circumstances. His deconstruction of Machiavelli’s rejection of the idea that “money is the sinews of war” is a classic:
Whoever was the author of that saying that moneys are the sinews of war, and those who later repeated it, did not mean that money suffices by itself to make war, nor that it is more necessary than soldiers, for that would have been a view not only false but quite ridiculous. It means, however, that anyone making war has an extreme need for money and that without it, war would be impossible to sustain, for money is not only necessary to pay troops but to provide arms, victuals, spies, munitions, and all the instruments used in war, which demand a flood of money impossible to imagine without personal experience. And although sometimes an army lacking money may make up for it by its strength and courage and by lucky victories, nevertheless these are very rare instances, particularly in our own times. And in every case and every age, money does not run after armies until after victory. I admit that anyone with soldiers of their own may make war at smaller expense than those who have mercenary troops; nevertheless, those who make war with their own troops need money too, and not everybody has native troops. And it is much easier to find soldiers by means of money than to find money through soldiers. Anyone therefore who interprets that saying in the sense of the person who first said it and as it is usually understood, will not be surprised, and not condemn it in any respect. (p. 109)
Guicciardini gave extensive consideration to how rulers should act. There follows seven such sage pieces of advice, only a modest sampling of his observations in the Ricordi, that speak to certain perquisites of wise leadership. In one of them, he pokes gentle fun at himself in recalling his less than stellar record in negotiation, owing to his candid character. In another, he sees the basis of human solidarity in a mutual forgiveness of our flawed natures.
Ambition is not to be condemned, nor should one revile the ambitious man's desires to attain glory by honourable and worthy means. Such men as these do great and outstanding things, and anyone who lacks this urge is a cold spirit and inclined rather to idleness than to effort. Ambition is pernicious and detestable when its sole end is power. This is usually true of those princes who, when they set it up as an idol to achieve what will lead them to power, set aside conscience, honour, humanity, and all else. (32)
In political affairs we should not consider so much what reason shows a prince should do, as what he can be expected to do according to his nature or habit. For princes often do, not as they should, but what they can, or what they feel like doing. Those who judge by any other rule may make great mistakes. (128)
Rulers of states should not be frightened of apparent dangers even though they may appear great, imminent, and virtually real, for, as the proverb says, the devil is not as ugly as he is painted. Often dangers resolve themselves through various accidents, and even when the worst happens, one may find some mitigation more than one hoped. Consider well this axiom, for it is frequently useful. (116)
Let princes beware above all those who arc by nature hard to please, because they will never be able so to benefit and satisfy them that they will be sure of their loyalty. (130)

There is nothing that men ought to desire more on this earth and that can be a source of greater pride than to see their enemy prostrate on the ground and at their mercy. This glory is greatly increased by its proper use, that is, by showing mercy and letting it suffice to have conquered. (72)
I have always been by nature very frank and a great enemy of long drawn-out negotiations, hence those who have had to negotiate with me have found their task easy. Nevertheless, I have found that in all affairs it is of the greatest value to negotiate from a strong position. The essence of this is not to come to the final terms at once, but standing aloof, to allow oneself to be drawn on step by step and with difficulty. If you do this you may often obtain more than you would have been satisfied with. Those who negotiate as I have done, never get more than their minimum demands. (132)
Everybody has faults, some more and some less; however, friendship cannot last, nor allegiance, nor companionship, if men will not put up with one another. Men must know one another, and remembering that by change one cannot avoid all defects, but one meets either with the same or perhaps greater failings, one should be ready to suffer them as long as they are things which may easily be tolerated, or are of no great importance. (214)
Guicciardini has a depiction of the “dense fog” surrounding politics that seems vaguely familiar even in an age of media saturation.  
Do not be surprised that much is unknown about former ages or about what is happening in distant towns and provinces. For if you consider well, there is no accurate information to be had about present-day affairs or those done daily in the same city, and often between the palace and the public square there is such a dense fog or thick wall, that being impenetrable to the human eye, the people know as much of what those in power are doing and their reasons for it as of what is going on in India. Hence the world is easily filled with false and vain opinions. (141)
We discussed earlier Richard Ned Lebow’s Cultural Theory of International Relations, in which Lebow identifies with the ancient understanding of a human psyche divided into an appetitive and spirited part. Lebow identifies interest with appetite; Guicciardini identified interest with the spirit, and thought a narrow angling after monetary advantage was distinctly secondary to a person’s true interests:  
In this world those men conduct their affairs well who always keep before them their own interests and measure all their actions by this purpose. Those do badly who do not know their own best interests; that is, who think them always to lie in some monetary advantage, rather than in honour and in knowing how to preserve one's reputation and good name.  (218)
Guicciardini was caustic regarding those who offered prophecies of the future. He draws attention to the evident weaknesses of such prophecies, losing in plausibility the further they descend into detail.
Future events are so chancy and subject to so many accidents that most times even those who arc really wise are deceived in them. Anyone who compared their forecasts of the future, particularly in the detail of affairs—for they are more often right in their general statements—would find little to choose between them and men of less reputation for wisdom. Hence, to abandon present good for fear of future evil is usually madness if the evil be not very certain or imminent, or much greater by comparison with the good. Otherwise you may often, for a fear which later turns out to be groundless, lose a benefit which you might have enjoyed. (23)
There are some who compose prophecies of the future from the events of the day. These when they are done by ingenious men seem very fine to their readers. Nevertheless they are entirely fallacious, because as each conclusion depends on the one before, if one fails all the others deduced from it fall to the ground and any smallest detail which varies will alter the conclusion. Now the affairs of the world cannot be judged thus from afar, they must be decided and resolved day by day. (114)
Guicciardini, like Machiavelli, reflected often about the power of fortune in human affairs. Given the sheer scale of Italy’s travails, it seemed a sort of divine malevolence, or at least indifference, had afflicted Italy. It was “difficult to believe ,” Mr. G wrote bitterly, “that a just God could allow the sons of Lodovico Sforza to enjoy the state of Milan which he acquired by wicked means and in so doing ruined us all" (91). Guicciardini wrote eloquently in his History of Italy of the time of troubles after 1494. The entry into Italy of the French king Charles VIII had “opened the door to innumerable horrible calamities, in which, one could say, for various reasons, a great part of the world was subsequently involved.” Charles’s intervention “not only gave rise to changes of dominions, subversion of kingdoms, desolation of countries, destruction of cities and the cruelest massacres, but also new fashions, new customs, new and bloody ways of waging warfare, and diseases which had been unknown to that time.” Guicciardini, then, knew all about bad luck, but in his reflections on fortune, good and ill, he offers advice more elevated and consoling than Machiavelli’s thrashings about in chapter twenty-five of the Prince 
All cities, all states, all kingdoms are mortal, everything comes to an end by nature or by accident and finishes at some time. Hence a citizen who finds himself at his country's end should not lament its misfortune and call it ill-starred, but rather complain that he is himself unlucky. For what has happened to the nation was what must inevitably happen, but he was unfortunate to be born in that particular age which was to see its decline.  (189)
In this world one cannot choose the class into which a man will be born nor the labours and the fortune with which he must live. Therefore in praising or criticizing men one must observe not their present fortune but how they behave within it, for praise or blame should arise from their behaviour, not from the condition in which they happen to be, as in a comedy or a tragedy one does not appreciate more the actor who has the role of master or king than the one who takes the part of a servant, but one cares only who best acts his part. (216)
Fortune is not only different between one human being and the next, but changes for each individual. He may be fortunate in one matter and not in another. I have been lucky with such gains as may be obtained without capital and by one’s own work alone. In others I have been unlucky. I have had things with difficulty when I wanted them; the same things when I no longer sought them have pursued me. (85)
Even those who would ascribe everything to prudence and virtue and exclude as far as possible the power of fortune must at least agree that it is very important to come upon, or be born into, times where your own best qualities are of value. One may quote the example of Fabius Maximus, who acquired such great reputa-tion from his dilatory nature. For he found himself in the kind of war in which eagerness would be pernicious, and delay useful. On another occasion the opposite might have been true. Hence his fortune consisted in this, that the times needed the quality he possessed. Any man who could adapt his nature according to the conditions of the times—most difficult and maybe impossible—would be so much the less ruled by fortune.  (31)
One of the greatest pieces of luck which men can have is to be able to show that in what they have done in their own interests, they have been moved by the public good. This is what rendered the enterprises of the Catholic King glorious, which, being always for his own security or aggrandizement, often appeared to have been done either to further the Christian Faith or to defend the Church. (142)
Guicciardini is a wise writer who recalls human beings to their frailties without losing sight of the good. Though a realist in his approach to human conduct, he does not yield to despair. He stoutly advises the superiority of the active life over the contemplative life; he is no fan of studied neutrality. In these sentiments he is very close to Machiavelli.
Rest assured that, although man's life is short, yet there is plenty of time for those who know how to make capital of it and not to consume it in vain. For man has great capacity, and the energetic and resolute man can achieve a vast amount. (145)

See how men deceive themselves; each regards as wicked those sins of which he is not guilty, as slight those which he commits, and by this rule right and wrong are often measured rather than by considering the nature and seriousness of things in themselves. (122)
Although one must proceed with deliberation, yet one should not foresee so many difficulties in one's affairs, that thinking success impossible one stops altogether. Rather one must remember that in action things become easier, and in the doing the difficulties unravel themselves. (194) 
Some things, if done, would constitute an injury or an offence. Yet not doing them should not be described as a good action or a benefit, for abstaining from evil or from doing an injury is half-way between doing ill and doing good, between what can be praised and what should be blamed. One should not say therefore: I did not do this, I did not say that, for commonly the truly praiseworthy thing is to be able to say: I did, I said. (129)

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In addition to the Grayson edition, there is also a (more readily available) paperback edition of Guicciardini's Ricordi, published as Francesco Guicciardini, Maxims and Reflections, translated by Mario Domandi, with a fine introduction by Nicolai Rubinstein (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

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This statue of Guicciardini is from the Uffizi in Florence, via Wikipedia's entry on Mr. G.