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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Political Science
II. Theories of Government in the Renaissance
By Professor O. M. W. Sprague
A VERY small number of books on political and social subjects have exerted a profound and continuous influence both upon the development of thought and upon the determination of the policies adopted regarding public questions. Aristotle’s “Politics” and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” 1 are notable works belonging to this exceptionally distinguished group. A much greater number of political writings had a potent influence at the time of their composition but now possess little other than historical significance.  1
  Among such works may be mentioned Luther’s “Address to the German Nobility” and “Concerning Christian Liberty,” 2 and Rousseau’s “Social Contract.” Machiavelli’s “Prince” 3 and More’s “Utopia” 4 do not fall exactly within either of these categories. They were not the starting points from which great and fruitful advance in knowledge has been made, and at no time have they been powerful factors in determining the legislation or policy of any nation. Both are indeed highly significant and characteristic products of the age in which they were written; compared with the writings of Luther, they were immensely less influential in shaping contemporary opinion; but they are quite as representative of the thought of the time and so possess great historic interest. Moreover, although the specific conclusions of Machiavelli and of More have never been followed closely in practice, they do exemplify in their work the two strikingly different attitudes, one or the other of which invariably appears in the methods and conclusions of writers upon political and social problems.  2

  The “Prince” and the “Utopia” were both written in the second decade of the sixteenth century, at the time when those various influences which made the Renaissance period in history were being most completely exemplified in education, art, morals, and indeed in virtually every field of human activity and aspiration. In almost every direction the human spirit had freed itself from mediæval traditional limitations; political and social arrangements among others were subjected to philosophic analysis and investigation unrestrained by ancient concepts and regardless of the revolutionary conclusions that might be the outcome. Among the political writers of the period, Machiavelli and More exhibited in preëminent measure the working of the Renaissance spirit. Machiavelli subjected governmental machinery and policy to the test of facts. More subjected not only political but also social arrangements to the test of what he deemed ideally desirable. Both are in agreement that nothing in the social order is necessarily perfect even at the moment and certainly not for all time. Institutions and customs are to be judged by results, and all may be changed if something better can be devised. This is distinctly the modern point of view. It is quite as essentially the Renaissance point of view. Modern history begins with the Renaissance.

  In an age like the present, marked by swift advance in the exact sciences, the test of fact is apt to seem the one promising method of approach to the investigation of political and social problems. The test of the ideal exemplified in the “Utopia” has given the language an adjective, “Utopian,” which connotes the impractical, the visionary, and even the fanciful. The test of fact exemplified in Machiavelli has also, however, yielded an adjective, “Machiavellian,” of even more damning connotation. If the test of fact is to be a true test, all significant facts must be considered, and ideals are facts of vast importance in the development and maintenance of social arrangements. Machiavelli’s method was scientific in its general character; but his low estimate of human nature, founded as it was upon an assumption contrary to fact, rendered much of his analysis fundamentally inexact and unscientific.

  Even within the field of the kind of facts to which he attaches significance, Machiavelli’s analysis was far from being comprehensive. At the time he wrote, and indeed for a century and more before, Italy had been split up into a large number of political entities, most of which were in a chronic state of political instability not unlike that of many Central American countries to-day. Few Italian rulers were secure from either domestic or foreign foes. Machiavelli made much use of the comparative method in his analysis, and properly; but as he was mainly concerned with the means of securing and maintaining personal rule under conditions which at best could not provide a solid basis for governmental authority, his conclusions seldom possess general validity. They were not applicable to the centralized governments of large territorial areas then in process of development north of the Alps, where the ruling dynasties were already strongly entrenched in power. It is even more evident that his analysis affords little of practical value in the solution of modern problems of government. Possibly there is some analogy between the conditions described by Machiavelli and the struggle for political power carried on upon a low plane between rival bosses in misgoverned municipalities. One would, however, search the pages of the “Prince” in vain for a remedy for such ills of democratic government.
  In the field of international politics, Machiavelli’s analysis has undoubtedly been measurably in accord with practice in his own time and since. Ethical restraints have been relatively weak in the dealings of the nations one with another; and it is a significant fact that nowhere has Machiavelli found so many close readers as among those statesmen who have been mainly concerned with foreign affairs.  6
  After making every qualification, it must still be recognized that in the “Prince” Machiavelli took a long step in advance toward the development of a sound method of analyzing political problems. His example was, however, not followed very generally by writers on government in his own and the two succeeding centuries. Questions of divine right and theories of natural rights and natural law rather than the facts of government absorbed the attention of most publicists. In the nineteenth century more exact methods have been adopted in this as in other fields of knowledge; but in bringing about this desirable change little or no direct influence can be attributed to the work of Machiavelli.  7

  With the exception of Plato’s “Republic,” the “Utopia” is the best instance of the use of the device of an imaginary society as a vehicle for analysis, and indeed arraignment, of social and political conditions. During the mediæval period, uniformity of ideals and conditions throughout Europe was too great to suggest writings of this character, but the discoveries in the New World disclosed the existence of societies which had never been in touch with the European world. The assumption of the finality of European arrangements was consequently somewhat weakened, at least for men of a reflective cast of mind. In placing his “Utopia” somewhere in the New World, More must have greatly heightened the imaginative effect of the work to readers of his own time. The sense of illusion thus given at the outset is remarkably well maintained throughout. No other creator of imaginary societies has been so successful in directly impressing the reader with the feasibility of his scheme of social betterment.
  Later writers of Utopias have been commonly too anxiously concerned to put together a society which should meet the criticisms of experts in economics, sociology, and government. To attempt this, is to miss the true aim and lose much of effectiveness in this style of composition. It is certain that society will never be suddenly transformed into something quite different which may be worked out in advance by thoughtful investigators. Quite evidently also the exact course of social evolution in the distant future cannot be foreseen. Books like the “Utopia” are effective means of weakening the feeling of complete satisfaction with the existing social order, a state of mind which is neither helpful nor conducive to human betterment.  9
  Effectiveness is far from being in direct ratio to the scientific possibilities of the imaginary society described. The imaginary society is simply the vehicle for satire and criticism of things as they are. In other words, it is as literature and not as a scientific treatise that ideal commonwealths should be considered. The possession of literary qualities has made a few of them effective. More’s “Utopia” meets this test admirably and is, therefore, properly included among the Five-Foot Shelf of Books.  10

  Some acquaintance with social conditions and politics in the time of More adds much to the significance and interest of the book; but society, and even more human nature, changes so slowly from age to age that much of it can hardly fail to prove full of stimulating suggestion even to readers familiar only with present conditions. Speaking generally, our own society is no nearer that depicted in the “Utopia” than was that of More’s own period. In some respects it is further removed from Utopian conditions, notably in the greater relative importance of manufacturing and commercial as contrasted with agricultural activities. In some directions changes have taken place which all would agree are for the better, though they are contrary to the Utopian ideal. The government of “Utopia” was distinctly aristocratic. To a modern idealist the best of all conceivable societies would certainly be democratic in form and in practice. Slavery, though of an ameliorated sort, was an essential foundation of the Utopian polity. No better illustration may possibly be found of the difficulty experienced in getting away from the blinding influence of one’s own environment, even when gifted with an exceptionally humane spirit and a powerful imagination. One may hazard the hope, in this connection, that in the distant evolution of society a higher level of improvement may be reached than can now be foreseen.
Note 1. Harvard Classics, x, 9ff. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xxxvi, 263ff., 336ff. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xxxvi, 7ff. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xxxvi, 135ff. [back]

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