Constitutional scholar Philip Bobbitt turns his expert attention to the life and work of Niccolo Machiavelli, the sixteenth century political philosopher whose classic text The Prince remains one of the most important and controversial works of political theory ever written.
In The Garments of Court and Palace, Bobitt argues that the perception of Machiavelli’s Prince as a ruthless, immoral tyrant stems from mistranslations, political agendas, and readers who overlooked the philosopher’s earlier work, Discourses on Livy. He explains that Machiavelli was instead advocating for rulers to distinguish between their personal ethos and state governance.
Rather than a “mirror book” advising rulers, The Prince prophesied the end of the feudal era and the birth of the neoclassical state. Using both Renaissance examples and cases drawn from the current era, Bobbitt shows Machiavelli’s work is both profoundly moral and inherently constitutional, a turning point in our understanding of the relation between war, law, and the state.
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The Emergence of the Modern State
The most significant terms the student of The Prince must master are virtù and fortuna; chapter 7 of the present work is devoted to an analysis of these terms and their significance for Machiavelli's work. But there is another concept — ordini — that is also crucial, because it was the potential emergence of the ordini of the modern state that provoked Machiavelli's visionary insights. Because the notions of virtù and fortuna dominate The Prince, while the idea of ordini is the most significant term in the Discourses, ordini has generally been neglected as a concept that is critical for our understanding of The Prince.
Ordini refers to the institutional and constitutional structures and ethical assumptions associated with, but not limited to, the basic laws of the state. Perhaps its closest English equivalent is the term 'constitutional order'. Today, most of the states of the developed world are industrial nation states, the constitutional order that dominated the twentieth century and which arose in the late nineteenth century in the United States and Germany. But the first modern states, which arose in the early sixteenth century, were not nation states but princely states.
At the end of the fifteenth century, the constitutional order of medieval society was not divided into separate states, with each prince a sovereign within his own territory and no persons or territories remaining outside the domain of princes. Quite the contrary, a complex system of overlapping duties and entities prevailed. Vertical power was horizontally limited: for example, while a prince could demand military service from the feudal vassals who were obligated to him, and while some of these lesser lords owned land to which peasants were attached, the prince had no direct authority over his vassals' peasants. Moreover, medieval Christendom was regulated by the universal, overarching Church that spanned all societies and which by the fifteenth century had supreme jurisdiction over wills and marriages in all sectors. Finally, an urban stratum of medieval society comprising artisans, merchants and townspeople of various functions was in many aspects of life independent of both the clergy and the nobility. A great number of these townspeople were Jews, who, though often operating under severe civil restrictions, were largely autonomous. Some cities were self-governing; some were under princely patronage.
The princes of this constitutional order did not rule territorially, in the sense of having a fixed settlement and identification with that locality and its people. Nor were they the princes of states: rather, they governed scattered realms, each with a rudimentary household apparatus that was impermanent and fixed only to the person of the prince. As Adam Watson, a distinguished diplomat and international relations theorist, once observed: 'Medieval Christendom was not yet a society of politically distinct states. But first in Italy, and then throughout the area, the complex horizontal structure of feudal society crystallized into a vertical pattern of territorial states, each with increasing authority inside defined geographic borders.'
Throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, Ottoman Turks threatened Christian Constantinople. This increasing peril drove a population of talented people westwards to Italy, many of them educated in the classical traditions of which Constantinople had been the repository. When the city finally fell in 1453, its defeat was engineered by the introduction of a military technology that also ultimately doomed the city realms of Italy and that would summon forth the modern state.
The huge iron cannon of the Ottoman commander Mehmet II that eventually battered into rubble the hitherto impregnable walls of Constantinople were too unwieldy for anything but lengthy, fixed sieges. But when French engineers used the techniques for founding church bells to make lighter-weight bronze cannon, they brought about a revolution in warfare. These were the cannon that Charles VIII brought with him when he invaded the Italian peninsula in 1494.
In 1498 the Venetian Senate declared that 'the wars of the present time are influenced more by the force of bombards than by men at arms'. Machiavelli, writing in 1519, reflected that after 1494 'the impetus of the artillery is such that there is no wall so thick that it will not collapse in a few days'. Suddenly the high walls, turrets, towers, and moats that ringed the city centre were rendered obsolete. The wealthy but weak cities of Italy needed much greater revenues in order to tear down their now vulnerable high stone curtains and to replace them with lower walls, further out from their city centres, on which they could place their own artillery to keep besieging forces at bay. They needed larger and more reliable military forces than the hastily recruited and unreliable condottieri on whom they had depended. They needed alliances and treaties that would outlast the persons of their signatories, the perishability of which had been an unfortunate feature of medieval jurisprudence. They needed ambassadors who could stay for extended periods at foreign courts and manage alliance relations and report intelligence, and indeed the first permanent legations date from this period. They needed an administrative apparatus that could raise and spend these revenues and that could maintain the complex logistics of peninsular warfare. In short, they needed states. Thus, the modern state originated in the transition from the rule of princes to that of princely states that necessity wrought on the Italian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century.
All the significant legal characteristics of the state in international law — embodied in formal terms such as legitimacy, personality, continuity, integrity and, most importantly, sovereignty — date from the moment at which these human traits, the constituents of human identity, were transposed to the state itself. This occurred when princes, to whom these legal characteristics had formerly been attached, required the service of a permanent bureaucracy in order to manage the demands of a suddenly more threatening strategic competition.
Besides the immigration from Constantinople, there were several other factors that made Italy the birthplace of the new constitutional order that succeeded the feudal realms of Europe. The peninsula was dominated by five cities: Rome, Naples, Florence, Milan and Venice. These realms were well defined and contiguous, as opposed to the often disparate and contended dynastic inheritances of princes. Also, the cities were wealthy — Florence had an annual income greater than that of the king of England and the revenue of Venice and its terra firma at the middle of the fifteenth century was 60 per cent higher than that of France — in a world that had recently come to a money economy. These cities could afford a bureaucracy and could profit by it. Moreover, the wealth of these cities was coveted by others — and by each other — yet their populations were too small to create effective forces, requiring them to rely for defence on mercenaries or foreign forces lent to them. From 1494 Italy became the prize for which Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire contended. Spain had been consolidated with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella which united Castile and Aragon; France had been united after the defeat of the English and the Burgundians. Now, all eyes in Europe were focused on the security of these rich, fragile Italian city realms as they faced the new and menacing technology that would render vulnerable the sheltering walls and trenches that had protected them from predators. Men of letters and artists were urged to design countermeasures to the artillery that invaded Italy. Leonardo's notebooks of this period contain sketches for a machine gun, a primitive tank and a steam-powered cannon. Michelangelo repeatedly submitted drawings of fortifications that he thought would withstand bombardment by the new technologies of warfare.
Finally — and as we shall see, perhaps most importantly — excepting the Venetian Republic, the leadership in each of these cities faced a crisis of legitimacy.
The European medieval landscape had been roughly split into two parts. To the west were realms where dynastic power had devolved on princes who were hemmed in by customary law, the autonomy of their vassals and nobles, and the local rights of towns. These were domains where the principle of dynastic legitimacy was sound, but the power of the prince was circumscribed; once liberated by the constitutional innovations of the princely state, these realms would surpass that constitutional order and create a new one, the kingly state of the seventeenth century.
In the east and in central Europe, princes were subject to the dual universality of the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, both elected rulers representing complex, competing interests. As cities in Italy and princely realms in the Netherlands and parts of Germany began to assert their independence and to accumulate wealth and power, they found themselves subject to assaults on their legitimacy because their assertions of independence were endorsed neither by the papacy nor by the Holy Roman Empire. As Adam Watson put it, 'The most conspicuous Italians, from the Medici, the Sforzas and the Borgias down to dozens of smaller rulers, had power without legitimacy. The Western kings had legitimacy without much power.'
The defining characteristic of an ordino, of a constitutional order, is its basis for legitimacy. The constitutional order of the industrial nation state, within which we currently live, promised: give us power and we will improve the material well-being of the nation. The constitutional order of feudalism conferred legitimacy by dynastic descent: give us power, it proclaimed, because our father (or uncle) had it. But what would confer legitimacy on the novel constitutional order of princely states in Italy whose rulers were 'new' princes — persons with attenuated dynastic claims (if any) who had come to power through recent events of their own making?
Consider the situation of the leaders of the principal cities. In Milan the ruling dynastic line had ended in 1447. One candidate for the succession was Francesco Sforza, a condottiere and the husband of the last male heir's illegitimate daughter. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, claimed the duchy of Milan as forfeit to the empire, there being no rightful dynastic claimant; the kings of France and Spain also pressed dynastic claims to the duchy.
Florence was said to be a republic but was effectively ruled by the Medici. Cosimo de' Medici had returned from exile in triumph in 1434 to dominate the Signoria, an oligarchical governing body. Through his command of credit and capital, Cosimo was able to rule Florence without any dynastic claim to authority; indeed, much of his success depended upon his maintaining the fiction that he was but one citizen among many. But because the Medici rule thus depended upon ever fresh proofs of competence and patronage, it was always vulnerable to the disenchantment of the public.
In Rome the papacy was held by a Catalonian family, the Borgias. Pope Alexander VI behaved in every way like a Renaissance prince, delegating authority to his children and using the powers of the papacy — including excommunication and the interdict — in order to further the expansion of his family's power. Yet he did not have the dynastic imprimatur of a prince and could not assure the succession of his illegitimate progeny.
Naples was in the possession of the Spanish king after a century of disputed successions, recurrent revolutions, turmoil and anarchy. The city's location provided a base to Spain from which further adventures might be launched while its instability presented a temptation to France to assert its claims to the Neapolitan realm. It also provided an example to the other cities of Italy of what might happen to them if the great kings outside the peninsula were to invade.
To these problems of legitimacy Machiavelli proposed an answer. This was the creation of the neoclassical state itself, which would enable the Italian cities to reorganize themselves strategically and which would shore up the stature of the leaders that brought about this reorganization. As Machiavelli put it:
It is hardly surprising that none have been able to do what it is hoped will be done by your illustrious House, nor that in so many revolutions in Italy and in so many manoeuvres of war it always appears that the faculty of military ability seems to have become extinct. Our previous methods of warfare have become outmoded and no one has yet been able to create new ones. Nothing could bring so much honour to a rising man as discovering such new laws and new orders.
The 'new laws and new orders' he proposed amounted to a reification by which the princely state was objectified and separated from the person of the prince. This meant that, while the prince who successfully defended the state would achieve legitimacy for himself, the state itself would be immortal, guaranteeing a process of legitimacy for itself that was not dependent on any particular dynastic line.
These insights, however, led directly to a fatal misapprehension of Machiavelli's work. His counsel to new princes — the rules and methods he counselled them to employ — was misread by feudal commentators and Renaissance humanists alike as brutal and uncivilized advice to princes of the status quo. For the same reason, Machiavelli's separation of a prince's personal morality from his duty to protect the state baffled and horrified critics with its separation of Christian ethics from political action.
I will argue in the coming chapters that Machiavelli's practical advice for establishing, maintaining and defending a princely state, while often counterintuitive and refreshingly direct, was in fact novel only to the extent that the constitutional order itself was novel; those aspects of Renaissance statecraft that appeared most sinister actually had ample historical precedents (and contemporary examples, for that matter). Machiavelli's statecraft does not constitute his original contribution to statesmanship; indeed, his preferred method is to give examples from his own diplomatic experiences and from antiquity, illustrating his advice. His originality lies in the constitutionalism his advice is meant to serve, and to sever the two — to focus on the craft while ignoring its purposes — leads to a number of misapprehensions.
Despite many claims to the contrary, Machiavelli did not separate ethics from political action, nor did he deride Christian virtues. As we shall see, his depiction of the two faces of princely leadership — the personal and the institutional — was essentially ethical in nature. Bifurcated and no longer coterminous, as had been the case with feudal leaders, these two faces turned towards different spheres of action and responsibility. When Machiavelli writes that he loves Florence more than he loves his own soul, he is not suggesting trading one for the other, but showing that — as was not the case with feudal princes — he could distinguish between governing and living.
The Prince is a profoundly constitutional book, foreshadowing the changing constitutional order in Europe and the emergence of the first modern states. That is why it is devoted to the situation of a 'new' prince who must find a source of legitimacy. While that fitted the situation of the Medici, Borgias, Sforzas and other leaders who did not have a dynastic claim to power, Machiavelli's solution — the princely state — was about much more than simply finding a source of legitimacy for any particular powerful family or city oligarchy. The princely state is, by definition, a 'new order of things'. The necessity for such a state is what links all parts of The Prince — the nature of various principalities, the crucial role of the army, the behaviour and tactics of the prince, and above all the creation of the new state of Italy itself — and links The Prince to the Discourses. 'Therefore,' Machiavelli wrote, 'so that Italy may at last find its redeemer, this opportunity must not be permitted to pass by.'
After 1494 Machiavelli devised the following proposals:
(1) Florence should rely on a conscripted militia instead of mercenaries; the love of gain would inevitably corrupt the condottieri who would avoid decisive battles to preserve their forces, betray their employers to a higher bidder, and seize power when it became advantageous.
(2) The 'new' prince must create institutions that would evoke loyalty from his subjects which in other countries was underwritten by the feudal structure of vassalage.
(3) Because legal and strategic organizations were interdependent, strong and dependable arms were needed to protect the integrity of the principality, especially its laws, and a strict adherence to law was required to ensure the loyalty of the 'new' prince's subjects.
(4) Permanent embassies and sophisticated sources of intelligence must be maintained in order to enable successful diplomacy.
(5) An enduring governmental structure must be created that would outlive the vagaries and temperament of any particular prince and on which the prince and his successors could rely.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Garments of Court and Palace"
Copyright © 2013 Philip Bobbitt.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Arte dello Stato — The Machiavelli Paradox,
The Unholy Necromancer and his Koran for Courtiers,
Book I: Ordini — The Important Structure of The Prince,
Chapter 1: The Emergence of the Modern State,
Chapter 2: Can a Statesman Get into Heaven?,
Conclusion to Book I: The Prince is a Constitutional Treatise,
Book II: Lo Stato — The Relation of The Prince to the Discourses on Livy,
Chapter 3: A Republic's Duty of Consequentialism,
Chapter 4: Good Arms, Good Laws,
Conclusion to Book II: Machiavelli's Philosophy of State,
Book III: Virtù e Fortuna — God Does Not Want to Do Everything,
Chapter 5: Virtù is from Mars, Fortuna is from Venus,
Chapter 6: Machiavelli's View of History,
Conclusion to Book III: Machiavelli's Philosophy of Fate,
Book IV: Occasione — The Interesting Timing of The Prince,
Chapter 7: The Borgias and the Medici,
Chapter 8: Machiavelli's Constitution,
Conclusion to Book IV: Machiavelli's Vision,
The Machiavelli Paradox Resolved,
Epilogue: Satan's Theologian,
A Note on Translation,
A Note on the Author,