1. The almost hypnotic effect of the popular image of Machiavelli as the embodiment of perverse intellectualism can perhaps best be appreciated when it is realized that two of the great villains of Renaissance English literature embody distinctly “Machiavellian” features: Shakespeare’s Richard III (who, while Duke of Gloucester in III Henry VI, had already boasted that he could “set the murderous Machiavel to school”) and Milton’s Satan. NOTE 1 Both devise and execute plans and are master rhetoricians who manipulate others thanks to their mastery over words. And both take obvious pride and delight in their superior intelligence. Both of these figures therefore serve to illustrate the evil of intellectualism run amok, untrammeled by any ethical restrain, be it imposed by Christian morality or considerations of philosophical virtue.
2. But if you are intent on destroying Machiavelli’s image, labelling him an evil genius is au fond a failing tactic: the addition of the adjective leaves the noun intact, and so an essential part of his mystique remains undamaged and his towering stature undiminished. Hume’s approach is very different. the announced purpose of his treatise is to deprecate Machiavelli’s ingenium. At the outset the reader may pardonably be unsure what manner of denunciation he is about to encounter, since the Latin word ingenium is capable of being used with two quite different meanings. In the first place, it can mean “innate nature, character,” but arguing that The Prince is a monstrous book because it is written by a monster, in the manner of Sade, would not go very far towards advancing Hume’s program of pricking Machiavelli’s balloon (and would run afoul of the biographical facts of his life, because he was scarcely one of history’s monsters) and would in the end only serve to leave his image essentially intact: he would retain that special kind of perverse greatness we reserve for history’s most outrageous monsters. But ingenium can also mean “wit, intellect, talent,“ and here we have the real thrust of the case Hume seeks to make. He does plenty to keep the “evil“ part of the designation before our eyes, but his true target is the “genius“ part. He is attempting to show that Machiavelli was hopelessly unintelligent: Il Principe is riddled with self-contradictions and ill-meditated generalizations that, upon reflection, can be seen to be misguided and sometimes downright foolish: Hume’s text is loaded with such words (applied to the man and his pronouncements) as “silly” and “stupid.” The announced aim of this treatise is to subject Il Principe to a detailed examination, the results of which add up to a demonstration that the work is chock full of foolishness. Hume’s strategy, therefore, is to cut Machiavelli down to size and strip him of his cultural prestige.
3. This lengthy analysis has not been widely read or deeply studied. The single evaluation in print is that by Sidney Anglo, in 2005. NOTE 2 Anglo concludes with the unenthusiastic verdict that the book “remains a monument of pedantry and literalness.“ Undoubtedly, Hume wrote too much and occasionally becomes bogged down in nitpicking which can strike the reader as hopelessly verbose. A spectacular example of this fault is his Chapter 5, Section 2, a commentary on Machiavelli’s discussion of liberality (Chapter 16). Machiavelli deals with this subject in five rather brief paragraphs, whereas Hume’s commentary on this passage occupies more than eighteen pages. This disproportionate length at least looks like a serious defect of judgment, and this is not an isolated example (the other sections of Hume’s Chapter 5, most notably, are liable to much the same criticism regarding Machiavelli’s pronouncements on other virtues and vices). Hume seems to be so bent on displaying his artistry at writing Latin prose and not inconsiderable talent for rhetoric, showing himself to be a sound philosophical moralist, and parading his knowledge of history both ancient and recent, that his original intent of exploding Machiavelli’s doctrine sometimes seems left left far behind. Throughout this huge chapter on virtues and vices the consideration of Machiavelli’s treatment of each individual vice under discussion provides a pretext for extended homilies on behalf of its corresponding virtue, so that the Apologia takes on a kind of moral-didactic quality that seems rather foreign to its announced intention. We are about to see that Hume’s actual purpose was not just to destroy Machiavelli’s popular image, but something very different, and that goes very far towards explaining why Apologia Basilica is written the way it is. Nevertheless, the proclaimed thesis of the Apologia taken by itself is arresting: it was certainly one of the most interesting early evaluations of Il Principe and remains instructive today.
4. If this had been his only purpose in writing, Hume’s case against Machiavelli would probably have been more incisive had he stuck to its highlights, above all pointing out the Il Principe’s most serious self-contradictions. Perhaps most notably, at some points its author recommends that his prince needs to safeguard his position by cultivating the affection of his subjects, while at others he advises that a prince needs to govern by fear and intimidation, whereas in reality a ruler is often obliged to choose between these two flatly incompatible formulae for achieving political success or, if possible, striking some kind of balance between them. In the second section of his Chapter 1 (particularly the part beginning at paragraph 8) and the third section of his Chapter 5, Hume shows with devastating effect that Machiavelli is guilty of muddled thinking regarding one of his central premises, a vitally important point of statecraft. This by itself would have gone a long way towards demonstrating the truth of his central thesis that Machiavelli is not the deep political thinker he is cracked up to be. But in the last analysis the reader with the patience to make his way through Hume’s seemingly interminable jungle of moralizing verbiage and citations of historical exempla will emerge with the salient points lodged firmly in his mind, and Hume’s steady drumbeat of detailed criticism may also exert a cumulative reinforcing effect. It is impossible to come away from a reading of Apologia with one’s respect for Machiavelli as a political thinker undiminished, and so Hume’s announced intention is essentially successful and remains an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about the relative value of morality and expedience in government.
5. Hume says so much on so many subjects that it is easy to overlook an important question, which helps define the scope of his intentions negatively: what does he not say? In the first place, in Chapter 6, Section 1 he says a lot about the excessive show of pomp and estate with which rulers try to create an impression of majesty, but adds not a word that could be deemed critical of the idea of royal authority per se. And when he evaluates Machiavelli’s teachings, he always measures them by the yardstick of the traditional virtues as understood by the Roman philosophers in general and Cicero in particular (he quotes De Officiis far more than any other source), using the time-honored concepts and vocabulary of Roman moralizing literature. What is striking here is that, while he repeatedly accuses Machiavelli of atheism, he judges Il Principe almost exclusively from this viewpoint: although there is also a Christian case to be made against Machiavelli, Hume displays little interest in making it (at least outside of Chapter 7.2, where he is obliged bring God into the picture in order to deal with Machiavelli’s chapter on Fortune). And, although this might come as a surprise to those familiar with his other writings (the most relevant of which will be described below) he scrupulously refrains from using Apologia Basilica as a vehicle for advocating any particular political or doctrinal agenda, such as Scottish localism or Presbyterian republicanism. To be sure, his treatise does have a hidden agenda (and, viewed from that one angle, his critical analysis of Machiavelli can be regarded as in essence a rhetorical device permitting him to advance it at whatever length he chooses under the pretext of analyzing Il Principe, but this is an agenda that has to do with expounding the value of the traditional virtues for their own sake. I shall return to this theme below.
6. Hume’s approach to Machiavelli is not without a serious problem. The Machiavelli with whom Hume has chosen to do battle is nothing more than the stereotyped bugaboo of popular imagination, as one-dimensional and unsophisticated as a stage villain or a cartoon character. Throughout this treatise he betrays not the slightest awareness that this image (based on the understanding that Machiavelli enthusiastically endorsed the kind of behavior he ostensibly recommends) had been severely called into question, most conspicuously by the celebrated legalist Alberico Gentili, a Protestant Italian refugee who served as Oxford’s Regius Professor of Civil Law from 1587 until his death in 1608, who in the course of his 1585 De Legationibus Libri Tres (III.9) argued that Machiavelli was in truth a committed republican who pretended to recommend all kinds of cruel, treacherous and downright criminal actions for his princely audience as a tactic for exposing the malfeasances of contemporary princes of the Cesare Borgia variety. teaching his readers how to penetrate their subterfuges and sniff out their true intentions, thus exciting popular dislike of princes of that sort. As one modern writer pithily put it, according to the view “Machiavelli wanted to teach people how to see through deceptively good appearances in politics, not how to generate them.” NOTE 3 Gentili was evidently the first to recommend this revisionist reading of Il Principe, which in later times has attracted such adherents as Spinoza, Rousseau and Diderot. This reading is in fact so persistent, and has been endorsed by such intelligent readers, that it is exasperating when one sees it unceremoniously brushed aside and not treated with the thoughtful respect it deserves. I shall not enter into any further discussion of this interesting subject here, reserving this for the introduction to the text of Gentili’s assessment, the next item that will appear in The Philological Museum.)
7. Be this as it may, it comes as a considerable surprise when we read the following remarkable admission on the very last page of Hume’s book:
Multa his similia sunt, quae ego quum aliquando expenderem, tam sibi pugnantia et (quae mala sunt) tam inepta, tam absurda. Sic mecum: “Non sentit iste quae scribit, sed scribit quae fiunt, nec ut faciant, sed ut fugiant mala homines. Probantis personam induit, ut paribus ingeniis se insinuet, inde securius scelera efferat plana et nuda, ut tam turpi ac monstrosa eorum facie terreat ac pudorem iniiciat.” Sed pauca huius rei aut nulla vestigia video. Mutem sententiam et tam sceleratum esse quam prae se fert credam, credant idem omnes, modo et tam ineptum credant. Sin sit qui aliter adhuc sentiat et primam illam sententiam retineat, non pugnem. Nec enim cum homine mihi lis est, sed cum rebus, aut si cum homine, propter res.
[“There is much similar stuff, which, when I was pondering them, struck me as so self-contradictory, incompetent and absurd that I said to myself “this man does not believe what he writes, but he writes to describe things as they are done, not that men might do the same, but so that they might shun these evils. He acts the part of a man who approves of them so that he might insinuate his way into similar minds, and with greater security publicize crimes, plain and unvarnished, to that with their base and monstrous appearance he might terrify them and instill a sense of shame.” But I perceive few if any traces of this intention. I must alter my opinion and believe that he is as criminal has he pretends to be, and all men should believe this as long as they also believe he is such a fool. If any man persists in thinking otherwise and adheres to the former view, I shall not contest him. For my quarrel is not with the man but with his teachings, or if it is with the man, this is because of his teachings.”]
8. Hume’s candor manages to astonish. At this point, an exasperated reader would be well entitled to wonder exactly what manner of book he has just finished. In the first place, it turns out that Hume has hitherto concealed his awareness of Alberico Gentili’s revisionist approach. Far better, some may think, if in the interest of intellectual honesty he had acknowledged this from the outset and had entered into his usual detail in telling us why exactly he found Gentili’s analysis unacceptable (but the way he leaves the door open to the possibility that he has gotten this wrong, in the penultimate sentence of this statement. is revealing, as if he is still less than entirely convinced that this reading indeed is wrong). Even more disturbing is the fact that this present statement of his intentions in subjecting Machiavelli’s treatise to a withering detailed analysis is substantially different from that which he provided in the address Ad Lectorem at the book’s beginning: there we were informed that he meant to go after the man himself with particular emphasis on the grossly overrated quality of his intellect. Now we are told that this is in fact a side issue: he is not so much interested in Machiavelli the man as in the immorality of his recommended policies, and that his underlying purpose has been to discredit these and inspire feelings of revulsion towards them in his readership (precisely what Gentili thought Machiavelli was doing). These are substantially different aims.
9. So Hume’s true motive in writing Basilica Apologia becomes problematic and we must wonder what the book is actually meant to accomplish. The suggestion deserves to be made that the best available clue is supplied by its date of publication. 1626, the year following the death of James VI/I and the accession of his son Charles to the throne. Hume dedicated his book to Charles, and it is worth suggesting that the young king was its ideal reader, the “prince” to whom Hume frequently appeals with his vocatives.
10. If he did think that James had been a bad man and consequently a bad ruler, in 1626 it would have been eminently possible for him to hope that Charles might be encouraged to be a better one. There was an ancient tradition, going back as far as Plato’s relationship with Dion and Aristotle’s with Alexander, and embracing such latter-day examples as Hector Boece’s with the adolescent James V (for I have pointed out that Boece’s Scotorum Historia was written for his consumption), of a philosopher providing guidance for a royal neophyte or at least a future ruler, and it is worth suggesting that Basilica Apologia was meant to provide a similar service for this young and presumably impressionable new king. NOTE 4 At every turn, Machiavelli’s cynical policies are contrasted with those recommended by the traditionally accepted virtues and the superiority of the latter is proclaimed. Indeed, the summary points in favor of this list-like summations provided in the books’s final pages read like nothing so much as review notes worked up for the benefit of a student, and who could that student be other than Charles? It might be objected that a treatise such as this one would have been otiose since James had already written a book chock full of wholesome advice for consumption by his then-heir apparent, the 1599 Basilicon Doron, but Hume may have told himself that that work was written for a considerably younger reader, whereas he needed to address a mature and educated mind capable of reason (and if he really did regard James as a bad man, then he might have thought that the hypocrisy of a bad man offering moral advice negated its value, so that it required replacement). It may not be impossible that Hume deliberately imitated James in using the Greek loanword basilika (“royal”) in his title in order to invite comparison with the earlier work and, perhaps, subtly to insinuate that it was written as its replacement. NOTE 5
11. But this suggestion begs an obvious question: why did Hume regard James as a bad man? It would be no cause for wonder if Hume had indeed grown disenchanted with the king. In the first heady years after James ascended the English throne he had cherished impossibly high hopes. In his prose treatise on British unification he had laid out a blueprint for a union founded on the principle of punctually scrupulous parity between the two participating nations, with a new, geographically centralized, capital city at York and a parliament with equal representation for the two nations. NOTE 6 In the earlier installments of his poetic cycle Daphn-Amaryllis he expressed had voiced the hope, wildly romantic and unrealistic, that James would come forth as a great warrior-king at the head of the Protestant armies of Europe, first defeating the Catholic forces and then even turning his attention to the Turks. And, reading this cycle, so redolent with the spirit of militant Presbyterianism, it is abundantly clear that nothing would have made Hume (and presumably many of his Scottish coreligionists, for whom he is acting as a spokesman) happier than if James would continue Elizabeth’s belligerent policies. But the final installment of this cycle reflects disillusionment and frustration. By the time James came to the throne of the newly-formed Great Britain, his English subjects were deeply affected by war-weariness, and the fact that he soon entered into a peace with Spain and kept his country out of the any further foreign entanglements no doubt earned him the profound gratitude of his English subjects. His Scottish subjects had no reason to understand the current emotional climate in England, let alone share this reaction, because, by his previous exercise of a similar cautious prudence, James had kept their nation neutral during the Spanish War. Hence they remained free to entertain idealistic, roseate illusions about warfare and its costs. His subjects on the other side of the Tweed, knowing better, vigorously demurred, and, although Hume seems quite ignorant of the fact, this war-weariness was one of the basic facts of contemporary British politics with which James, even if he had disagreed, would have had to contend. This is an illusion which he never completely outgrew. In a poem addressed to Charles in 1629 (by mistake, it is dated 1619 in the printed version), written in his old age three years after his Apologia Basilica, we still find him urging British participation in the Thirty Years’ War as a policy his king ought to adopt. Viewed through Presbyterian eyes, the same war-avoiding policies that went far towards earning James acceptance among the English probably looked a lot more like the betrayal of a sacred cause. This required being oblivious to the subject of overseas colonization, because prior to the Nova Scotia this was exclusively an English enterprise. Hume managed to overlook James’ single great contribution to the cause, the establishment of Protestant lodgements in the New World, which forever shattered the Spanish monopoly the exploration and settlement of North America and did more to bankrupt the Spanish empire than any amount of fighting had ever managed to accomplish. To the Scottish bill of particulars against James could also be added his neglect of his former nation once he had ascended the British throne. Once ensconced down in London, he resolutely remained there, governing Scotland with his pen, and did not return home for a full fourteen years, at which time he performed the one and only royal visitation of his reign. And then too, of course, there was the whole messy business of James trying to force the unwilling Kirk into the mould of Anglicanism, royally-appointed bishops and all, and the seemingly endless ructions it engendered. So for a Presbyterian Scotsman, James’ policies could easily have seemed like a kind of betrayal of his native land, a monstrous piece of hypocrisy performed in the interest of realpolitik and self-aggrandizement and a cynical reduction of his native land to the status of a province in exchange for a more powerful throne. Looked at in this way, he could plausibly be identified as a prime specimen of Machiavellian Man.
12. Now, confronted for the second time with a new royal administration for Great Britain, Hume exhibits no similarly unrealistic aspirations for his new reign and realizes that it will be a sufficient achievement if he can persuade Charles to manage his realms according to the dictates of virtue. Presumably he hoped that this would induce him to become an active supporter of Protestantism and adopt a friendlier and more sympathetic attitude towards the Scottish portion of his realm, but he did not use Apologia Basilica as a means of nudging him in those directions. NOTE 7 So here is the real thrust of Basilica Apologia, and the question of whether Machiavelli is being fairly represented is retroactively seen to be of secondary importance. Looked at this way, the protracted morally-didactic portions of the work which Sidney Anglo found so objectionable begin to make more sense.
13. The printed book was issued at Paris in 1626, by a printer who did not care to identify himself. The book text (which features a superabundance of printing errors, at least some of which lead one to wonder whether this printer knew any Latin at all) contains one particularly annoying feature that poses problems for an editor: its frequent use of italics, employed for at least three purposes: a.) to indicate direct quotations from Il Principe (usually in Latin, occasionally in Italian), b.) to indicate Hume’s summaries of statements made by Machiavelli, and c.) to indicate the importance of the subject that is, or is about to be, under discussion, or otherwise call some particular point to the reader’s attention. This multiple use of italics — it is unclear whether the book’s typography was Hume’s own choice or imposed by the printer — is problematic for two reasons: first, in reading some passages that fall in the second category, the reader risks being misled into thinking he is being given direct Machiavelli quotations when he is not, and some readers who do manage to identify these passages as summaries may entertain doubts whether Hume’s paraphrases are fully accurate and unbiased. Then too, the responsibility of determining to which of these three categories any given italicized passage is to be assigned is entirely and rather unfairly thrust on the individual reader and almost inevitably the nature of some of these passages is bound to be misunderstood. NOTE 8 I have sidestepped these potential difficulties by placing actual quotations within modern quotation marks and ignoring the use of italics for the second and third categories. In general, my translation reproduces, as faithfully as possible, the Latin text. But there is one situation in which I have taken the liberty of simplifying what Hume wrote. A number of passages make it clear that he had read Il Principe both in the original Italian and also in the Latin translation by the Swiss-Italian physician Silvestrio Tegli, which first appeared in 1560. At some of these points he compares Tegli’s translation with the original, usually with the purpose of demonstrating how Tegli had misunderstood (and sometimes even misrepresented, by deliberately softening and even abbreviating) Machiavelli’s words. My translation of course exists for the benefit of readers for the most part ignorant of both Latin and Italian, and I cannot imagine that such an audience would find these passages anything other than unwelcome, incomprehensible intrusions. Their basic point is that Hume is warning readers familiar with Il Principe only in Tegli’s translation not to leap to the conclusion that he is maliciously misrepresenting Machiavelli by attributing statements to him that he did not actually make: the fault is Tegli’s, not his. Translations of Machiavelli’s original Italian are taken from W. K. Marriott’s 1958 version, which provides an auctorial “voice” satisfactorily different from my own. On occasion it seems necessary to retain the original Italian, and in some cases the observant will notice that the Italian embedded in my translation does not always exactly match that in Hume’s original. This is because Hume’s Italian quotations are sometimes not identical to what one finds in modern editions: is the reason that contemporary printed texts actually contained the readings he offers (I have not seen a variorum edition of Il Principe, if such exists), or because he is quoting imperfectly from memory, or even because his command of Italian is less then perfect? In any event, in my translation I have silently substituted the Italian as printed by modern editions, most often Luigi Russo’s 1967 Florence one.
14. I wish to express my deep gratitude to Prof. Arthur Williamson or recommending the Apologia Basilica as a possible project and having the patience to discuss points of interpretation, which has had a very beneficial effect on my understanding. Finally, the reader needs to be informed that a digitized photographic reproduction of the original book is available online here.
NOTE 1 This new “Machiavellian” Satan so accommodated to Renaissance interests is most memorable in Paradise Lost, but was scarcely original to Milton. It can in fact be traced back to Book IV of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata and had already made his Miltonic debut in In Quintum Novembris. For the rathe complex history of this figure in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century English literature (mostly written in Latin), see my “Milton’s in Quintum Novembris, Anno Aetatis 17 (1626): Choices and Intentions,” in Gareth L. Schmeling (ed.) Qui Miscuit Utile Dulci (Festschrift for 744Paul Lachlan MacKendrick on his 85th Birthday, Chicago, 1997) 349 - 375.
NOTE 2 Sidney Anglo, Machiavelli — The First Century: Studies in Enthusiasm, Hostility, and Irrelevance (Oxford, 2005) pp. 440 - 443. The author also alludes to John Wesley Horrocks’ 1908 London dissertation Machiavelli in Tudor Political Opinion and Discussion (unpublished, but which has been described as being “much plagiarized”), which I have not read. On p. 421 (n. 21) Anglo wrote that he was “preparing an article on the Apologia, providing an analysis of the text and due recognition of Horrock’s perceptiveness.” As nearly as I can determine, this article never appeared.
NOTE 4 At this point, for more detailed background information, the reader should be referred to Sally Mapstone’s fine Oxford dissertation The Advice to Princes Tradition in Scottish Literature (1986)
NOTE 5 But I would not press this point very far. The advice provided in Basilicon Doron is based largely on Christian considerations (albeit the Christianity in question is James’ warped and self-serving version thereof), whereas, as noted elsewhere in this introduction, with the exception of one isolated section, Hume’s Apologia Basilica is largely devoid of any Christian coloration. I cannot imagine that Hume would have written Apologia Basilica so to engage seriously with Basilicon Doron while leaving that work’s Christian element largely unchallenged (for example by confronting James’ authoritarian Anglicanism with the vastly more democratic values of Presbyterianism).
NOTE 6 I mean Hume’s 1605 De Unione Insulae Britannicae (in two parts, of which only the first was published during the author’s lifetime): critical edition and translation by Paul McGinnis and Arthur Williamson (London - New York, 2002).
NOTE 7 Basilica Apologia is conspicuously devoid of any ostensible special pleading on behalf of Scotland. It is true that in Chapter II Hume spends a lot of effort — this, the longest section of his work, consumes thirty-nine paragraphs — dwelling on the problems posed by acquired dominions and how a prince may best secure and maintain control over them (all his advice ultimately boils down to the maxim that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar), and the reader might suspect that Hume takes a special interest in this subject because it has a bearing on a British sovereign’s dealings with Scotland. But nothing is said overtly so as to make this conclusion obligatory, and at least some of his observations must have had a certain similar application to the situations colony of Scottish Presbyterians James had planted in Northern Ireland vis-a-vis the native Irish and those of the Jamestown one with local Indians, in both of which cases there was plenty of friction that called for careful handling.
NOTE 8 An instructive example of what I mean (reproduced here with its original italics) is a sentence from 5.4.20:
Etiam apertius infra, fidem minime servanda, non quando de vita et imperio agitur sed quando suis commodis contraria est [“Even more openly, he says below the good faith should hardly be observed, even when life and power are not at stake, but when it is contrary to the prince’s convenience.”]
An unwary reader could easily be misled into thinking the italicized words represent an actual quotation from Il Principe. They do not, these are Hume’s own, and whether they fairly and accurately represent the trend of Machiavelli’s thinking in the first paragraph of his Chapter 18, seems at best open to debate. But the truly troubling words are etiam apertius, which lodge the claim that Machiavelli not only says or at least implies these things, but also that he does so manifestly and explicitly, which is simply untrue.