Monday, March 22, 2021

Machiavelli: History as Cyclical Returns

Machiavelli sees history as cyclical returns, a succession of ups and downs. In The Discourses, he notes that customs and laws are necessary since “men are more prone to evil than to good.” This trait of men ensures that history oscillates between the bad and the good, with the bad being in control more often and over longer periods of time. 

Lady Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, possesses a mercurial character and plays a pivotal role in the succession of ups and downs. In The Prince, Machiavelli says that all rulers, despite their craftiness, ruthlessness, and wisdom, are playthings in the hands of Lady Fortuna. In his essay, “On Fortune,” he writes: “Lady Fortuna turns states and kingdoms upside down as she pleases; she deprives the just of the good that she freely gives to the unjust.”  

Political stability is unattainable—things tend to degenerate till an absolute bottom is reached and from there a recovery is made in case of some nations, and fortune alone has the true suzerainty over men’s political affairs.

No form of government is immune to failure. In The Discourses, Machiavelli observes: “For a Monarchy readily becomes a Tyranny, an Aristocracy an Oligarchy, while a Democracy tends to degenerate into Anarchy. So that if the founder of a State should establish any one of these three forms of Government, he establishes it for a short time only, since no precaution he may take can prevent it from sliding into its contrary, by reason of the close resemblance which, in this case, the virtue bears to the vice.” 

The greatest threat to a state, Machiavelli says, comes from the feeble princes: “no kingdom can stand when two feeble princes follow in succession.”

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