Machiavelli and More are each often described as humanists


Machiavelli and More are each often described as “humanists.” Does it seem reasonable to you to group them together as part of the same “movement” or intellectual trend? Explain why or why not.

A most complete definition of humanism describes it as, “an intellectual movement that stressed enjoyment of all aspects of life, and especially of the ideas and values of pre-Christian civilizations, such as those of Greece and Rome; the interest in individualism, including stress on man as an end in himself, rather than as merely one cog in the vast machine of the Church.” Thus far in this course we have studied two Renaissance figures that are typically described as humanists: Niccolo Machiavelli via The Prince, and Sir Thomas More in Utopia. In The Prince, Machiavelli uses the major corpus of the work to convey his observations concerning principalities. In addition to analyzing the types of difficulties that a prince might encounter, he describes how a prince comes to power and retains his position. In More’s Utopia, we find a treatise on ethics and human nature along with, above all else, a condemnation of pride, disguised in the painting of the portrait of a perfect world. Most important to the ideals of humanism, we see through both works that Renaissance man has evolved greatly from how his Medieval counterpart was viewed as a miniscule, analogous piece of the all powerful church. It is the individualism of this new character on the world’s stage, the Renaissance man, which creates the perfect setting for a return to Roman-Athenian ideals such as self-interest, worldly possessions, and a much greater concern for life than the afterlife. By staunchly defending these ideals, Niccolo Machiavelli emerges as a true humanist, while in abhorring them Sir Thomas More appears only a social critic.

In Book I of Utopia, More struggles with the question of how he, a good man by the moral standards of the day, can serve a wicked king. The dialogue, which takes place between More and Raphael Hythloday, could easily be mistaken for a dialogue between More and his own conscience. According to More, this world traveler would be of immeasurable assistance in any prince’s court due to the vast knowledge that he has gained, just as More believed he himself would be of importance to the court of the King of England. Unfortunately for More, it is soon shown that the opposite is true. For,

in a court made up of those who envy all

others and admire only themselves, if a

man should propose something that he had

… observed in his travels, the other

councillors would fear that their whole

reputation for wisdom was in danger, and

that they would be regarded as plain

More attempts to defend his actions by claiming that it is better to try to work for change within a corrupt government than do nothing at all. This is what he has done by accepting a position from King Henry. Hythloday clearly refutes this attempt at rationalization in his argument with the English counselor-at-law regarding the death penalty for thievery. “While [they] strive to terrify thieves with excessive cruelty, [they] really incite them to kill innocent men.” If a system does not work on face, it is not probable that internal adjustment would solve its deficiencies. Instead, it is most likely necessary that an entirely new system be put into place. Unfortunately, as More discovers, there is a stumbling block that prevents mans progress in physical ventures, and even in mental propositions: pride, especially manifested via the need for individual success. “Pride is the infernal serpent that steals into the hearts of men, thwarting and holding them back from choosing the better way of life.”

In Book II, through the narration of a journey to the land of Utopia by Hythloday, More depicts what he believes to be the perfect society created through constructs that completely eliminate pride. The society that he creates is in every way the antithesis of Renaissance Europe. The communism of the Utopians is placed in stark contrast to the individualism that we see developing in the Renaissance man. The end result being that the material possessions that had just become the rage among the Renaissance jet set became Utopian trash. The gold and silver wealth of Europeans was used by Utopians in their “chamber pots and stools … metals for the chains and fetters of their bondmen … Thus they [held] gold and silver up to scorn in every way.” The religion of the Utopians is not evangelical in nature. Citizens are allowed to believe whatever they want, so long as they do not try to force others to believe the same. Compare this to Sir Thomas’ England where he was beheaded for his failure to recite an oath that recognized his King as head of the church. More than anything, the Utopian government contrasts with those supported by Machiavelli in The Prince.

In portraying Machiavelli as humanist it is obvious to see how he fits the definition best. In fact, he best fits the definition because he demonstrates that which More detested, pride. Nothing represents that pride more than the prince’s quest for fame and glory, and “nothing brings a prince into greater respect than the undertaking of great enterprises and setting a glorious example.” The monarchy, which Machiavelli supports, is the converse of Utopia’s representative democracy. Also as our definition demands, the prince is the end in himself and he must obviously respect the empires of Rome and Greece that came before him or he would not be attempting to emulate them. The prince embodies individualism as compared to his subjects, the masses, in addition to the fact that he is to be feared. “It would be desirable to be both [feared and loved] but, since that is difficult, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved.” A prince must become an individual, meaning that he can stand on his own in battle, “able, through abundance of men or money, to build up an adequate army and take the field against anyone likely to attack them.” Thus, we see that Machiavelli’s Prince is the embodiment of all humanist dogma.

The feelings of More and Machiavelli towards the rebirth of the classical ideologies during the Renaissance were such obvious polar opposites that it allows us to easily determine which exemplifies the ideals of a humanist. Due to the fact that More was quite opposed to the rebirth of the ancient ideals that the Renaissance encompassed we cannot call him a humanist. And, despite the fact that Machiavelli was much more concerned with the creation of a strengthened unified Italy, and his own return from exile, than the mores of humanism, he did celebrate the resurgence of ancient culture, especially individualism. There is an important fact to realize, which could explain the inherent contrast between these two thinkers. The Renaissance that was experienced in Northern Europe, where More wrote, was quite different from that which affected Italy in that the Northern Renaissance was far more religious in its products. This was due in the most part to the fact that the area is removed from Rome and thus was not as disenchanted with the state of the papacy at the time. The conclusion drawn is that the extremely different views of these two thinkers were the results of two quite different Renaissance.


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