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Cohn, Erasmus and Machiavelli
Political theory inevitably arise from the influences which affect a society at the time of their formation. During the time which communist leaders ruled Russia with an iron fist, the social order, or lack thereof, demanded a heavy handed approach to political leadership in order to bring order out of the chaos remaining after the Bolshevik revolutions, and the First World War. In America, the establishment of a state in which freedom of the individual is held as one of the highest moral goods of the people evolved in part due to the unfair and unjust monarchies of the European continent. The founders of the United stated had suffered under the tyranny of 'divine right' for centuries, and as a result, vowed to establish a country in which the guaranteed individual freedoms of each citizen formed the glue that would bond the country together.
Looking at the political theories of Cohn, Machiavelli and Erasmus, one finds the same reactionary methodology in their writing about political science, and their perceptions of social forces which bind people together. Their writings, all affected by the destructive forces which were unleashed in the name of divine right to rule during the medieval period of Europe's history, examined alternate schemas by which individuals and people came to power. Because of their own experience with the wedded political and religious power structured of the time, each of these men addressed the ideas of the influence of religion, and religious ethics from a slightly cynical point-of-view.
Born into a time when self serving aspirations in the name of the public welfare were the norm of public life, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his two discourses on public government as a means of demonstrating the difference between moral and immoral governments. Machiavelli, born into a wealth family, became one of Italy's youngest public servants at the age of 29 in 1498 due to his early classical education. Europe had not known peace, militarily induced or otherwise, for close to 1000 years at the time of his writing. So Machiavelli undertook the task of writing a thorough discourse on the value, and purpose of a republic form of government through the vantage point of hindsight.
Great disagreement has arisen over Machiavelli's 'The Prince.' He seems to outline the means and purposes by which a dictator can rise to power, and he presents his text as a means of building a government structure. Because of the Prince, the term 'Machiavellian' has come to often be associated with deceptive or ruthlessly self serving behaviors. But in order to understand the Prince, One must understand the Discourse of Livy, and they make a comparison of the two in light of Machiavelli's own political aspirations.
The Discourse was a treatise regarding the means by which a Republic government can be established, and maintained over the people. Using the lens of 'modern' history to the Roman Empire, Machiavelli describes the purpose of a republic, and based on his proposed purpose details the means by which a republic can become established. Machiavelli describes ancient Roman 'virtue,' and postulates that it takes a tyrant to found a republic. Only a strong man acting alone can provide the order and laws from which republican virtue and a democracy will grow. Machiavelli formulates his prescription for the achievement of republican virtue which, by definition, includes: order, prudence, justice, and avoidance of insolence, disorder and ruin. These things are to be achieved by the ruler's ability to anticipate necessity, remedy accidents promptly and by other means both ordinary and extraordinary, not excluding fraud and conspiracy, spectacular executions (Walters, 1996).
For Machiavelli, the ends, which are the formation of a stable society which is beneficial to all citizens, justified the means of a leader which must act both morally and immorally as they ascend the ladder or power. Because of the times in which he wrote, Machiavelli seems to dance the line between condemning unjust and tyrannical leaders and espousing the benefits of a just society.
For Machiavelli to write such a discourse at a time when political corruption and dictatorships ruled the continent was not a politically expeditious for his career. Europe had not known a peaceful government since the fall of Rome. Machiavelli understood that after the decline of the Roman Empire, the continent was plunged into the dark ages and remained thus engrossed until strong leaders arose through military, and other strong handed political means to restore order to the continent. For Machiavelli, these events have influenced his philosophy toward justice and ethical leadership in the same way that the American Revolution influenced the 13 colonies in the direction of freedom, and independence. Europe was consumed by the self serving political passions of popes, bishops, kings and tyrants as they traded land for power and money at the expense of their citizens for hundreds of years before Machiavelli wrote condemning their actions, and extolling Rome for its benevolent republic.
The irony of Machiavelli's Discourse was that he was writing to the existing rulers about moral leadership in a time when most of the leaders claimed some measure of 'divine right' The wars which had stripped Europe of social order, and left it's people impoverished had occurred in the name of the universal, roman catholic church. Those spiritual or moral leaders who should have lead the people into a self protecting and beneficial republic had fought to combine the power of the church with that of the state.
These same rulers were criticized by Machiavelli's discourse. In Chapter one, Machiavelli begins with a discussion of Virtue and moral leadership. He says:
"The virtue of (the leader) is recognized in two ways: the first is in the selection of the site (for a city), the other in the establishment of the laws. And because men work either from necessity or from choice: and because it is seen here that virtue is greater where choice has less authority (results from necessity), it is (something) to be considered whether it would be better for the building of a city to select sterile places, so that men constrained to be industrious and less occupied with idleness, should live more united, where, because of the poverty of the site, they should have less cause for discord" (Discourses, chapter 1)
Machiavelli is one of the first to identify the balancing effects of the desires of those who are ruled and how they need to temper the desires of the ruler. He understood that the people who are ruled must be given a positive symbiotic relationship with the ruler if the kingdom is to be politically stable. For Machiavelli, the purpose of politics, and the social order which political leaders were responsible to create, was to provide a shelter against the evils that torment men's life, beginning with ambition and avarice, the causes of discord and war. Even though ambition and avarice penetrated much of European life at the time, they ultimately deprived men of the most precious benefit of peace in order to build power and wealth, not greatness, for the current ruler. (Viroli, 1998) In this understanding of political life, Machiavelli declared that men needed to have religious, or moral ethics as a basis of their political decision, for only the religious influences give man a reason to deny his own personal aggrandizement and provide unselfishly for the well-being of others.
Like Machiavelli, Erasmus was also influenced by the political decadence of the Middle Ages as he wrote. As a roman catholic cleric, Erasmus held to the aesthetic traditions of the church as a source of personal and collective order, and he therefore believed that the a person's character, inclusive of their personal habits and priorities empowered a man to become a leader, and would determine the kind of leader which he became.
Erasmus's powerful theories met with a great response in the heart of his contemporaries because much of Europe had been schooled in traditional Christian ethics. Although they had not seen much of Christian virtue in the political arena during the dark ages, the crusades, and afterward, the teaching of the church had created a lasting influence on the march of civilization. Erasmus believed that a person's ability to attain greatness in society, as an individual or especially in the case of a leader, was due to the effects of his character more than any other facet.
Erasmus' The Education of the Christian Prince begins with this comparison.
In navigation the wheel is not given to him who surpasses his fellows in birth, wealth, or appearance, but rather to him who excels in his skill as a navigator, in his alertness, and in his dependability. Just so with the rule of a state: most naturally the power should be entrusted to him who excels all in the requisite kingly qualities of wisdom, justice, moderation, foresight, and zeal for the public welfare. (Erasmus, chapter 1)
At the root of his beliefs, we find that Erasmus taught that the moral being…[continue]
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