Francesco Guicciardini: Wiser Than Machiavelli?

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Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Politics and History, by John Viscount Morley (published 1923).

In a short piece lately written upon Machiavelli, I mentioned how Cavour used to say that the author of the Prince had not so good a grasp of the realities of public things as Guicciardini, his contemporary and friend. Here was a man, said Cavour, who really knew affairs, and knew them far better than Machiavelli. To most even decently well-read persons who have had no special occasion to look into his pages, he is little more than a name, known only by the old jest of an enemy, transferred to the dazzling page of Macaulay, that a certain criminal in Italy was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys; he chose the History, but the war of Pisa was too much for him; he changed his mind, and went to the oar. Yet the writer of the history thus despatched for the inexpiable sin of dullness, just as if life and circumstance were never dull, is one of the acutest, weightiest, most vigorous and observant of European publicists in ancient times or modern.

Cavour is not the only personage of authority who has given Guicciardini a place among great names. Bolingbroke, for instance, audaciously declares that he does not scruple to prefer him in every respect to Thucydides. Thiers calls him one of the most clear-sighted men that ever lived, and declares that his breadth of narrative, the vigour of his pencil, and his depth of judgment, rank his History among the finest monuments of the human mind. Macaulay, in his later days, said that he admired no historians much except Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus, and perhaps in his own peculiar way Father Paul Sarpi : the historian of the Council of Trent he always placed first among the Italians; then came Davila, whose story of the battle of Ivry was worthy of Thucydides himself; next to Davila he put Guicciardini, and Machiavelli last. An accomplished critic in his own country calls their historic school one of the most original creations of the Italians of the Renaissance, and Guicciardini stands first within that school. An accomplished English critic calls him one of the most consummate historians of any nation or of any age. A German critic applauds the grasp and mastery with which he explains events, motives, plans, reasons for and against. Ranke describes his book as the foundation of all the later works upon the beginning of modern history, and as one of our great historical possessions. Charles the Fifth knew Guicciardini well. There is a story that when courtiers remonstrated at the long hours that he spent with the Italian while they were kept waiting, Charles replied: “In a single instant I can create a hundred grandees of Spain; not in a hundred years could I make a Guicciardini.”


Born in 1482, he was a little younger than Machiavelli and Michelangelo and he died in 1540. He was descended from a tolerably long line of respectable burghers, of whom he has left us a full account, including half a dozen vignettes that show in graphic style what manner of folk they were. They kept shops where they sold silk and other wares; they owned ships and were their own skippers; they went to the Levant and Flanders and wherever else in the narrower and simpler trade of that day money was to be picked up; and they filled at one time or another all the various public posts of secondary rank in Florence. A sort of family likeness is to be traced among them. The men were strong, good-looking, warm in temper yet cautious in politics, weighty, of good character according to the standard of time and place, and with a sharp eye to the main chance. The Guicciardini were not great people, but they were steady, well-to-do, respectable people, and the historian was proud of his stock. Two things in the world, he told his descendants, he cared about—one, the perpetual exaltation of the city and its freedom; the other, “the glory of our house, not only for my life, but for always.”

It has been energetically said of “the sombre and sublime Italy” of the sixteenth century, that life was a mortal combat, the house a fortress, the garment a cuirass, hospitality an ambush, the embrace a garotte, the proffered cup poison, the proffered hand a dagger-thrust. This, however, was not all, and in truth this fierce melodrama never can be all. Here is Guicciardini’s vignette of his father, to whom he was to the end of his days deeply and tenderly attached:

Peter was truly a wise man, and of as great judgment and insight as any man in Florence in his time; nobody had a better or a clearer conscience; he was a lover of his city and of the poor; and he never did a human creature the smallest wrong. For these things, as well as for the qualities of his house and his forefathers, he was from his youth upwards held in high esteem, and he carried himself in such a way that in brain and in weight there was no man in Florence to equal him. If only to his goodness and his prudence had been added a little more vivacity, he would have stood still higher. But either because nature made him so, or because it was due to the times, which were in truth strong times and strange, he went about his affairs with little boldness and much wariness; taking up few ventures, working at public things slowly and with great deliberation, never willing, save when necessity or conscience constrained him, to say outright in important matters what was his real mind and judgment. Though his carefulness not to put himself at the head of a party, or of novel schemes and undertakings, prevented his name from being on everybody’s lips, yet it had this other effect, that in the midst of all the tumult and agitation that the city went through in his day, he always kept himself and his position out of reach of hurt. That was more than happened to anybody else of his degree, when all the other considerable people ran such risks in property or life. These things made the city grieve sorely over his death, and all good men felt his loss, the people and citizens of every class—everybody knowing that a wise and good citizen was gone, and one from whom both in universal and particular no mischief could ever have come, but only good fruit and well-doing.

Guicciardini was in important employment from 1512, when at the age of thirty he was sent to represent the republic of Florence at the court of Ferdinand of Aragon. He returned home in the following year. In 1515 he was appointed to meet Leo the Tenth on behalf of the republic, and from 1516 to 1523 he was made papal officer in the Emilia. Then he was named the Pope’s viceroy in the Romagna, and lieutenant-general in the papal army. He shared some of the responsibility for the disasters that are summed up in the Sack of Rome (1527), but this did not prevent his promotion, when the time came, to be the Pope’s governor at Bologna (1531). He did his work with energy, tact, and capacity, until at last the death of Clement the Seventh (1534) put an end to his employment in the papal service.

His life by this time “became a series of expedients, in which he loses personal consideration, his reputation for honour, and at last his whole credit and power.” Though always free from direct corruption, and according to his own account a believer rather in politic clemency than in rigour, yet when he was sent by the Pope in 1530 to punish the Florentines for their rising, he showed himself merciless and vindictive, and repaid the revolutionary party in their own coin for the fierce rancour with which, when they were uppermost, they had handled the friends of Clement the Seventh. By conviction he was in favour of an oligarchy, and his private writings prove that he estimated the Medici and their tyranny at what they were worth. But neither fools nor wise, he said, “can in the end resist that which has to be.” “All states and cities are mortal; everything, either by its nature or by accident, comes to a close. Hence a citizen who finds himself watching the dissolution of his country, need not so much groan over this disgrace, as over his own lot. His country only suffers what in any case it was bound to suffer. The true unhappiness is that of the man who chances to have been born in an age when the moment of his country’s doom has struck.” This has been called a sublime stoicism. It is perhaps nearer to that fatalism, not sublime, with which in times of political confusion men excuse a secret surrender to self-interest. An ancient traveller found on the Acrocorinthus a mysterious shrine dedicated to Necessity and Force. These two are potent divinities indeed, and well deserve a temple; still, sublime stoic is hardly the name for him who bows down humbly within their walls, and seeks to propitiate them in his own favour at any price in burnt offerings.

In one of his Reflections Guicciardini inculcates the perilous doctrine that it is the duty of a good citizen to do his best to live on such terms with a tyrant, as to be able to counsel good courses and dissuade from bad ones. “How disastrous,” he cries, “would the government of the Medici have been, if they had been surrounded only by fools and knaves.” Acting on this principle, which in various applications has been the undoing of many a better man in cabinets and parties since—say from Falkland and Colepeper in the seventeenth century down to Prévost-Paradol in the nineteenth—Guicciardini became servant of the most odious of the Medici. Finally, he was the means of raising Cosimo to be head of the State. Cosimo was only eighteen, he was fond of pleasure, and Guicciardini took care that he should have a handsome income. When the sum was fixed, Guicciardini at the council table, lowering his face and raising his eyebrows, said dryly, “Twelve thousand golden florins are fine spending.” But craft is not confined to greybeards, and young Cosimo was no sooner secure than he discarded his mentor. Guicciardini went off to his villa (1534); he was fifty-two; he had abundant material to his hand; he had ever been an indefatigable penman; and he now spent the six years of life that were left in the composition of his great work on the history of Italy. Clarendon was seven years older when he too in exile and disgrace “betook himself to his books,” and with indomitable activity of mind and pen completed the famous story of his own time.

Guicciardini was reasonably free from the discouragement and dejection with which satiety of life is apt to affect men’s judgment and temper. He was nearing that period of his age, dove ciascun dovrebbe Calar le vele, e raccoglier le sarte—when every lofty soul, like the mariner drawing near the port, should lower sails and gather in the ropes. Though men are often spoiled by success in the world, still more are spoiled by failure. Guicciardini was wise enough to look to what he had done, rather than at what he had missed. What he seeks, and what he attains, is rather a reasoned fortitude than that serenity, that “great lesson of suavity,” as Dante calls it, which brings a man to face his end without grief or bitterness. He did not pretend to like the falling of the curtain, but he consoled himself by thinking for how many important parts he had been cast by Fortune, and how well he had played them all. He was without that morbid ambition, as it has been called, and a very morbid ambition it is, which pretends to treat all grief, anger, mortification, chagrin, as weaknesses to be ashamed of. He makes no foolish attempt to cure his wound either by a spurious rhetoric that places things out of perspective and proportion, or by a spurious philosophy that pretends to turn pain into pleasure by juggling with words as if they were things. Various are the attitudes of men towards the outside unseen divinity,—Fortune, Chance, Necessity, Force of Circumstance—when it overthrows them. Some defy, some whimper, some fall stunned, some break their hearts once for all, others silently obey the grim ordering of events and with courage gather up the shattered pieces. The ancient literature of consolation contains some famous pieces, from Seneca, the friend of Nero, down to Boethius, the friend of Theodoric. If we would measure the differences of times and men, it is well worth while to turn to that grave and beautiful piece in our own literature, so full of enlightenment, liberality, wisdom, tenderness, and piety, where Bishop Burnet concludes his history. “I have,” he says, “considering my sphere, seen a great deal of all that is most shining and tempting in this world: the pleasures of sense I did soon nauseate; intrigues of state and the conduct of affairs have something in them that is more specious, and I was for some years deeply immersed in these, though still with hopes of reforming the world, and of making mankind wiser and better; but I have found that which is crooked cannot be made straight.” And then he goes on his way to his devout and lofty moral. So at a moment when all his counsels had come to naught, when his patron, the Holy Father, was a prisoner in the castle of Saint Angelo, and Rome was suffering all the violence and horror of prolonged sack at the hands of ferocious Spaniard and barbaric German, Guicciardini tried his hand at self-consolation.

Politely despatching with summary mention the comforting assurances of theologians and philosophers, as physic that no patient would voluntarily choose to take, “I will speak to thee,” he says to himself, “in a lower key than all that, and more according to the nature of men and the world.” It comes to this after all. Human enterprises are ever apt to miscarry; he knew this when he embarked upon the voyage; the wreck was no special fault of his, for popes, kings, and emperors were the principals, and he no more than an instrument; his arguments for the war against the Emperor may have been an error of judgment, but it is not fair to expect a man to carry into the council-chamber, besides merely human reasonings, the prognosticating judgments of astrologers and soothsayers; in fine, ’tis time mends all, and men will see that he was blameless. Such is the strain of his autobiographic meditation. Then he recovers the self-respect of which he is in search, by appeal to his past: “Ask all the places where thou hast been, the peoples over whom thou hast been set to rule, the armies that have been under thy orders. They will own that thou art a man of talent, resolute in taking decisions, abundant in resource, expeditious in act.” Wholly free from the insincerities and inflations of the professing cynic, stoic, or anchorite, Guicciardini’s consolation is rational and worth reading. Nevertheless at the end of it perhaps an impartial person would commend to statesmen in misfortune not all this argumentation, explanation, consolation, sophistication, but the simple concision of Thucydides— “It befell me to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis.” And no more.

In every age cases meet us where experience changes the idealist and the reformer, first to doubter, then to indifferent, next to pure egotist, at last to hard cynic. The process may be gradual, but it is apt to be implacable, and the fallen man one day awakes to find his sensibility gone, his moral pulse at a stand, and a once ardent soul burnt down to ashes. When the waking hour arrives, one man may still have grace enough to go out and weep bitterly ; another only mocks. There is no sign that Guicciardini ran through all these stages of the political Sceptic’s Progress. He was man of the world from first to last. Dreams and visions such as make for some the charmed part of life, were never anything to him. In a series of extraordinarily suggestive considerations on Machiavelli’s Discorsi, he gravely exposes that vivid writer’s excess of severity in logic, excess of colour in his ideals, excess of eloquence in description; and teaches us the lesson of which the publicist in all times seems to stand so much in need, that in politics, your propositions should be guarded by temperance, reserve, common sense, and all the qualifications of practice. This prudence did not at all spring in Guicciardini from the trait noted by Aristotle in elderly men,—a fondness for only saying “I think,” never “I know”; and for larding their argument with “perhaps” and “possibly.” Experience had taught him that government is the most complex of subjects, and general maxims about it the most in need of caution. He had not even ambition of the ravening sort. He was not of those who must be Premier, President, Commander-in-Chief, or Admiral of the Fleet. Yet he had much honourable public spirit. “Three things,” he said, “I would willingly see before I die: a well-ordered republic in my native Florence; the barbarian invaders driven from Italy; the world freed from the rascal priests.” These objects he honestly desired, but he did not much expect them, and he was not the man to make a fight for them. He had a passion for the transaction of public business; he wished to see it well done with a view to ends well ordered, and he had a strong capacity for it. We should in charity and sense remember that it is a natural infirmity, even of noble minds, to identify their own personality with the furtherance of the common good.

Guicciardini in fine was a grave, long-headed man of affairs, of a type well known in the public service of kings and peoples from his day to ours, sharply alive to the truth set out by Machiavelli, that the thing of importance in this world is not only to know one’s self in a general way, but to have skill enough rightly to measure the forces of one’s own mind and character with the forces and needs of the State. As much as that, to be sure, would have been heartily admitted by anybody in the Rogue’s Camp, from Verres to Jonathan Wild. Apart from this original selfishness of the politic man in search of his career, times of great public travail tend to harden the heart; and the Florentine publicists all write like men with hardish hearts. They have none of the geniality of Commynes, none of the cheerful good humour of Bacon, none of the amiability of Montesquieu, none of that deep insight into life and character as a whole which made La Bruyère and some other Frenchmen of the seventeenth century, including more than one of their divines, so admirable and so fruitful. The same is true even of Paruta, the Venetian, who hated the Machiavellian school and all its works, and wrote some admirable things in his dialogue on the Perfection of the Political Life. Neither Venetian publicist nor Florentine, for instance, was capable of any such saying as that exquisite one of Bacon, that the nobler a soul is, the more objects of compassion it hath. Nothing of this kind was in their vein. They would have set down as mere monkery Pascal’s celestially ordered hierarchy—Kings, captains, the rich, all the great men of the flesh, as lowest down in the scale of grandeur. Then the men of genius, with their empire, their conquests, and their lustre, with no need of outer carnal splendours. Third, above both these, the saints, inventing nothing, ruling no kingdom, but humble, patient, holy before God, terrible to demons. This, the grandeur of wisdom, is invisible to the eyes of carnal and of intellectual greatness. Savonarola, who stood for the same unworldly scheme of human things, was put to an ignoble death in 1498, and Guicciardini, then a boy of sixteen, may have watched the flames. In his dialogues on the government of Florence, Guicciardini makes one interlocutor say to another: “This advice may seem cruel and unconscientious, and so in truth it is. That is why thy great-grandfather Gino wrote in his Ricordi that the Council of Ten for War should consist of such as loved their country better than their souls, because it is not possible to rule governments and states according to the precepts of Christian law.” It is when we compare the school of Machiavelli and Guicciardini with Dante, that we discern the two widely parted currents into which the main stream of political thought and sentiment in Europe was now formally dividing itself.


Guicciardini interests us somewhat as a political theorist about constitutions and the like; he interests us deeply as a historian; he interests us most of all as a shrewd observer of men, and a keen explorer of the secrets of managing them. Of the first of these three aspects of him we shall say nothing, except that his discussion of the government of Florence handles with extraordinary acuteness and vigour the everlasting question whether the rule by one, by a few, or by many, is the best. It is too long, and it is all the longer for being in the form of dialogue. This was a favourite device of the century. To some of us the most tiresome dissertation is not more afflicting than the sprightliest, courtliest, demurest, or archest of all these polemical dialogues. Plato is of course the grand exception, as on a lower plane is Cicero’s brilliant and skilful dialogue on the Orator. But if men could be quite honest about Olympian names, perhaps a fraction even of Plato would fall under the same remark. One critic, and a French critic, strange to say, is reminded by our Italian’s Reggimento di Firenze, in respect of elegance and grace, of the opening of the Phædrus. This belongs to the disputable region of taste. A more important and less questionable point is that, in its arguments and considerations on the merits, difficulties, and dangers of popular government, and in the light it sheds on our actual problem of the choice between power concentrated and power checked and counterbalanced, Guicciardini’s dialogue is as modern as if it had been written yesterday, and it has even been enthusiastically described as one of the strongest and most vivid in the history of political writing. Or why say modern? As if the insoluble theme of the respective merits of government by many, by a few, by one, had not been opened by the seven Persian conspirators in old Herodotus (iii. 80), worshipful father of history, five centuries before Christ.

Far more interesting, alike as historic document, and as a kind of literature in which the world is not any too well off, are the Ricordi or Civil and Political Counsels. These are a body of aphorisms or reflections on political wisdom, and the arts of the Politic Man; and it is mainly on their account that the ordinary reader of today will think it worth while to take a volume of Guicciardini down from his shelf. They did not appear in a full and authentic shape until the year 1857. Some of them are scattered through the History of Italy and other of the author’s writings, and these judicious sentences were collected from the History and published apart before the end of the sixteenth century. Guicciardini evidently took great pains in pointing and polishing them, though it is doubtful whether he ever meant the whole of them for the public eye. He was the most circumspect of men, and very unlikely to be willing to hand over to the profane crowd all the secrets of empire and all the wisdom of the domus Socratica of Rome and Florence. Many of the four hundred are repetitions, but when due deduction is made for these, a large body of observation and admonition is left that both instructs us about standards of judicious conduct in the sixteenth century, and suggests some sidelights for the twentieth.

We must not expect any consideration of those deeper elements and aspirations in human nature that have led some to groan over the life of mankind as a hideous tragedy of waste and wrong, and others to laugh at history as “a comedy in a hundred acts.” The stress of existence in unfortunate Italy was too desperate. “In the sixteenth century, they analysed much less than they acted, in war, politics, religion. Everything was done by coups de main and coups d’État.” Be all this as it may, we must admit of Guicciardini’s Counsels and Reflections, sage as they are on their own level and within their own limits, that they do not spring from a rich soil, do not seem as if they had grown in a nourishing air, have not the full savour of fruits ripened in the sun. He was sheer politician, and the cases are rare where politics do not rather contract than expand the range of human interest and feeling, do not check rather than promote the sap and juice of a living fecundity.

Bacon in the famous eighth book of the De Augmentis, that masterpiece of the secondary arts of wisdom of life, sets down some heads or passages of what he calls the Architect of Fortune or the Knowledge of Advancement in Life. The things necessary for the acquisition of fortune, he says, and the formation of the truly Politic Man, are a part of human knowledge which he reports as deficient, and we may doubt whether anybody has done much to advance it since. “Not, however, that Learning admires or esteems this architecture otherwise than as an inferior work. For no man’s fortune can be an end worthy of the gift of being, that has been given him by God; and often the worthiest men abandon their fortunes willingly, that they may have leisure for higher pursuits. But, nevertheless, fortune as an instrument of virtue and merit deserves its own speculation and doctrine.” This limitation would have been too hard for Guicciardini. The architecture of fortune in men meddling with government, went as high as his vision could carry.

The critic goes uncharitably far when he says that Guicciardini’s Reflections are Italian corruption reduced to a code, and raised into a rule of life. But life to him was no more than what Bacon calls an “incessant, restless, and as it were sabbathless chase of fortune”—a game to be keenly played with the world’s dice-box. From the first he resolved to master all its arts, expedients, and rules, without prejudice to a little silent cozening at a pinch. For if Fortune is free to palm an ace or cog a die[1], why may not we try to make the match more equal? The Italian’s Politic Man has none of Bacon’s large and open brow, his wide horizons, his magisterial ease and bonhomie. Nor had he more than half mastered the distinction set out by Bacon in one of those pithy and sapid comments on Solomon’s Proverbs, which are worth many long hours of sermon-preaching. “A wise man,” said King Solomon, “looketh well to his ways, but a fool turneth to deceit.” On which, Bacon:

There are two kinds of wisdom, the one true and sound, the other degenerate and false, which Solomon does not hesitate to term folly. He who applies himself to the former takes heed of his own ways, foreseeing dangers, preparing remedies, employing the assistance of the good, guarding himself against the wicked, cautious in entering upon a work, not unprepared for a retreat, watchful to seize opportunities, strenuous to remove impediments, and attending to many other things which concern the government of his own actions and proceedings. But the other kind is entirely made up of deceits and cunning tricks, laying all its hopes in the circumventing of others, and moulding them to its pleasure; which kind the proverb denounces as being not only dishonest, but also foolish.

Prudential counsels by code and system can hardly ever be in the highest sense attractive. A modern who in his studies came across the private notebooks and reflections of Mazarin (one of the two great Italians who have governed France, and deeply marked by the characteristics of Italian genius a century before his time) is driven to say of them that all this political cookery rather takes away one’s appetite, and indeed would make one sick if only one did not remember that everything has its kitchen side. Abhor all the pretensions of the Pharisee as heartily as ever we will, there is something repulsive in the thought of a man starting every day with a dose of Ricordi, and coming forth from his chamber having given all the freshness of the morning hour to sharpening his rapier or charging his pistols for the daily duel with fortune and his fellow-creatures. The world has more liking for one who practises the pregnant maxim, Seekest thou great things, seek them not; and it often looks as if this lofty heedlessness, in spite of what Guicciardini may say, were as politic as it is certainly wise in wisdom’s sense.

It may move a friendly smile to notice that nobody has so many biting things to say about the selfishness and duplicity of mankind, as one who has made it the whole business of his life to use mankind as the ladder for his own advancement. Nobody in all the world is so ready to play wounded benefactor as the self-seeker out of luck. Guicciardini is less unkind to his fellow-mortals, man for man, than observers of his stamp usually are. He is not blind to the weaknesses of our poor species as a whole; but he sees them redeemed by the worth of the elect. Like Goethe, he would say that “in their faults one recognises Mankind, in excellences the Individual; shortcomings and the chances and changes of life have we all in common, but virtues belong to each man in particular.” “Do not be afraid of benefiting men,” says Guicciardini, “simply because you see ingratitude so common; for besides that a temper of kindness in itself, and without any other object, is a generous quality and in a way divine, you now and again find somebody exhibiting such gratitude as richly to make up for the ingratitude of all the rest.”

The worst of maxims, aphorisms, and the like, from the sayings of Solomon and Sirach the son of Jesus downward, is that for every occasion in life, or perplexity in conduct, there is a brace of them; and of the brace, one points one way and the other down a path exactly opposite. The fingerpost of experience has many arms at every cross-road. One observer tells the disciple that in politics perseverance always wins; another that men who take the greatest trouble to succeed, are those most sure to miss. Today, the one essential seems to be boldness of conception; tomorrow, the man of detail is master of the hour. Today the turn of things inclines a man to say that in politics nothing matters; tomorrow some other turn teaches him that in politics everything matters. The instructor in statecraft and the guide to the Politic Man must be Janus and look more ways than one, and to this demand Guicciardini was equal.

As an aristocrat by birth, by temper, and by observation, Guicciardini did not allow his general benevolence to make him a Friend of the People in the political sense of today. “Who says people says in truth a foolish animal, full of a thousand errors, a thousand confusions, without taste, without discernment, without stability. They are like the waves of the sea, driven by the winds now here, now there, without rule, without coherency (140). Their vain opinions are as far from the truth as Ptolemy makes Spain from the Indies” (345). In the following century, in his dungeon in the Castle of Saint Elmo, the valiant and unfortunate Campanella, in one of the sonnets with which he beguiled a whole weary generation of captivity, used similar figures, though on his lips such language was passionate remonstrance rather than contempt. Il popolo è una bestia—

The people is a beast of muddy brain,
That knows not its own force, and therefore stands
Loaded with wood and stone.

The implication is the contradictory of Guicciardini’s.

It is not merely the multitude on whose wisdom you cannot count. “Said Messer Antonio of Venafro, and he said well—Place seven or eight clever men together, and they become so many fools. The reason is that when they do not agree, they are keener to argue than to decide” (112). You may see it any day in the case of doctors; when several are called in, they easily come to controversy, and very often with their discords they kill the patient (ii. 86). It may be that this is the secret why, in days nearer to our own, Cabinets of all the Talents have sometimes been cabinets of all the blunders. Chamfort, the cynical wit of the Revolution, asked how many fools it takes to make a public; Guicciardini, on the other hand, would have told us that it takes very few clever men to make a fool. Voltaire put the saying of Messer Antonio with more piquancy and more widely, if less reasonably, in his remark that, Quand les hommes s’attroupent, leurs oreilles s’allongent— “When men get into a flock their ears grow long.” Cato took it differently when he used to say of the Romans, that “they were like sheep, for a man had better drive a flock of them than one of them; for in a flock if you can but get some few to go right, the rest will follow.” Perhaps Burke comes nearest to the mark: “Man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish. The multitude for the moment is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right.”


On the whole, one must repeat, Guicciardini treats his kind with wise leniency. “Men are all by nature more inclined to do good than ill; nor is there anybody who, where he is not by some strong consideration pulled the other way, would not more willingly do good than ill. But so frail is man’s nature, and so frequent in this world are the occasions that invite to ill, that men easily let themselves stray from the good.” Is not this still, nearly four centuries later, the truth of the case? Not ferocity but distraction, not vileness but incoherency, mistakes about cause and effect, short sight, bad memory, wavering will, that which Bishop Butler groaned over as the “immoral thoughtlessness” of men. Then, not afraid of something like a contradiction, Guicciardini swings round in the other quarter: It may seem a harsh and suspicious thing to say-and would to heaven it were not true: there are more bad men than good, especially where interests of property or politics (di Stato) are concerned. Therefore, except with those whom either by your own experience, or thoroughly trustworthy report, you know to be good, you cannot go wrong in dealing with everybody else with your eyes well open. It needs cleverness to contrive this, without getting a bad name for being distrustful. But the point is not to trust, wherever you are not sure it is safe (201).

We can imagine Cavour on his estates at Leri, in the years before he was called to take the helm at Turin, brooding intently over such a passage as this: “No two Popes were more unlike than Julius the Second and Clement the Seventh; the one of great and even dauntless spirit, impatient, impulsive, open, frank; the other of a middling temperament, perhaps even timid, infinitely patient, moderate, a dissembler. Yet from natures so opposed, men look for the same results in large exploits. For with great masters patience and impetuosity are alike fit to bring forth great things; the one dashes swiftly upon men, and forces circumstance; the other wears men and things out, and conquers by time and opportunity. Hence where one hurts, the other helps, and conversely. If a man could join both characters, and use each at the right time, he would be divine. As that is impossible, I believe that, everything considered, patience and moderation do greater things than impetuosity and hurry” (381). On the morrow of the peace of Paris in 1856, Cavour, then the little-known Minister of the Sardinian Kingdom, had a conversation with Lord Clarendon. He talked hardily of war to the death with Austria. Lord Clarendon told him, truly enough, that the moment had not yet come for saying this aloud. Cavour replied: “I have given you proofs of my moderation and prudence; I believe that in politics you should be exceedingly reserved in words, and exceedingly decided in act. There are positions where there is less danger in taking an audacious line, than in an excess of prudence.” He was himself a master example of the rare men who could join both characters, and use each at the right time.

Guicciardini is always pressing us to stick to the particular case with which we deal. “’Tis a great mistake to talk of the things of the world absolutely, without discriminating, and as it were by rule. For in nearly everything there are distinctions and exceptions, due to variety of circumstances. These circumstances you cannot treat by one and the same standard. Such distinctions and exceptions are not to be found in books; you must learn them from your own discretion” (6). Take care, he says, how you judge by examples, for if they are not exactly on all fours, the least diversity in antecedent conditions becomes the widest diversity in conclusion. If one link in your reasoning is weak, all the rest may snap. We may write maxims in books, but exceptions in circumstance are for ever arising, and these can only find a place on the tablets of discretion. This comes to what is reported to have been said by Prince Bismarck: “Politics are less a science than an art. They cannot be taught. One must be born with a gift for them. The best advice is of no value, if you do not know how to carry it out in the right way, and with due regard to the circumstances of each case.” And that again brings politics very near to the same point at which Logic was placed by an eminent head of a college at Oxford. He ended a discussion on the old question whether Logic is a science or an art, by the decision that “it is neither a science nor an art; it is a dodge.”

In the same spirit Guicciardini offers wholesome counsel to such as are tempted to fashion modern policies on ancient history. “How vastly do those deceive themselves who at every word bring up the Romans! You should have a city in the conditions under which they existed, and then you might have a government after their pattern. For those who have not the qualities to match, this is as extravagant as to expect an ass to go as fast as a horse” (110). Then, with the apparent self-contradiction that is common with all these masters of sentences: “Past throws light on Future because the world was ever of the same make; and all that is or will be in another day, has already been, and the same things return, only with different names and colours. ’Tis not everybody who knows them under the new face, but the wise know them” (336).

All this comes very much to what our excellent English Selden says, in words that have many applications, and are well worth remembering by all teachers in press and pulpit even in our own day of perfect light: “Aye or No never answered any question. The not distinguishing where things should be distinguished, and the not confounding where things should be confounded, is the cause of all the mistakes in the world.”

Sleepless circumspection, minute, particular, patient, intense, in act and word and plan,—this is the master key. Treat everything as laden with a serious possibility. “I do not believe there is a worse thing in all the world than levity. Light men are the very instruments for anything that is bad, dangerous, and hurtful. Flee from them like fire.” (147).

“Make as many friends as ever you can, for you never know in what contingency a man may be able to serve you. Hide displeasure; I have often had to seek the aid of those against whom I was at heart thoroughly ill-disposed; and they, believing the contrary of me, or at any rate not being aware of this, have served me as readily as possible” (133, 266).

“Unperceived beginnings often open the way either to great mischiefs, or to great success; therefore note everything, and weigh even trifles well. On your doing, or not doing, what seems at the moment a mere trifle, often hang things of first importance; so be sure to consider well” (82, 247).

“Never hold a future thing so certain, however positively certain it may seem, as not, if you can possibly do it without upsetting your plan, to keep in reserve some course to follow, in case the contrary should turn up. I often see really long-headed men, when they have to make up their minds upon some weighty business, set about it by considering two or three cases that are most likely to happen, and come to a decision on the assumption that one of these cases is sure to come. This is dangerous, for often, and even usually, there arises some third or fourth case that has been overlooked, and which your decision will not fit. You had much better keep your decision strictly to what the actual necessity of the matter compels” (81, 182).

In politics nothing tragic, everything serious.— “The ruler of a State must not be frightened at dangers, however great, near, and actual they look. As the proverb goes, The devil is not so black as he is painted. Often things happen that melt the dangers away; and even when the evils come, you find some cure or some mitigation that you had never imagined” (116).

So, then, look out for chance and surprise. Leave all doors open. Never tie your hands. Give plenty of room for the chapter of accidents, good or bad. Yet you should never drift. Occasion is everything. The wizard is he who divines the moment that is neither too soon nor too late. History, since Guicciardini’s day, abounds in cases where statesmen have made shipwreck from forgetting that time and the moment are all, and mistaking the pace at which opportunity ripens.

Here are some miscellaneous hints for any date, some sensible, some cunning, some a little odious. The Politic Man will appropriate the epithets at his choice.

False as a bulletin.— “A man who is carrying on great affairs is wont to cover up the things that are unpleasant, and to exaggerate what is favourable. ‘Tis a kind of charlatanry, and entirely contrary to my nature. But as success depends more often on the opinions of people than on actual results, to spread the story that things are going well helps you, and the contrary does you harm” (86).

Character the real treasure.— “Do not place popularity before reputation, because with lost reputation popularity is lost. But he who keeps up reputation will never find friends, favour, popularity wanting” (42).

No general indictments.— “Be careful in your conversation never needlessly to say things which, if they were reported, might displease others; because such things, in times and ways you never thought of, often turn up to do you vast mischief. When occasion drives you to say what must be offensive to somebody else, at least be sure that it only offends the individual. Do not speak ill of his country, or of his family or connections; it is folly, while you only wish to strike one, to affront many” (42).

Fast bind, fast find.— “My father, when praising thrift, used to say that one ducat in the purse brings more honour than ten ducats spent” (44).

To put to sea without constancy, a voyage that ends in nothing.— “Persistency is everything. It is not enough to set business going, to give it a direction and a start. You must follow it up, and never take your hand off until the very end” (192).

Circumspection the golden rule, only we must never let it paralyse us.— “Though we should enter upon all our undertakings with deliberation, we must not therefore conjure up so many obstacles as to make success seem desperate. Rather it concerns us to remember that as we go on, knots will often untie themselves and difficulties vanish.”

A commonplace for political captains.— “In war often have I seen news come that made our business look bad ; then at a stroke would come other news that looked like victory; or it would be the other way about. And these contradictions would constantly happen. So a good captain should not too easily be either cast down or lifted up” (127).

The Righteous man begging his bread, and the Wicked flourishing as the green bay-tree.— “Never say, God has helped such an one because he was good, or hindered such another because he was bad. For we often see things go just the other way. Nor for all that ought we to say that divine justice halts, God’s counsels being so deep that rightly do men talk of abyssus multa—we cannot fathom them” (92).

No dilettantism: nothing for “a cake that is not turned.”[2]— “With him who is in his very soul bent on fame, all succeeds, for he spares no pains nor money nor risks. I have proved this in my own person, and so I can write it. Dead and empty are the doings of men that lack this pricking spur” (118).

Mediocrity the best.— “Too keen wits mean unhappiness and torment; they only bring on a man perplexity and trouble, from which those with heads of the positive sort are quite free. He who has sound judgment can make far more use of the man with only clever brains, than the clever man can make use of him. The man with the positive head has a better time in the world, lives longer, and in a certain fashion is happier, than the man with high intellect, for a noble intellect carries with it toil and fret. At the same time one partakes more of the brute than the man, while the other transcends humanity and approaches the divine” (60, 232, 337).

He that regards the winds does not sow, and he that regards the clouds does not reap.— “We cannot blame men for being slow to resolve. For though occasions come when it is necessary to decide quickly, yet for the most part he who decides quickly more often goes wrong than he who decides slowly. What is always thoroughly to be blamed is slowness in action after decision taken. Whatever your decision and whatever your plan, there is always a reason to the contrary. Whence it comes that so many people stand in suspense, because every small difficulty disturbs them. These are they whom we call over-scrupulous, because they stumble on a scruple at every turn. This is all wrong. We ought to weigh the drawbacks on every side, and then to make up our minds for the course where drawbacks are fewest” (191, 213).

A lottery after all.— “In human things it is fortune that has the mastery. Every hour we see mighty results due to accidents that nobody could either foresee or divert. Penetration and care may temper the force of things, still you need good fortune. A fool will sometimes come better out than a wise man; for the one will trust much to Reason, and little to Fortune, while the other trusts much to Fortune, and little to Reason” (30, 136).


Guicciardini is fond of that saying of the ancients, Magistratus virum ostendit, office shows the man. “Nothing reveals the quality of men like giving them authority and things to do. Place discovers a man’s capacity and his character. How many people know how to talk, and do not know how to act; how many on benches and in the market-place seem excellent, yet when put into employment turn out mere phantoms (riescono ombre)” (163, 258).

The political path is thickly strewn with these historic humiliations, the men whom everybody would have thought capaces imperii, nisi imperassent. Eminent place, La Bruyère said, makes the great man greater than he is, the small man it makes less. Some hold in our own day, that if you would know the real qualities of a public man, you must find out—if you can—what is thought of him, not by his constituents, not by his fellow-members, but by the permanent officials who have served under him. The general estimate formed of him in the House of Commons is no doubt unerring, but the House does not see him at such close quarters, and in a popular assembly the plausible may go further than the substantial. Only the permanent official can tell you for certain whether his chief is quick or slow, idle or diligent; whether he allows himself to see two sides to a question; how far he is free from the vanity of supposing that he knows everything, and how far he has the fine talent of the good learner; whether he has the indispensable gift of making up his mind and holding to it; what sort of a judge he is of probabilities; whether he is sure in hand and foot, cool or flurried, considerate or selfish, straightforward or tortuous, a man of initiative and resource. It may be that not only does office, as Guicciardini says, show the man to others; it may possibly, if he has time in which to think of such things, reveal him to himself, to his own lively surprise. Such is the modern confirmation of the ancient saying, ἀρχὴ ἄνδρα δείκνυσι,[3] which made so deep a mark on Guicciardini that he winds up the last page of his History with it.

What the critic means by saying that the Ricordi are Italian corruption reduced to a code, may be seen in such reflections as these: “Always deny what you do not wish to have known, and affirm what you wish to have believed; for though there may be proofs and even certainty the other way, a bold affirmation or denial will perplex the listener.” In the cynic’s vein is this: “One of the greatest strokes of good fortune is for a man to have an opportunity of showing that in the things he does for his own interest, he was moved by the thought of the public good. This is what shed glory on the enterprises of the Catholic King; what he did for his own security or aggrandisement, often looked as if it were done for the advancement of the Christian faith or the defence of the Church.”

“What is sincere and free and generous is always pleasing, but sometimes it does you harm. On the other hand, to dissemble may be useful, and on occasions even necessary, owing to the evil character of other people; but it is odious and ugly. Hence I do not know which one should choose. I should suppose that a man might use the one in an ordinary way, yet without abandoning the other; I mean in common practice, to use the first so as to earn the name of a liberal person, and yet in certain important and rare cases to use dissimulation, which in a man who generally lives as I have said, is all the more successful, because, from having the opposite character, you are the more readily believed” (26). As though character were like the fingers of a clock, to be moved at will backwards and forwards, independently of the wheels and springs, balances and escapements, that regulate its daily action and make it what it is. The grievous failings and frantic inconsistencies and dire lapses of human nature are only too familiar. But to suppose that a man shall sedulously train himself to walk in straight paths, yet with freedom deliberately reserved to run off at a tangent into crooked ways whenever convenience requires, argues an eccentric psychology indeed.

“To save yourself,” says Guicciardini (101), “from a cruel and brutal tyrant, there is no rule or physic that avails, except what you advise for the plague; flee from him as fast as ever you can.” Selden puts this point in the old homely apologue: “Wise men say nothing in dangerous times. The lion, you know, called the sheep, to ask her if his breath smelt; she said Aye; he bit off her head for a fool. He called the wolf and asked him; he said No; he tore him in pieces for a flatterer. At last he called the fox and asked him: Truly he had got a cold and could not smell.” Still, vulpine is vulpine, and while we do not grudge the fox his chance, the old truth remains. The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, and the man driven by weakness of the flesh into full flight from peril, may well be stricken by a secret envy of those brave heroic hearts, that noble army of witnesses, those spirits of fire, who in all ages and for many causes that seemed forlorn have fought the fight, run the course, and kept the faith.

Without ascending to these pure and exalted heights, we may refresh ourselves by thinking of such a man as Turgot. The contrast may help to show the Politic Man where he stands. Turgot, says his biographer, would not endure that any mixture of falseness, or the least appearance of charlatanry, should soil the purity or the conduct of a public man. He knew the means, he scorned to use them. They taxed him with ignorance of men. This is what they called maladresse. Few philosophers have had a better-founded knowledge of man. But he concerned himself little with the art of knowing particular men, of knowing the small details of their interests, of their passions, of the fashion in which they hide or reveal them, of the springs of their intrigues and their quackery.

The Florentine or the Venetian School would have mocked at a reformer such as this. Whether France could have escaped the abyss, if instead of Turgot’s her affairs at that decisive moment had fallen into the hands of some supple and vigilant Cavour nourished on Guicciardini, is a question which we may put if we like. What is certain is that the Directory, whose incompetency and rottenness opened the way for Bonaparte, were the very type that the maxims of our Florentine are fitted to produce.


It remains to say something of Guicciardini as historian. Early in his career he had shown his taste in this direction. In 1509 he wrote his History of Florence, comprising the period between Cosmo de’ Medici and the repulse of the Venetians at the Ghiaradadda (1434-1508). None of Guicciardini’s writings saw the light in his lifetime, and this was not given to the world until our own day (1859). Sallust, in a good phrase, says that when he made up his mind to leave public affairs, non fuit consilium socordia atque desidia bonum otium conterere, he had no mind to wear out his good leisure in listlessness and sloth, or in such things as farming or hunting. Whether Sallust was little better, as some illustrious scholars say, than an adroit pamphleteer or clever literary artificer, at least we might wish that Guicciardini had striven to imitate the terseness and compression of his countryman, who had written chapters of Roman history fifteen centuries before. him. Like Voltaire and others, Guicciardini had the habit of the pen, and would rather be writing than not. He lived until 1540. It is said that he thought of composing commentaries on his own life, and this must always be the most interesting thing that any public man on his final retirement can undertake, if only he allows himself to speak the truth. A wise friend warned him how much ill-will he would be sure to stir up, and set him upon a history of Italy instead. Yet Guicciardini knew the impossibilities of every historic task. Walpole, according to a well-worn legend, begged them not to read history to him, “for that I know must be false.” Our Italian said something very like it: “Do not wonder that you are ignorant of things of past ages, and of things done in distant places. For if you well consider it, there is no real information as to the present, or as to what is done from day to day in the same city. Often between palace and market-place is a cloud so thick or a wall so big that the people know as little of what is done by those who rule them, or of the reason for doing it, as they know of what they do in India. So it comes about that the world easily fills itself with wrong and empty notions ” (Ric. 141).

In the deeper problems of political philosophy he shows no interest. Is the key to great movements in history nothing more subtle or mysterious than the inborn restlessness of men? Had Machiavelli found this secret when he declared, “What throws empires down is that the powerful are never satisfied with their power; one rises, another dies; the ruler is for ever pining with fresh ambitions and new apprehension”? Can this be as true of democracy as of oligarchs and autocrats? Is history an unmeaning procession across a phantom scene, a fantastic cycle of strange stage-plays, where conquerors, pontiffs, law-givers, saints, jesters, march in pomp or squalor, in ephemeral triumphs and desperate reverse? Or is it, again, the record of such growth among civil communities as the naturalist traces in the succession of organisms material and palpable, and is the historian’s task to find and illustrate the laws by which the long process has been moulded? Is history, as Bossuet would persuade us, the long and solemn vindication of the mysterious purposes of God to man, the ordered working of the Unseen Powers as they raise up states and empires, then cast them headlong down again in stern and measured rhythm? How far have great events sprung from small occasions, and vast public catastrophes from puny private incidents? The extraordinary individual, an Alexander or a Cæsar, how far is he the agent, how far the master, of circumstance? Is he, in the broad aspect, only the instrument of forces viewless as the winds, a strenuous helmsman on a blind and driving tide, or is he himself the force that shapes, resists, controls, compels? All this, Guicciardini would have said, is not history, but the interpretation of history; I am historian, not interpreter; my task is to narrate a given series of events, to show their connection with one another, to set out the character of political men, to describe parties and personal ambitions, to tell the story, and then leave you to draw your own moral, if you can find one.

His work embraces a period of rather less than forty years, from 1494 to 1532, from the memorable expedition of Charles the Eighth of France into Italy, down to the death of Pope Clement the Seventh. It comprises a long series of events that compose one of the most marked stages, transitions, or revolutions in the history of the Western world. If the Middle Ages bridge five hundred years from 1000 to 1500, modern history begins where Guicciardini begins; and when he ends, a chain of forces, powers, interests, policies, nationalities, dynasties and states, territorial rights and claims, had taken on those definite forms whose conflict, relations, distribution, make up European annals down to the time of Napoleon. Statesmen strive with varying gifts of vision to penetrate and guide the immediate tasks of their own particular time and country, but even the most far-sighted of them do but dimly grope after the broad historic significance of their age as a whole. It would have been a miracle if Guicciardini had seized the full meaning of his period, easy as it may seem for us four hundred years later. Still he was well aware that the European system was undergoing a profound change, and he comprehended how the old Italian system was overthrown within his two dates.

All over the West, dictatorship was rising on the ruins of feudalism. Great territorial unions and strong monarchies were covering Europe. It was the era of concentration. When Guicciardini went on his embassy to Ferdinand, he found what in Ferdinand’s youth had been the three rival kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Granada practically welded into a single power. France under Louis the Eleventh had already marched a long way towards that establishment of autocratic power, which it still took a century more for Richelieu fully to complete. Henry the Seventh and Henry the Eighth between them had firmly built up the Tudor monarchy, and found for England a place in the new European scheme. The Hapsburgs had achieved the most wonderful union of all, for in their hands at last was united, besides the Austrian States, supremacy in the Netherlands, in Spain, in Sicily, in Bohemia, in Hungary. Growing intimacies sprang up between European countries. As nations became consolidated, their relations with one another spread over a more extensive field. High projects of international policy, which have filled so much space in Western history ever since, started on their chequered and shifting course. The practice of sending resident ambassadors took definite shape, and sovereigns sought to gain their ends by substituting diplomacy for force. Now first began the long struggle between France and the House of Austria. For Guicciardini the most important thing was the opening of that invasion of Italy by foreigners—that appointment, as it has been described, by nearly all the nations of Europe of a rendezvous for a sanguinary tournament in Italy—which ended in the definite preponderance of the House of Austria in the Peninsula, and in the coronation of Charles the Fifth at Bologna (1530). Not less momentous than these vast political transformations was the discovery of the New World. Many will regard the Reformation as even more stupendous an event in the history of mankind, than either the growth of national monarchies or the discovery of new continents. For the speculative reasoner upon human progress, that is a question pregnant with issues of absorbing interest; but whatever we may think about this, it was impossible for Guicciardini to judge a drama of which in 1530 not more than the first act had yet been played. Though always a Catholic both in practice and conviction, he hated the clergy and the papal court. He says nobody can think so ill of the Roman Court as it deserves, for it is an infamy, and an example of all the shame and reproach in all the world (Op. ined. i. 27). “I do not know a man,” he says elsewhere, “more disgusted than I am at the ambition, the greed, the unmanliness of the priests, partly because every one of these vices is hateful in itself, partly because each by itself and all of them together are specially unbecoming in one who professes a life dedicated to God. Yet the position that I held under more than one Pope has compelled me for my own interest to desire their aggrandisement. But for that, I should have loved Martin Luther as myself, not that I might throw off the laws laid down in the Christian religion as it is commonly interpreted and understood, but in order to see this gang of scoundrels brought within due bounds—that is, either rid of their vices or stripped of their authority” (Ric. 28). When Guicciardini comes to the full dress of history, his voice sounds in a slightly different key, but the substance is the same.

In style, sorry as he would have been to know it, he is in truth not more than a plain, steady writer, with no large general power over the noble organ of language; and when he tries to be more, the result is not diapason but drone. He cultivates the long sentence, and constantly runs to twenty lines, without prejudice to a frequent extension to five-and-thirty. This makes hard reading, but it is not the same thing as prolixity, for he does not repeat himself, nor wander from the point, nor overload with qualifications. When we find ourselves safe and sound at the thirtieth line, we have really crossed a broad piece of ground. His phrase is heavy, and yet, as Thiers says, he moves along like a man of lively spirit, only with indifferent legs. He has little dramatic power, and the notable discourses that he puts into the mouths of leading characters are not always marked by salient feature of person and occasion.

The introduction of fictitious discourses at all would be an outrage on modern standards, but for some time after the revival of learning, historians followed the example set by survivors from antique times, headed by the magisterial authority of Thucydides. In his battles we do not hear the clash of arms in charge and repulse, the clatter of the guns and the horsemen, the trumpets, the shouting, the din, and the trampling. In his sieges and sacks we are not shaken by the fury of the assault, by shriek and crash, red flames, horrors of rape and murder, and all the grisly squalor of war and man turned demon. Pitiless cruelty never in history went further than the systematic ferocities of Spaniard and German in Italy in the sixteenth century. The Ottoman was not more ruthless in all the arts of violence, lust, and torture than the soldiers of the Catholic King[4]; and the soldiers of the Most Christian King[5] were not far behind. Guicciardini stamps these abominations as they pass, without excitement, but with a steady hand. The sack of Prato by the Spaniards (1512), the sack of Brescia by the French (1512), the more memorable sack by Spanish and German adventurers of eternal Rome itself (1527), are not, after our modern fashion, made to crowd large canvases with apocalyptic detail. But then the worth of political and civil history does not, like romance and melodrama, depend on stirred sensations. The historian’s account of the murderous battle of Ravenna (1512) (x. 4), where the French, under the youthful Gaston de Foix, routed the hosts of Spain and the Pope, is precise and intelligible, not without impressive touches, and the reader who seeks knowledge, and not merely a horrified imagination, need ask for nothing better. Those who want more would find Cesar’s Commentaries bald, though some judges think them the best historical style that ever was written. The story of the memorable encounter of French and Swiss at Marignano (1515) (xii. 5), has not only Guicciardini’s general merits, but is full of warmth and energy; how the Swiss in Milan, excited by the words of their leaders, suddenly grasped their arms in fury, formed up in marching order, and though not a couple of hours of daylight were left, sallied forth with exultant cries and flung themselves against the French battery; how the fierce battle raged till long after dark, when each side, without sound of trumpet or word of command, in silent truce ceased perforce from the struggle until the next day’s sun should dawn; how when the day broke the implacable conflict began afresh; and how at last, when 20,000 men lay dead upon the ground, the remnant of the beaten Swiss made their way back to Milan in dogged order, unquenched ferocity still blazing in their eye and mien. The historian does not often show such glowing colour.

His reflections are sometimes trite, but they are natural and sincere. Ludovic Sforza after his defeat was sent a prisoner by the French King to the dreary castle of Loches, and there for the last thirteen years of his life was locked up with no better company than the faded shadows of his own restless and passionate ambition. “So fleeting, various, and miserable is the lot of man,” says Guicciardini. Only the commonplace refrain of all the ages, it is true; yet what more is to be said? It is hardly an accident that so many of the most valued histories that have survived in literature are so deeply tinged with gloom, and labour so much upon adverse things, the spite of evil generations, the frowardness of men, and all the inscrutable ironies of dark fate. We may recall the quaint chapter in Commynes that contains his “discourse upon the miserie of man’s life,” by the example of those princes that lived in the author’s time, and first of King Louis the Eleventh; how he considered the case of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, and Edward of England, Matthias King of Hungary, and Mahomet the Ottoman. He only chants the ancient chorus, but can the pomp of Bossuet carry the moral further? After all, the vital question about the historian is whether he tells the truth. He ought to be statesman, reasoner, critic, drudge. His gifts are sagacity, clearness, order. These he needs, whether he be historic artist, seeking to delight great audiences, or scientific student, content to explore, to disentangle, to clear the ground. What we require, says Ranke, is naked truth without ornament; thorough exploration of detail, no inventions, no brain-spinnings (Hirngespinnst). In other words, History is to descend from her place among the Muses. The illustrious German does not acquit Guicciardini. He complains that the Italian’s observance of strict and minute chronological order, as in Ariosto, destroys the interest; that much of his work is compiled from other books without special investigation; that weighty facts are wholly misrepresented; that the speeches which make up no small part of the work have no claim to a place among historic monuments.

The secondary charge of some unavowed debt to other historians must here be left in the backwoods of antiquarian controversy. It is certain, moreover, that inasmuch as half of his work concerns events in which he was neither actor nor eye-witness, though he was a contemporary, it does not stand throughout in the very highest class of original and first-hand monuments, which must reserved for those who are not only contemporaries but more. On this side, it may well be that Guicciardini, like others of his school, falls before that general scepticism which has been well described as undermining all narrative history, certainly not excepting history written by contemporaries, inevitably moved as they are by turbid passions of the hour. A valuable field still lies open in Guicciardini. Motivierung, the exploration of men’s motives, the opening out of what seemed inexplicable, the presentation of diverse aspects of a case as they showed themselves to those who had to choose and to act—here was Guicciardini’s true art. And so it was recognised as being in the generation after his death. From the first, the competent public throughout Europe admired the acuteness and comprehension with which he tracks out a political situation in root and in branch, views it on every side, exposes all the alternatives, and hits upon deciding elements in complex transactions. This it is which explains the remarkable fact that before the end of the sixteenth century his History ran through ten editions in Italian, three in Latin, and three in French, and was translated into English, German, Dutch, and three times into Spanish. Nobody so aptly satisfied the vigorous curiosity of that age as to motives and characters in the age before it. Nobody offered estimates of leading actors more excellent in that uncommon quality which the French call justesse. There are few better portraits in written history, for instance, than his of Lorenzo (Stor. fior. ix.), and no subtler appreciations than those of Leo the Tenth and Clement the Seventh (Stor. d’Ital. xvi. 5).

Montaigne tells us that when he finished a book, he had a habit of writing in it the general idea he had formed of the author as he read it. Among these books was Guicciardini’s History of Italy. He praises the historian’s diligence; his freedom from the bias of hatred, favour, or vanity; his exactitude; the fine strokes with which he enriches his digressions and discourses. Then he proceeds to a deeper criticism. “I have also remarked this, that of so many characters and results on which he pronounces judgment, of such divers counsels and movements, he never refers a single one to virtue, to religion, or to conscience; just as if such things were gone clean out of the world. Of all the acts that he describes, however fair they may look in themselves, he always traces back the cause to some vicious source, or to some hope of selfish advantage.” That was no more than the brand of Guicciardini’s time and school. His abstention from definite judgments of right or wrong in the actions that he describes is systematic. A free-spoken Pope is reported to have said on the death of Richelieu, “If there is a God, the Cardinal will have to smart for what he has done; but if there is no God, he was certainly an excellent man.” Our historian also leaves these delicate questions open. We feel in him the force of Gibbon’s remark, that the tone of history will rise or fall with the spirit of the age. In that age nobody saw any harm or heard a cynic’s voice in Guicciardini’s remark upon Ferdinand of Aragon, that “no reproach attaches to him, save his lack of generosity, and faithlessness to his word.” It may or may not be true in literature that “it is the mark of finesse of mind not to come to a conclusion” (Renan). It is less true in history. “In politics,” one critic of our Italian has said, compromise may often be an excellent course; but in a history what we want are clear-cut judgments; the human conscience insists upon it.” That is not Guicciardini’s view. He would never have allowed conscience, like a barbarian Brennus, to fling its heavy keen-edged sword into the scale of complex, dim, awkward, and nicely balanced facts. Of him, as of Thiers, it may be said that “he does not trouble himself to judge, but to seize.” The only need of which he is conscious is to see as clearly as he can what men did, and why they did it. If we add to this the great advance that he made in historic conception when he substituted a general for merely local or provincial history, and if we consider his accurate presentation of the political and moral thought of his age, we may understand his place in literature, and the impression he has made upon important minds.

John Morley


[1] Load the dice [ed.]
[2] Hosea 7:8. “Ephraim, he hath mixed himself among the people; Ephraim is a cake not turned.”
[3] “Rule reveals the man.” A saying attributed to one or more of the Seven Sages of Greece. [ed.]
[4] Rex Catholicissimus, the title awarded to the Spanish sovereigns by the Papacy. [ed.]
[5] Rex Christianissimus, the traditonal title of the Kings of France. [ed.]

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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