Open Journal of Political Science
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 69-75
Published Online April 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 69
Quinquennial Terror: Machiavelli’s Understanding of
the Political Sublime
Ed King
Political Science, Concordia Universi ty, Montreal, Canada
Received September 19th, 2012; revised February 18th, 2013; accepted March 2nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Ed King. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
This paper argues that far from advocating fear of violence as a continuous source of civic provocation
Machiavelli’s ideal ruler employs an aesthetic approach to civic violence; one that actually harms few
citizens and moderates their fear with admiration through carefully considered psychological imperatives
similar to those articulated two hundred years later in theories of the sublime. Such violence as there was
would occur half a decade at a time in between which the citizens and the patria would enjoy stability,
wealth and honor. It had a proven Medici provenance, having been developed through Cosimo de
Medici’s intuitive genius for governance and was maintained by Piero and Lorenzo the Magnificent. The
insight was empirically confirmed by Niccolò’s observations of similarly intuitive political savants;
namely Cesare Borgia and Julius II. It was not given a technical title by Machiavelli, who unhelpfully re-
ferred to it as crudeltà bene usate (cruelty well used) but we might call it “the politics of the sublime”.
Despite its most dramatic (and consequentially disproportionate) evocation in the Prince, Machiavelli’s
reliance on the political sublime waned throughout his literary career, until he rejected it in a stunning cri-
tique of Cosimo’s reign in the Florentine Histories.
Keywords: Machiavelli; Aesthetics; Sublime; Violence; Historical of Public Policy; Medici, Florence
Machiavelli is excessively pleased by unusual and violent
Historically speaking, Machiavelli’s manifest interest in po-
litical violence has been viewed by his critics along a contin-
uum extending from immature fascination in violence for its
own sake to a belief that violence formed an essential if brutal
element in any practical approach to the maintenance of power.
His contemporary and friend, Guicciardini, was at the first ex-
treme; in response to Machiavelli’s Discourses he advised
against taking “for an absolute rule what Machiavelli says, who
is always excessively pleased by unusual and violent remedies”
(Guicciardini, 1933). The other extreme divides along moral
lines that see Machiavelli as offering a criminally negligent
authorization of force for the sake of political longevity
(Strauss, 1958; Manent, 1995) or an alternative morality that
reifies “well used” violence (Von Vacano, 2007; Berlin, 1982).
Unfortunately apologists such as Berlin never suggests how
violence “well used” is qualitatively, as opposed to strategically
distinct from any other violent act, whereas critics such as
Strauss and Manent ignore the distinction altogether, perceiving
any use of violence for political ends as an evil in itself. Some
critical apologists refine their moral concern to focus on Ma-
chiavelli’s sacrifice of republican principles on the altar of po-
litical expediency (Hulliung, 1884; Godman, 1998). While
those who lean towards approbation justify Machiavelli’s harsh
pragmatism by noting that Machiavelli makes his most shock-
ing suggestions exclusively to rulers, and excludes citizens
from their application (King, 2008).
What these commentators share is a more or less monologi-
cal understanding of the application, reception, and impact of
the violence offered up by Machiavelli’s exemplars. It is cruel,
brutal and overwhelming; being applied swiftly—without con-
sideration for age, gender or religious principles—and merci-
lessly to anyone opposed the ruler’s designs. The implication is
that once applied, such violence requires constant and active
maintenance in order to instill a continuous state of fear and
trepidation in the subject population. While such violent gov-
ernance was not unknown in Renaissance Europe, I argue that
such an application is not, and never was Machiavelli’s design.
His ideally violent actor employs an altogether more subtle, not
to say aesthetic approach to civic violence; one that actually
harms few citizens and moderates their fear with admiration
through carefully considered psychological imperatives. Sin-
gleton argues that by focusing on aesthetics rather than ethics
Machiavelli appropriates Aristotle’s conception of “making”,
which aims at a non-moral artefact, rather than “doing” which
seeks to internalize a “correct” way of living (Singleton, 1953).
This amoral perspective allows him to relax his advocacy of
state sponsored terror for half a decade at a time while the citi-
zens engage in an economically creative social tension that
produces stability, wealth and honor for both prince and patria.
It had a proven Medici provenance, having been developed
through Cosimo de Medici’s intuitive genius for governance
and maintained by Piero and Lorenzo the Magnificent. The
insight was empirically confirmed by Niccolò’s extensive
reading in the Medici archives as well as his observations of
similarly intuitive political savants; namely Cesare Borgia and
Julius II. It was not given a technical title by Machiavelli, who
generally (and unhelpfully) referred to it as crudeltà (cruelty) in
his work. Nevertheless one of his earliest critical readers, Gio-
vanni Botero, recognizing its literary roots in the theories of
Longinus, immediately named it “the politics of the sublime”
(Kahn, 1994). What is most provocative perhaps is that while
the Prince is generally credited with offering tyrants a manual
on the most effective control of conquered peoples, it is the
“republican” Discourses along with the Florentine Histories
that actually show how Cosimo used sublime terror to govern
the city of his birth. It is equally provocative but demonstrable
that this literary progression from the Prince to the Histories
illustrates Machiavelli’s waning faith in the efficacy of sublime
violence from its height in 1513 to its low-tide mark in 1527.
The Sublime Family Secret
Although it must be acknowledged that nowhere in his writ-
ings does Machiavelli use the word “sublime” to describe the
theatrical acts of political violence he advocated, it remains the
best word to explain the various phenomena Machiavelli be-
lieved would result in civic acquiescence if they were “well-
used”. Eighteenth century scholars, most especially Edmund
Burke and Immanuel Kant, would later complete the theoretical
framework by identifying the aesthetic effect generated by
spectacles of sublime power. However, the political implica-
tions of psychologically inassimilable, aesthetically-based ter-
ror had not advanced much beyond the intuitive insights of the
successful tyrants of antiquity.
The sublime was present in literary discourse as far back as
the Peri Hupsous of Longinus and it had a demonstrable influ-
ence on thinkers from the beginning of the cinquecento; openly
influencing Machiavelli’s contemporary, Michelangelo and his
later reader, Botero (Arthos, 1963). It is unlikely that, despite
his pretensions to poetry, Machiavelli made the connection
between the literary and political sublime himself since he em-
ployed no convenient term with which to represent the feelings
of awe and terror generated by the sublime. His most common
synonyms, crudeltà bene usate (cruelty well-used) and rovina
(ruinous destruction) fail to convey to us the psychological
effects he assumed would occur, and have consequently led
many critics astray. This is because, despite enjoying a brief
reappearance in the work of Botero, the aesthetic effect of the
sublime was not popularly identified in the terms used here
until John Dryden and Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux’s work in
the 17th century. I am forced to take the consciously anachro-
nistic step of unpacking the concept using the terms adopted in
the Enlightenment while recognizing that Machiavelli applied
these concepts through the limited lexicon of his experiences.
The “Terrifying” Sublime
Violent storms, yawning chasms, vast mountain ranges, ter-
rible avalanches, or miraculous religious events, such as the
burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea, were all expressions
of terrifying power that produced similar psychological reac-
tions in all those that witnessed them. In 1763 Kant systema-
tized these reactions into three categories of the sublime; the
terrifying, the noble and the splendid, of which only the former
need concern us here (Kant, 1991)1. The “terrifying” sublime
describes the awe-inspiring terror experienced by witnesses of
dramatic vistas or overwhelmingly violent activities. “Whatever
is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that
is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about
terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a
source of the sublime; that is it is productive of the strongest
emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke, 1990).
However, the reaction is qualitatively different than if one were
actually in danger from such events; the sublime depends for its
effect on the combination of sympathetic horror for the victims
and relief at the comparative safety of one’s own person from
the events witnessed. Joseph Addison had already noted this
relationship in his 1712 “Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagi-
nation” which was to be influential on both Kant and Burke.
“When we look on such hideous Objects, we are not a little
pleased to think we are in no Danger of them. We consider
them at the same time as Dreadful and Harmless; so that the
more Frightful appearance they make the greater is the Pleasure
we receive from the sense of our own safety” (Addison, 1978).
The Political Sublime
As far as political implications are concerned the most im-
portant aspect of the terrifying sublime is the relationship be-
tween the viewer and the political actor; a reaction that tran-
scends reason, self-interest or filial loyalty. It has often been
noted that feeling threatened by extreme violence can cause the
witness to identify with the perpetrator. “The dazzled witness
then tends to identify with the source, acting as if the constraint
emanated not from without, but from within himself” (Kelly,
1998). Witnessing an act of sublime violence has the effect of
both terrifying yet at the same time profoundly satisfying the
witness. It is this response to the aesthetic effects of violence,
committed in the course of political ends, to which we should
attach the sobriquet “political sublime”.
This terminology no doubt appears peculiarly modern when
transported into the renaissance context, yet the Florentine sec-
retary’s near contemporaries had no trouble discerning the po-
litical point of Machiavelli’s interest in sublime violence or the
rhetoric he couched it in. Giovanni Botero showed acute appre-
ciation for Machiavelli’s political and rhetorical strategies only
half a century after his works became generally available. In
1585 he published a pamphlet about the political use of the
sublime for Jesuits engaged in the counter-reformation by stag-
ing a politics of the sublime (Kahn, 1994).
Sublime Not Bestial Violence
Botero does not refer to a continuous state of terror when he
1Outside of these categories I ignore Kant’s conception of the sublime,
especially as developed in the Critique of Judgment, as it is impossible to
form an understanding of the political sublime using such reasoning. Kant
argued that the sublime was an interesting category precisely becauseit
included no human artifacts. Man’s role was to be the subjective observer
and it was unimaginable that he could create any of the conditions that
could reproduce the sublime effect on others. The second and more impor-
tant problem concerns his devaluing of experience. I endorse Hegel’s criti-
cism that Kant continually condemns ex
erience as seeming to be possible
rather than actual. In Goldthwaite’s words Kant shifts from a “principle o
explanation”, which is the province of the Observations, to a “principle o
conduct” which informs the Critique (Kant, 1991). This move away from
the value of empirical observation runs completely counter to Machiavelli’s
conception of the political value of experience and renders their analyses
mutually exclusive.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
cites Machiavelli, being one of the few early readers to recog-
nize that Niccolò disdained terror for its own sake. It was never
acceptable for rulers to simply devolve to the level of beasts
and the Prince cites Commodus’ “cruel and bestial spirit” along
with Heliogabalus, Macrinus and Julianus’ bestial behavior as
being “entirely contemptible” (Machiavelli, 1998). Machiavelli
exemplifies the difference between the occasional, restrained
and therefore effective use of sublime violence—and the bestial
effect of its continual application—in the father and son de-
scription of the deeds of Severus and Caracalla.
Severus used leonine force when he moved swiftly against
Emperor Julianus, executing him in a sublime act of imperial
regicide but then imposed a fox like caution on himself, under-
taking no further acts of public violence. “Although the people
were overburdened by him, he was always able to rule happily
because his virtues made him so admirable in the sight of the
soldiers and the people that the latter remained somehow as-
tonished and stupefied, while the former were reverent and
satisfied” (Machiavelli, 1998). Severus’ son Caracalla on the
other hand, despite being a man “who had most excellent parts
that made him ma rve lous in t he sight of the people and pleasing
to the soldiers” (p. 78) was murdered by a soldier in his own
army. “His ferocity and cruelty were so great and unheard
of—for after infinite individual killings he had put to death a
great part of the people of Rome and all the people of Alexan-
dria—that he became most hateful to all the world” (p. 79).
Well used cruelties “are not persisted in but are turned to as
much utility for the subjects as one can” (p. 37). Bestial cruelty
simply leaves the citizenry perpetually afraid; and unremitting
fear leads to hatred, which will eventually lead to death at the
hands of one’s own people. Thus, the ordinary violence of ty-
rants is what Machiavelli refers to as
“Cruelties… badly used which, though few in the begin-
ning, rather grow with time than are eliminated. Whoever
does otherwise [than eliminating opposition in a single
sublime stroke] either through timidity or through bad
counsel, is always under necessity to hold a knife in his
hands; nor can one ever found himself on his subjects if,
because of fresh and continued injuries, they cannot be
secure against him. For injuries must be done all together,
so that, being tasted less they offend less; and benefits
should be done little by little so that they may be tasted
better” (38).
In the case of strategic, as opposed to moral, considerations
the difference between a badly conceived sublime act and one
that is properly understood is entirely determined by the benefit
that accrues to the people, not the ruler (38). For those who
could enact socially constructive violence in this manner, their
“well used” acts mitigated the moral impact of their deeds.
Those that overstepped the mark, however, soon discovered
that rather than live in permanent fear of a rogue leader, citizens
would destroy a bestial leader just as they would destroy a wild
animal they could not trust. Properly “staged”, strategic vio-
lence, on the other hand, had the power to overawe a subject
people into accepting one’s authority as implicitly or explicitly
derived from a supernatural source. These irrationally terri fy ing
acts left all but the immediately affected individual(s) physi-
cally unharmed, but shaken and respectful of the apparently
divine power of the executor. Such was the reaction of the
spectators to Remirro de Lorqua’s sublimely violent end at the
hands of Duke Valentino, Machiavelli’s greatest exemplar of
the political sublime.
“Divine” Justice in Cesena
When Cesare Borgia (Duke Valentino) needed to pacify the
rebellious peoples of the Romagna he placed his boyhood
friend Remirro de Lorqua, “a cruel and ready man”, in charge
of subduing the population.
“In a short time Remirro reduced it to peace and unity,
with the very greatest reputation to himself. Then the
Duke judged that such excessive authority was not neces-
sary, because he feared that it might become hateful; and
he set up a civil court in the middle of the province, with a
most excellent president, where each city had its advocate.
And because he knew that past rigors had generated some
hatred for Remirro, to purge the spirits of that people and
to gain them entirely to himself, he wished to show that if
any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from
him but had come from his minister. And having seized
this opportunity, he had him placed one morning in the
piazza at Cesena in two pieces, with a piece of wood and
a bloody knife beside him. The ferocity of this spectacle
left the people at once satisfied and stupefied” (Machia-
velli, 1998).
Machiavelli was content to record the actions of his sublime
hero without explanation. This has important rhetorical impli-
cations; since if one were able to rationally analyze the effect
one would necessarily give undue prominence to reason’s
promise of a definitive answer to the paradox of safety through
fear. In the political realm, where even Kant admits “the little
force which the universal moral feeling would exercise over
most hearts” (Kant, 1991), this failure of the imagination pre-
sents the ordinary citizen not with the incentive to seek rational
answers but rather with their failure to comprehend the cause as
rational at all, leading to their assumption of the source of the
ruler’s power as divine2. By presenting their sublime deeds
without comment Machiavelli allows his exemplars’ deeds to
speak for themselves. This is typologically indicative of the
prince’s assumption of the divine in his political actions, since
the actions of gods do not require words to create their effect
(King, 2008). The only words involved in the recorded deeds of
gods are those spent on the interpretation of their divine acts by
their followers. This cultivation of a leader’s silence for politi-
cal effect was exemplified by Cesare Borgia, who in addition to
his spectacular acts of theatrical violence often left camp with-
out explanation, rarely made his plans known even to his clos-
est advisors and relished the anxiety his activities caused in the
hearts of those, like Machiavelli, whose job it was to divine his
“divine” plans for the benefit of the states they served.
The most insightful commentators on Machiavelli occasion-
ally intuit the sublime effect without isolating it as a political
tool he consciously advocated. Wayne Rebhorn, who never uses
the term “sublime” in his analysis of Machiavelli, describes the
effects on the viewer every bit as insightfully as Addison or
Burke. “As he has Borgia manipulate the traditional rituals of
execution, create a silent, mysterious, compelling emblem, and
2For Kant the sublime causes the failure of the imagination to comprehend
sensuous experience. This failure leads to the demand for com
on the par t of reason and thus to an awareness of reason as a higher faculty
that transcends mere nature.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 71
paradoxically appear both present and distant from the scene,
he makes this ideal prince into a figure of overwhelming power
for the citizens of Cesena. Indeed Borgia becomes nearly God
like” (Rebhorn, 1998).
The “prize” for successfully employing the political sublime
was quiescent citizens who were more than simply afraid; they
were awestruck, socially unified and collectively devoted to
your cause. The “price” lay in the fact that in order to appear to
wield divine power, a ruler’s sublime acts had to walk the
knife’s edge between incomprehensibly irrational violence that
transcends the rationally causal limits of strategic governance;
while never over-indulging in the terrifying cruelty of the sav-
age beast that such power invites. A more immediate cost
however, is that once abandoned, the prince can never again
enjoy the comforts of ordinary family life under the rule of law.
This is typologically signified by Machiavelli’s choice of
Moses, Theseus, Romulus and Cyrus, who were all either foun-
dlings or lost their parents early in their lives. The very trauma
that disrupted their private lives became a formative feature of
their political success. Hannah Pitkin notes that “throughout
all the many and complex things Machiavelli has to say about
those founders and heroes, a single theme is fundamental: the
founder’s exceptional personal autonomy. He stands out, he
stands alone” (Pitkin, 1984). By living above the law these
leaders stand outside of the protective comforts of the state,
since, as Aristotle had already noted, “anyone who by his na-
ture and not simply by ill luck has no state is either too bad or
too good, either subhuman or superhuman” (Aristotle, 1981).
This includes the man who opts to leave the security of the
political institution he is born into of his own freewill; he too
will necessaril y beco me either an animal or a god.
The ubiquitous use of the political sublime by all of the he-
roic exemplars in the Prince illustrates Machiavelli’s belief that
a different rule system applies when a prince decides to volun-
tarily leave the realm of ordinary citizens (Machiavelli, 1998b).
“Free not only from the pressure of custom and tradition, the
prince enjoys a more profound and disturbing freedom, a free-
dom from allegiance to the conventional moral system of his
society” (Rebhorn, 1998). Even so, if a prince is established, or
lacks the necessary virtù to achieve success, which was in-
creasingly the case in Florence as the memory of the republic
lost its potency, then the irony that his name will be cast into
obscurity or infamy while that of his family retains the stain of
his failure for as long as people remember becomes increas-
ingly relevant.
Agathocles and Cosimo’s Sublime Tyranny
Chapter VIII is the only chapter in which Machiavelli dis-
cusses the appropriate application of sublime crudeltà ra ther
than simply announcing or presenting examples of it. Following
on directly from the dissection of de Lorqua it presents Agatho-
cles as an example of “Those who have attained a principality
through crimes”. There are better examples of sublime heroes
manqué in the Prince, such as Duke Valentino, Hannibal,
Severus and Caracalla, but Agathocles accomplishes the dual
aim of showing that virtù is not contingent upon family back-
ground, fortune or high ideals but on will alone while high-
lighting the fact that successful political ends are judged by the
satisfaction of the people not the longevity of the ruler’s tenure.
The example of Agathocles shows that, with or without a re-
sort to the sublime, the “will to power” was a necessary but
insufficient attribute of a determined prince. The qualities that
inform virtù cannot be even instrumentally effective without a
guiding conception of the public good that corrals the corrosive
freedom engendered by a prince’s extralegal use of his power.
Agathocles was capable of extraordinary acts beyond the reach
of moral, especially Christian, censure, making him an exem-
plar with all the necessary attributes but one—he never estab-
lished a republic—and that fact alone makes him unsuitable for
virtuous emulation. Irrespective of his ability to effect acts of
sublime political violence, his lack of republican ambition
caused him to go down in Machiavelli’s narrative as a tragic
failure rather than the great founder his qualities clearly marked
him out to be. His failure to use sublime violence against ex-
ternal enemies rather than using it to smother internal dissent
served as an exemplary warning to the Medici princes not to
wield the sublime as their ancestors had done and ignore the
larger duty involved in accessing such a powerful force.
Cosimo’s public legend was that of a successful and long-
lived ruler of a peaceful state; the Pater Patriae, father of the
fat he rland no less. However, Machiavelli’s arrabbiati (wrathful)
version of Cosimo’s story is unique in the Florentine annals for
suggesting a sublime root to Medici power before going on to
eviscerate the benign paternalism of the legend.
“Those who governed the state of Florence from 1432 up
to 1494 used to say, to this purpose, that it was necessary
to regain the state every five years; otherwise it was diffi-
cult to maintain it. They called regaining the state putting
that terror and that fear in men that had been put there in
taking it, since at that time they had beaten down those
who, according to that mode of life, had worked for ill.
but as the memory of that beating is eliminated, men be-
gan to dare to try new things and to say evil; and so it is
necessary to provide for it, drawing the state back toward
its beginnings” (Machiavelli, 1998b).
This is an unequivocal statement to the effect that the Medici
ancestors: Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo—“those who governed
the state of Florence from 1432 up to 1494”—understood that
about once every five years it was necessary to put “that terror
and that fear in men that had been put there in taking it”. In
other words, the Medici brought peace to Florence by quin-
quennially carrying out acts terrifying enough to crush the
self-interested (read anti-Medici) ambitions of the politically
disaffected. This doubly effective policy eliminated personal
threats to the regime while simultaneously bringing the citi-
zenry back to the level of awestruck compliance that existed at
their patrias founding. However, just as with Agathocles, Co-
simo and his progeny spoiled his legacy by employing
semi-divine power in the service of his family rather than the
commune at large and, instead of bequeathing his heirs a virtu-
ous legacy in a free state, he laid the foundations for the inter-
regnum. So, as he had himself carried through the house after
his son’s death, he said, sighing, “This is too big a house for so
small a family”. It distressed the greatness of his spirit that it
did not appear to him that he had increased the Florentine em-
pire by an honorable acquisition (Machiavelli, 1990). It takes
no great skill at allegorical interpretation to read Florence as the
“house” and the Medici as the “small family ” while the last line
remains as uncompromising a condemnation of Cosimo’s ac-
complishments in office as anything written by his enemies.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Machiavelli’s Ancestral Connection to
Florence’s Sublime History
It is worth noting that Machiavelli had a personal interest in
the effect of this Medici policy, since one of its earliest targets
had been several of his own ancestors who had directly opposed
Cosimo’s right to authoritatively monopolize violence in Flor-
ence. As Machiavelli points out in the Histories, Girolamo
d’Angelo Machiavelli (1415-1460) was exiled in 1458 and later
executed for his principled opposition to Cosimo’s oligarchic
policies as well as his periodic use of extra-legal terror to con-
firm his authority (Machiavelli, 1990). Girolamo taught law at
the University of Florence, the same university where his grand
nephew Niccolò had recently completed the Histories, and he
may well already have been teaching when Bartolomeo Scala
and Niccolò’s father, Bernardo were completing their legal
studies at the studio. Girolamo was an active member of the
Florentine Guild of Judges and Notaries where he seems to
have become politically active (Atkinson, 2002) and in 1445 he
was on a panel tasked with drawing up legal reform (Brown,
1979). He incurred Cosimo’s displeasure by calling for a rein-
stitution of freedom of speech in political debate and took the
central role in an anti-Medici protest in 1458. He was arrested,
tortured, and then exiled to Avignon for 10 years with his
brother Piero and some other citizens. Another brother, Fran-
cesco d’Agnolo, was arrested and beheaded the following year
(Rubenstein, 1997). In 1460 Girolamo was taken prisoner on
charges of being a rebel in Lunigiana and returned to Florence,
where he was imprisoned and shortly afterwards died. Although
the cause of death is unknown the Medici humanist Giuliano
de’ Ricci was sure he was (deservedly) strangled (Atkinson,
Poisoning the Body Politic
Without a focus on the benefits to the republic, the demands
of initiating even a limited number of sublime acts would create
a municipal cancer, destroying the health of both the state and
the very family that a ruler might try to elevate and protect.
Machiavelli makes such a criticism of Cosimo: “…because of
the infirmity of his body, he could not bring his former dili-
gence to public or private affairs, so that he saw both being
ruined because the city was being destroyed by the citizens and
his substance by his agents and his sons” (Machiavelli, 1990).
Machiavelli maintained the sickness motif throughout the short
life of Cosimo’s son, Piero who, “because of the weakness of
his body” was declared “little fit for public and private affairs”.
Indeed, every Medici ruler after Cosimo suffered from poor
health and each lived a shorter life than his forbear because of it.
The early deaths of Giuliano and Lorenzo, the dedicatees of
Machiavelli’s Prince, kept the issue of health to the forefront of
public speculation, and by 1527 the family’s inability to main-
tain the leader’s good health threatened their future governance
of the state.
The rhetorical effect of paradoxically framing the Medici
(literally “Doctors”) through their illnesses was to interpret the
leadership as diseased; just as Cosimo bequeathed poor per-
sonal health through his flawed genes, he also bequeathed his
heirs a deeply flawed political framework of his own design.
Sick people have no real choices since they are constrained by
the demands that their infirmity imposes on them. Arthritic
people are especially locked into singular options with respect
to their range of movement and it became convenient for Ma-
chiavelli to depict Cosimo as politically arthritic as he was
physically. His dismissal of the achievements of Cosimo’s ten-
ure is displayed most obviously in the manner in which he skips
over nine years of his “reign” in a single sentence in order to
emphasize nothing but the disease that finally killed him.
“But Florence continued in its disunions and travails.
Disunion began in Cosimo’s party in ’55, for the causes
given, which through his prudence, as we have narrated,
were arrested for the timebeing. But when the year ’64
came, Cosimo’s illness became so serious again that he
passed from this life” (Machiavelli, 1990).
During the nine years Machiavelli dismisses with the phrase
“for the time being” Cosimo managed to prevent factionalism
from breaking out through the power of his will alone and
Florence lived in an outward state of peace. The lesson was that
if even Cosimo was unable to alter his face to the changing
times then his example, which had historically sustained Medici
success in the face of their changeable fortunes, should no
longer to be thought of as a guaranteed template for political
success. Cosimo’s time-honored political approach, as with the
genetic degeneration of the individuals who attempted to wield
it, was weak, disease ridden, and in need of a radical overhaul.
Most of Cosimo’s problems in government came, ironically
enough, with the success of his attempts to prevent the rise of
an effective opposition (Machiavelli, 1990). Machiavelli’s
wonderfully ironic conclusion to the second act of the Medici
story was that God was no longer comfortable with the Medici
expropriating His sublime power and that unless a republic was
established He would re-assume exclusive rights to it.
God’s “Retaking” of His Sublime
The strategic use of violence that had seemed so central to
the assumption of political power in the Prince was, a decade
later being blamed for Cosimo’s post 1455 inflexibility and
consequent endangerment of the patria (Machiavelli, 1998b).
Machiavelli emphasized the impiety at the core of Cosimo’s
appropriation of God’s power by selectively damning him
through his own aphorisms.
When some citizens told him after his return from exile
that the city was being spoiled and that was acting against
God to send away from it so many men of means, he an-
swered that a city spoiled was better than a city lost, that
two lengths of rose cloth made a man of means, and that
states were not held with paternosters in hand—which
sayings gave matter to his enemies to slander him as a
man who loved himself more than his patria and this
world more than the other (Machiavelli, 1990).
Machiavelli ends this collection of sayings with the phrase
“one could repeat many sayings of his, which will be omitted as
unnecessary” (283). So clearly what he has provided us with
are only the essential sayings; and what Machiavelli considered
essential was the message that Cosimo ensured his own power
over patriotic or pious considerations, having been able to ap-
propriate His power with nothing more sacred than “two
lengths of rose cloth”. He then used that authority to sublimely
“spoil” the city every five years to prevent it falling out of his
family’s hands. Since he no longer had any fear of the power
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 73
wielded by God that power now passed out of his hands and,
through Machiavelli’s auctorial force as a historian, was sym-
bolically handed back to God. It was this literary retrieval of
divine power that accounts for an otherwise extremely unchar-
acteristic diversion in Book VI of the Histories, in which Ma-
chiavelli takes time out of his political perorations to speak of a
terrible storm.
This storm, which occurred in 1456, was so powerful that it
threatened to bring to an end the sublime splendor that God had
harnessed in the creation of the world. It was a supernaturally
informed version of the Medician requirement to “retake the
state” by putting that terror and that fear in men that had been
put there in taking it.”
From these clouds so broken and confused, from such fu-
rious winds and frequent flashes arose a noise never be-
fore heard from any earthquake or thunder of any kind or
greatness; from it arose such fear that anyone who heard it
judged that the end of the world had come, and that earth,
water and the rest of the sky and the world, would return
mixed together to its ancient chaos (Machiavelli, 1990).
The ostensible reason given for the tempest was the need to
revive the crusade against the Muslims, since the Italians’ ardor
had dampened appreciably once the Hungarian army slowed
their advance. However, “when arms had been put away by
men, it appeared that God wished to take them up himself”
God was evidently no longer prepared to allow His divine
power to be used for parochial goals such as familial self-pro-
motion when the more pressing mission was to retake Constan-
tinople, which had fallen only three years before. That Machia-
velli has God making a politically sublime statement through
the elements is clear from his description of the storm’s effects,
which closely parallel the sublime “regaining” of the city de-
scribed by Cosimo.
This storm, to those who saw and heard it, [not those who
experienced its deadly effects] brought the utmost pity
and terror. The purpose of God without doubt was to
threaten rather than to punish Tuscany; for if so great a
wind had entered a city, among the houses and the thickly
crowded inhabitants, as it came among the oaks and trees
and houses that were few and scattered, without doubt it
would have made the greatest ruin and destruction that the
mind can imagine. But God purposed at that time that this
slight example should suffice to refresh among men the
memory of his power (Machiavelli, 1990).
In this extended example Machiavelli has God confirm how
a human prince should act when invoking the sublime; hurting
a few so that the many who were not hurt would learn their
lesson and comply the more readily with his wishes. “A
waggoner, together with his mules, was found dead far from the
road in a nearby valley… When the storm passed and day came,
men were left altogether stupefied” (270). The effect of this
single death, that left the people stupefied, is noticeably in
keeping with that gained by Cesare’s execution of Remirro de
Lorqua or Cosimo’s murder of Girolamo. It also echoes Ma-
chiavelli’s advice in chapter III of the Prince: “And those
whom he [the prince] offends since they remain dispersed and
poor, can never harm him, while all the others remain on the
one hand unhurt, and for this they should be quiet; on the other
they are afraid to err from fear that what happened to the de-
spoiled might happen to them (Machiavelli, 1998).
In 1482 God escalated his opposition to the Medici by send-
ing in His instrument to retake the state from Lorenzo. When
one considers the role of Savonarola in Medici history it is easy
to imagine a narrative in which he is sent by God to refute Co-
sim o’ s b o a st s. D e spite Cosimo’s confident claim to the c on t ra ry ,
Savonarola was clearly more politically aware than two yards
of cloth alone could make him and in 1482 the city was held in
hand by paternosters, at least for long enough to remove the
Medici from power. If the logic of this narrative is maintained it
was actually God’s will, enacted through the sublime power of
the Church, that in 1494 brought an end to Medici rule and in
1512 reinstated it again through the intervention of Julius II.
Whether the irony was God’s or Machiavelli’s, by announcing
His “regaining” of the power of the sublime Machiavelli sig-
naled the inappropriateness of corrosive political violence as a
pedagogical tool for the Medici; except of course, if God’s
representative, his patron Clement VII, chose to instigate it on
His behalf, combining the forces of Church and State in order
to unify the whole of Italy.
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