Machiavelli, the Ancients, and Hedonism
There is a very interesting paragraph in Harvey Mansfield, Jr.’s introduction to his and Nathan Tarcov’s translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses.
“To answer the question of why Machiavelli felt it necessary to change ancient virtue, we return to the criticism of Christianity in which he blames it for creating ‘ambitious idleness’ (DI, pr. 2) and for being interpreted according to leisure and not virtue (DII, 2.2). Idleness, or leisure (as ozio can also be translated), is the contrary of virtue in Machiavelli’s view. For Aristotle, leisure (schole) was the very condition of the virtuous. Machiavelli directs his venomous criticism of idleness against not only the priests but also the gentlemen (DI, 55.4), who were bearers of worldly honor according to the ancients. Thus, it is not enough to recover the honor of the world against Christian humility if honor is still be found in high-minded leisure. Leisure makes republics either effeminate or divided, or both: the idle or the leisurely are included among the enemies of the human race. Machiavelli puts necessity over leisure as the concern of the legislator. He wants men to seek that worldly honor – or, better to say, glory – that is consistent with vigorous devotion to answering one’s necessities. However much ancient virtue and Christian virtue are divided over worldly honor, they are together in their high-minded rejection of motives arising from necessity and, in general, of the acquisitive life.” [xxxv-xxxvi]
There is a suggestion here that for Machiavelli, the ancients were too hedonistic as their embrace of the superiority of the leisurely life implies. For Aristotle, virtue is to be found in a life of leisure, not in a life of necessity, a life of acquisition, or a life devoted to the pursuit of glory. This implies that at least for the ancients, if not for Christians, pleasures such as contemplation define the peak of human potential. Gentlemen are not defined by lives of acquisition or by the pursuit of glory or fame, which is achieved through great political acts. And while gentlemen are not philosophers and so cannot enjoy the most intense pleasures available, their lives reflect the kind of life that is best, an essentially private life devoted to the enjoyment of the finer things of life, a life of “high-minded leisure.” For Machiavelli, such lives are effeminate, not manly, and, hence, are “among the enemies of the human race.” “Both [the ancients and Christianity] find the highest types – philosopher and saint – in one who puts the contemplative life over politics….” [xxxvi] In a material world, a world of matter, both of these arch types will prove to be dangerously weak, “and thus who could not be described as a ‘new prince,’ Machiavelli’s highest type.”