Cassirer, Nietzsche and Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince
When the word "Renaissance" is mentioned, an image of love for antiquity learning and fine arts usually springs to one's mind. Yet this perception, however legitimate it may be in many areas of Renaissance human achievements, shatters in the face of Niccolò Machiavelli's masterpiece The Prince. Unlike his contemporary Baldassare Castiglione who exemplified subtlety, Machiavelli was ruthlessly practical, nonchalantly callous, and admirably seamless in his logics about the bloody art of political power.
By all accounts The Prince, is a handbook on the acquisition and maintenance of political power. Neither can it be argued any otherwise, like Ernest Cassirer has acknowledged in his commentary "New Theory of the State", that "Machiavelli has no scruples about recommending to the ruler all things of deception, of perfidy, and cruelty." (p157, "New Theory of the State") Yet in the realm of Machiavellism, a very distinctive line must be drawn between using evil to achieve power and using it for its own sake. The Prince preached the first form of use. To Cassirer, Machiavelli much resembled a fascinated chess strategist, not concerned with who the players were but purely how the games were played out—how each step, when stripped of the useless morality, added to the grand game. His personal sentiments and beliefs could not affect his analysis of the intrigues, thus there is no room for moral principles in The Prince.
Cassirer, however, also points out that while Machiavelli did by no means object to the use of evil, he did not create Machiavellism as the world knows it: Machiavelli had no more invented the practice of cruelty and treachery amongst political rulers than the ancient gravediggers had fathered death. In the pre-Prince world the crimes were done, even though they were not taught. (p164, "New Theory of the State") The keen observer that was Machiavelli merely organized and publicized the thoughts that once were only whispered amongst the political elites.
However, while The Prince can hardly be convicted of being a product of malice, what the readers cannot forget is that Machiavelli based his Political Ruler 101 on his fundamental and unshakable personal philosophical conviction that men are inherently self-serving. Cassirer recognizes Machiavelli for his cynical side: "we shall never understand [man] as long as we are suffering from the illusion of his 'original goodness'" (p163, "New Theory of the State"). Much like Thomas More who had the fictional More and Raphael Hythloday—two halves of his same philosophical self—arguing about the practicality of an ideal society in Utopia, Ernest Cassirer attempted to draw a distinction between Machiavelli the idealist who cherished dreams of a Republic and Machiavelli the pragmatist who was necessarily pessimistic about the natures of human and politics alike. The liberal Machiavelli ventured that "the aim of the common people is...