When the Renaissance dawned over Europe’s Dark Ages, half a millennium of intellectual thought, long unchallenged, found new opponents on all sides. Aided by the printing press, fresh ideas in science, art, and religion spread freely across the Western World, falling under the scrutiny of an ever-expanding population of the literate. With this widespread intellectual excitement came greater individualism, more celebration of human achievement, and stronger focus on the secular world—a major shift from the heaven-focused outlook of the Middle Ages, in which people felt they were little more than the feeble playthings of fate. But are human beings really able to change their destinies through their choices? Are they capable of good? Three significant Renaissance writers—Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Luther—each provide an answer to these essential questions of the day.
Among the three, Machiavelli takes a unique position, writing from a purely secular point of view. Throughout his book The Prince, he champions human ability, describing how a would-be conqueror can use his skills, talents, and cunning to gain and keep power. Since each chapter in the book focuses almost exclusively on strategies and qualities that aspiring princes should use and develop, it is obvious that Machiavelli believes that human will, used carefully, is powerful enough to conquer something as significant as an empire. In Machiavelli’s view, no higher power—whether it be fate or God—has complete control over who governs. His shrewd, analytical, and completely irreligious point of view was actually rather radical for his time, since many people still believed in the divine right of kings.
Machiavelli, however, does acknowledge that it would be naïve to assume that princes, no matter how well they plan, are never affected by circumstances beyond their control. In Chapter XXV, entitled “How much power fortune has over human affairs, and how it should be resisted,” he writes, “I am not unaware that many have thought, and many still think, that the affairs of this world are so ruled by fortune and by God that the ability of men cannot control them…I am disposed to hold that fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, but that it lets us control roughly the other half” (Machiavelli 84-85). He then explains that with the proper preparation, fate can be held at bay, and he provides an example of a river that often floods. Although nothing can be done when the flood has already come, the calamity can be prevented altogether if dikes and dams are built up in strategic places beforehand (Machiavelli 85). In this chapter, he also mentions that, in general, men are successful when their methods are suited to the circumstances. Therefore, if a man can adapt to new situations by becoming flexible enough to know when his usual methods will not work, he will have more power to navigate changing affairs (Machiavelli 85-86).
The attitude presented in The Prince brings up an interesting paradox:...