The author of that Renaissance masterpiece has wrongly become a byword for amoral pragmatism in politics; but the truth is very different, William Connell claimed. Machiavelli, like his contemporaries More and Erasmus, was an enlightened humanist. His masterpiece should be read as a humorous guidebook for a would-be ruler.

Drawing from archival research, Connell unveiled how Machiavelli, More and Erasmus were ‘in conversation’—and suggested that More wrote his Utopia in direct response to a passage in The Prince. The Northern and Southern humanist movements were not as separate as scholars tend to portray.

It has always been known that Erasmus and More were good friends and have influenced each other’s reflections. But could Machiavelli have also impacted their writings? According to Connell, it is fairly plausible. In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote about “many imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to truth”. Considering that The Prince was written before More’sUtopia, we could speculate that More’s book may have been replying to this particular passage. Additionally, Utopia’s advice to princes, mercenaries, counsellors and militias holds strong similarities with the suggestions put forward by the Florentine thinker. Furthermore it is also probable that Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince was influenced by The Prince, as there seems to be an odd parallel in the order of chapters in the two books. Machiavelli himself may have been a keen reader of Erasmus and More. Again going back to a passage from The Prince his ‘Discourses and the Art of War’ seem to reply directly to Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and More’s Utopia.

Connell’s research went much further than trying to pitch point similarities between texts. By scrutinising the correspondence and analysing various relationships of the philosophers; he concluded that “there was in existence a more definite network for the transmission of ideas” probably based on common acquaintances. In fact, even though we know almost nothing about Erasmus’s stay in Florence, it seems that during that time he became friends with Giampiero Machiavelli, a close relative of Niccolo Machiavelli. When Giampiero became a tutor and travelled to England, then Flanders and Holland, he was well aware of the writing of The Prince and visited Erasmus. Once again it is fairly possible that they exchanged ideas and thoughts; particularly considering that Erasmus’s writings published after Giampiero’s visit to Holland seem to put Machiavelli’s treatise “in context”.

Connell’s analysis sheds light on the sort of networks that existed during the Renaissance, and how the northern and southern humanists joined in a collective critique of contemporary society that was more radical than is usually acknowledged. 

In the discussion that followed, participants explored the lasting impact of these seminal works on modern day revolutions and political movements across the globe.

This event was hosted by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

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Podcast—The 'Real' Machiavelli, with William Connell

About the Speaker

William J. Connell is Professor of History and holder of the Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta Chair in Italian Studies at Seton Hall University (USA). He has published numerous books and articles on the Italian Renaissance and on late medieval and early modern European history. His translation of The Prince (with Palgrave in the UK) has become a standard, and he is currently working on two Machiavelli projects for Cambridge UP. Since 1992 he has been secretary of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, an I Tatti Fellow and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 2012 he gave the opening lecture at the Legatum Institute’s Summer School in Montalcino, Italy.

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This series offers a progress report on the idea of freedom. The history of the developed west has been shaped by the increased degree of freedom exercised by individuals who have been able to escape the constraints that prevailed in the past. The programme's lecturers will be drawing conclusions from the study of the past while also seeking to find ways of removing the obstacles to freedom’s progress. More information is available here.