Dante and Machiavelli define opposite sides of the Renaissance in several ways. Certainly the former believes that God will reveal all and call people to account for their behavior, while the latter gives every sign of believing in no God and supposing that scrupulous behavior only makes one a target for ruthless exploitation. This difference in the two could be expressed in terms of religious faith—but they could also be said to have differing views of human nature.
Try to get to the heart of the distinction. Why is Machiavelli’s sense of right and wrong so opposed to Dante’s? Written two hundred years apart, The Inferno by Dante and The Prince by Machiavelli both contain examples of society during the late middle ages and also the beginning of the Renaissance. While not contemporaries, both men held similar cynical views towards human nature, but opposing views on social structure.
Dante believed that those with power were all destined to become corrupt while Machiavelli wrote that authority is necessary in order to maintain structure within the population. The Inferno, written as the first of three movements of The Divine Comedy, tells of one man’s journey into Hell with the help of Roman poet Virgil. As the two men journey through the nine circles of hell, Dante, or the Pilgrim, sees the souls of men and women and either feels pity or hatred, but most of all feels a sense of vengeance.
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In Dante’s hell, the punishment fits the crime. The lustful are forced to walk naked beside those of the opposite sex, the slothful are forced to reside at the bottom of the river Styx, and the soothsayers are forced to perpetually look back by having their necks twisted around. The Inferno is essentially a social commentary, exposing society’s true evils. In the eighth circle, simple fraud, were the simonists; those priests, popes, and bishops who, instead of revealing the glory of God, used their power to gain monetary wealth and fame.
Their punishment is being buried head first, the soles of their feet on fire. The Pilgrim sees Pope Nicholas III who asks him if he is Boniface, “Is that you here already upright? ” By including these popes in hell, Dante made clear his views on the leadership of the church and believed that the church had no control or right to control secular and civil matters. Dante also shows which sins he sees as the worst of sins, putting betrayers in the lowest circle of hell. Dante mploys some common sense while discussing hell, putting obvious sinners in the lower circles and prone to harsher punishments, but he also puts the not-so obvious sinners in hell.
Even though one may think he is doing the right thing, all motives are evaluated upon judgment and even a trace of selfishness or greed may threaten one’s chance in heaven. This is why Dante’s hell is rife with politicians and leaders. Although they may have the community’s best interests at heart, politicians become obsessed with fame and glory, often forgetting that they are representatives of the people.
In The Prince, Machiavelli explains what a good and successful prince should be like. He advocates a strong, cutthroat authority figure and encourages the winning of power by any means necessary. The main theme in The Prince is that mob rule is dangerous, for people know only what is good for themselves and not what is good for the whole. The common people, in Machiavelli’s view, “are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours”.
He believes that these commoners should be ruled absolutely, yet compassionately, in order to suppress any challenge to ruling power. The only founded political dissent should come from the nobles and even then, all should be done so as not to fester thoughts of revolution. While it seems as though Machiavelli was a power-hungry despot, The Prince was merely a reaction to what he saw as a necessary evil. Machiavelli was actually a strong supporter of the republic in which the people, the very people he describes as being uneducated and self-centered in his book, ruled over themselves.
In The Prince, he does give the common people credit, saying that, if a prince upsets them, they can take severe and dangerous action. “[The] best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people” (XX, 70). Machiavelli understood that no matter how much power a prince may have, he is always at the risk of losing it whether it be at the hands of the people or the hands of another prince. Also, because he was first a supporter of republic, he understood the need for certain “checks” to be put in place to safeguard against revolution and lack of popular support.
Machiavelli argues that, unless a prince’s subjects hate him, they will love him and follow him through any trouble that may beset the principality. In general, Machiavelli believes that a leader should be a true leader and rally the people behind his cause, even if that means killing off dissenters for the good of the whole. Although, upon first reading, The Prince seems to tell the tale of dictatorship and totalitarianism, it is much closer to modern democracy than some would like to believe and still is applicable to modern governments.
Representing two different ages and two (supposedly) different world views, The Inferno and The Prince are quite similar in that both see humanity as somewhat of an evil and ungrateful status. They differ, however, by their view of what should be done about the human condition. Dante believed that what is done in this life will be punished accordingly in the next life, and there is little to be done, for even the unbelievers are subject to God’s will by being trapped in limbo.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, didn’t believe in the afterlife and so thought that life should be lived here on earth and sin will be forgiven at death. This way, men can be free to strive for and obtain that which makes them happy, for the pious are buried just like the unbelievers. Ironically, The Prince is more optimistic than The Inferno, for Machiavelli stresses that, despite actions done on earth, all will be forgotten, for sin dies with the body.
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