Political Theory and Social Commentary

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Niccoló Machiavelli’s The Prince served as a major inspiration for Early Modern leaders. He believed that the job of a ruler (a prince) was to preserve order by any means necessary. He believed that coercion and strong-arming the population were par for the course for an effective ruler, as long as the end result was the increased strength of the state. He described virtú, which included the ability to change the world to align with one’s personal beliefs. Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia, who ruthlessly built a state in central Italy. Machiavelli admired many Early Modern leaders and served as an inspiration for many more.

The Early Modern period saw the evolution of both absolutism and constitutional monarchy. Religion played an important role in both the development and understanding of political philosophy, and it fueled the political and social debates between Catholics and Protestants during this era. One set of general beliefs during the beginning of the Early Modern period was that governments either needed to be republics or to be ruled by enlightened philosopher-kings. Regardless of the form of government under discussion, God was somehow involved in politics. One of the most widely known political tomes of this era is Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which Machiavelli describes the necessity for humanist government in which the ruler did anything possible to preserve order. The leadership of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain exemplifies this type of government.


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Desiderius Erasmus is often considered a pinnacle of Renaissance humanism and represents the spread of humanism to Northern Europe. He self-identified as a citizen of an international republic of letters, and he definitely existed as a citizen of Europe rather than as a citizen of one country. He collected adages and is known as the first author to make a living only from his writings. This was greatly assisted by increased use of printing to disseminate and sell his works, as well as his status as a courtier to many European leaders. Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly insists on the follies of religious practices and depicted modern society as played out on a stage. Erasmus was highly critical of the Catholic Church, but sought to reform it from the inside rather than through an external movement like Luther’s.

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Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier is an important account of the experiences of Renaissance court life. It describes the ideal qualities of a male courtier and the perfect lady. The book represents the Renaissance and Early Modern focus on personal propriety and morality. Throughout the Early Modern period, Europeans were increasingly offended by and divided over issues of morality, exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation and re-assertion of religious morality. The Book of the Courtier exemplifies the Early Modern desire for distinct social norms and rules of propriety as well as the importance of the behavior of courtiers in courtly life.