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Duality in Discourse: A Critique of Humanism in Prince and Utopia

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Upon wreaking havoc upon collectivist paradigms of Medieval Ages, humanism with its androcentric emphasis occasioned civilizations to undergo a sense of “rebirth” to the ideal. However, when intermingled with topical dynamics, the means leading to the ideal essence unequivocally shifts as can be seen in Thomas More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Within this frame, albeit the incentive is steadfast, that is, marking a break from corrupted medieval practices under the banner of humanism, the substructures of their ideal societies differ diametrically. It is my conviction that their understanding of Humanism can be compared in their treatment towards civic individuals per se. In this sense, I will mostly focus on Machiavelli’s “fear” and More’s “peace” along with their contextual influences that will be mentioned.

First of all, I believe the rationale behind Machiavelli’s penning down Prince merits some attention here in that historical and political milieu shaped the understanding of Machiavelli’s perception of ideal society.

As Harris Harbirson states, Machiavelli was the progeny of social tension doubly fuelled by dissolution of medieval respublica christiana (Machiavelli’s Prince and More’s Utopia 44). Catapulted into political tension among a patchwork of city-states, Machiavelli formulated a specula principis highlighting theoretical excellency presented by an ideal prince, by a monarch in a realistic manner. Thusly, he deals with political issues “not in accordance with lofty ideals, but as they actually were”, which can be accorded with his incentive in pursuit of utile[1] (Edward Burns, Western Civilizations 365). Leaning upon utile, Machiavelli opines that a prince should be feared rather than loved since “men are a sorry breed”, and thus do not appreciate the tie woven by love in presence of private interests (44). Fear, indeed, becomes an objectifier par excellence by building an elliptical firm structure around individuals to jettison any liquid liberation. As a modern reader, given the very elements, I daresay Machiavelli saw individuals berefting of static perfection as abjects. Since abject is “what disturbs…system, order”, even the ideal society per se (Julia Kristeva 4). In this sense, Machiavelli further asserts that a Prince needs such reputation of cruelty, without which “no army can be held together” (44). So, while espousing fear as sine-qua-non, Machiavelli, at some point, eschews any means for civic individuals to disturb order, even the exponential progress, and retains robust system intact via fear, as Kristeva expounds on establishing “civilizations” (12-3)[2]. Because resorting to an ideal single body is doctrinally coterminous with displacement of civic individual emphasis.

However, More’s apotheotic words form a dichotomic attitude to that of Machiavelli internalizes: “If a king should fall under such contempt…that he could not keep his subjects in their duty but by oppression and ill usage…it were certainly better for him to quit” (40). It would not be farfetched to state that More does not see individuals, that is, subjects, as abjects to be oppressed by fear in optimus status rei publicae. Utopa is “humane and civilized in spirit” where “power could be…tamed by righteousness” and peace is intrinsically promulgated (E. Harris Harbison 63). Beyond any doubt that, then, More is an ideologue of innate-goodness. To put succinctly, Utopians have no law, only their philosophies “teach[ing] a man with propriety and decency” (42). In this sense, unlike Machiavelli, More evinces congruence with civic individuals with their “moral choices”, as further reinforced on the following page (43). One may ask: why does More condone individual “errors” in his imago? It may be because of the fact that, as Harbison Further asserts, the Utopia has already reached a plateau, a collective static psyche (61). Although More introduces a prince and a sense of panoptic state reverberating itself from marriage into social life, there, still, does not exist as strict stipulation burdened upon individuals as Prince lays foundations of. There is, indeed, a concession of stipulation, a sense of uniformity in terms of actions.

Besides, though presenting a prince, More assiduously circumvents an ultimate form of control of monarchy via primus inter pares, substantially undergirding, as James Hankins puts, a firm justice in favour of commonwealths as More personally upholds (Humanism and Modern Political Thought 137). Consequently, although taking their incentives from the humanist concept of ideal society that is free from the yokes of so-called dark ages, their means, as understood, unequivocally differ in terms of their attitude towards civic individuals. That is to say, whilst Machiavelli imbues a single monarch with “ideal” essences and thus eschews civic individual lineaments via fear; More, on the other hand, painstakingly engenders a peaceful land upon time and space, upon immaginazione, in which civic individuals could perform some sense of liquid liberation as in their nature (87).


[1] “Since my purpose is to write something useful [utile] to him who comprehends it, I have decided that I must concern myself with the truth of the matter without any fanciful notion [immaginazione]”.

[2] Although tracing such concept in the archaic memory, I believe Kristeva’s statement can be adaptable to Machiavelli’s removal of civic individual emphasis in order to establish his ultimate system: “ …by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism” (12-3).

Works Cited

Burns, Edward Mcnall. “The Civilization of the Renaissance: In Italy.” Western Civilizations, 8th ed., vol. 1, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1973, pp. 343–72.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York:                           Columbia UP, 1982.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Planet eBook, 2020,

Harbison, E. Harris. “Machiavelli’s Prince and More’s Utopia.” Facets of the Renaissance, edited by William Henry Werkmeister, New York, Books for Libraries Press, 1971, pp. 41-71.

Hankins, James. “Humanism and the origins of modern political thought.” The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, edited by Jill Kraye, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 118-141.

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