History, comedy and tragedy: Machiavelli and the renaissance of ancient virtue in the Christian world

Carly Grace Kinsella Riisager, Fordham University


This dissertation examines the claim that Machiavelli is the father of modern thought, understood as the denial of human limitations. Leo Strauss popularized this interpretation, arguing there is no tragedy in Machiavelli's thought and that Machiavelli is the evil genius of the modern corruption of religious belief. I argue, contrarily, there is room in Machiavelli for an account of man as creature of a creator God, an ensouled being, capable of gratitude and sin toward his maker. Machiavelli challenges Christian morality to accord better with the demands and promises of political liberty. I show that Strauss's prima facie reading of Machiavelli obscures the more complex mature relationship Strauss has with Machiavelli. Strauss's real objection is that Machiavelli's standard of human excellence remains within the horizons of politics. Machiavelli's apparently proud affirmation of man's ability to forge a perpetual republic appears to be a denial of human limitation. Yet, there are tensions between individual and corporate or collective political goods. Great men need cities and cities need great men, and they threaten each other in turn. The noble and virtuous sometimes lose. Ingratitude toward virtuous great men of even the most perfect republics cannot be escaped. The requirements of common freedom and prudent action, especially of punitive justice, exact a price. Machiavelli is ultimately of two minds on the possibility of eternal corporate political salvation. Machiavelli wrestles in minor literary works, including his Mandragola and Clizia, with the implications of the corruption that characterizes his contemporaries. He finds a natural standard of goodness that includes the responsibilities of citizenship in any city. However, fraternity, friendship, and a congruity between inner and outer selves, all characteristic of the ancient world, are sorely absent in his plays. A sense of the tragic persists as Machiavelli fails to supplement his new orders with the social goods associated with ancient orders: honor, fraternity, or friendship. Shakespeare's late comedies are considered for their affinity with the Machiavellian, and their insight and wisdom about political life. Shakespeare suggests a basis for human community that indisputably goes beyond the forces of an isolating, self-regarding individualism that emerge from Machiavelli's works.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy|Theater|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Kinsella Riisager, Carly Grace, "History, comedy and tragedy: Machiavelli and the renaissance of ancient virtue in the Christian world" (2005). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3182451.