Machiavelli on Perception of the Past, Present

One of the best discussions of fondness of the past and condemnation of the present times was written by Machiavelli in his <i>Discourses</i>.

Men always praise the ancient times and find fault with the present, but not always with good reason; and they are such partisans of things past, that they celebrate not only that age which has been recalled to their memory by known writers, but those also which they remember having seen in their youth. And when this opinion of theirs is false, as it is most of the times, I am persuaded the reasons by which they are led to such deception are various. And the first I believe is that the whole truth which would bring out the infamy of those times, and they amplify and magnify those others that could bring forth their glory. Moreover, the greater number of writers so obey the fortune of the winners that, in order to make their victories glorious, they not only exaggerate that which is gotten by their own virtu, but they also exaggerate the actions of the enemies; so that whoever afterwards is born in either of the two provinces, both the victorious and the defeated ones, has cause to marvel at those men and times, and is forced summarily to praise and love them. In addition to this, men hating things either from fear or envy, these two reasons for hating past events come to be extinguished, as they are not able to offend or give cause for envy of them. But the contrary happens with those things that are in operation and are seen, which because you have a complete knowledge of them as they are not in any way hidden from you; and knowing the good together with the many other things which are displeasing to you, you are constrained to judge the present more inferior than the past, although in truth the present might merit much more of that glory and fame; I do not discuss matters pertaining to the arts, which shine so much by themselves, which time cannot take away or add a little more glory which they merit by themselves; but I speak of those matters pertinent to the lives and customs of men, of which such clear evidences are not seen.

I repeat, therefore, that the custom of praising and blaming as mentioned above is true, but it is not true that you err in doing it. For sometimes of necessity our judgment is the truth, as human affairs are always in motion, either ascending or descending. And we see a City or a Province well-organized in its government by some excellent man, and for a time always progressing toward the better through the virtu of that organizer. He who is born in that state, and praises the past more than the present, deceives himself; and his deception is caused by those things mentioned above. But if they are born in that City or province after the time when it has begun to descend to its bad times, then he does not deceive himself. And in thinking of how these things go on, I judge that the world has always been in the same condition, and that there is as much good as there is bad in it; but this bad and good vary from province to province, as is seen by the historian of those ancient Kingdoms which varied from one another because of the variations in customs, while the world remained the same: the only difference was, that where virtu first found a place in Assyria, it then to Media, afterwards to Persia, and from there came to Italy and Rome: and if after the Roman Empire no other Empire followed which endured, and where the world kept together all its virtu, none the less it is seen to be scattered in many nations where people lived with virtu, as it was in the Kingdom of the Franks, the Kingdom of the Turks, that of the Soldan (of Egypt), and today the people of Germany, and before then that Saracen Sect which accomplished such great things and occupied so much of the world after having destroyed the Eastern Roman Empire. In all these provinces, therefore, after the Romans fell, the Sects possessed, and yet possess in part, that virtu which is desired and lauded with true praise. And whoever is born in them and praises the times past more than the present, may deceive himself: but whoever is born in Italy and Greece, and has not become either an Ultramontane in Italy or a Turk in Greece, has reason to find fault with his times and to praise the others, for in the past there are many things that make him marvel, but now there is not anything that will compensate for the extreme misery, infamy, and disgrace in these times where there is no observance of religion, of laws, or of military discipline, but are stained by every brutish reasoning. And these vices are even more detestable as they exist more in those who sit in the tribunals, commanding everyone, and desiring to be adored.

But returning to our argument, I say that, if the judgment of men is corrupt in deciding whether the present or the ancient age is better, in those things where because of their antiquity they cannot have a perfect knowledge as they have of their own times, the old men ought not to corrupt themselves in judging the times of their youth and their old age, they having known and seen the latter and the former equally. Which thing would be true if men throughout all the periods of their lives had the same judgment and the same appetites. But as these vary, things cannot appear the same to those men who have other appetites, other delights, and other considerations in their old age than in their youth. For as men wane in strength but grow in judgment and prudence, so it is that those things which in their youth appeared supportable and good, will turn out unsupportable and bad, and where they ought to blame their judgment, they blame the times. In addition to this, human appetites being insatiable because by nature they have to be able to and want to desire everything, and to be able to effect little for themselves because of fortune, there arises a continuous discontent in the human mind, and a weariness of the things they possess; which makes them find fault with the present times, praise the past, and desire the future, although in doing this they are not moved by any reasonable cause. I do not know, therefore, whether I merit to be numbered among those who deceive themselves, if in these Discourses of mine I shall laud too much the times of the ancient Romans and censure ours. And truly, if the virtu that then reigned and the vice that now reigns should not be as clear as the Sun, I would be more restrained in talking, being apprehensive of falling into that deception of which I accuse others. But the matter being so manifest that everyone sees it, I shall be bold in saying openly that which I learned of those times and these, so that the minds of the young men who may read my writings can avoid the latter and imitate the of the former, whenever fortune should give them the opportunity. For it is the office of a good man to show others that good which because of the malignity of the times and of fortune, he has not been able to accomplish, so that some of those more loved by Heaven can accomplish them.

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