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Chapter 22

That in matters of moment Men often judge amiss.

How falsely men often judge of things, they who are present at their deliberations have constant occasion to know. For in many matters, unless these deliberations be guided by men of great parts, the conclusions come to are certain to be wrong. And because in corrupt republics, and especially in quiet times, either through jealousy or from other like causes, men of great ability are often obliged to stand aloof, it follows that measures not good in themselves are by a common error judged to be good, or are promoted by those who seek public favour rather than the public advantage. Mistakes of this sort are found out afterwards in seasons of adversity, when recourse must be had to those persons who in peaceful times had been, as it were, forgotten, as shall hereafter in its proper place be more fully explained. Cases, moreover, arise in which those who have little experience of affairs are sure to be misled, from the matters with which they have to deal being attended by many deceptive appearances such as lead men to believe whatsoever they are minded to believe.

These remarks I make with reference to the false hopes which the Latins, after being defeated by the Romans, were led to form on the persuasion of their prætor Numitius, and also with reference to what was believed by many a few years ago, when Francis, king of France, came to recover Milan from the Swiss. For Francis of Angoulême, succeeding on the death of Louis XII. to the throne of France, and desiring to recover for that realm the Duchy of Milan, on which, some years before, the Swiss had seized at the instance of Pope Julius, sought for allies in Italy to second him in his attempt; and besides the Venetians, who had already been gained over by King Louis, endeavoured to secure the aid of the Florentines and Pope Leo X.; thinking that were he to succeed in getting these others to take part with him, his enterprise would be easier. For the forces of the Spanish king were then in Lombardy, and the army of the Emperor at Verona.

Pope Leo, however, did not fall in with the wishes of Francis, being, it is said, persuaded by his advisers that his best course was to stand neutral. For they urged that it was not for the advantage of the Church to have powerful strangers, whether French or Swiss, in Italy; but that to restore the country to its ancient freedom, it must be delivered from the yoke of both. And since to conquer both, whether singly or together, was impossible, it was to be desired that the one should overthrow the other, after which the Church with her friends might fall upon the victor. And it was averred that no better opportunity for carrying out this design could ever be found than then presented itself; for both the French and the Swiss were in the field; while the Pope had his troops in readiness to appear on the Lombard frontier and in the vicinity of the two armies, where, under colour of watching his own interests, he could easily keep them until the opposed hosts came to an engagement; when, as both armies were full of courage, their encounter might be expected to be a bloody one, and likely to leave the victor so weakened that it would be easy for the Pope to attack and defeat him; and so, to his own great glory, remain master of Lombardy and supreme throughout Italy.

How baseless this expectation was, was seen from the event. For the Swiss being routed after a protracted combat, the troops of the Pope and Spain, so far from venturing to attack the conqueror, prepared for flight; nor would flight have saved them, had not the humanity or indifference of the king withheld him from pursuing his victory, and disposed him to make terms with the Church.

The arguments put forward by the Pope's advisers had a certain show of reason in their favour, which looked at from a distance seemed plausible enough; but were in reality wholly contrary to truth; since it rarely happens that the captain who wins a victory loses any great number of his men, his loss being in battle only, and not in flight. For in the heat of battle, while men stand face to face, but few fall, chiefly because such combats do not last long; and even when they do last, and many of the victorious army are slain, so splendid is the reputation which attends a victory, and so great the terror it inspires, as far to outweigh any loss the victor suffers by the slaughter of his soldiers; so that an enemy who, trusting to find him weakened, should then venture to attack him, would soon be taught his mistake, unless strong enough to give him battle at any time, before his victory as well as after. For in that case he might, as fortune and valour should determine, either win or lose; though, even then, the army which had first fought and won would have an advantage. And this we know for a truth from what befell the Latins in consequence of the mistake made by Numitius their prætor, and their blindness in believing him. For when they had already suffered defeat at the hands of the Romans, Numitius caused it to be proclaimed throughout the whole country of Latium, that now was the time to fall upon the enemy, exhausted by a struggle in which they were victorious only in name, while in reality suffering all those ills which attend defeat, and who might easily be crushed by any fresh force brought against them. Whereupon the Latins believed him, and getting together a new army, were forthwith routed with such loss as always awaits those who listen to like counsels.

Niccolo Machiavelli

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