In about the mid fifteenth century Renaissance humanism began to influence scholars in Europe. Humanism changed the way people looked at the world. The humanist thinker realized that Europe needed political, economical and social changes to stabilize a society that had been exploited by the feudal lords and monastic orders. Machiavelli is the most famous humanist writer. In “The Prince”, “Machiavelli discusses politics in relation to things outside politics.”[i] Bernal Diaz (1496-1584) was a conquistador who wrote an eye witness account of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards under Hernan Cortez. Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590) of the Franciscan order, born in Sahagún around the year 1499; wrote an account of the conquest through the eyes of the indigenous people. Machiavelli, Bernal Diaz and Fray Bernardino De Sahugun are writers of the Renaissance period who handle issues of conquest, albeit in very different ways, and from different angles. The intent of this paper is to show how and why they differ.
“Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician poet and play-writer. He is a figure of the Italian Renaissance and a central figure of its political components.”[ii] Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine Militia in defense of the city. In 1513 he was arrested, tortured and exiled
from the city. During this exile, Machiavelli took to writing, and his most renowned work
“The Prince” was produced. The book details how a prince can retain control of his realm. Machiavelli wrote this book in hopes of gaining political work in Florence again. The style he uses in the text is philosophical and almost poetic. This book is written for powerful leaders and very educated rich young men. In the 16th century Italy only the rich and aristocratic could afford to speak and read Latin which was the language that The Prince was written in.
The historical significance of the writings of Machiavelli lies in his attacks on the medieval Catholic Church. He hints at rebellion against the old regime. An example of this can be found in the section titled ‘Ecclesiastical Principalities.’ Machiavelli states that they are acquired either by virtue or by fortune, and are maintained without the one or the other, for they are sustained by orders that have grown old with religion” [iii] One of the qualities of a humanist is the ability to analyze the doctrines of the church and to denounce the superstitious practices. Machiavelli was a writer who hated the fact that the Catholic Church would ban anything new or foreign. The author did not believe in the church’s definition of good and evil. He believed in faith and common sense. A leader could do cruel things and be still loved and admired by his subjects. In chapter xvii Machiavelli states “it is better to be loved than feared.” Cesare Borgia was reputedly cruel, yet his cruelty restored Romagna, united it, and brought it to order and obedience. Machiavelli is an agnostic who thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned, or if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time. Thus Machiavelli writing is a source of inspiration for future conquerors of the world.
The soldier Bernal Diaz came to New Spain in search of wealth. Upon taking a job with Cortez he witnessed mass starvation in Cuba. In 1568 he began writing a journal titled the “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.” In it he describes many of the 119 battles which he claims to have participated in culminating in the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. As a reward for his service, Díaz was appointed governor of Santiago de los Caballeros, present-day Antigua Guatemala. The novel reads like an historical biography. It is a biography because Bernal Diaz was an eye witness account of the conquest of the indigenous people along with his captain Hernando Cortez. The journal is written in Spanish and the author clearly takes the side of the conquistadors. We have evidence of this in his letter to Charles V, in which Cortez talks about disregarding the governor is orders to return, preferring instead to press on, in search of abundance of wealth for Spain. He is very enthusiastic and he reports that his crew is behind him. This book was written out of admiration for Hernando Cortez, unlike the works of Machiavelli, it is unlikely that it was written for financial gain since Hernal Diaz was a wealthy retired governor when he started writing this journal. The intent of the writer could have been to clear the name of his captain and fellow conquistadors who have been blamed by English writers and historians of the time, of terrible atrocities committed to Indian women and children.
The desire of rulers for wealth, power and conquest is the key to 16th century thinking. Fray Bernardino De Sahagun tells a story of the desire of the Roman Catholic church for conquest of new souls. Fray Bernardino is a Franciscan monk who comes to Mexico City to work in the convent and colleges. He soon recruits the native people to translate their account of the conquest. He does this because he realizes that these people have their own language and own story to tell. This story is different because you learn more of the indigenous people and a lot about their culture. The narrator tells you the history of the Nahua and how they came to Mexico City. Moreover we also get a glimpse of how sophisticated and large the capital was. It was the second largest city in the world at the time of the conquest. The story is translated from Nahua to Latin. He talks about the Indian art work and the many books destroyed by the conquistadors.
Fray Bernardino is possibly petitioning the church for more priests and he is enthusiastic that the natives represent a culture that could quickly adapt to Catholicism. The beauty of the Nahua people is their culture which was the finest in indigenous art, mythology and the gift of the psychics. Fray Bernardino realized that these people were very intelligent and could learn Spanish culture very quickly. They were more than savages who had lost their lands to the Spanish kingdom.
In the “Codex Florentina” the Indians describe the conquistadors in the following words. “The stags came forward carrying soldiers on their backs. The soldiers wore cotton armor. They bore their leather shields and iron spears in hand, but the swords hung down from the necks of the stag”. The native people had never seen a man on a horse. These people were the white skinned gods who had vowed to return to Mexico City.
Although historians portray Moctezuma as the absolute ruler of a vast empire, the Nahua account of the great king reveals him as insecure, indecisive and superstitious. The native people describe that befriending the Europeans was necessary because the Aztec were so cruel.
In conclusion all three works are excellent sources of learning but “The Prince” which is based on fiction, is a more powerful and meaningful piece of literature. Allegorically speaking the works of Machiavelli is classical humorist prose at its finest.
THE PRINCE Niccolo Machiavelli A New Translation with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr
[i] “The Prince”, “Machiavelli discusses politics in relation to things outside politics.”[i] Pg.vii
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli Pg. 1st paragraph
[ii] Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician poet and play-writer.
figure of the Italian Renaissance and a central figure of its political components
[iii] Machiavelli states they are acquired either by virtue or by fortune and are maintained without the one or
the other, for they are sustained by orders that have grown old with religion