By Elsa Costa

Giorgio Lizzul holds a PhD in History from King’s College London, an MA in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History from UCL and Queen Mary, and a BSc in Government and Economics from the LSE. He has been a research fellow on the ERC project “Aristotle in the Italian Vernacular” at the Department of Italian Studies, University of Warwick, and Teaching Fellow in Medieval European History at King’s College London. His research concerns the intersection of economic, political, and ethical thought with the financial institutions of medieval and Renaissance Italy. Currently he is reworking his thesis into a monograph entitled “Debt and the Republic: Economic Thought and Public Debt in Italy 1300–1550.”

Lizzul spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Liberality as a Fiscal Problem in Medieval and Renaissance Thought: A Genealogy from Aristotle’s Tyrant to Machiavelli’s Prince” (volume 83, issue 3).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this fascinating article. There was one subplot I found particularly interesting. I am accustomed to thinking about early modern debates over political expedience in terms of the debate over whether Machiavelli was immoral or whether he was perhaps onto something. Generally there’s a correlation between loyalty to Aristotle and dismissing Machiavelli as amoral, in other words as someone who inverts Aristotle’s political virtue ethics in service of cheap expediency. Yet here we see that there were also debates over whether Aristotle himself was a philosopher of expediency. Contemporaries of Machiavelli connected the latter’s financial expediency with Aristotle’s methods for keeping a tyranny on life support, and even before that Petrarch had speculated on the unvirtuous cynicism of Aristotle’s financial recommendations in this passage. As you explain, this was further complicated by the fact that Aristotle apparently only offered financial advice for tyrants, leaving it unclear whether the good king ought also practice oikonomia. Can you speak a little more on how contemporary readers perceived Machiavelli’s relationship with Aristotle, on the suspicions which recur in this article that Machiavelli was more Aristotelian or that Aristotle was more Machiavellian than we normally assume?

Giorgio Lizzul: Thank you. By way of answering your question on expediency and morality in Machiavelli’s thought and its relation to Aristotle, it might be useful to first briefly set out how I came to work on this article. As a side part of my doctoral research on debt and fiscality in Italian political thought between the fourteenth and early sixteenth century, I became interested in the intellectual exchanges between the Neapolitan Court and the d’Este court at Ferrara, and specifically the traffic of missives and memoranda that touched on economic topics around the time of the marriage of Eleonora d’Aragona, the daughter of King Ferrante I, to Ercole d’Este. The earlier 1444 letter of Borso and the Marquis Leonello d’Este to Ferrante’s father Alfonso in its advice to limit liberality, and its attitude toward expediency in the organization of the Neapolitan fisc, struck me as foreshadowing important aspects of Machiavellian political morality and specifically the advice in the Prince Chapter 16. This was of course a text unknown to Machiavelli. So, I was interested in exploring what could account for certain thematic similarities. Was the absence of citations to philosophical authorities and the expedient attitude to moral virtue symptomatic of a political culture found and developed in pragmatic and chancellery writings in the vernacular? If so, were there interfaces and interpenetration with political theory? An underexplored connection, to which lots of the concerns about expediency in fiscal writing could ultimately be traced, was the reception of Aristotle’s Politics Book 5 in texts such as the Secretum secretorum and Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum, as well as the commentary tradition. This part of the Politics and its traces in later texts was key for understanding where a problematization of liberality emerged, and how it shaped some of the formal framing of problems of public finance and moral philosophy in late medieval and Renaissance political thought. Working on the ERC project “Aristotle in the Italian Vernacular: Rethinking Renaissance and Early-Modern Intellectual History,” a project run between Cà Foscari and the University of Warwick, enabled me to explore this topic in greater depth.

So, to come back to your question on the connection between Aristotle and Machiavelli. It’s an old topic that has quite a venerable literature stretching from the very earliest reception of Machiavelli until the present day, including recent contributions from scholars such as Jean-Louis Fournel, David Lines, and Carlo Ginzburg. In Giuliano Procacci’s study of the reception of Machiavelli in European political culture the topic has been quite thoroughly mapped. Following the notoriety gained with his inclusion on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 and Innocent Gentillet’s later demonization of him following the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, Machiavelli was associated with defending tyranny and expediency. Ginzburg has argued that seventeenth-century attempts to rehabilitate Machiavelli by figures such as Kaspar Schoppe sought to underline Machiavelli’s adherence to Aristotle and the commentary tradition. Political amorality was argued to be shared character of the art of politics. Prior to his posthumous vilification and defense in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of Machiavelli’s acquaintances and contemporaries read him alongside Aristotle, seeing them as part of a shared enterprise of writing on political science, and perceived strong correspondences between aspects of their texts. Parallels between the morality of the Prince and Aristotle’s tyrant were not lost on them. This of course led to Machiavellian readings of Aristotle, or the reading of the Politics through the lens and problems of the Prince. Machiavelli was fed into attempts to make sense of Aristotle’s advice on the preservation of tyranny. This influenced the presentation of new translations and commentaries. For example, the Florentines Antonio Brucioli and Bernardo Segni’s Italian vernacular versions of the Politics felt the need to make clear that when discussing a tyrant’s simulation of good kingship, his gifting and spending on superfluities was not to be associated with curbing liberality but the avoidance of prodigality. This introduction of the vice of prodigality in a description of the tyrant had not been seen in the previous Latin translations and commentaries before Machiavelli’s Prince appeared and problematized the moral virtue of spending. Segni and other mid-sixteenth century commentators would note the parallels between the Aristotelian tyrant in the Politics and Ethics and Machiavelli’s prince. They also drew on Machiavelli’s examples to illustrate arguments within Aristotle’s political theory. Agostino Nifo would provide a notable case of an attempt to Aristotelize Machiavelli and harmonize the two in his Latin specula regis where he rewrote large parts of the Prince prior to the actual print publication in the 1530s. Although Nifo would drop many of Machiavelli’s most controversial arguments, he followed Machiavelli and an earlier tradition of reading Aristotle’s tyrant, that liberality was indeed troublesome for preserving kingdoms. With Machiavelli’s increased notoriety from the mid sixteenth century, his early reception and association with peripatetic philosophy was increasingly relaxed or dropped, especially in Italy.

I do not mean to create an Aristotelian Machiavelli or vice versa, or suggest that Machiavelli must be contextualized in a problem originating in Aristotle’s Politics—my intention wasn’t to suggest that Machiavelli was an Aristotelian, whatever such an identity would consist of in the early sixteenth century. I guess part of the question is: what is the nature of Aristotelianism in the Renaissance? Besides the application of ideas drawn explicitly from Aristotle and pseudo-Aristotelian texts, another fundamental aspect is an Aristotelian framework for approaching problems and organizing inquiry into them. One aspect of this I was specifically interested in was how an intellectual legacy unconsciously held could subtlety shape the formal presentation of arguments and ways of posing questions. So, in the article my aim was to emphasize how liberality came to be problematized in a series of texts shaped by the reception of Politics Book V.11’s discussion of tyrannical fiscality. The model of the tyrant’s oikonomic techniques was taken up and used by authors who did not always know its provenance. As I show in the article, for a variety of reasons certain practical fiscal recommendations from the thirteenth century came to either be disjoined from a discussion of virtue or vice (for example in extrapolating the tyrant’s economic techniques, such as limiting gifting and accounting, from the art of good kingship) and then newly problematized in relationship to virtue (as in the concern for “excessive liberality”).  Machiavelli’s discussion of taxation and liberality in chapter 16 of the Prince engaged with key elements of the inheritance of the fiscal concerns raised by Aristotle’s tyrant. Machiavelli never defends tyranny, but the connection with Aristotle’s tyrant is seen in the discussions of taxation and appearance. These parallels were not lost on those who accused him of defending tyranny. What was perhaps ignored by some of his critics was how expedient actions suited to circumstances could nonetheless be tied to higher moral ends. In Aristotle’s analysis of defective constitutions and how tyrannies are preserved, he demonstrates how expedient actions suited to circumstance can preserve rule and benefit subjects. For Aristotle the techniques of simulation of good kingship by a tyrant make the worst constitution less bad by reducing fear and hatred and incline his character toward virtue, or at least make him only half bad.

EC: To generalize a rich and complicated argument, you show here, among other things, that liberality was not generally considered a problematic virtue until the fourteenth or fifteenth century. I think it’s fascinating how you suggest toward the end (p. 382) that in Machiavelli the problematization of liberality is associated with a new valorization of martial virtue. This seems to be true of more writers than just Machiavelli: you see enormous anxiety over “excess” and “luxury” as contrary to martial virtue throughout the early modern period, across Western Europe. Do you think the early modern tendency to see military spending as the most crucial form of spending to achieve political stability could help explain why liberality came to be associated with excess?

GL: The primacy given to fiscal matters in political literature, I show in the article, simply came from the formal presentation and ordering of Aristotle’s recommendations to the tyrant who sought to preserve his regime through regal methods. This prioritization is also found in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, where it is among the first things a deliberative orator should have knowledge of and be able to give counsel on. In the pseudo-Aristotelian Book of Secrets and in Giles of Rome, this importance is undermined by the virtue of liberality, alongside a discussion of the relationship of this virtue with regard to the use of wealth for the defense and preservation of a kingship. So, there is certainly an Aristotelian tradition of statecraft that prioritized matters of revenue management for military expenditure. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, among the Italian states for example, it certainly becomes a commonplace of deliberative preambles and prefaces to provisions on military fiscal matters, as well as in civic chronicles, that there was a continuous fiscal crisis where ordinary revenues were inadequate for extraordinary expenditures. This required prioritization of fiscal policy. There is of course in part a socio-economic explanation for these discursive developments; however, the tendency for the growth of military expenditures certainly predated the fourteenth century. But as a broad generalization I think it is fair to say a concern for extraordinary finance comes to permeate political observations with greater ubiquity. However, I didn’t want to make the argument that liberality was problematized on the basis of new political fiscal dynamics that emerge with the fiscal contraction of the fourteenth century, not only because some of these dynamics were present in the earlier communal period, but also because part of what is so important was the vernacularization and translation of texts of moral philosophy and the lexical choices that had to be made. This opened philosophical texts to new readings that could be used at this specific juncture to frame and problematize fiscal dynamics. How to render liberality was a site of contention in this respect. Contemporary usages of liberalitas and largitas and their corresponding vernacular translation problematized where the stress of liberality lay: was it in a disposition of generosity to give or was it more the correct measure of expenditure and receipt. Liberality’s association with excess can of course be related to Aristotle’s suggestion that in being liberal it is better to err toward prodigality than avarice, since it is preferable to put wealth to use rather than to hoard. I don’t want to suggest the caution I describe in the article toward liberality became by any means a dominant way of treating liberality; it certainly didn’t in much moral and political philosophy. However its problematization becomes more frequent especially in texts touching upon taxation.

We can see how some of the issues raised by Aristotle’s tyrant and his impact on later writers intersected with the wider debates on excess and luxury. First of all, that a reputation for not spending on luxuries was expedient, since it avoided earning the hatred of subjects when they saw their wealth spent on morally decadent superfluities. So avoiding a reputation for spending on superfluous luxury was a technique to prevent sedition, yet it was also an important contribution to much debated question of whether it is better to keep the people poor and the treasury rich or to leave wealth with the people and not accumulate riches in a treasury. Of course, Machiavelli’s treatment of this topic would be informed by his reading of Roman historians such as Sallust and moralists such as Vegetius, where Rome’s martial virtue was negatively correlated with its citizens’ prosperity. This was a topic that had already been taken up by the scholastics, for example, we can find it in Aquinas’s portion of De regimine, as well as notably in the humanists of the fifteenth century, many of whom were concerned with how city-republics with a fundamentally mercantile character balanced a disposition toward money-making with defending their patria and liberty. What is interesting in the Aristotelian contributions to this debate is that there are dangers associated with funding a treasury and the power it could give those who seize it, and also that there is an illusory distinction in part of whether wealth is left in the people or accumulated in the fisc, since tyrannical power does not respect ownership. The medieval commentators would emphasize how wealth could be then seized when needed but were also careful to explain it ought to be accompanied by legitimation through appeal to higher ends such as the common good. These issues of fiscal sovereignty, property, and reputation would be taken up Machiavelli in a most striking way.

EC: It seems extraordinarily significant to me that Machiavelli is so comfortable with expropriation. The question of the expropriation of Church property, for example, arguably became the fundamental issue of the early modern era. Aristotle considers the tyrant to have possession of his subjects’ property, but does not specifically mention expropriation as a means toward stability (although he associates it with democratic excess). You mention that the medievals were not always averse to reading Aristotle’s prescriptions for extending tyranny as recommendations for competent rulership in general. What was the medieval attitude toward the monarch’s potential to appropriate his subjects’ lands into the royal demesnes?

GL: It would be hard to give a characterization of a general attitude and associated policies that were shared across medieval European polities with regard to appropriation and subsummation of subjects’ lands into royal demesnes. Also because of the very different ways in which wealth was extracted and utilized from demesnes. Local conditions effected the logic and efficacy of sale, leasing, resumption and retention, or growth of the demesne alongside the diversification and introduction of new forms of exaction as part of states’ fiscal strategies. Notwithstanding the developments that occurred with regard to the demesne’s contribution to the total revenues of the state over the course of the late Middle Ages and early modernity in the so-called move from a “domain state” to a “tax state,” it would be fair to underscore a shared character to much medieval and early modern monarchical political theory regarding it. Generally, for scholastic writers, such as Thomas of Aquinas and Giles of Rome, and humanists, such as Petrarch and Patrizi, and pragmatic-administrative writers such as Diomede Carafa, there was a strong advocacy for the retention of the royal demesne rather than any overtly explicit advocacy regarding expansion at the expense of subject’s land holding and property rights. These were to be respected with the exception of outlaws and rebels. The demesne, for many of these writers, enabled a prince’s self-reliance and its preservation. The ideal that a king should live off his own holdings became a staple of monarchical advice literature. Oikonomic writing in this context clearly had a political-economic character, as I try to show in the article. In much medieval political theory a large demesne enabled provision for military expenses and only when it was insufficient should extraordinary taxes be levied on subjects through appeal to emergency. Valorization of the demesne ran parallel to warnings against reliance on credit or instituting permeant direct taxation that could earn the hatred of subjects and could lead to sedition. We can see this caution regarding taxation in Aristotle’s tyrant and also in pseudo-Aristotle’s Rhetorica ad Alexandrum and later for example in the d’Este brothers’ warning against Alfonso’s use of the focatico. The Neapolitian Diomede Carafa when writing on management of the demesne stressed the importance of a prince managing his reputational image by using tax farmers for income collection. In mid fifteenth-century England, John Fortescue advised Edward IV on the resumption of crown lands and against selling any of the demesne as it reduced revenues and leads to the depopulation of the realm. In England we can see this prizing of the value of crown land in fiscal literature all the way back to Richard FitzNigel’s twelfth century Dialogue of the Exchequer, where he would hark back to the time of the Conquest when a king was able to live off his own demesne. This importance given to the demesne can also be seen in the early modern period. If we fast forward to Jean Bodin, the public demesne ought to be inviolable and never alienated. Its preservation would avoid burdening subjects with imposts or the need to confiscate their property. To come to your other point with regard to Church property, its vast wealth made it a keen focus for fiscal systems seeking new sources of revenue. The Reformation was key in changing rulers’ relationships with subjects’ property and see would see huge increases of revenue from ecclesiastical expropriation; however, there were many notable prior attempts before the sixteenth century to harness Church wealth. For example, in Florence the often-cited case of the War of the Eight Saints in the late fourteenth century where the clergy were targeted with forced loans and church property was sold to finance its war with the Papacy.

Machiavelli praised the virtue of the Eight Saints (the name given to the Florentine war council), for having served their patria rather than their souls by despoiling the Church of its possessions. The wealth of the clergy, however, could also be tapped in to through other means than expropriation, for example, in the city-states by seeking their participation in civic credit through forced loans or voluntary investment to secure perpetual endowments. Machiavelli’s statements on expropriation were in part so controversial because he is promoting being a liberal user of wealth derived from the property of others. Aristotle and Cicero explicitly argued giving from the property of others was not generosity but the mark of tyranny. It is interesting to note in the Prince and the above example drawn from his Florentine Histories the targets of expropriation are conquered enemies and the Church, so in certain ways external to the political community. However, like many medieval writers who came before him, Machiavelli was not promoting an unrestrained use of the power to exact. What limits how much a prince taxes is a Prince’s estimation of how much it tarnishes his reputation and his ability to preserve his regime. Machiavelli looks to a model of redistribution that in part he draws from the examples he found in Roman history, but also a model provided by the Aristotelian tyrant, who need not overaccumulate, since his power is in effect a sign that his subjects do not enjoy an unlimited right or capacity to preserve their own wealth.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, and the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy and political thought.

Featured image: “He took great pains in going from bush to bush until every individual flower and bud and even the worms at the heart of some of them were changed gold,” illustration of King Midas by Arthur Rackham, from A Wonder Book, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.