A Tale of Two Philosophers: Galileo Galilei and Niccolo Machiavelli

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Philosophy toward the end of the medieval period started to move away from the mainly theological and toward the mainly logical and rational even though there were still hints of theological philosophy. Two very different philosophers during this time had an impact on philosophy that would continue to affect generation of thinkers, scientists, theologians and philosophers to come. These philosophers were Galileo Galilei and Niccolò Machiavelli. Galileo and Machiavelli were two very different philosophers who had different ideas about what constituted as philosophy.

Galileo felt that he was more of a mathematician and scientist then a philosopher even though science and math were influencing philosophy more and more at this time. At the same time Machiavelli did not consider himself a philosopher at all. Machiavelli was “known primarily for his political ideas” (Honeycutt). Based on their unique backgrounds both Galileo and Machiavelli advanced philosophy in different ways, Galileo advanced philosophy into the mathematical and science realm while Machiavelli advanced philosophy into the political realm.

Galileo Galilei was born the day after valentine’s day on February 15, 1564 in Pisa and he died on January 8, 1642. According to Honeycutt Galileo “has always played a key role in any history of science and, in many histories of philosophy, he is a, if not the, central figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th Century” (Honeycutt). Even though his life was not an easy one his work in mathematics and the sciences still cause “debate after over 400 years” (Honeycutt).

Throughout his life he created the telescope, made advances in mathematics, science and philosophy as well as wrote a bunch of discourses on his experiments. He also did not get married but had children with Marina Gamba. They had three children, two daughters and one son. When Galileo was about eight years old his family moved to Florence. While there he started to study as a priest then decided to go to the University of Pisa for a medical degree. While studying for this degree he left the University to study mathematics with Ostilio Ricci, the Tuscan court mathematician. He eventually ended up becoming the chair of mathematics in Pisa.

In the early 1600’s Galileo started working on his telescope and wrote and published his first document called The Starry Messenger. After he finished his telescope, he discovered mountains on the moon and the moons of Jupiter. These he named after the Medici family due to the fact that one of his favorite students that he taught was a Medici. Shortly thereafter he went back to the University of Pisa as a Mathematician and became the Philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. His first discourse was published in 1612 and was about floating bodies and another a year later about sunspots. This later discourse is what started him on the road to having troubles with the church as in this discourse is when he stated his position as in favor of Copernicus and his studies. In 1623 he published another document. This one was called The Assayer and it was about comets.

The most important comment in this book according to Honeycutt was that Galileo claimed that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics” (Honeycutt). His second to last work was his Dialogues about the Two Great World Systems which was published in 1632. After publishing this he was under house arrest where he worked on and published his last book which was the Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations concerning Two New Sciences. This was the last work that Galileo created before his death in early 1642. While Galileo’s life was full of discovery and experiments these ultimately led to his philosophy advances in science, which was not even a thing until Galileo, and math.

In 1611 due to Galileo’s telescopic observations he became a member of the Academia dei Lincei which according to Machamer “is perhaps the first scientific society” (Machamer). Galileo’s philosophy mainly revolves around mathematics and its application to science and experimentation. Machamer describes Galileo as being “known for defending and making popular the Copernican system, using the telescope to examine the heavens, inventing the microscope, dropping stones from towers and masts, playing with pendula and clocks, being the first ‘real’ experimental scientist, advocating the relativity of motion, and creating a mathematical physics” (Machamer). While this is all true it is somewhat of an oversimplification of everything Galileo did not only for philosophy but also for science and mathematics.

Galileo’s philosophy revolves around trying to find a new way to pursue natural philosophy while incorporating math since he believed that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics” (Honeycutt). He spent his life working on various aspects of this idea. He was trying to replace Aristotle’s categories with ones that made sense to him and that he could categorically see and test. This is shown when he replaced Aristotle’s five elements (aether, fire, air, water and earth) and their “directional natures of motion (circular, and up and down” with his own (Honeycutt). His own element was corporeal only and the directional natures of motion were replaced by mathematical ways of looking at motion by using Archimedean tools which were the balance, the inclined plane, the lever, and, the pendulum. He came up with the idea od one element and it being corporeal once he realized that the mountains on the moon were just like the mountains on Earth and this is when he realized that everything was made out of one matter.

According to Helden, Galileo’s “insistence that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics changed natural philosophy from a verbal, qualitative account to a mathematical one in which experimentation became a recognized method for discovering the facts of nature” (Helden). He discovered sunspots, created the microscope, perfected the telescope, discovered four of Jupiter’s moons as well as the rings of Saturn, discovered that Venus goes thru phases just like the moon, according to Helden he discovered and created the “formulation of (circular) inertia, the law of falling bodies, and parabolic trajectories” (Helden). Galileo was known for his experiments and dropping things from random heights and different areas in and around Pisa. Galileo’s biographer disclosed that at one time he “demonstrated, by dropping bodies of different weights from the top of the famous Leaning Tower” (Helden). He studied acceleration along an inclined plane in his pursuit of his ‘law of falling bodies’ and inertia.

By simplifying Aristotle’s elements and their movements Galileo was trying to find a theory of matter that covers everything and can be explained by mathematics. This is what he was trying to do his whole life. This was his philosophy and what everything he did revolved around. Sometimes he went off on tangents such as with the telescope but he eventually brought it all back around to this idea. Machiavelli who was born before Galileo was another philosopher whose own unique life skewed his personal philosophy but instead of focusing on math and science, he concentrated instead on politics.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, Italy. He died on June 21, 1527. He was influenced by Greek authors such as Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Polybius, Plutarch, and Ptolemy he was also influenced by Latin authors such as Plautus, Terence, Caesar, Cicero, Sallust, Virgil, Lucretius, Tibullus, Ovid, Seneca, Tacitus, Priscian, Macrobius, and Livy. According to Honeycutt his “favorite Italian authors were Dante and Petrarch” (Honeycutt). In 1501 he got married to Marietta di Ludovico Corsini had eight kids. Two of them died young the ones who survived were Bernardo, Baccina, Ludovico, Piero, Guido, and Totto.

About a year after his marriage he started working with Leonardo Di Vinci on different projects. One of these projects was to try and redirect the Arno river away from the town of Pisa. After the Medici took control of Florence, Italy he was wrongly accused of conspiring against them and imprisoned and tortured for twenty-two days. After he was released, he retired to his family house.

During this time, he started work on the book that he became well-known for called The Prince. This book was not published during his lifetime, it was finally published in 1532, five years after his death. Also, during this time, he wrote his other well-known novel called The Discourses of Livy. According to Nederman it was “an exposition of the principles of republican rule masquerading as a commentary on the work of the famous historian of the Roman Republic” (Nederman). This book was also published after Machiavelli’s death in 1531. His enforced retirement leant him time to continue his writings in other areas as well as the two discussed novels above.

During this time, he wrote poetry and plays including “his most famous play, Mandragola” (Honeycutt). Around 1520 he published Art of War and other works such as various biographies and histories. Toward the end of his life he was starting to get back into the good graces of the Medici’s. He was even commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de ‘Medici to write a history of Florence in 1525. He did finish this history before his death and presented it to the Cardinal who had become Pope Clement VII by this time. However, he was not able to do more besides that due to his death on June 21, 1527. Machiavelli’s contribution toward philosophy was in political philosophy including virtues.

Machiavelli’s political philosophy revolves around a philosophy for rulers and how they should act including the morals and virtues they should have, cultivate and also those that they should not have and should try and leave behind if they do have them. Nederman points out the fact that even though “Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy” he still contributed to a number of important aspects of philosophy including political philosophy, history and warfare.

Machiavelli’s most fundamental political idea is virtue. First off it should be understood that Machiavelli’s idea of virtue is not necessarily a moral one like the virtue that is known in religious aspects. According to Honeycutt “Machiavellian virtue concerns the capacity to shape things and is a combination of self-reliance, self-assertion, self-discipline, and self-knowledge” (Honeycutt). Machiavelli refers to self-reliance in two different aspects. The first one refers to ‘one’s own arms’ which he literally refers to one’s troops. It can also mean what belongs to one.

By this he is referring to relying on one’s self and not anything or anyone outside of your own possessions and or self. Pretty much Machiavelli may mean to be self-reliant in all aspects of one’s life. When it comes to self-assertion Machiavelli believes that “his readers should think of war always, especially in times of peace; never to fail to see the oncoming storm in the midst of calm; and to beware of Fortune, who is like “one of those raging rivers” that destroys everything in its path” (Honeycutt). He believes that leaders should always be on the move and relentless when it comes to protecting what is in their purview no matter the consequences.

Self-discipline, to Machiavelli, means that a leader or ruler must recognize their own limitations and be able to work within those limitations whether they are personal or social including knowing what is right or wrong. The last part of virtue that Machiavelli talks about is self-knowledge. This means to know one’s capabilities and being able to be flexible in any situation. Honeycutt sums up the entirety of virtue according to Machiavelli when he says that “What it means to be virtuous involves understanding ourselves and our place in the cosmos” (Honeycutt). This understanding is what connects most of his ideas together including virtue, fortune, necessity and nature.

Fortune is Machiavelli’s second most fundamental political idea. He always talks about his two fundamental ideas in opposition to one another. He has also been known to suggest that virtue might even be able to control fortune at times. Opposing that thought though he has also suggested that fortune cannot be opposed. Fortune can also refer to what belongs to someone else or relies upon someone or something else. An example of this would be relying on God to improve one’s luck.

Nature is the next Machiavellian political philosophical idea. He does not seem to relate it to nature as in the world around us but more to the nature of human beings. Due to how he sees human beings it seems to mean more instability then anything else since he sees human nature as always changing. He has also opposed this and stated that human nature is the same over time thus nature refers to stability. In order to understand more about how he relates to nature one must understand how he sees human beings.

Machiavelli thinks that human beings are greedy for both things and food, they always want new things because of this they are materialistic, they are vulnerable to trickery and lies, and are themselves liars and in general are ungrateful. They judge other human beings by appearances, they have little fore-thought but are great dreamers. They hate and envy things and people that they do not understand and are very controllable through fear. According to Honeycutt, Machiavelli’s final point on human beings is that they “do not know how to be either altogether bad or altogether good; are more prone to evil than to good; and will always turn out to be bad unless made good by necessity” (Honeycutt).

Not only was Machiavelli a philosopher but he was also one of the few philosophers who was also a historian. Due to the fact that he was interested in human nature and human affairs it seems only natural that he also looks at human nature and affairs throughout history. He wrote several historical histories which include the Florentine history that was commissioned by the Medicis. Due to the fact that Machiavelli believes that human nature does not change it is difficult to figure out from his works if he thought that time ran in a straight line or if it was cyclical.

Another idea that Machiavelli thought was important to mention was necessity. When he talks about necessity, he seems to talk about it like an action or idea is not able to be avoided. At other times he seems to use it in the sense of choosing the lesser of two evils. He offers up necessity as something that a leader may have to submit themselves to but does offer hope. He seems to imply that it is possible to alter necessity itself at times.

The last aspect of Machiavelli’s philosophy that needs to be touched on is his ethics.

His ethical viewpoint is usually described as something like “the end justifies the means”. The easiest point of entry into Machiavelli’s notion of ethics is the concept of cruelty. In the Discourses, Machiavelli appears to recommend a cruel way which is an enemy to every “Christian,” and indeed “human,” way of life; furthermore, he appears to indirectly attribute this way of life to God. In The Prince, he speaks of “cruelties well-used” and explicitly identifies almost every imitable character as cruel. He even speaks of “mercy badly used”.

The fact that seeming vices can be used well and that seeming virtues can be used poorly suggests that there is an instrumentality to Machiavellian ethics that goes beyond the traditional account of the virtues. Partly, it seems to come from human nature. We have a “natural and ordinary desire” to acquire which can never in principle be satisfied. Human life is thus restless motion, resulting in clashes in the struggle to satisfy one’s desires. It is thus useful as a regulative ideal, and is perhaps even true, that we should see others as bad and even wicked beings who corrupt others by wicked means. In order to survive in such a world, goodness is not enough. Instead, we must learn how not to be good or even how to enter into evil, since it is not possible to be altogether good.

Even “the good” itself is variable. Thus, virtues and vices serve something outside themselves; they are not purely good or bad. Recognizing this limitation of both virtue and vice is eminently useful. The mention of the fox brings us to a second profitable point of entry into Machiavellian ethics, namely deception. Machiavelli’s moral exemplars are often cruel, but they are also often dissimulators. Throughout his writings, Machiavelli regularly advocates lying, especially for those who attempt to rise from humble beginnings. He even at one point suggests that it is useful to simulate craziness. Because cruelty and deception play such important roles in his ethics, it is not unusual for related issues—such as murder and betrayal—to rear their heads with regularity. If Machiavelli possessed a sense of moral squeamishness, it is not something that one easily detects in his works. (Honeycutt)

While Machiavelli is known mostly for self-interest and treachery, this is only in pursuit of maintaining a safe and secure country/state for a leader. Overall Machiavelli’s main philosophical point and goal was to learn about and teach the rules of political power. Thus, ensuring great rulers in the future so that way no one else had to go thru what he went thru during his lifetime with the overthrow of the government he knew and it being replaced with the Medicis. Even his ethics revolve around this point of interest.

Galileo and the Church

No account of Galileo’s importance to philosophy can be complete if it does not discuss Galileo’s condemnation and the Galileo affair. The end of the episode is simply stated. In late 1632, after publishing Dialogues on the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo was ordered to go to Rome to be examined by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

Legitimacy of the content, that is, of the condemnation of Copernicus, is much more problematic. Galileo had addressed this problem in 1615, when he wrote his Letter to Castelli. In this letter he had argued that, of course, the Bible was an inspired text, yet two truths could not contradict one another. So in cases where it was known that science had achieved a true result, the Bible ought to be interpreted in such a way that makes it compatible with this truth. The Bible, he argued, was an historical document written for common people at an historical time, and it had to be written in language that would make sense to them and lead them towards the true religion.

Cardinal Bellarmine was willing to countenance scientific truth if it could be proven or demonstrated. But Bellarmine held that the planetary theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus (and presumably Tycho Brahe) were only hypotheses and due to their mathematical, purely calculatory character were not susceptible to physical proof. This is a sort of instrumentalist, anti-realist position.

Unfortunately, it was not until after Galileo’s death and the acceptance of a unified material cosmology, utilizing the presuppositions about matter and motion that were published in the Discourses on the Two New Sciences, that people were ready for such proofs. But this could occur only after Galileo had changed the acceptable parameters for gaining knowledge and theorizing about the world. (Machamer)

The Galileo Controversy

In the seventeenth century, Galileo understood ‘reason’ as scientific inference based and experiment and demonstration. Moreover, experimentation was not a matter simply of observation, it also involved measurement, quantification, and formulization of the properties of the objects observed. Though he was not the first to do attempt this systematization, Galileo developed it to such an extent that he overthrew the foundations of Aristotelian physics. He rejected, for example, Aristotle’s claim that every moving had a mover whose force had to be continually applied. In fact it was possible to have more than one force operating on the same body at the same time. Without the principle of a singular moved mover, it was also conceivable that God could have ‘started’ the world, then left it to move on its own.

The finding of his that sparked the great controversy with the Catholic Church was, however, Galileo’s defense of Copernicus’s rejection of the Ptolemaic geocentric universe. Galileo used a telescope he had designed to confirm the hypothesis of the heliocentric system. He also hypothesized that the universe might be indefinitely large. Realizing that such conclusions were at variance with Church teaching, he followed Augustine’s rule than an interpretation of Scripture should be revised when it confronts properly scientific knowledge.

The officials of the Catholic Church – with some exceptions — strongly resisted these conclusions and continued to champion a pre-Copernican conception of the cosmos. The Church formally condemned Galileo’s findings for on several grounds. First, the Church tended to hold to a rather literal interpretation of Scripture, particularly of the account of creation in the book of Genesis. Such interpretations did not square with the new scientific views of the cosmos such as the claim that the universe is infinitely large. Second, the Church was wary of those aspects of the ‘new science’ Galileo represented that still mixed with magic and astrology. Third, these scientific findings upset much of the hitherto view of the cosmos that had undergirded the socio-political order the Church endorsed. Moreover, the new scientific views supported Calvinist views of determinism against the Catholic notion of free will. It took centuries before the Church officially rescinded its condemnation of Galileo. (Swindal)

In 1613 he wrote a letter to his student Benedetto Castelli (1577–1644) in Pisa about the problem of squaring the Copernican theory with certain biblical passages.

In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo discussed the problem of interpreting biblical passages with regard to scientific discoveries but, except for one example, did not actually interpret the Bible. That task had been reserved for approved theologians in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545–63) and the beginning of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The place of religion in Machiavelli’s thought remains one of the most contentious questions in the scholarship. His brother Totto was a priest. His father appeared to be a devout believer and belonged to a flagellant confraternity called the Company of Piety. When Machiavelli was eleven, he joined the youth branch of this company, and he moved into the adult branch in 1493. From 1500 to 1513, Machiavelli and Totto paid money to the friars of Santa Croce in order to commemorate the death of their father and to fulfill a bequest from their great-uncle. Machiavelli’s actual beliefs, however, remain mysterious. He did write an Exhortation to Penitence (though scholars disagree as to his sincerity). And he did accept the last rites upon his deathbed in the company of his wife and some friends. But evidence in his correspondence—for instance, in letters from close friends such as Francesco Vettori and Francesco Guicciardini—suggests that Machiavelli did not take pains to appear publicly religious.

As with many other philosophers of the modern period, interpretations of Machiavelli’s religious beliefs can gravitate to the extremes: some scholars claim that Machiavelli was a pious Christian, while others claim that he was a militant and unapologetic atheist. Still others claim that he was religious but not in the Christian sense.

Machiavelli variously speaks of “the present religion”, “this religion”, “the Christian religion”, and “our religion”. Machiavelli says that “our religion [has shown] the truth and the true way”, though he is careful not to say that it is the true way. “Our religion” is also contrasted to the curiously singular “ancient religion”.

Machiavelli speaks of religious “sects”, a type of group that seems to have a lifespan between 1,666 and 3,000 years. Species of sects tend to be distinguished by their adversarial character, such as Catholic versus heretical; Christian versus Gentile; and Guelf versus Ghibelline. They also generally, if not exclusively, seem to concern matters of theological controversy.

Machiavelli suggests that reliance upon certain interpretations—“false interpretations”—of the Christian God has led in large part to Italy’s servitude. Such interpretations implore human beings to think more of enduring their beatings than of avenging them. He seems to allow for the possibility that not all interpretations are false. And one of the things that Machiavelli may have admired in Savonarola is how to interpret Christianity in a way that is muscular and manly rather than weak and effeminate.

Finally, recent work has emphasized the extent to which Machiavelli’s concerns appear eminently terrestrial; he never refers in either The Prince or the Discourses to the next world or to another world.

Mandragola was probably written between 1512 and 1520; was first published in 1524; and was first performed in 1526. While original, it hearkens to the ancient world especially in how its characters are named (e.g., Lucrezia, Nicomaco). It is by far the most famous of the three and indeed is one of the most famous plays of the Renaissance. It contains many typical Machiavellian themes, the most notable of which are conspiracy and the use of religion as a mask for immoral purposes. Machiavelli wrote a Dialogue on Language in which he discourses with Dante on various linguistic concerns, including style and philology. Articles for a Pleasure Company is a satire on high society and especially religious confraternities. Belfagor is a short story that portrays, among other things, Satan as a wise and just prince.

To what extent the Bible influenced Machiavelli remains an important question. He laments that histories are no longer properly read or understood; speaks of reading histories with judicious attention; and implies that the Bible is a history. Furthermore, he explicitly speaks of reading the Bible in this careful manner—the only time in The Prince or the Discourses that he mentions “the Bible”.

David is one of two major Biblical figures in Machiavelli’s works. Elsewhere in the Discourses, Machiavelli attributes virtue to David and says that he was undoubtedly a man very excellent in arms, learning, and judgment. In a digression in The Prince, Machiavelli refers to David as “a figure of the Old Testament”. Machiavelli offers a gloss of the story of David and Goliath which differs in numerous and substantive ways from the Biblical account.

Moses is the other major Biblical figure in Machiavelli’s works. Moses is the only one of the four most excellent men of Chapter 6 who is said to have a “teacher”. In the Discourses, Moses is a lawgiver who is compelled to kill “infinite men” due to their envy and in order to push his laws and orders forward.

Chapter 6 of The Prince is famous for its distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. In Chapter 26, Machiavelli refers to extraordinary occurrences “without example”: the opening of the sea, the escort by the cloud, the water from the stone, and the manna from heaven.

Machiavelli speaks at least twice of the prophet Mohammed, though conspicuously not when he discusses armed prophets. He discusses various Muslim princes—most importantly Saladin, who is said to have virtue. Machiavelli compares the Pope with the Ottoman “Turk” and the Egyptian “Sultan”. He also compares “the Christian pontificate” with the Janissary and Mameluk regimes predominant under Sunni Islam. On occasion he refers to the Turks as “infidels”.

Arguably no philosopher since antiquity, with the possible exception of Kant, has affected his successors so deeply. Indeed, the very list of these successors reads almost as if it were the history of modern political philosophy itself. Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Bayle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche number among those whose ideas ring with the echo of Machiavelli’s thought. (Honeycutt)

Machiavelli was no friend of the institutionalized Christian Church as he knew it. The Discourses makes clear that conventional Christianity saps from human beings the vigor required for active civil life. And The Prince speaks with equal parts disdain and admiration about the contemporary condition of the Church and its Pope (Nederman)


“If to be a philosopher means to inquire without any fear of boundaries, Machiavelli is the epitome of a philosopher” (Honeycutt).

Works Cited

  1. Helden, Albert Van. “Galileo.” Galileo Italian Philosopher, Astronomer and Mathematician, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Galileo-Galilei.
  2. Honeycutt, Kevin. “Niccolò Machiavelli (1469—1527).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018, www.iep.utm.edu/machiave/.
  3. Machamer, Peter. “Galileo Galilei.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 10 May 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/galileo/.
  4. Nederman, Cary. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 13 Sept. 2005, plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/.
  5. Swindal, James. “Faith and Reason.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018, www.iep.utm.edu/faith-re/#SH5a.

Cite this paper

A Tale of Two Philosophers: Galileo Galilei and Niccolo Machiavelli. (2021, Aug 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/a-tale-of-two-philosophers-galileo-galilei-and-niccolo-machiavelli/

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