The Duck of Minerva

Wednesday’s Maxim

1 June 2005

Nicollò Machiavelli is a household name among educated adult; most people who have taken an international-relations or political-theory course have read, at least in part, sections of The Prince or of the Discourse on Livy.

His friend and contemporary, Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1530) is far less well known. Indeed, I would wager that even a majority of international-relations scholars have never heard of Guicciardini (at the very least, a majority have never read any of his works). Guicciardini is often credited with coining the phrase “reason of state,” and his magisterial The History of Italy is a central text in the development of ideas about the balance of power.

Guicciardini’s collection of maxims, translated both under the title Counsels and Reflections and Maxims and Reflections, is a wonderful list of statements about diplomacy, warfare, and political power. One of the neat things about them is that their punchline isn’t always what a contemporary reader might expect. As a new feature of the “Duck,” I plan to post one of his maxims every Wednesday.

Today’s concerns the relationship between theory and practice, and has words of wisdom for any scholar.

How different theory is from practice! So many people understand things well but either do not remember or do not know how to put them into practice! The knowledge of such men is useless. It is like having a treasure stored in a chest without ever being able to take it out. (Series C, 35)

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