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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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II. THE RENAISSANCE

When the idea of the balance of power actually
emerged it did not even come as something deduced
by the modern scholar from ancient history. Few po-
litical concepts have been so definitely the fruits of
modern man's experience—so definitely the result of
reflection on things as they happened and on vicissi-
tudes actually suffered. We cannot trace the genealogy
of it through a succession of books, as though it were
a theory simply passed like a torch from one author
to another, but receiving fresh fuel at each change.
It grows rather with the development of diplomatic
practice, with increasing reflection on things that hap-
pen in the world, with the emergence of other concepts
in associated fields, and with the achievement of more
systematized views on international affairs.

In the fifteenth century it would appear that Italy
provided almost ideal conditions for the formulation
of the concept. Here, at the Renaissance, a number
of closely interacting states formed a miniature system,
within which alliances often changed, and governments
seemed carefully to calculate the weights and counter-
weights. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the
Florentines are reported as having become convinced
that Venice, while working to prolong their conflict
with Milan, in the hope of weakening both the com-
batants, was anxious to prevent either party from se-
curing such aggrandizement at the expense of the other
as would make it a threat to Venice itself. Vespasiano
da Bisticci describes Cosimo de' Medici as being afraid
of the aggrandizement of Venice, but as having
achieved peace after the mid-century through the
skillful policy of “bringing the Italian powers to an
equality of strength” (Renaissance..., p. 232). In
1498 Bernardo Rucellai specifically speaks of Italy's
being “balanced” and attributes this to Lorenzo de'
Medici, though Alessandro de' Pazzi in a Discourse of
1522 imputes the success of this “balancing” to good
fortune, i.e., the states in Italy were so nearly equal
in actual power and the states outside Italy were unable
at that time to invade the peninsula (Albertini, pp.
87-88).

Machiavelli is disappointing in the field of diplo-
macy, though he was able to learn so much from the
ancients about military matters and the conduct of war.
He repeatedly deals with the question whether a state


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should remain neutral when its neighbors are at war,
and he is aware that the result of the war itself may
be the aggrandizement of one of the belligerents. If
he presses the policy of intervention, however, this is
not out of consideration for the balance, but because
in his view the neutral loses the respect of both sides—
he treats the problem as a question of prestige. He
sees that a state in this intermediate position may be
able to tip the scales in favor of one of the belligerents
rather than the other. But where he has the opportunity
of suggesting which of the two sides to opt for, he does
this without regard for the general balance, though he
is affected by the fact that one state (for internal rea-
sons) may be more aggressive in spirit than the other.

At a later date, 1537, Francesco Guicciardini sur-
prises us with a passage in the early pages of his History
of Italy
which might well stand as one of the “classical”
formulations of the balance of power. He describes how
the chief rulers of Italy—those of Florence, Naples,
and Milan—felt that they had more to lose than to
gain from any disturbance of the status quo, so they
formed an alliance which checked aggression in spite
of the fact that the partners were far from sincere with
one another. It was a curious kind of balance that
resulted, since Guicciardini tells us that most of the
minor principalities of Italy joined the alliance too.
But in other respects the passage was wonderfully
predictive, for it vividly described how the very
jealousies between the states made the peace more
stable, each power keeping an unremitting watch on
the movements of the rest, so that none was able to
steal a march on any of the others. This nervous tension
became a marked characteristic of the later balance
of power system; but Guicciardini, envisaging the con-
stricted area of the Italian peninsula, would be far
ahead of his time if he were held to be recommending
in this passage a formula of general policy. It is more
likely that he was merely the historian diagnosing
actuely a situation that seemed unique.

If we envisage not merely Italy but Western Europe
as a whole, it is clear that, until this date, men were
fumbling their way to a notion of balance—exposing
their deficiencies by the random nature of their experi-
ments. It was not yet possible to envisage a European
system, with its internal interactions. Philippe de
Commynes could picture France as the rival of
England, England as set off against the Scots, Spain
as confronting Portugal, Bavaria as opposed to
Austria—each of these states watching its opposite
number—while still being unable to transcend these
partial and local observations and combine them in
an overall system. Nor would the situation of the Con-
tinent, or the international politics of the time, have
authorized such a synthetic view. Even when he is
speaking of Italy, he sees states in couples, and regards
God as having imposed upon each of them a “contrary”
to keep it humble—the Venetians set against the
Florentines, for example, while both Naples and Milan
are tormented by the problem of rival dynasties. In
these circumstances it is little wonder that the emer-
gent notion of balance is an incipient one, based merely
on the analogy with a pair of scales.

It must not be assumed that, even so, the mainte-
nance of the equilibrium was necessarily regarded as
the object of policy. A monarch who claimed to hold
the balance might merely be advertising the fact that
he was worth purchasing, because he could tip the scale
in favor of whichever party he joined. Also, men seem
easily to recognize and resent a state's “predominance”
without realizing that this should entail a positive
notion of “equipoise.” If a certain amount of diplo-
matic reflection took place during the period of the
Renaissance, and if the first firm result of this was to
lead to a notion of the balance of power, ideas on this
subject as yet rose little above the level of banality,
save in the case of Guicciardini. And, still, as through-
out the previous centuries in both the Christian and
the Islamic worlds, the books that were written for
the guidance of princes, though they could contain
considerable sections on the conduct of war, and even
deal with the rise and fall of states, would show little
concern for diplomacy and the conduct of foreign
affairs.

The long conflict between France and the Habsburg
dynasty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
made it more possible for men to envisage a great part
of Europe in a single survey. The impression of omni-
presence given by the Habsburgs, who were in Austria
and Spain, in Italy and Hungary, in the Netherlands
and Germany, was calculated to induce people to take
something more like an overall view. It also provided
the French with the basis of their claim that this dy-
nasty was seeking “universal dominion,” while they
themselves were fighting to save the smaller states of
Europe as well as their own country. The idea of a
balance of power may have been implicit in such a
situation though it is surprising to see how rarely it
receives explicit formulation in the sixteenth century.
And if England or Savoy sought to reap benefit from
the conflicts between their greater neighbors, we may
be too ready to read modern ideas of the balance of
power into their attempts to snatch some advantage
out of other people's quarrels. What was important
was the fact that most of Europe was coming to appear
more like a states-system, and many states conducted
their foreign policy with reference to the main conflict
between France and the Habsburgs. Also the world
learned to fear the threat of “universal dominion.”


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