Conceptions of the Private in Hermann Conring’s “Observations” on Machiavelli’s The Prince

The present post is based on the paper I shall present at the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) for its annual conference. This will be held virtually. This paper focuses on Hermann Conring’s translation of Machiavelli’s Il Principe(The Prince) from Italian into Latin and most importantly on Conring’s observations on Machiavelli. Hermann Conring published his translation of Machiavelli in 1660, and the year after he published his observations.

Conring did not leave a book that summed up his whole political thought, so one needs to look at his political views in several of his works.(Lang, 2) Several major works are worth mentioning for an overview of Conring’s political and legal thought. In 1644, Conring published De Germanorum imperio Romano liber unus or One Book on the Roman Empire of the Germans. It is a historical and legal analysis of the relationship between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire arguing that the Roman Empire had either ceased to exist or been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the German Empire had risen in its place. In the same vein, another important work, which earned Conring the epithet of “founder of German legal history” is De origine iuris Germanici (Helmstedt, 1643) On the Origins of German Law, and De finibus imperii Germanici On the Boundaries of the German Empire (1654).

More specifically on political thought, in 1650 Conring published Theses Miscellaneae de civili prudentia, (Miscellaneous theses on civil prudence), which is his major work in political thought.

Concerning Conring’s views on Machiavelli, one could also find many references to him in Dissertatio de Ratione Status (or Dissertation on the Reason of State) (1651). This essay, as Stolleis argues, is Conring’s even though it is signed Heinrich Voss who was his student.(Stolleis, 74). As a matter of fact, at the time, dissertations defended by students merely reproduced the content of the professor’s lectures. In De ratione status, Conring investigates what a “good government” ought to do with respect to the law, the government, and the citizens. Following the Aristotelian tradition, the law, for Conring, must be suitable to the form and necessity of the state.


Searching for priv words in Conring’s Animadversiones, I have found 28 occurences, which are all a form of the adjective privatus, -a, -um, except one from the adverb privatim. In this special occurrence of privatim, Conring opposes it to populo, the people. The whole sentence is a comment to Machiavelli writing in chapter 2 on ”hereditary principalities” that those are easier to hold than new ones because people are accostumed to the rule of the ruler. Suffice that the ruler does not change the established order and is more than ordinarily diligent and competent and he can conserve the principality. Unless some unusually strong force should remove him. Conring criticises Machiavelli. For Conring, no one can foresee political affairs. No matter how careful one is, there is no easy way to conserve one’s state (status). Conring notes that experience of world affairs teaches that even ancient principalities can be shaken by internal movements, and that the ruler, either because of hatred for him or weariness of the principality, can be removed “aut a toto populo, aut a nonnullis privatim” (either by the whole people or by some privately).[1]

This example shows an interesting opposition between “toto populo” and “nonnullis privatim”, “entire” against “some”, and “people” against “privately”. It is not certain if there is a value here, but since Conring is proponent of German political Aristotelianism, one can see a reference to his theory of constitutionnal change. Since Machiavelli is writing about principalities with one ruler, these are either, in Aristotelian terms, kingships or tyrannies, which can be overturned by some privately (aristocracy and oligarchy) or by the whole people (polity, democracy). As other scholars have shown, Conring’s translation and comments on Machivalli presents an interesting position at the time between Machiavellians and Anti-Machiavellians.[2] Conring knew that Machiavellianism had little to do with Machiavelli, and hence Anti-Machiavellism as well. Conring sought to rehabilitate Machiavelli within political science, therefore seeing him as an analyst of tyrannical policies and how they concretely help conquer and maintain power in a principality, in an Aristotelian framework of constitutionalism. As Dauber notes Conring thought that Machiavelli had exagerated the opposition between popular liberty and tyranny.[3]

Apart from this example, two main categories of use for priv-words stand out. First, Conring uses privatus in his observations or translation in relation to coming out of “private condition” or “private life” or “private fortune” or “private state” and entering, in opposition, a “dignity/office of ruler/prince” or “principality”. The second category concerns “private interests” as opposed to “public interest” or “common good” “commonwealth”.

Private condition, private fortune, private life

Machiavelli’s main theme in Il Principe (The Prince) is to analyse principles that make a ruler obtain and maintain the government of a “principality”. Machiavelli does not focus on republics but on principalities with a single ruler. Several times, Machiavelli writes about the theme of this ruler accessing this position from “private” condition. For instance, at the end of chapter VI, Machiavelli writes about Hiero of Syracuse who became prince from private: Machiavelli writes “di privato diventò principe”,[4] which Conring translates as “ex privato”.[5] By the same token, Machiavelli notes that in his “private life” (translated “in private vita”), he had so much “virtú” that people said of him (using a Latin quote from Justinius) that “the only thing he lacked to be a ruler was a kingdom”. There are other examples, in chapter VII, Machiavelli gives the example of several men who were granted principalities in Greece, “di privati principi” in the original Italian, translated by Conring: “principatus Transsylvaniae, Moldaviae, et Wallachiae: qui solent dari a Turca, quondam etiam a Polono, privatae conditionis hominibus” (1017) (Such today are the principalities of Transsylviania, Moldavia, and Wallachia: which are wont to be granted by the Turcs, hereafter likewise by the Poles, to men of private condition.) Or again the example of Francesco Sforza who became Duke of Milan out of “private condition” in chapter VII paragraph 3.

We can see already that Conring adds a little bit from the Italian “da private principi” the term “condition”. From Latin condicio, it means in general the external position, situation, condition, rank, place, circumstances.[6] It seems that “private condition” here means the position and rank in a certain way of thinking, in a hierarchy. Conring also adds to the term “prince” “dignity/office” and the idea of elevation from a “private condition”. Conring translates Machiavelli ch. 6, §2 ”di diventare di privato principe” as ”ex privata conditione ad Principis dignitatem pervenit”, ”for a private citizen to become ruler”[7]. One may notice that in his translation into Latin, Conring translates Machiavelli’s spirit, but adds a few words: “private condition” and “office/dignity of ruler/prince”. In his footnote, Conring comments further ”Maximas difficultates vero experitur principatus novus, hominis ex privata conditione evecti.”[8] “The largest difficulties in truth, are the new principalities of a man elevated out of private condition.”

Conring accentuates the difference between private condition and the office of ruler, and argues furthermore that, if Machiavelli is right to state that all new principalities are difficult to maintain, it is even more difficult for a new principality acquired by a man of private condition.

Perhaps this accentuation is in the “spirit” of Machiavelli’s work as interpreted by Conring. Machiavelli, does give an example of Agathocles, the Sicilian king of Syracuse who became ruler from private but also abject and lowest origins. Is it then simply social elevation? Or is there a meaning between the distinction of “private condition” and “dignity of prince” for COnring?

The Aristotelian distinction between a private and public condition of life gives certainly an answer: man, as a zoōn politikon, can only achieve his true potential by being an active polis-forming being. For Aristotle, ethics and politics are connected, in that every community must be for the common good. The right action is the one that allows good life.

I think that there is certainly a specific meaning for Conring in that the “dignity of prince” requires to rule public affairs, which obey to completely different rules. In a second footnote comments on Machiavelli’s ch. VII second paragraph regarding these men granted a principality, who are under the will and fortune of those who granted it to them, Conring notes that Machiavelli gives 4 reasons to be under the will of fortune of those who granted it. The second one is the interesting one for us here: “Secunda; quia illi, qui ex privata conditione ad principatus evehuntur, raro intelligunt artem regendi, non assueti scilicet regere, nec ad regnandum instituti.” (Secondly, because those who elevate from a private condition to Prince, seldom understand the art of government, no one dispute that they are neither accustomed to rule nor made for ruling.) One issue for a prince who came from private condition is thus that he rarely understands the “art of government”.

Conring also gives another example with Francesco Sforza, who became Duke of Milan “ex privato vitae statu” (out of a private state of life) thanks to fortune and military forces.[9] This time the issue is not the prince himself, but the prince’s sons, who turned degenerates because they refused the troubles and inconvenience of military service.

In his note about his translation of Machiavelli’s statement that virtue is needed for the principality, Conring observes that:

“Nihil est certius, quam non sola virtute aut industria humana parari pariter & teneri respublicas. Luculentissime autem id apparet circa novos quosque principatus; praesertim eos, qui parantur ab his, qui privata aut tenui admodum in re ante vixerunt.”[10]

[Nothing is more certain: that not only virtue or human industry/diligence prepare to acquire and hold commonwealths. This appears most splendidly regarding how new a principality is, especially the ones that are obtained by those, who have lived before to a great measure in private or inferior/unimportant affairs.]

In this passage, Conring clearly opposes respublica with res privata and adds a hierarchy with aut tenui. If the private wealth or private realm is inferior or unimportant, then the common wealth or public realm is superior or important. The footnote also corrects Machiavelli’s concept of virtú by preferring the concept of human industry.

Private interest, private property v. public good

Conring translates Machiavelli writing about ”le forze proprie di Lodovico”[11] (”Ludovico’s own troops”)[12] by ” Ludovici Sfortiae privatae vires” (Ludovico Sforzia’s private troops/military forces).[13] It is the same meaning, but one can note that the idea of property is attached to “private”, and the “private” in question may be in opposition to other types of military forces (common/public?). In any case, what is here private is owned by an individual and not shared with others, let alone the whole community.

In chapter 6 Machiavelli examines principalities acquired by one’s own arms and looks at new princes who were “innovators”, such as Moises, Cyrus, Theseus or Romulus. Conring comments that it is manifest that new princes make their laws obeyed through the arms. However, Conring adds that: “populum necessum est amore boni publici vehementer flagrare, quod infrequens admodum est, plaerisque hominibus ad privata commoda attentis” (it is necessary to inflame vehemently the people to the love of public goods, because it is excessively in small numbers, and the majority of men pay attention to private interests). Conring then adds further that people are not willing to observe the law solely because of the authority of the legislator.

The distinction between private and public with a certain value for the public good or common wealth against private interest comes out from some of Conring’s choice as translator. In chapter VII, Machiavelli writes about about Alessandro: “Vedeva oltre a questo l’arme di Italia, e quelle in spezie di chi si fussi potuto servire, essere nelle mani di coloro che dovevano temere la grandezza del papa…”.[14] (Apart from this problem, Alexander saw that the Italian military forces (and especially those that he could have used most easily) belonged to those who had every reason to fear any increase of the pope’s power…).[15] Conring’s translation is: “Perspiciebat praeterea Italiae arma, et quae privatim suis commodis subservire poterant, in eorum manu esse, quibus papalis potentia formidabilis erat”.[16] Here the idea that Conring conveys is that the army in the hands of those who fear the pope’s grandezza (power or potentia) could serve Alexander’s “interest in private”. The idea is of private interests of a man to acquire a principality through external force.

The same appears a little later in the same chapter when translating Machiavelli’s passage about pope Julius, who captured Bologna to destroy the power of Venice and expel the French from Italy. “it was very much to his credit that he did everything in order to increase the power of the Church, and not any individual.”[17] Machiavelli writes: “e tutte queste imprese gli riuscirno, e con tanta piú sua laude, quanto lui fece ogni cosa per accrescere la Chiesa e non alcuno privato”.[18] Conring translates as “ac majore cum laude ideo, quia non ad privatum quempiam, sed ad Rempublicam Pontificiam locupletandam, id totum curavit agendum”. It is interesting to note that it is private as private individual, but opposed to “Rempublicam” commonwealth or public good, even if it is the Church. The res publica of the Church did not appear in Machiavelli, but Conring emphasised it. Pope Julius acted for the common good of the Church and not for anyone’s private interest.

In Ch. XVII, Machiavelli disserts on “cruelty and mercifulness, and whether it is better to be loved than feared or the contrary”. Machiavelli writes that “My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”[19] Notes by Conring on ch. XVII of Machiavelli: “Non adeo difficile est, si severe animadvertas in illa tantum crimina, quae rempublicam et civium tranquillitatem honestatemque turbant; in reliquis autem mitiorem te praebeas. Ita sane ipsa simul severitate amorem tibi conciliabis: quoniam omnes sentiunt ab illa severitate sibi et publico bene esse, nihil autem dari privatae vindictae.” (It is not exactly difficult if you severely punish only those crimes, which disturb the honor and the tranquillity of the commonwealth and the citizens, but supply milder ones to the rest. Thus, you will unite reasonably at the same time the love to you and to the severity: because all men perceive from these to be for themselves and the public good, but nothing given for private vengeance.)

Conring continues criticising Machiavelli for being wrong in opposing the two, being hated or being loved. He quotes another passage by Machiavelli himself where that being feared and not being hated can be connected. Conring notes then that “not being hated” is the civil equivalent of being loved, and therefore the two are possible, especially so since the one who is not feared is held in contempt, and who is held in contempt is not really loved.

What we can take from this passage is that, for Conring, the ruler can or even must be both feared and loved. This is done by executing harsh sentences but only in the interest of the commonwealth and the safety of the citizens. Because then they will understand it and therefore not revert to private vengeance. It is however difficult to understand Conring here, unless he exits the premisse that the discussion is focused on tyrants and their policies. What kind of idea of public good does the population of a tyranny have?

Learnings with regard to Conring’s political thought of the time

What can we make of this small study of priv-words in Conring’s comments on Machiavelli with regard to Conring’s political thought and the intellectual context of his time? It is important to understand the context of the reception of Machiavelli in seventeenth-century Germany. Machiavelli was linked to the introduction of the concept of “reason of state”, which had been debated in Italy (ragione di stato) and France (raison d’État). The first German discussion started with Arnold Clapmar’s De arcanis rerumpublicarum libri sex (1605) and contributed to three debates within discussions of politica : Staatsrecht based on Bodin’s sovereignty and Roman law; Tacitism; and political Aristotelianism.[20] Conring’s Animadversiones take place within this context. The identification of status with respublica emerged at the end of the seventeenth century; status meant “standing” as opposed to actio and mutatio and could refer to three things: 1) the power of the ruler; 2) the political system of the commonwealth; 3) the legal and social status of a person.[21] can confirm Dreitzel’s argument that Conring disagrees with the idea of reason of state as conserving the power of the ruler. Rather COnring considers the reason of state to be the Aristotelian notion of good life of the citizens, or what the upholders of politica christiana thought was gute Policey.[22] Dreitzel notes: “Following the common interpretation of status as ‘standing’, and continuing both the Roman law and scholastic doctrines concerning governing and the duty of rulers, ‘reason of state’ doctrines had, from the beginning, serious implications for the discussions of the principles governing the conduct of subjects and ‘private’ individuals within society. This enlargement was reflected in Clapmar’s definition of arcana: every science, every ‘conditio in rebus humanis‘ had to have its own arcana; thus there were also ‘arcana privata, hoc est, intima consilia communis privataeque vitae in luce hominum feliciter et decore instituendae‘ [private mysteries, that is, the innermost counsels of communal and private life which ought to be instituted felicitously and decorously before the eyes of men], which differed from the secret arts of using power, preserving a dynasty, or commanding an army.”[23]

From Conring’s distinctions of private and public, one can see the idea of superior ”standing” of a ruler, due to the different and complex nature of politica. A private person may have mastered the ”private mysteries” of communal and private life, but superior qualities are required for handling the mysteries of power and the respublica. Moreover, the only reason for political action in the respublica should be a development of common wealth, not only by satisfying private citizens, but also by instauring a love for the common good. These are ideals opposed to a private interest of a tyrant as his reason of state.

[1] Hermann Conring, ‘Animadversiones Politicae in Librum Nicolai Machiavelli De Principe’, in Opera, vol. 2 (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1970), 997.

[2] Stolleis, ‘Machiavellismus und Staatsräson’; Rosanna Schito, ‘Alla ricerca della sovranità: osservazioni sul Machiavelli di Hermann Conring’, Giornale di storia costituzionale, no. 16 (II semestre 2008): 85–99.

[3] Noah Dauber, ‘Anti-Machiavellism as Constitutionalism: Hermann Conring’s Commentary on Machiavelli’s The Prince’, History of European Ideas 37, no. 2 (June 2011): 102–12,

[4] Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, in Opere, ed. Corrado Vivanti, vol. 1 I Primi Scritti Politici, Biblioteca Della Pléiade (Torino: Einaudi – Gallimard, 1997), 133.

[5] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1017.

[6] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:  Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, Rev., and enlarged. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

[7] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 19.

[8] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1012.

[9] Conring, 1015.

[10] Conring, 1013.

[11] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 121.

[12] Machiavelli, The Prince, 7.

[13] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 999.

[14] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 135.

[15] Machiavelli, The Prince, 24.

[16] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1019.

[17] Machiavelli, The Prince, 41.

[18] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 149.

[19] Machiavelli, The Prince, 57.

[20] Horst Dreitzel, ‘Reason of State and the Crisis of Political Aristotelianism: An Essay on the Development of 17th Century Political Philosophy’, History of European Ideas 28, no. 3 (January 2002): 163–87.

[21] Dreitzel, 172.

[22] Dreitzel, 175.

[23] Dreitzel, 175–76.

Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth by Anna Becker

Cambridge University Press

On 23 September, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed back former colleague Anna Becker, now Professor MSO in the history of ideas at the University of Århus, for a book launch. Anna presented her newly published book Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth, published by Cambridge University Press in the prestigious series ’Ideas in Context’. This ‘Cambridge School’ historical analysis of gender in the language and the concepts of Renaissance political thought presents a thought-provoking reinterpretation of looking at the period.


This fantastic book kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it presents a historical analysis of the gendered languages of Renaissance political thought. Doing so, and secondly, it is challenging the dominant narrative on Renaissance political thought.

The dominant narrative of Renaissance political thought is that this period marked the beginning of a sharp separation between a private and a public sphere. The public is the political and reserved to male citizens. The private is the realm of the domestic and reserved to female non-citizens. Becker attributes this narrative to Hannah Arendt’s influential reading of Greek thought in general and Aristotle in particular. The view for Aristotle is that man is a political animal (zōon politikon), who can only reach his true potential in the, the public sphere, the polis, as a citizen. In opposition, the private sphere of the household is simply for social companionship, not unlike any other animal. Becker urges us to free ourselves from this reading, which has influenced many thinkers, first of all Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment. We must rethink, writes Becker, this simplified division between the public-political-male realm and the private-apolitical-female realm.

Indeed, Renaissance political thought revolved around interpretations of Aristotle’s division between the household and the city. Philosophy, for Aristotle, was divided into practical and natural philosophy. Practical philosophy was divided into three disciplines: ethics, economics, and politics. Moral philosophy in universities were taught according to this distinction. Ethics concerned the self, economics the household, and politics the city. Becker shows in her book that Renaissance thinkers pondered all three disciplines together. In this sense, the household and even the self, were political matters because the well-being of the res publica depended on good mores of individuals and a harmonious family life, res familiaris.

Becker looks more specifically at Machiavelli’s thought in one of the chapters and Jean Bodin’s thought in three other ones. It is not possible to present all the arguments and points that Becker makes, but I shall here select important ones for her overall thesis.

First, Becker explains Aristotle’s divide of philosophy upon which all Renaissance thinkers commented. Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370 – 1444), Donato Acciaioli (1428– 1478), and Bernardo Segni, were interested in the relationship between the individual, the family, and the state in their commentaries of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. These three communities of human life constituted three objects of the practical philosophy called moral philosophy, which sought to regulate all human life. Ethics was concerned with individual mores, Economics with family matters, and Politics with public matters. All three sub-disciplines were related with one another, so there was no sharp distinction between a “private” and a “public” sphere. The debates among Renaissance commentators of Aristotle focused on how to balance the three for a harmonious whole.

When it comes to Machiavelli, he pondered on “private” issues such as family and friendship, using the same vocabulary as his civic humanist contemporaries. However, Machiavelli argued against the accepted narratives. It is not friendship in the citizen body that makes a city great, but the lack of it. Discord, and not concord, makes better laws because conflict leads to greater debates. And the law is needed for good civil life (vivere civile). Friendship, on the other hand, leads to corruption and cronyism. This is the lesson from Florentine history, in which powerful families ruled the city almost to its ruin. By the same token, education should not be left to families because anti-republican families educate their children with these values.

Regarding Bodin (1529/30–1596), one of the main arguments turns to the gendering part of our political vocabulary; what Becker calls the “invention of a tradition.” This new tradition is the husband’s power over his wife. Since marriage and the family are the first stones of the res publica, the commonwealth, and since the trope is that a state is a big family, or a family a small state, the gendering of the vocabulary is here crucial. The private marriage of husband and wife is about power (imperium): the power of the pater familias (family father) over the submissive wife. This construction is particular to Bodin and contradicts Roman law. In the body of Roman law known as Corpus iuris civilis, Roman wives were not subjected to the power of their husband. The seventeenth century was then heavily influenced by this metaphor of the ruler as a father. The divine-right theory was a direct consequence of this idea and the tradition of paternal political power.

We are left hanging in the last chapter, which only a few paintbrushes of what a study of German political thought during the same period would be like. The reader could ask for more on Martin Luther, and how Reformation thinkers interpreted Aristotle’s practical philosophy, but Becker paved the way for this reader to accomplish that on her own using the same method of analysis.

If you want to know more about the book, stay tuned for a podcast episode with Anna Becker. In the meanwhile check our amazing previous episodes!