Classics, Philosophy, recent

Why We Should Read Machiavelli

In the mid-1990s, film critic David Denby wrote Great Books, in which he recounted a year spent at Columbia University taking two core courses in the humanities that focused on “Western classics” written by so-called “Dead White European Males.” It was “thirty years after [Denby entered] Columbia University for the first time,” when “[n]o one…could possibly have imagined that in the following decades the courses would be alternatively reviled as an iniquitous oppression and adored as a bulwark of the West.” Indeed, a prevalent critique was (and still is) that the classics were written by white men relevant primarily in connection to a regime of power that exerted cultural and political hegemony over large parts of the world.

“Dead white males” had had their time in the sun.

One of the most recognizable “dead white males” was Niccolo Machiavelli. Famous for having written the how-to book on power politics, Machiavelli might seem to have deserved special censure for writing about power at the dawn of the age of exploration which preceded European imperialism. Fortunately, however, one still finds Machiavelli on college course curriculums. Moreover, one still comes across books like this one on Machiavelli’s relevance to the art of politics in business, or this one on what Machiavelli has to say on how to wield power in the modern world. Nevertheless, whenever we read about political developments that expose hypocrisy, cynicism, or the nefarious pursuit of power at any cost, it is not uncommon for Machiavelli’s name to be invoked. But does he deserve a reputation as the favorite philosopher of grubby politicians for whom the end always justifies the means?

In The Prince, a book of bold advice on how “various kinds” of principalities “can be governed and maintained” (Ch. II), Machiavelli famously advised that a prince “ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved” (Ch. XVII). This basic precept of power politics is perhaps the most famous proclamation in all Machiavelli’s writings and helps account for why, when we think of Machiavelli, words like cunning, unscrupulous, and ruthless come to mind, and why we are inclined to see Machiavelli, as Leo Strauss did, as “a teacher of evil.”

But this view does Machiavelli a disservice and does not adequately account for the lasting influence of The Prince and his other writings.

Let’s start with Machiavelli’s emphasis that a “prince must…avoid those things which will make him hated or despised” (Ch. XIX). While “a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, [must] learn how not to be good” (Ch. XV), Machiavelli also advised that “a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred: for fear and the absence of hatred may well go together” (Ch. XVII).

With this qualification alone, we have good reason to doubt that the father of modern power politics deserves his reputation as a mere apologist for amoral, power-hungry cynics. A prince should make himself both loved and feared. But what if the prince is not loved? If the question is how to pursue and preserve power, then he should make himself feared. But, he continues, the prince should try and avoid becoming hated. In other words, politics is about power, and when it comes to power, the real world is what matters. In the real world, virtue in affairs of state is a matter of efficacy, not piety.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence. Entering public life at the age of 29, he joined the Florentine Second Chancery in 1498, four years after a French invasion set in motion the Italian Wars. Though the city-states in Italy proved strong enough to resist French control over Italy (Holy Leagues of 1495 and 1511), disunity among Italian city-states had been exposed, facilitating further intervention by foreign powers in subsequent years, ending with the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559 and Spain as a hegemonic presence in Italy. Machiavelli saw it all first-hand. In the Chancery, Machiavelli’s duties included stints as a diplomat, secretary, and military official. He observed the eminent political players of the time and learned about the operations of government. But when Florentine gonfalonier Piero Soderini was deposed in 1512 and the Medicis were restored, Machiavelli found himself unemployed and out of favor with the new regime. He was arrested and tortured for having his name on a list of suspected anti-Medici conspirators. Being stranded in a country villa on the outskirts of the city, he set to work writing The Prince. Dedicating it to Lorenzo de’ Medici, he hoped to regain a role in the Florentine government, but also set out practical precepts of power and ended with a vision for a unified Italy after years of political strife.

In sum, Machiavelli was steeped in the realities of power politics in a balkanized Italy as the 15th century merged into the 16th. Machiavelli was, as Max Lerner wrote, “utterly secular in his thinking,” rejecting “metaphysics, theology, idealism,” and drifting “toward a political realism, unknown to the formal writing of his time.”

Ironically, Machiavelli’s political leanings were republican at heart. He nursed a great love for the ancient Roman Republic and, among other works, wrote Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titius Livius. To Machiavelli, Republican Rome had been the peak of civilization. It illustrated why republican government was the most conducive to the political unity and stability of a state. His main impetus for writing The Prince was simply to set down practical precepts about the nature of power as a way to reenter politics and, as conveyed in the final chapter, to inspire Italian city-states to put aside their divisions, unite, and stave off foreign intervention. Now credited by many as an Italian patriot, Machiavelli, in the words of Max Lerner, “only dimly foresaw nationalism,” but ended up writing “a grammar of power, not only for the 16th century, but for the ages that have followed.” Machiavelli’s “greatness does not emerge until we see that when he wrote his grammar of power he came close to setting down the imperatives by which men govern and are governed in political communities, whatever the epoch and whatever the governmental structure.”

Machiavelli did not advocate or condone unmitigated depravity: “…it cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow-citizens, to betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, and without religion” (Ch. VIII). Of Agathocles of Syracuse, Machiavelli wrote that his “barbarous cruelty and inhumanity” and other “countless atrocities” did not “permit of his being named among the most famous men” (Ch. VIII). Machiavelli did advise that cruelty can be “exploited well or badly” (Ch. VIII). But “…if [the prince] is obliged to take the life of anyone, let him do so when there is a justification and manifest reason for it” (Ch. XVII). Again, though, this was for pragmatic rather than moral reasons. No matter how “strong your armies may be, you will always need the favor of the inhabitants to take possession of a province” (Ch. III).

Machiavelli did not lionize villains for whom the end justifies the means. Rather, he explained why principalities (and republics) are well-served by bold leaders who rely on initiative and ability rather than on fortune for their political survival and success. Initiative and ability, however, were interweaved with a realistic assessment of human nature and its implications for how to rule: “…how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation” (Ch. XV). Machiavelli did not have a lofty opinion of human nature (“For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain” – Ch. XVII), and believed that “men will always be false to you unless they are compelled by necessity to be true” (Ch. XXIII). He believed a prince “must be a fox to recognize traps and a lion to frighten wolves” (Ch. XVIII).

The upshot is that politics in the modern age lives in the shadow of Machiavelli. Although Machiavelli wrote many other works—not only on politics and the art of war, but in theatre, history, and literature, as well as letters, prose, and poetry—he is famous for a conceptual apparatus of power which detached itself from medieval religious pieties and articulated a secular worldview that was already becoming paramount in the age in which he lived. Indeed, the superficial interpretation of Machiavelli as a nefarious schemer arises in large part from the antagonistic backlash of a European religious community frustrated with the growing emphasis during the Renaissance on the temporal and secular world as opposed to otherworldliness. Few exemplified this transition more than Machiavelli, who was among the authors listed on the Index of Prohibited Books sanctioned by the Council of Trent and first published by Pope Paul IV in 1557.

Machiavelli’s reading and experience gave him extensive knowledge of ancient and contemporary political figures, positioning him to write the how-to book on winning and maintaining power. In so doing, however, Machiavelli exerted a profound influence on modern political thought. Beginning The Prince with the contention that “all states and dominions which hold or have held power over mankind are either republics or monarchies” (Ch. I), and are acquired either by fortune or ability, he did not, as Harvey Mansfield informs us, “seek to establish exact or universal laws of politics in the manner of modern political science.” Instead, he posited maxims a prince should consider, not blindly obey, when acquiring and maintaining a state or principality according to circumstance. Some princes “are reputed for certain qualities which bring them either praise or blame”—some liberal, others miserly; some generous, others rapacious; some cruel, others merciful; some duplicitous, others trustworthy; some pusillanimous, others fierce and high-spirited; some humane, others haughty; some lascivious, others chaste; some frank, others astute; and so on. He wrote that “it is necessary that [a prince] should be prudent enough to avoid the scandal of those vices which would lose him the state, and guard himself if possible” against those vices which are not deemed necessary to preserve power.

However, “he must not mind incurring the scandal of those vices, without which it would be difficult to save the state, for if one considers well, it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result in one’s greater security and well-being” (Ch. XV). Machiavelli focused his analysis of power not on ideals, but on the feasible. In affairs of state, virtue was a matter of efficacy, not piety. In laying out his vision in a short book, he expertly articulated what was already happening: the Renaissance transformation from the ecclesiastical to the secular, from a realm of otherworldly ideals to a world of secular expediency.

 

Jonathan Church is an economist who specializes in inflation and a contributor to the Good Men Project. You can find his publications at www.jonathandavidchurch.com.

 

30 Comments

  1. Abominous Coward says

    Anyone who says one should not read Machiavelli because has just signalled they and their opinions can safely be ignored

    • PaulNu says

      Anyone who enjoyed Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” will enjoy “The Prince” for very much the same reasons.

  2. jkl says

    A good deal of those white men were gays : Plato, Socrates , Xhenopont , Caesar, Horatius

    • TarsTarkas says

      They were philosophers, generals, and heroes who happened to be homosexual (or bisexual in Caesar’s case). Not the other way around. Nobody writes ‘Plato, the gay philosopher’ as though his private habits were the most important thing about him. If orientation, ethnicity, or skin color is the most important aspect of who one is, they have little else to be proud about.

      • Andrew Elsey says

        I agree for the most part and clearly the person you’re responding to is not the brightest bulb, but, for pedantry’s sake, Plato is a bad example considering the depth he goes into describing the features on little boys that he likes

    • Defenstrator says

      Not really sure what this is adding to the conversation.

    • Inigo Montoya says

      It’s far from well-established that Caesar and Nicomedes of Bythinia were lovers.

  3. Morgan Foster says

    “A prince should make himself both loved and feared.”

    Thus becoming like God.

  4. CA says

    I believe the enduring relevance of Machiavelli is his ablity to see reality through the clouds of abstract pieties which tend to obscure reality at different points in time. We too live in a time when protocols of Happy Talk so dominate public discourse that to simply state the obvious appears shocking and uncouth. The dominance of liberal Happy Talk in the so-called Mainstream Media has reached baroque levels of abstraction similar to Machiavelli’s day which was dominated by Christian pieties which had little relationship to reality.

    I’m surprised the author didn’t, at least in passing, bring up Donald Trump since by his own manner and methodologies he seems to embody much of Machievelli’s own visions of rule. Machiavelli talks of “verita effettualle” as opposed to simple “veritas” as the standard for the Prince. In other words, feel free to bullshit if it serves the princes’ end which is power – what counts is effectiveness not the proper pieties. For better or worse, Trump cannot be accused of kowtowing to prevailing ideas of verbal etiquette – this is why people hate him, and why people love him.

    As the author points out, Machiavelli is not simply interested in vulgar power. The prince must be able to clearly see the needs and desires of the people and to identify himself with those needs and desires as a source of his own enduring power and prestige. Trump could see clearly that vast numbers of people loath the MSM and the whole progressive globalist vision and he figured out how to tap into that resentment.

    But Trump, it seems to me, is not simply a classical demagogue ( I think even the venerable Harvey Mansfield may misunderstand Trump’s appeal in this regard). Trump identifies his own greatness with what he thinks of as America’s greatness in the same way he previously identified his greatness with the greatness of some hotel or golf course or casino.

    Trump may or may not ultimately be effective, but our current ecclesiastics whose thinking is totally structured and dominated by a narrow set of pieties and protocols simply aren’t capable of seeing Trump at all.

    By the way, a contemporary “Machievellian” take on Trump is sometimes found in the podcasts of cartoonist Scott Adams who predicted a Trump presidency as far back as 2115.

    • Ardy says

      Interesting CA: I think I will have to reread Machiavelli again, read it in my early 20’s and thought it was a txt traipsing from power to evil. I have grown up a little tiny bit since then.

  5. ianl says

    Machiavelli is dismissed as at best tacky and at worst as a somewhat sneaky cynic by most people. This disdain is generally stated briefly and without quotation evidence, but simply asserted. Examination of his analyses is almost never seen.

    This is because he (Machiavelli) clearly exposes hypocrisy of the kind that lusts for power but pretends this lust is just for the “common good”. This exposure makes most people uncomfortable: those who lust want to appear benign and omnisciently well-meaning, while those to be governed wish this to be true so helplessness does not weigh so heavily on them.

  6. Lightning Rose says

    The reason I’ve always found Machiavelli refreshing (and why his detractors detest him) is his realistic assessment of human nature and pragmatic ways of working one’s aims within it. Today’s leftists have completely unrealistic utopian delusions that (a) everyone’s just like us if only we could talk to them and (b) people are motivated primarily by altruism. Nice universe–just not THIS one! On your BEST day, you can work with enlightened self-interest with most people. Realism.

    Trump is indeed Machiavellian, which many of his base (myself included) find refreshing precisely because he’s adept at baffling the media and his detractors with bullshit, sometimes purposely outrageous distractions, all the while doing the important stuff out of sight with the door closed. I think the opposition, being all about ideals and rhetoric, underestimate the degree to which many of Trump’s voters see the world in terms of results, pragmatic problem solving, and deal making.
    I couldn’t care less what he SAYS; I care about the benefits of what he DOES. And I have a LOT of company.

    Also, the tax changes which eliminated many of the one-percenters’ real estate write-offs in Blue States like New York and CT were a Machiavellian masterstroke. Few people in the “heartland” Red States have mortgage write-offs more than $10K per annum; in the Acela corridor, a great many do, and they’ve just lost them. Brilliant oblique punishment for going “with Her!” 😉

    An old martial arts instructor once told me; nobody ever lost because the enemy underestimated your powers. As long as the Democrats and their media lackeys pound the narrative that Trump is incompetent, stupid, or nuts, they’re feeding him tactical advantage with a fire hose.
    The Dems ought to try reading a little more Machiavelli, and a whole lot less Marx. Wouldn’t hurt if they’d put down the weed and actually touch ground in this universe now and then, too!

    • neoteny says

      he’s adept at baffling the media and his detractors with bullshit, sometimes purposely outrageous distractions

      You mean that when he tweeted

      When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore-we win big. It’s easy!

      it was bullshit? purposely outrageous distraction?

  7. John M says

    Every couple of years I come across yet another essay like this one delivering essentially the same truths about Machiavelli. I wonder why that is?

    Pencils down in 30 minutes.

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  9. Kit Ingoldby says

    Machiavelli was simply an honest observer of political reality. And for that he can never be forgiven.

  10. dirk says

    Machiavelli, together with Sun Tzu in the Far East and Clausewitz in northern Prusia, are realists and conservatists, and clever theory constructors (looking for the roots and essentials of warfare and power aspirations), and therefore are cherished by Republicans, but maybe more so in the Dark Webs and by Alt Right. The opposite camp are the Democrats, the SJW’s and the culture Marxists, intersectionalists, ideologists, romantics, progressives. Jesus also can be categorised in this second camp, and heralded the onset of ages of the christian tradition of equality and brotherhood.

    In fact, civilisation and politics is just a dance around and between these two opposite drives.

    • CA says

      dirk

      “In fact, civilisation and politics is just a dance around and between these two opposite drives.”.

      . . as is human consciousness itself

      • dirk says

        Following Furet, from another thread here, maybe -mentality pillars- is a better concept than just -drives-. And, of course, if individualized, the dance floor can be narrowed down to the individual conscience.

  11. TJR says

    The Prince is also extremely readable. Indeed, it reads more like a series of blog posts than a book. Clausewitz, on the other hand……

    • dirk says

      What now, TJR, Clausewitz not readable? He lies here before me on the table where I also have breakfast and dinner. I think, absolutely top literature, maybe not because of the style, more because of the wisdom and the depth. But also, scarcely of any meaning or value for the SJW and intersectionalist world I fear!

  12. Wayne Lusvardi says

    Even this article which intends to correct our notions and stereotypes about Machiavelli, is far off the mark. Machiavelli never wrote the “ends justify the means” but that SOMETIMES the ends justify the means but only in emergencies (war, fighting corruption, sedition, insurrection, resisting invasion by immigration). In all other situations, Machiavelli said leaders should rely on conventional morality (Christianity) in making decisions. And Machiavelli stated that the leaders who should be given the highest rank in a society are religious and military leaders. He even wrote a Christian sermon “On Penitence” on how leaders should be remorseful when they have to use evil to protect their cities or states. To compound the problem of the distortion of what Machiavelli wrote, is that both liberal and conservative academic scholars, novelists and movie makers have all grossly distorted what Machiavelli wrote. So how do we get a more accurate view of Machiavelli?
    One might try reading the works of Erica Benner or Raymond Angelo Belliotti.

    • dirk says

      Wayne, please, don’t try to put Macchiavelli in a moral, christian vest, he taught that cheating and lying and suppressing not only was allowed, but also the supreme good of the uebermensch, the PRINCES (where I don’t feel to belong to, but I know them all too well)

  13. Fred the Fourth says

    The Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici.
    I believe that a hint as to its nature may be contained in (IIRC) Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy where he explicitly disdains the tendency of authors to dedicate works to powerful princes. There are plenty of other pieces of evidence suggesting that Prince may be a satire, at least in large part; unfortunately my research paper on the subject is lost in the mists of time.
    Not to say, though, that Machiavelli is not worth reading. On the contrary, he was a fine writer, and an acute observer, participant, and victim of the culture of his time; not to mention his other literary and historical observations.

    • dirk says

      A satire, Fred? That’s new for me, but, of course, possible! Depends a great deal on what he wrote on other subjects, and how his attitude was there. Must be known among the scolars. Could it really be?

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  16. Mis Appercept says

    «One of the most recognizable “dead white males” was Niccolo Machiavelli.»

    Ask an Italian if they are white. I dare you.

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