The Myth of Machiavelli
Another cross over with work on teaching in this blog which tackles the enduring myth of Machiavelli. The myth is of a thought only directed to the celebration of the immoral use of power. In this myth, Machiavelli is the guide to seizing and holding power as an end in itself; and Machiavelli is presented as a diabolical, or at least cynical, exponent of cruelty as the price of power. This parallels the kind of accusations made against Nietzsche (discussed in earlier posts), and rather conveniently from this point of view the course ends with Nietzsche. The intervening figures are Bacon, Hobbes, Harrington, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Humboldt, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Mill.
Machiavelli and the Case of Nietzsche
This kind of accusation against Machiavelli is not widely accepted at all by those working on Machiavelli. In the case of Nietzsche, there is division between commentators on whether Nietzsche should be seen as an Authoritarian Extreme Elitist focusing on domination by the ‘Overman’, or a Liberal Moderate Elitist focusing on the example for humanity established by the ‘Overman’.
The Machiavelli Critics and their Hypocrisy
The consensus of those who have spent much time with Machiavelli is that he was arguing intellectually, and fighting in life, for Republicanism, Democracy and Liberty. The myth is all the more annoying and all the more in need of refutation. It is significant that Jesuit writers worked hard on establishing that myth. The original Jesuits were completely devoted to upholding church power, and they were much more extreme in their adherence to ‘wicked’ means than Machiavelli. Unlike Machiavelli they thought they acted from divine approval. If anyone thinks this is a harsh portrayal of the Jesuits, they should consult the criticisms made of the the Society of Jesus by that most passionate of Catholic thinkers, Blaise Pascal, in his Provincial Letters (down load text). The tendency for the notoriously power hungry to stigmatise Machiavelli did not end with the Jesuits, Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia) wrote an Anti-Machiavel (download text). Frederick wrote this just before inheriting the throne, an event he celebrated with the invasion of Hapsburg Siliesia. Frederick was an admirable person in many ways, as a sincere adherent of Enlightenment and tolerance, but he was not short of the wish to gain and increase power through any means. Those most devoted to the cynical pursuit of power have a persistent need to scapegoat Machiavelli.
The Twilight of Divine Order
The myth of Machiavelli is not just the creation of those who need to believe in something worse than their own desire for power for what they fondly believe is some higher purpose. The image of diabolical ‘Machiavel’ appears in Christopher Marlowe‘s great Sixteenth Century play, The Jew of Malta (download text). In Marlowe, and others, Machiavelli acquires an aura somewhat like Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera (as discussed by Kierkegaard in Either/Or I, ‘The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical-Erotic’), who fascinates with his relentless immorality and who acquires a kind of moral superiority in refusing to repent even as he is dragged down to Hell. Machiavelli was dismissive of Christianity and openly advocated immorality in the service of the state, but that was an immorality which served the public good and not a diabolical exultation in evil for its own sake. Like other Early Modern thinkers and writers, like Marlowe and Shakespeare, like Pascal and Hobbes, Machiavelli was gripped by the feeling that society could not be built on the foundations of purist morality, and sometimes enjoyed the feeling of emancipation from an all present divine morality. That is not the same as just welcoming evil, as the case of Pascal shows, it can involve great melancholy. For Machiavelli, human self-interest and fallibility is a truth to be grasped without evasion while trying to create the best possible form of political community, the Republic.
Niccolo Machiavelli was the author of two great books: The Prince(download here) and The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (download here). The myth of Machiavelli is maintained by referring only to The Prince, and then only in a vulgarised form in which Machiavelli is held to instruct a Prince on how to seize and hold onto power by any means possible, in a spirit of diabolical pleasure at the evil resulting. It is a nonsense to take The Prince in isolation since Machiavelli makes it clear that the book is only one part of his political thought, devoted to principalities. He makes it clear in Chapter Two of The Prince, just two pages into the book that the has written on republics elsewhere. In any case, any remotely careful reading of the book will note two things.
1. Machiavelli wrote the book to encourage an Italian prince to unite divided and occupied Italy, as can be seen in the last chapter, ‘Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarian Yoke’
This opportunity to provide Italy with a liberator, then, after such a long time, must not be missed. I have no doubt at all that he would be received with great affection in all those regions that have been inundated by the foreign invasions, as well as with great thirst for revenge, with absolute fidelity, with devotion and with tears of gratitude. What gates would be closed to him? What people would fail to obey him? What obvious hostility would work against him? What Italian would deny him homage? This foreign domination stinks in the nostrils of everyone. Let your illustrious family, then, take, up this mission, with the spirit and courage and the faith that inspires all just causes, so that under your standard our country may be ennobled, and under your auspices these words of Petrarch will come true
Valour will take up arms against wild attacks;
And the battle will be short:
for the ancient valour is still strong in Italian hearts.
2. There is the patriotic motivation for The Prince in which a prince will become the instrument to a unified Italy that Machiavelli certainly hopes will evolve into a Republic modelled on that of Ancient Rome.
Even if we concentrate on the advice Machiavelli give this potential unifier of Italy on how to hold on to power, we notice a Republican spirit, in which the ruler must rule in the public interest, shining through.
I conclude, then, that rulers should worry little about being plotted against if their subjects are well disposed towards them, but if their subjects are hostile and hate them, they should be afraid of everything and everyone. Well-ordered states and wise rulers have always been very careful not to exasperate the nobles and also to satisfy the people and keep them contented; this is one of the most important things for a ruler to do.
The Discourses are a commentary on the first 10 books of Titus Livy/Livius History of Rome. Livy wrote his history under Augustus in the early years of the Empire, exalting the heroic era of the rising Republic. Machiavelli wrote a commentary on Livy, because the Republic of Rome was his model of Republicanism, Democracy and Liberty. Machiavelli referred to a mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy rather than democracy, but that was the closest thing to Liberal Democracy as we understand it within the thought of the time.
Some of Machiavelli’s chapter headings in Book One really tell us what we need to know: ‘What kind of Events gave rise in Rome to the creation of Tribunes of the Plebs, whereby that Republic was made more Perfect’; ‘That discord between the Plebs and Senate of Rome made this Republic both Free and Powerful’; ‘How Necessary Public Indictments are for the Maintenance of Liberty in a Republic’. These alone are enough to tell us that Machiavelli valued: the Republic, the representation of the poor in the political institutions of the Republic, open struggle and conflict between groups of citizens as strengthening the power and freedoms of the Republic, rule of law and the subordination of all citizens equally to law is a foundation of Republican liberty.
Let us have one quote from Chapter 4 to confirm those impressions
The demands of a free populace, too are very seldom harmful to liberty, for they are due either to the populace being oppressed or to the suspicion that it is going to be oppressed, and, should these impressions be false, a remedy is provided in the public platform on which some man of standing can get up, appeal to the crowd, and show that it is mistaken. And though, as Tully remarks, the populace may be ignorant, it is capable of grasping the truth and readily yields waht a man, worthy of confidence, lays the truth before it.
Critics, therefore, should be more sparing in finding fault with the government of Rome, and should reflect that the excellent results which this public obtained could only have been brought about by excellent causes. Hence if tumults led to the creation of the tribunes, tumults deserve the highest praise, since, besides giving the populace a share in the administration, they served as the guardian of Roman liberties, as we shall show in the next chapter.
James Harrington: English Republican and Follower of Machiavelli
Harrington was a Seventeenth Century English Republican in an era of political struggle and excitement about conflicting political ideas. Despite the anathemas thrown at Machiavelli, Harrington studied him and drew inspiration for his own development of Republican theory for his own time. Let us confirm Machiavelli’s real influence on political ideas through a quote from Harrington’s master work A Commonwealth of Oceana (download here).
The Preliminaries, showing the Principles of Government
[…] government (to define it de jure or according to ancient prudence) is an art whereby a civil society of men is instituted and preserved upon the foundation of common rights or interest, or t (to follow Aristotle and Livy) it is the empires of laws and not of men. And government (to define it de facto or acording unto modern prudence) is an art whereby some man, or some few men, subject a city or a nation, and rule it according unto his or their private interest; which, because the laws in such cases are made according to the interest of a man or of some few families, may be said to be empire of men and not of laws. The former kind is that which Machiavel (whose books are neglected) is the only politician that hath gone about to retrieve […].
A Note on How a Major Conservative ‘Liberal’ Thinker Needed to Stigmatise Machiavelli as Wicked
One major Twentieth Century political philosopher, Leo Strauss, (a major influence on Neo-Conservatives) stuck to this prejudice. In his Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss sticks to the interpretation of Machiavelli as ‘wicked’, which is a consequence of Strauss’ adherence to Ancient Philosophy, particularly with regard to the place of Natural Law. That is Strauss resisted any tendency to think of the state, and therefore politics, as grounded in anything other than Natural Law. Natural Law is itself a phrase with many interpretations, but what Strauss was referring to was the idea that all humans can and should arrive at the same basic morals and laws through use of reason, because laws are based on an objective eternal order. He was drawing on a rich tradition rooted in Plato and Aristotle, and in Muslim, Christian and Jewish readings of Ancient Greek philosophy.
Strauss’ claim that Machiavelli broke with the Natural Law tradition is not controversial, and neither is his view in Natural Right and History that modern political thought is premissed on a separation between laws as they exist historically and natural law increasingly seen as an abstract ideal. Given that modern political philosophy, along with modern thought about law and ethics, has turned away from Natural Law towards more empirically and historically conditioned understanding of political principles, the identification of Machiavelli as uniquely wicked is a mischievous attempt to undermine modern political philosophy as opposed to the supposed eternal truths of Plato and Aristotle. A rhetorical trickery is used in which Machiavelli, as represented in a common place misunderstanding, is used to undermine Machiavelli and all modern political philosophy. Nietzsche is also used and misused in this way by Strauss. He uses a fundamentally cheap and misleading argument resting on prejudices about diabolical Machiavelli and Nazi Nietzsche, mixed up with pretensions to calm dispassionate universal reason, to instate Plato, as the beginning and end of political philosophy. Various references to Aristotle essentially serve the idealisation of Plato. In this way, Strauss is able to define himself as a ‘Liberal’ with an essentially ultra-conservative argument, a strangely familiar way of arguing. Strauss thought that philosophical truth is gained through an ‘esoteric’ reading of Plato and his Medieval interpreters, that is a reading according to Strauss’ eccentric search for hidden meanings. In accordance with this, Strauss accepted democracy but thought the rhetoric of democracy was a cover for the rule of the those enlightened to Straussian standards. Even though they essentially regard democracy as an instrument of the ‘wise’ ruler, Straussians in US politics are remarkably keen on a universalist crusade for democracy. The consequence is an enhancement of the power of the state within the US and in the hegemonic claims of the US in the world system, to an extent which shocks many traditional conservatives used to doctrines of the limited state and prudent self interest in international relations.