Machiavelli's Realism

Machiavelli's Realism

Mini Teaser: This volume surrounds Old Nick's brief for obligatory badness with essays by the editor and three scholars, each of whom suggests it is time to rethink Machiavelli's rethinking. While granting Machiavelli's importance, the commentators are uniform

by Author(s): Diana Schaub

This new translation of Machiavelli's The Prince appears as part of a series called "Rethinking the Western Tradition." Now, the Western tradition is rather odd as traditions go, for it is a tradition of subversion. The tradition that Machiavelli was heir to was a compound of classical and Christian thought. Neither of the founders of those traditions endeared themselves to the holders of power; Socrates was put to death by the Athenians and Jesus by the rulers of Rome. Those who followed in their wake (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas), although they found ways to adjust themselves to political power, did not relent on the essential point: namely, that there is a law higher than the laws of men. This natural law (or moral law, or divine law) offers a transcendent standard by which to judge political life and, potentially, offers a principled ground for disobedience to authority.

Machiavelli clinched his reputation with the devotees of power by subverting this subversive tradition. Decisively and spectacularly, he aligned philosophy with power. As the rethinker bar none, Machiavelli inaugurated modernity and its new truth: what Machiavelli in chapter fifteen of The Prince calls "the effective truth"--a real, tangible, felt truth opposed to the imagined, utopian truths of Greeks and Christians. Here is the key passage: "And many have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that no one has ever seen or known to be in reality. Because how one ought to live is so far removed from how one lives that he who lets go of what is done for that which one ought to do sooner learns ruin than his own preservation: because a man who might want to make a show of goodness in all things necessarily comes to ruin among so many who are not good. Because of this it is necessary for a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use it according to necessity." This is where realism begins--realism defined, in the words of one of the volume's commentators, as "an approach to politics rooted in a cynical view of human motives and possibilities, and devoted to advancing the interests of a state without regard for moral or religious strictures." It is a view that lends itself to pithy formulations: "Might makes right", "Do or be done to", "It's a dog-eat-dog world", and Machiavelli's own contribution, "Men must either be caressed or extinguished."

This volume surrounds Old Nick's brief for obligatory badness with essays by the editor and three scholars, each of whom suggests it is time to rethink Machiavelli's rethinking. While granting Machiavelli's importance, the commentators are uniformly hostile to his influence. In opposing Machiavellian realism, however, they do not embrace the designation "idealist" for themselves. As Angelo Codevilla argues in the prefatory essay entitled "Words and Power", Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon, not to kill his classical and Christian opponents, but to pare them into risible and dismissable shapes (i.e., naive idealists). Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion, committing character assassination via caricature. His campaign of misrepresentation won him the hearts and minds of future generations to such an extent that today, according to Hadley Arkes ("Machiavelli and America"), "virtue is not something that the urbane will proclaim openly and teach in public."

We are all Machiavellians now. As a result, Carnes Lord suggests ("Machiavelli's Realism"), "it is difficult to gain the necessary perspective on the specific character and limitation of Machiavellian realism." The most obvious thing so many miss is that Machiavelli's enterprise was not purely descriptive, value-neutral, or non-normative. The Prince is the work of a polemicist, intent on replacing Christianity with "a new ethical framework structured by the concepts of necessity and usefulness." That replacement was accomplished in a particularly deft and insidious way, since Machiavelli was, as Lord says, "a student and imitator of the secular success of the Christian message." He was an ideologist and propagandist who borrowed the tactics of the Church (witness Pope Gregory XV's Congregatio de propaganda fide) in order to defeat it. Lord, in particular, faults contemporary realism for having neglected the deeper lessons of Machiavelli's revaluation of values: "Machiavelli's 'realism', then, is something quite different . . . than the 'realism' of contemporary international relations theory, with its emphasis on value-free models. For Machiavelli, the 'effective truth' of human things cannot be understood simply in terms of material wants or needs, of acquisition or security in the ordinary sense of those words. Just as Machiavelli was more alive than his modern successors to the reality of honor and glory as motives of action in (at least the most interesting and formidable) political men, so he recognized the power of ideals to shape political behavior generally. He understood that the political and military realities of the world had been decisively affected by the victory of Christianity over paganism."

Our world in turn has been reordered by the Machiavellian conquest. With what result? Just as Christians had their schisms and sects, so too Machiavellians. Lord regards Machiavelli as the godfather of both modern republicanism (via Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and the American Founders) and modern totalitarianism. Seconding that judgment, Codevilla avers that Mao, Stalin, and Hitler are "paradigms of Machiavelli's irreligious, single-minded founders" and wonders if the tyrannies of the twentieth century would cause even Machiavelli to repent of his counsel to wickedness.

But whether Stalin or Hitler slept with a copy of The Prince under his pillow or not, I'm not so sure either was a sound Machiavel. As Lord himself argues: "Machiavelli's argument . . . may be summarized as follows. Men's natural desire to acquire must be respected as the premise of all political action. This desire cannot and should not be repressed. But it must be regulated so as to promote the common good. Such regulation is to be achieved not through moral exhortation but through political institutions with teeth--that is, institutions that both provide ordinary checks and balances to control contending social interests, and at the same time facilitate the application of extraordinary measures when necessary to surmount domestic or external crises." Neither communism nor National Socialism accords the least deference to the essential trait of human nature: what Machiavelli calls "the very natural and ordinary" desire to acquire. The totalitarian attempt to reconstitute man leads inevitably to the boundless extremes of "pious cruelty", quite unlike the cruelties "well used" recommended by Machiavelli.

Nonetheless, it may be that the unleashing of the will accomplished by Machiavelli was bound to take on a millenarian quality. Apparently, human beings cannot permanently accept a purely idiosyncratic determination of the will and always seek larger justifications for their actions. The modern god of History is the altogether unintended progeny (and refutation) of Machiavelli.

But if Stalin and company are Machiavellians manquŽ, what about the citizens and statesmen of the liberal democracies? In the passage above, Lord presented the public-spirited side of Machiavelli, the side developed by those who institutionalized and constitutionalized and moderated Machiavellian teachings in order to found modern democracy. But even here, there are dangers. William Allen, in the essay "Machiavelli and Modernity", speculates about the effects of "widespread knowledge of the fact that politics is merely appearance and morality is mere pretense. . . . At the very least, politics becomes the management of symbols in which fewer and fewer people believe." Instead of the barbarous surrealism of twentieth-century tyranny, one gets the hollow virtual reality of spin doctors and pr men. The result, according to Lord, is "an enduring legacy of cynicism and self-indulgence." Codevilla speaks of the foreign policy effects, where "realism" is more often a recipe for accommodation and appeasement than a spirited call to arms. The odd legacy of the sanguinary Machiavelli is the supineness of democratic leaders. In the weak-willed, Machiavellian necessity becomes a kind of fatalism. The voluntaristic element is lost; no more domination of the goddess Fortuna--it is as if sexual harassment codes now apply to that metaphorical woman as well. Again, it seems that Machiavelli misunderstood the nature of the human will. According to Codevilla: "Contemporary Western leaders have lost, along with the scruples of natural and divine law, the very will to kill enemies both foreign and domestic. Machiavelli would hardly have understood why anyone would revolt against divine law and assert absolute sovereignty only to exercise it pusillanimously for petty ends."

Finding Machiavelli insufficient on a number of counts, the commentators argue for the greater realism of anti-Machiavellian thought and practice. They forward certain large claims about human nature. Lord, for instance, states that the "fundamental failure of Machiavellian realism" is its disregard for the truth that "law is more respectable than force--because, and to the extent that, man is a being with natural awareness of moral constraints." Perhaps more persuasive, at least for those resistant to moral philosophy, are the concrete analyses of particular anti-Machiavellian statesmen.

Arkes and Allen both focus on the American founding, regarding it, despite its modernity and debt to the "new science of politics", as fundamentally anti-Machiavellian. Arkes examines the American subscription to the natural law in the jurisprudence of James Wilson. By occasionally drawing broad parallels to Plato and Aristotle, Arkes tries to link the principles that justified the Revolution and undergirded the Constitution to that older tradition. But when it comes to more precise antecedents for the American view of legitimate government, the name of John Locke perforce appears. Arkes, however, never raises the question of Locke's judicious Machiavellianism. (Lord, by contrast, acknowledges the line stretching from Machiavelli through the Enlightenment to the Founders.)
On the level of practice rather than theory, Arkes cites Alexander Hamilton as his beau ideal of an anti-Machiavellian politician. This virtuous judgment is sustained by the verdict of an impressively devious and dissolute Machiavellian: Talleyrand ranked Hamilton above Napoleon and Fox as the greatest man of the era. What enabled Hamilton to avoid ruin for himself and his nation, when one must operate, as The Prince says, "among so many who are not good"? In a word: Prudence. This is not the merely instrumental cleverness of the Machiavellian, but the Aristotelian virtue of practical wisdom, which turns out to be considerably more flexible and worldly than Machiavelli let on. As Codevilla points out, Machiavelli's goody-two-shoes caricature of the ancients "made it difficult for even the memory of virtue as it was once understood to enter political discourse." It should perhaps be added that our bout of historical amnesia is not due solely to Machiavelli, but to Christianity as well, inasmuch as Christian morality does have a simple, absolute, and apolitical character. As Churchill remarked: "The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibility of guiding states." That insight, however, did not leave Churchill, any more than Hamilton, an amoralist. Instead, Churchill spoke of the guidance supplied by both "Honour" (sparked by pride) and "Duty" (to such ends as peace, prosperity, and freedom), always assisted by "the right judgement of the facts at that time."

To illustrate the sort of savvy compatible with the guidance of sound and sober principles, Arkes cites "a remarkable memorandum of foreign affairs" written by Hamilton. The occasion was a request by the British to transit American territory with their troops in order to engage the Spanish. Arkes gives enough of Hamilton's reasoning to confirm that: "The memorandum was informed, at every point, by experience and by a profound realism. In that respect, it suffers in no comparison with the sophistication that Machiavelli would offer for the instruction of a prince. But it should be quite as evident that the writer could not have been identified even remotely as a Machiavellian or a 'Hobbesian.'"

Arkes makes it easy for himself by stressing the anti-Hobbesian elements, that is to say the concern for national honor even at the risk of national self-preservation. No one, I think, would have thought to call Hobbesian a man who died an untimely death in a duel; indeed, the nation might wish Hamilton had been a bit more Hobbesian. Machiavelli, of course, was not so averse to considerations of honor, at least not in so far as honor is a component of reputation, renown, credibility, and similar intangibles that contribute to power.

But Machiavelli evinced no concern for honor that transcends the usefulness of an honorable reputation. By contrast, the American founders, according to Arkes, "connected honor with what is naturally noble as tightly as they could", and in this are "as unmodern, as anti-Machiavellian as could be." One thinks of other famous examples from men whose actions backed up their pronouncements. Witness the closing lines of Lincoln's Cooper Union Address: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it"; or the passage from Churchill's Gathering Storm, discussing the West's belated guarantee of Poland: "Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves."

The fate of self-government may depend on the willingness to hazard all, whether that willingness proceeds from "faith" as Lincoln says, or from "pride" as Churchill suggests. Despite the invigorating effects of such foundational moments, I suppose the aim of a democracy's foreign policy must be to avert the need for a "finest hour." According to Allen, the Founder who gave sustained thought to this dilemma was George Washington. In his Farewell Address, Washington warned his countrymen against "permanent alliances or enmities." Many, at the time and since, have taken this as cold Machiavellianism; the French minister called it "a piece extolling ingratitude . . . presenting interest as the only counsel which governments ought to follow." Allen disagrees, arguing that for Washington the "sovereign principle" was not interest but rather "the integrity of public opinion." Washington knew that a republican regime, where public opinion is key, can never be as supple or nuanced in its foreign policy as an aristocracy. Great care must be taken to preserve the public faith, and being "parsimonious in pledging its faith" is part of that care. The path that Washington sketches is, indeed, the pursuit of interest, but under the superintendence of justice. As Allen explains, "Washington identified a transcendent interest that would become the permanent basis of opinion in the republic. In doing so, he rejected the notion that opinion, once established, could be managed into any shape to fit whatever the rulers--or indeed the majority--happened to desire at any given time. A settled and permanent opinion--one not managed by the rulers but founded on natural and divine law--is the foundation of republican freedom in the United States."

Allen's discussion of what is prerequisite for a self-governing people's foreign policy gives rise to a larger reflection on the quarrel of ancients and moderns. Allen suggests that the American founders made a unique contribution in the ongoing rethinking of the Western tradition, for they departed from both Plato and Machiavelli in their conviction that ordinary folks (rather than Plato's best or Machiavelli's efficacious) have just title to rule. "The people who approved the Declaration believed that far more people were capable of self-government than was ever conceded by Machiavelli and the ancients. Indeed, they believed that most people may be so capable." Only time will tell whether that conviction bespeaks true political realism, but a volume like this at least gives us a fighting chance.

Essay Types: Essay