Introduction: Who Was Machiavelli?
Portrait of Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piomo, 1519, oil on canvas / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
I want to begin by talking about who was Machiavelli. How do we read The Prince? Machiavelli was a Florentine. To know that is to know virtually everything you need to know about him. I’m exaggerating but I do so to make a point. Florence was a republic. It was a city-state. And Machiavelli spent a good deal of his adult life in the service of the republic. Living in Florence, the center of the Renaissance at the height of the Renais sance, Machiavelli wished to do for politics what his contemporaries, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, had done for art and sculpture. In other words, he hoped to revive in some way the spirit of the ancients of antiquity, but to modify it in the lights of his own experience. As he puts it in the dedication of his most famous book, he writes that this book The Prince “is a product of long experience with modern things and a continuous reading of the ancient ones.” In Machiavelli, we have what we have come to call “modernity,” given its first and most powerful expression.
But Machiavelli was not an ordinary Florentine. He grew up under the rule of the Medici. That is to say, the first family of Florence, and lived to see them deposed by a Dominican friar by the name of Savonarola. Savonarola attempted to impose a kind of theocracy in Florence, a sort of Christian republic of virtue. But the Florentines, being what they were, rejected this idea and the rule of Savonarola was short-lived. In its place, a republic was re-established where Machiavelli occupied the office of secretary to the second chancery, a kind of diplomatic post which he held for 14 years from 1498 to 1512. After the fall of the republic and the return of the Medici to princely rule there, Machiavelli was exiled from the city, from politics to a small estate that he owned on the out skirts of the city. You can visit it today. It was here, from a place of political exile, that he wrote his major works–The Prince, the Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War. It was from here, also, that he wrote voluminous letters to friends seeking knowledge about politics. Machiavelli was a kind of political junkie, you could say, in things happening in Italy and else where.
In one of these letters, a famous letter to his friend, a man named Francesco Vettori, he describes how he came to write his most famous book. I want to read a passage from that letter. It is also, I should say, on the basis of this letter, which is why I ask people from time to time to remove their caps in the class room, from the House of Study. This is the way Machiavelli approached study. “When evening comes,”–he writes, “When evening comes, I return to my house and go to my study. At the door, I take off my clothes of the day covered with muck and dirt and I put on my regal and courtly garments. And decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reasons for their actions and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours every night, I feel no boredom. I forget every pain. I do not fear poverty and death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely unto them. And because Dante says that to have understood without retention does not make knowledge, I have noted what capital I have made from their conversations and have composed a little work on principalities, where I delve as deeply as I can into reflections on this subject, debating what a principality is, of what kinds they are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, and why they are lost.
So there, Machiavelli gives us a sense of the seriousness with which he approached his subject, how he studied, and what it was he came to write. Let me just say from the beginning, The Prince is a deceptive book. What else would we expect from the name of a man that has become synonymous with deception? It is a work, The Prince, that everybody has heard of, perhaps has some preconception about. I was checking the web yesterday and I found a new book about Machiavelli, which none of these every fail to surprise me. This one is called The Suit: a Machiavellian Guide to Men’s Fashion. Check it out. Who knows? Machiavelli’s name is everywhere. It is applied to everything, from corporate executives now to men’s fashion. Everybody knows or thinks they know what his work is about. His name, again, is synonymous with deception, treachery, cunning, deceit. Just look at the cover of your book. Look at his face. Look at his smile, really more of a smirk. He seems to be saying, “I know something you don’t know.” The difficulty with reading Machiavelli today is that we all think we already know what he knows and that is false.
Machiavelli was a revolutionary. In the preface to his largest book, the Discourses on Livy, he compares himself to Christopher Columbus for his discovery of what he calls “new modes and orders.” What Columbus had done for geography, Machiavelli claims he will do for politics. That is to say, discover an entirely new continent, a new world, so to speak, the new world of Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s new world, his new modes and orders, will require, clearly, a displacement of the earlier one, of the previous one. And Machiavelli wrote, of course, the dominant form of political organization was the empire or, to speak more precisely, the Christian empire. The Holy Roman Empire, as it was known in the time of Machiavelli, was the successor to the ancient Roman state, the older Roman Empire. Both of these empires had aspired to a kind of universality. And this universality was given expression in Dante’s famous treatise, De Monarchia, of monarchy, that set out a model for a universal Christian state, based on the unity and oneness of the human race under a Christian ruler. Machiavelli rejected this idea of the empire and harked back, instead, to the model of republican Rome. And there is much in his writing that recalls the sort of extraordinary virtues and capacities of the citizens of the ancient republican city-state. But you might say just as Machiavelli broke with the dominant model of Christian universalism, so too did he reject the ancient model of the small, autonomous republican state. He makes this clear in a famous passage at the beginning of chapter 15 of The Prince. And I just want to read that passage, as well. Here, Machiavelli says, “I depart from the orders of others. I depart from their modes,” he says. “But since it is my intent to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of things than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined,” –one thinks here of Plato, perhaps, but also to Christianity–“Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth. For it is far from how one lives to how one should live. That he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.”
In other words, no Platonic cities in speech. No Augustinian cities of God. We will only look, he says, to the effectual truth of things. The effectual truth of the matter, not the imagination of it or the utopia of it. That passage is often taken to be, the beginning of chapter 15, the essence of Machiavelli and realism, a kind of Realpolitik, as it were. His appeal from the “ought” to the “is,” to take one’s bearings again, from the effectual truth of things. This seems to be, in many ways, the essence of his teaching. To be sure, Machiavelli focuses on key aspects of political reality which are often ignored by thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. Murders, conspiracies, coup d’état, these are the kinds of political phenomena he is interested. He seems to be more interested in the evils that human beings do than the goods to which they aspire. You might even say that Machiavelli takes delight in demonstrating, much to our chagrin, the space between our lofty intentions and the actual consequences of our deeds.
Yet, it would seem to me there is more to Machiavelli than the term “realism” connotes, although that is certainly important. In this passage, Machiavelli announces his break, indeed his repudiation of all those who have come before, all those who have come before. He both replaces and yet reconfigures according to his own lights, elements from both the Christian empire and the Roman republic, to create a new form of political organization distinctly his own. What we might call today the modern state. Machiavelli is the founder, the discoverer, the inventor of the modern state. This modern, secular, sovereign state was refined and developed in the decades and centuries after Machiavelli in the writing of Hobbes, of Locke, of Rousseau, to say nothing of contemporary twentieth-century writers from both the right and the left–Max Weber, Karl Schmidt, to a man, an Italian philosopher named Antonio Gramsci, who was the author of a book interestingly called The Modern Prince, based on Machiavelli himself.
Machiavelli’s state itself has universalist ambitions, in many ways, much like its Christian and Roman predecessors. But this is a state, he believes, that has now been liberated or emancipated from Christian and classical conceptions of virtue. The management of affairs is left to those people who he calls princes, which in the Machiavellian usage designates a new kind of political founder or leader endowed with a new species of ambition, love of glory, and elements of prophetic authority that we might call charisma.
The Prince: Title and Dedication of the Book
But just what was the nature of the revolution contemplated by our founder, Machiavelli, the founder of modern political science? Consider, just for a moment, the title and dedication of the book. The Prince appears, on its surface, to be a most conventional work. It presents itself in the long tradition of what has come to be called the mirror of princes. Books that give a kind of guide to the dos and don’ts of princely behavior. Fair enough. It seems to go back a long, long time. And the appearance of conventionality is supported by the opening words of the book in his dedicatory letter. The first words or first line out of his mouth or the first lines are “it is customary,” he says. It is a work intended to ingratiate himself to Lorenzo de Medici, the man to whom the work is dedicated, a customary prince, a traditional prince who has just regained his power. But look again.
Consider the structure of the first three chapters. “All states, all dominions that have held and do hold empire over man are either republics or principalities,” he says in the opening sentence of chapter 1. Having distinguished two, and only two, kinds of regimes, republics and principalities, as the only ones worth mentioning, he goes on to distinguish two kinds of principalities. There are hereditary principalities, like those currently run by Lorenzo, which acquire their authority through tradition and hereditary bloodlines. Then he says there are new princes and new principalities. Machiavelli then asserts that his book will deal only with principalities, leaving, he says, the discussion of republics for elsewhere, what one assumes his Discourses of Livy, which he was already writing by this time. But then Machiavelli goes on to tell the reader that the exclusive subject of this book will be the new prince. In other words, not Lorenzo at all, but precisely princes who have or will achieve their authority through their own guile, their own force, or their own virtù, to use the famous Machiavellian term that I want to talk about later.
The true, in other words, recipient of this book must be necessarily the potential prince. That is to say, someone with sufficient political audacity to create their own authority, who has not simply received it from the past, but to create their own authority. Maybe one could even say Machiavelli’s prince is, in a way, the first truly self-made man. So what, then, is the character of this new prince and how does he differ from more conventional modes of political authority? In one of the most famous chapters of the book, chapter 6, entitled, “Of New Principalities that are Acquired Through One’s Own Arms and Virtue,” there is that word again, virtù, one’s own arms and virtue, Machiavelli discusses the character of the modern prince, the new prince. “A prudent man,” he writes, “should always enter upon the paths beaten by great men and imitate those who have been most excellent, so that if his own virtue does not reach that far, it at least is in the odor of it.” We at least come within, you might say, sniffing distance of their greatness. “One should do,” he says, “what archers do when attempting to reach a distant target, namely, aim your bow high, knowing that the force of gravity will bring the arrow down.” In other words, set your sights high, knowing you will probably fall short.
“So who are the greatest examples,” he says, “of princely rule that the prudent man”–interesting choice of words, “the prudent man”–“should imitate?” And here, Machiavelli gives a list of those heroic founders of peoples and states–Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and so on. “As one examines their actions and lives,” he writes, “one does not see that they had anything else from fortune than the opportunity which gave them the matter enabling them to introduce any form they please. Notice in that sentence, he uses those Aristotelian terms, “form” and “matter” that we spoke about in relation to the Aristotelian regime. “They had nothing else from fortune,” he says, again, “than the opportunity,” the occasion, that “gave them the matter enabling them to introduce any form they please.” In short, Machiavelli claims these were founders who created, in a way, ex nihilo, out of nothing. They only had the occasion in a kind of formless matter upon which they could adopt and impose any form they took. And they had, of course, the strength of mind, as well as the audacity and cunning, to take advantage of this situation. Such opportunities, he writes, such occasions, made these men successful. And their excellent virtue enabled the opportunity to be recognized. Hence, their fatherlands were ennobled by it and they became prosperous. They took advantage of their opportunity, seized their opportunity and imposed their own form upon it.
The Distinction between Armed and Unarmed Prophets
And it is here that Machiavelli introduces his famous distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. “All the armed prophets,” he says, “conquered and the unarmed were ruined.” This seems to be and is, clearly, a kind of classic statement of sheer Machiavellian power politics. “All politics grows out of the barrel of a gun,” as a famous twentieth-century Machiavellian once put it. The armed prophets conquer, the unarmed lose. But there seems to be more to it than this. Machiavelli compares the prince to a prophet. Why does he use that language? What is a prophet? The most obvious answer is a person to whom God speaks. Machiavelli’s armed prophets may not be religious figures and they are not necessarily recipients of divine knowledge, but they seem to be, at least on his account, people of exceptional personal qualities that allow them to bring laws, to be law bringers, lawgivers, shapers of institutions and also reformers of opinions that govern our lives. Machiavelli’s armed prophet is more than just a gangster, like Orson Welles in that part. He is a teacher and a kind of educator as well. You might even think in your class, in your sections, how or in what ways does Machiavelli’s armed prophet differ in important ways both from Plato’s philosopher king, as well as Aristotle’s notion of the megalopsychos as the sort of magnanimous statesman. Although this kind of talk about “armed prophets always win” is characteristic of Machiavelli, he likes this kind of tough talk. He clearly recognizes that there are clear exceptions to his rule about armed prophets.
Not present in Machiavelli’s list of great prophets – Jesus.
Jesus, who triumphed through words and teaching alone. He had no troops. He had no arms. He established a religion, first a sect, you might say, then a religion, then eventually an empire, the Holy Roman Empire, that was established in the name of that teaching. Words may well be a powerful weapon, as powerful as a gun. Then you might say, “What is Machiavelli himself?” Who is Machiavelli but an archetypal, unarmed prophet? He has no troops. He has no territory. He controls no real estate. He’s been banished, yet he is clearly attempting to conquer, comparing himself to Columbus, to conquer in large part through the transformation of our understanding of good and evil, of virtue and vice. In other words, to make people obey you, you must first make them believe you. Machiavelli’s prophetic prince, in other words, must have some of the qualities of a philosopher, as well as a religious reformer trying to reshape and remold human opinion, especially opinion over, as we said, good and evil, just and unjust.
What does this reformation, so to speak, or transformation consist of? We might even call this Machiavelli in the garden of good and evil, midnight in the garden of good and evil for Machiavelli.
Good and Evil, Virtue and Vice
Portrait said to be of Cesare Borgia / Public Domain
One point often attributed about Machiavelli is that he introduced a new kind of immoralism into politics. In that famous chapter, chapter 15, he says he sets out to teach the prince how not to be good. A striking formulation. He will teach the prince how not to be good. And in perhaps the most important book on Machiavelli ever written, the author of that book declared Machiavelli to be a teacher of evil. You might want to think about that. A teacher of evil. Is that what Machiavelli was? Questions of good and bad, virtue and vice, appear on virtually every page of The Prince. He is not simply a teacher of political pragmatism, of how to adjust means to fit the ends. He seems to be offering nothing short of a comprehensive revolution, transformation. If you want to use the Nietzschean language, “transvaluation” of our most basic vocabulary about good and evil.
Machiavelli doesn’t reject the idea of the good. Rather, he redefines it. He is continually speaking, and in fact I would suggest on virtually every page of the book, he is continually speaking the language of virtue. His word “virtù,” which a word that retains the Latin word for the word “man,” vir, wir, man, and virtù, a word that is perhaps best translated or, by our word, “manliness.” What distinguishes Machiavelli’s use of this language of virtù, manliness, is that he seeks to locate it in certain extreme situations, such as political foundings, changes of regimes, wars, both of domestic and foreign kinds. What distinguishes Machiavelli from his predecessors, in many ways, is his attempt to take the extraordinary situation, the extreme situation, again, the extremes of political founding, conspiracies, wars, coups, as the normal situation and then makes morality fit that extreme. His examples are typically drawn from situations of human beings or polities in extremes where the very survival or independence of a society is at stake. In those situations, you might say, and only in those situations, is it permissible to violate the precepts of ordinary morality. In those situations one must learn, as he says, how not to be good, to have to violate the conventions and cannons of ordinary morality. Machiavelli takes his bearings from these extreme states of emergency and in his own way, seeks to normalize them, to present them as the normal condition of politics.
Machiavelli’s preference for these extreme situations expresses his belief that only in moments of great crisis, where the very existence of a state is at risk, does human nature truly reveal itself. We finally or fully understand what people are only in the most extreme situations. The paradox that, you might say, runs throughout all of Machiavelli’s morality is that the very possibility of virtue grows out of and, in fact, is even dependent upon the context of chaos, violence, and disorder that always threatens the political world. Think of it. Think of many of our great political models or heroes. What would the Duke of Marlborough have been without Louis XIV? What would Washington have been without George III? What would Lincoln have been without the slave interest? What would Churchill have been without Hitler? In other words, his point is that good is only possible because of the prior existence of bad. Good is founded upon evil. And even the greatest goods, the founding and preservation of cities, often require murder. What was Romulus’ murder of Remus or Cain’s murder of Abel, but the kind of murder that founded, at the basis of the founding of cities and civilizations?
One thinks, in a way, of Welles’ line in The Third Man when he looks down from above and says, “If I gave you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped moving, would you really tell me to keep my money?” It requires, for Machiavelli, the founding of regimes requires that kind of cold and cruel calculation. Of course, it’s being used in the movie just to support a criminal enterprise, not the founding of a city. We might investigate that as well. But Machiavelli does not deny that in ordinary terms, in what we might call times of normal politics, the ordinary rules of justice prevail. He also shows, however, that normal politics is, itself, dependent upon extraordinary politics, periods of crisis, anarchy, instability, revolution, where the normal rules of the game are suspended. It is in these times, you might say, when individuals of extraordinary virtue and capacity, prophetic qualities, as he calls it in chapter 6, are most likely to emerge. While the Aristotelian statesmen, just to make a contrast for a moment, is most likely to value stability and the means necessary to achieving it, the Machiavellian prince seeks war, because it is only, again, in the most extreme situations that one can prosper and be prosperous. Think about the lines again from the movie. “For 30 years under the Borgias, violence, murder, terror, bloodshed. But what did it produce? Greatness of an unprecedented type. Stability, democracy, brotherly love, peace. What does that produce? Mediocrity, the cuckoo clock.” There might be a little more of Nietzsche suggested in that, than Machiavelli, but I think the Machiavellian overtones are very evident.
Consider just the following. Every child, every one of you, every one of us was brought up to know that one must never do wrong, even if good consequences are seen to follow. It is never right to give bad examples to others, even if one expects good to come from it. Yet, Machiavelli breaks these rules about not giving bad examples. Virtue is not associated with the classical conceptions of moderation, of justice, of self-control over the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Virtue means for him a kind of manly self-assertion, audacity, ruthlessness, a reliance on one’s own arms and calculated use of cruelty to achieve one’s ends. The model of Machiavellian virtù is the Renaissance statesman, in general, Cesare Borgia. It’s very interesting that Orson Welles made a movie, not so often seen today, about Cesare Borgia.
I want to leave you with reading one passage from The Prince, chapter 7, in which Machiavelli illustrates the kind of virtù Cesare represented and that he wants to recommend for those who follow him. “Once the duke,” that’s Cesare himself–“Once the duke had taken over the Romana,” an area outside of Florence, “he found it had been commanded by impotent lords who had been readier to despoil their subjects than to correct them and had given their subjects matter for disunion, not union. So Cesare put there,” he says “Messer Ramiro d’Orco, a cruel and ready man to whom he gave the fullest power.” So Cesare set up as a lieutenant of his to impose order on this area and to whom he delegated the fullest responsibility. “In short time,” he goes on, “Ramiro reduced it to peace and unity with the very greatest reputation for himself. Then the duke judged that such excessive authority was not necessary, because he feared it might become hateful and he set up a sort of a civil court in the middle of the province with the most excellent president where each city had its advocate. And because he knew that the past rigors had generated some hatred for Ramiro, to purge the spirits of that people and to gain them entirely to himself, he wishes to show that if any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from him, from Cesare, but from the harsh nature of his minister. And having seized this opportunity,” that language, seized the occasion, seized this opportunity, “he had emplaced one morning in the piazza in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. He had him cut in two. The bloody knife and piece of wood beside him. “The ferocity of this spectacle,” Machiavelli concludes, “left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.” That, of course, is Machiavelli’s virtù, princely virtue, what you do to leave the people satisfied and stupefied. What we might call today shock and awe. Okay, next week we’ll continue this learned man.
Introduction – Machiavelli and Religion
So then Machiavelli as both a revolutionary in many ways and a reformer of the moral vocabulary about virtue and vice, good and evil. Machiavelli seeks to replace, to transpose an older vocabulary associated both with Plato and certainly, perhaps more importantly, with biblical sources, wants to transform altogether the language of virtue, to give it a new kind of meaning, to change it from either Platonic or Christian otherworldliness to a greater sense of worldly power. Virtue is, for him, or to use his term again, virtù is related with manliness, with force, with power. He tells us, in chapter 25 of The Prince, the ethic of the prince must be one of audacity and even more audacity and that famous and very volatile image he uses, fortune is a woman and you must know how- the prince must know how to conquer the woman, must be used through policies of force, brutality, audacity. This is the language of Machiavelli. Virtue is associated with the quest for worldly glory, with ambition, with the desire to achieve success, and that’s what I want to talk about at greater length today. I want to talk about what in the political and philosophical literature about this is called the problem of “dirty hands.” And if you want to join the political game, you must be prepared to get your hands dirty, and what Machiavelli means by that, how he comes to this problem.
In order, he argues, to effect a transformation of European morality, it is, in other words, to teach the prince, as he says in chapter 15, how not to be good, you have to go to the source of the morality. You have to go to the source of morality. To affect the maxims, to affect the standards that govern our lives, it is necessary to go to the source of those standards and those maxims and that can only be found in religion. Oddly, it seems in some ways, religion does not seem to be a major theme of The Prince. In a memorable passage from chapter 18, Machiavelli advises the prince always to cultivate the appearance of religion. The prince, he writes, should appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity and all religion, he writes, adding nothing is more necessary to appear to have this last quality. The point is clear. The appearance of religion, by which he clearly means Christianity, is good while the actual practice of it is harmful. Think about the way in which that transforms what Plato says about justice in his answer to Glaucon in Book II of the Republic where…or Thrasymachus…where they both say it is more important, is it not more important to have the appearance of being just than the reality of it? And here, you see Machiavelli in a way adding his voice to that chorus. It is much better to have the appearance than the reality of religion.
Discourses on Livy
Engraved portrait of Titus Livius /
But in order to understand or to discover the core of Machiavelli’s teachings about religion, I have to make a slight detour away from The Prince and to his Discourses on Livy and in maybe the most important chapter of that book, Book II, chapter 2, called “Concerning the Kinds of People the Romans had to Fight and how Obstinately they Defended their Freedom,” a long title for a chapter to be sure, but here Machiavelli develops a powerful contrast between two opposed and mutually incompatible moral codes, the Christian and the pagan. “If one asks oneself,” Machiavelli writes, “If one asks oneself how it came about that people of old,” in olden–in the ancient world, “were more fond of liberty than we are today, I think the answer,” he says, “is due to the same cause that makes men today less bold than they used to be,” less bold, “and this is due I think to the difference between our education and that of bygone days.”
So what precisely is the difference that Machiavelli refers to here between our education and the education of bygone days that makes people or that made people in the ancient world more fond of liberty, as he says, than those of our contemporaries or Machiavelli’s contemporaries? Machiavelli’s emphasis here on education, particularly moral and religious education, is the key difference between the ancient times and his own. These two different ages, he believes, advanced two very different systems of moral and religious education, one based on pagan worldliness and the other based on Christian innocence. And it is that conflict, as it were, between what we might call worldliness and innocence that is the core of Machiavelli’s moral code. Let me quote Machiavelli’s passage from the Discourses at some length because I think it’s very revealing: “Our religion,” he writes, obviously thinking of the Catholic Christianity of his time. “Our religion,” he writes, “has glorified humble and contemplative men, monks, priests, humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It is assigned as man’s highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things,” whereas the other, that is to say the ancient moral code, “whereas the other identified it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything that conduces to make men very bold. And if our religion,” he says, “demands that in you there be strength what it asks for is the strength to suffer rather than to do bold things.” In other words, he says Christian strength, the strength of the Christian, is the strength to suffer, thinking of Jesus on the Cross rather than to, as he puts it, do bold things.
And it is not for Machiavelli simply the existence of these two different moralities that is at stake. By softening morals, he believes, by making us gentler, Christianity has had some deeply perverse effects upon politics, so he claims. This pattern of life, Machiavelli continues, appears to have made the world weak and to have handed it over to the prey of the wicked. This pattern of life, this pattern of education, of moral education, introduced by the Bible and scripture and Christianity, has made the world weak. In other words, by teaching humility, self-abnegation, purity of heart, Christianity has made it difficult to develop qualities necessary for the defense of political liberty. Christianity has made the world weak or, if you want to use his again highly charged word for that, it has made the world effeminate. Machiavelli would no doubt be taken up against some board of offense today for using such a term but that’s his language. What can I say? This is why he concludes there are fewer republics today than in the time of the ancients because we do not have the same love of freedom that they did. Now Machiavelli’s explicit referencing of the ancient civil religions, the ancient civil theology, is a direct tribute to the role of Numa, N-u-m-a, in Livy’s famous History of the Roman Republic. Justin, who is an authority on this text, can tell you more about it if you like, but in the opening books of Livy, he tells the story of how Rome was founded by Romulus, who had murdered his brother, Remus, but after this it required a second founding and the second founding was the work of a man named Numa, who, Livy writes, determined that Rome, which had originally been established through force of arms, should be reestablished through justice, laws and proper observances, in other words, religion. In order to complete the founding of the city, it was necessary to establish its gods and ensure proper respect for the law. Numa was the bringer of the Roman legal codes respecting religion, proper observances and the like.
The Problem of “Dirty Hands”
Marble sculpture of David preparing to slay Goliath, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1623-1624 / Galleria Borghese, Rome
But Machiavelli uses Livy and in the story about Rome’s second founding to bring home an important lesson about the utility of religion. “Religion,” he tells the reader, “is not to be evaluated by its truth content but for its consequences for society.” But the story of Numa or his use of that story tell us more than just a lesson about the social utility of religion. At the time of the founding of Rome, Machiavelli writes, religion was necessary to temper and control the warlike character of the Romans. Religion had to bring a softening effect upon against the violent and bestial character of the early Romans. But for us today, Machiavelli writes, religion has to serve the opposite purpose. It must instill something of a fighting spirit into people who have lost their instinct to resist encroachments on their liberty. In many ways, this is the deeper meaning of Machiavelli’s slogan, “one’s own arms.” He uses in a variety of passages the formula that a good republic depends upon one’s own arms and laws and in a deeper sense this idea of “one’s own arms” means developing the capacities to resist encroachments on your freedom. The prince, in other words, has to use religion to encourage his subjects to rely upon their own arms rather than on divine promises and that again is the teaching of his retelling of the story of David and Goliath, the biblical story of David and Goliath, in chapter 13 of The Prince.
You remember how Machiavelli retells and also rewrites that story. He writes the story saying that David went armed, went into battle with Goliath armed only, he says, with a sling and a knife, and those of you who know the story and checked against the biblical account of the story know that David only went into battle against Goliath armed with Saul’s armor and his sling. Machiavelli gives him a knife. Where did this come from? Why does he add this? His subtle alteration of the biblical story is hugely revealing. Its moral seems to be “trust in God’s promises, yes, but bring a knife just in case.” It’s like the old joke about the fighter who went in to the ring and before going in to the ring and he asked the priest to pray for him. He said, “I’ll pray for him but if he can punch it’ll help.” In a small respect, that’s Machiavelli. Machiavelli sensed that his own country was deeply deficient in these martial virtues, necessary to reassert greatness and this was a theme of a lengthy poem he wrote. Yes. You’re surprised. Yes, Machiavelli wrote poetry and plays. His play, The Mandragola, is still performed, but he wrote an interesting poem, a lengthy poem called Ambizione, ambition, something like Platonic thumos, which lamented his countrymen’s lack of civic spirit and their need to be reeducated in the art of war. I only want to read a small section to you from that poem:
“If you perchance are tempted to accuse nature, if Italy, so wary and wounded, does not produce hard and bellicose people, this I say is not sufficient to erase our cowardice for education can supplement where nature is deficient. Stern education made Italy bloom in ancient days and made her rise and conquer the entire world and for herself make room. But now she lives, if tears can be called life, beneath the ruins and unhappy fate that she has reaped from her long lack of strife. But now she lives, if tears can be called life, beneath the ruins and unhappy fate that she has reaped from her long lack of strife.”
And just from this little section of the poem, you can see that the theme of a new kind of education and only that can remedy nature’s defects, as Machiavelli calls them. It is this lack of strife, this long lack of strife, that makes people weak. People are weakened by prolonged peace and they are made strong, fierce and independent through war. Only by hardening themselves, he says, will it be possible for Italy, as he puts it, “to rise and conquer the entire world, in ancient days again and made her rise and conquer the entire world and for herself make room.” His point seems to be this. If you want liberty, you have to know how not to be good, at least as Christianity has defined goodness. The Christian virtue of humility, turning the other cheek, forgiveness of sins, must be rejected if you want to do good as opposed to just being good. You have to learn, in other words, how to get your hands dirty. Between the innocence of the Christian and the worldliness of Machiavelli’s new morality, there can be no reconciliation. These are just two incompatible moral positions that Machiavelli states but he goes further than this.
The safety and security enjoyed by the innocents, our freedom to live blameless lives and to have untroubled sleep, depends upon the prince’s clear-eyed and even ruthless use of power. The true statesman, the true prince for Machiavelli, must be prepared to mix a love of the common good, a love of his own people, with a streak of cruelty that is often regarded as essential for a great ruler in general, another part of knowing how not to be good, knowing when and how to use cruelty or what Machiavelli tellingly calls “cruelty well used.” When it’s well used, it’s a virtue. This is simply another example of how moral goodness grows out of and even requires a context of moral evil. Machiavelli’s advice to you is clear. If you cannot accept the responsibilities of political life, if you cannot afford to get your hands dirty, if you cannot accept the harsh necessities that may require cruelty, deceit and even murder, then get out of the way, then this is not for you. Don’t seem to impose, don’t seek to impose your own high-minded innocence, sometimes called justice, your own high-minded innocence on the requirements of statecraft because it will only lead to ruin. In the modern era, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, for example, is usually taken as exhibit A of the confusion between Christian humanitarianism and the necessities of reason of state. If you can’t do the tough thing, if you can’t do the harsh thing, Machiavelli says, then stay out of politics and don’t attempt to impose your high-minded morality on the state.
As I said at the beginning, in the philosophical literature, this has become known as the problem of dirty hands so named after a famous play written by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The problem of dirty hands refers to the conflict of duties, again conflict of moralities between the harsh requirements of politics and the equally demanding desire for moral purity, to keep the world at a distance. Machiavelli doesn’t deny that there is something deeply admirable about the desire to remain morally pure, morally decent, morally innocent, but he just wants to say this is a very different morality from the morality of politics. In Sartre’s play, the action takes place in a fictional eastern European country during World War II, probably something like Yugoslavia, where a communist resistance fighter reproaches an idealistic young recruit to the resistance who is resisting or is balking at the order to carry out a political assassination. “Why did you join us?” the communist resistance fighter asks. “Purity is an idea for the yogi or the monk. Do you think anyone can govern innocently?” “Do you think anyone can govern innocently,” the phrase taken of course from Saint-Just, one of the leaders of the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. What do you think politics is, a game of moral purity?
The same kind of conflict is really very much at the core of the great political fiction of John le Carre, the great novelist of the Cold War and so on, and in his great, one of his early political thrillers, a book called The Spy who Came in from the Cold, he depicts there a British agent who was working undercover and who at the same time is carrying on a love affair with an idealistic young English librarian who has joined the communist party. In this case, she, the communist, is the idealistic one. She’s joined the party because she believes it will aid the cause of nuclear disarmament and will bring international peace and when Lemas, the spy, reveals to her that he is a spy, he tells her his view of what politics is, the nature of politics. “There’s only one law in the game,” Lemas says, “the expediency of temporary alliances. Who do you think spies are, priests, saints, martyrs? They’re squalid little men, fools, queers, sadists, drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks weighing up right and wrong?”
Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian?
So both of these cases, the Sartre case, the John le Carre case, in a way are interesting but they’re also sort of cases of what I think of as faux Machiavellianism, kind of intellectuals engaging in tough talk to show that they have really lost their innocence, which is the sort of intellectual equivalent of losing your virginity, showing you’re not really innocent about the world. Machiavelli of course likes to play that game and it suggests that the world is divided between the weak and the strong, between the realists who see things the way they are and the idealists who require the comfort of moral illusions. Yes, Machiavelli sometimes seems to corroborate this point of view. Does he not say that armed prophets always win, the unarmed prophets lose? Did he not say that he wrote to reveal the effectual truth of things and not just what people have imagined the case to be? Yet it seems inconceivable that Machiavelli wrote an entire book simply to prove the obvious, that is to say that the strong will always crush the weak and that politics is left to those who leave their scruples at the door. The question is, was Machiavelli really that kind of Machiavellian?
Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian? Let’s see. What kind of government did Machiavelli think best? As he indicates at the beginning of The Prince, there are two kinds of regimes: there are principalities and republics. But each of these regimes, he says, is based on certain contrasting dispositions or what he calls humors, umori, humors. “In every society,” he writes, this is chapter 9 of The Prince, “two diverse humors are found from which this arise, that the people desire neither to be commanded nor oppressed by the great and the great desire to command and oppress the people.” These are the two great political psychological dispositions, the popular desire not to be oppressed and the disposition of what he calls the great to command and oppress. Machiavelli uses these two psychological and even in some ways quasi-medical terms, humors, to designate two classes of people on which every society is based.
His theory of the humors in chapter 9 seems in some ways to be reminiscent of Plato’s account of the three classes of the soul or the three parts of the soul with one vivid exception. “Each class of the city,” he says, “is bound or determined by a humor but neither humor is anchored in reason or rationality.” Every state is divided into two classes expressing these two qualities, these two psychological qualities, the grandi, the rich and powerful who wish to dominate, and the popolo, the common people who wish merely to be left alone, who wish neither to rule nor be ruled. Now, one might expect that the author of a book entitled The Prince would favor the great, would favor the grandi, those who desire to rule. Are not these aristocratic goals of honor and glory precisely what Machiavelli seems to be advocating? Yet in many ways, Machiavelli proceeds to deprecate the virtues of the nobility, perhaps to our surprise. The ends of the people, the ends, the purposes of the people, is more decent than that of the great since the great want to oppress and the people want not to be oppressed, he says. His advice is that the prince should seek to build his power base on the people rather than on the nobles. Because of their ambition for power, the nobles will always be a threat to the prince and, in an interesting reversal of the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of politics, it is the nobles here who are said to be the more fickle and unpredictable and the people are more constant and reliable. Remember in the Platonic and Aristotelian view of politics the democracy, the rule of the people, the demos, was always criticized for it being fickle and unstable and subject to whim and passion and so on. Here, Machiavelli tells us it is the great who are subject to this kind of inconstancy and the people are more reliable. The worst, he writes, that a prince can expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them but from the great, when they are hostile, he must fear not only being abandoned but also that they may move against him. The grandi are more dangerous and fickle.
So the main business of government consists in knowing how to control the elites because they are always a potential source of conflict and ambition. The prince must know how to chasten the ambition, to humble the pride, as it were, of the great and powerful, and this, we will see as early as Wednesday, becomes a major theme in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, humbling or chastening the pride of the few. The rule of the prince or sovereign requires the ability to control the ambition and to do so through selective policies of executions, of public accusations and political trials. Remember the example that we read at the end of class on Friday, I believe from chapter 7, the example of Cesare Borgia and Remirro d’Orco and how his execution, his bloody execution, left the people, Machiavelli says, stupefied and satisfied? Here is a perfect example of how to control the ambitions of the nobles and to win the people to your side. So Machiavelli’s prince, while not exactly a democrat, recognizes the essential decency of the people and the need to keep their faith. And by decency he seems to mean their absence of ambition, the absence of the desire to dominate and control. But this kind of decency is not the same as goodness for there is also a tendency on the part of the people to descend into what Machiavelli calls idleness or license.
The desire not to oppress others may be decent but at the same time the people have to be taught or educated how to defend their liberty. Fifteen hundred years of Christianity, he says, have left people weak, have left the people weak without their capacities to exercise political responsibility and the resources to defend themselves from attack. So just as princes must know how to control the ambitions of the multitude, how to control the ambitions of the nobles–excuse me–they, the princes, must know how to strengthen the desires of the common people. Some readers of The Prince, even some very astute readers of The Prince, have thought that Machiavelli’s work is really, or Machiavelli’s prince, is really a kind of democrat in disguise and that the prince is intended precisely to alert the people to the dangers of a usurpatory prince. This is for example what the great seventeenth-century political philosopher Spinoza believed about Machiavelli. In his book called, simply called, The Political Treatise, Spinoza wrote: “Machiavelli wished to show how careful a people should be before entrusting its welfare to a single prince. I am led,” Spinoza continues, “to this opinion concerning that most far-seeing man because it is known that he was favorable to liberty.” That’s Spinoza on Machiavelli, because “he was favorable to liberty” and that the book, he says, is kind of a satire on princely rule. Or, if you don’t believe Spinoza, if you don’t believe his authority is sufficient, consider someone who you’ll be reading in a couple of weeks, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from the Social Contract. “Machiavelli was an honorable man and a good citizen,” Rousseau says, “an honorable man and a good citizen who, being attached to the House of Medici, was forced, during the oppression of his homeland, to disguise his love of freedom.” So, The Prince was written in a way that disguised the real teaching of the book, which is the love of freedom and presumably the freedom of the people, something of the type that Rousseau himself spoke about. Maybe these comments go too far. Maybe they are exaggerations and I think to some degree they are but it’s revealing that both of these very serious readers of Machiavelli took him to be an apostle of freedom. Spinoza taking him, taking his book to be a warning to the people about the dangers of princely rule, Rousseau believing that he had deliberately disguised his love of freedom because he had to appeal to the tyrannical nature of the Medici family. In either case, they regard him as surreptitiously taking the side of the people against the nobles.
In any case, whatever one makes of those examples, Machiavelli seems to be challenging important aspects of the classical conceptions that we’ve been talking about up to this point. In the classical republic, for the ancient republic of Plato and Aristotle, these republics were ruled by nobilities, gentlemen possessed of wealth and leisure, who were therefore capable of forming sound political judgment, who will dominate, while in Machiavelli’s state it is the people who are going to be the dominant social and political power. Machiavelli wants to redirect power to some degree away from the nobles and toward the people. One wants to know why, why does he want to do that? In the first place, he judges the people to be more reliable, as he tells us, than the great. Once the people have been taught to value their liberty, have learned to oppose encroachments on their freedom, to be fierce and vigilant watchdogs rather than humble and subservient underlings, they will serve as a reliable basis for the greatness and power of a state. With the people on his side, the prince is more likely to achieve his goals of a robust civil life for his people and eternal glory for himself.
And, as Machiavelli likes to say, the prince must know how to adapt to the times. What is true for princes is no less true for advisers to princes like Machiavelli himself. One must know the times and character of a people. In the ancient republic, it may have been necessary to find and impose restraints on the passions of the demos but in the modern world, he says, where republics have become a thing of the past, the people need to be taught how to value their liberty above all else. The most excellent princes of the past were those like Moses, he tells us, who brought tables of law and prepared people for self-government. It is fitting and proper that The Prince concludes, the last chapter, chapter 26, concludes with a patriotic call to his countrymen to emancipate themselves and liberate Italy from foreign invaders.
What Did Machiavelli Achieve?
So what did Machiavelli achieve? What were his actual accomplishments? Did he accomplish all he set out to do, to rewrite or to write a new moral code for political life, to found a new political continent, as he speaks about, to found new modes and orders along the lines of Columbus? Did he achieve this? First of all, one should not and cannot underestimate his unprecedented break with both classical and biblical antiquity. More than anyone else before him, and perhaps more than anyone else since, he sought to liberate politics from ecclesiastical control. The new prince, as we’ve seen, must know how to use religion but needs to learn how not to be used by religion, must not become a dupe of the religious. He must know how to use religious passions and sentiments but not be used by them.
Politics must become a purely worldly affair. It should not be limited or constrained by any transcendent standards or moral laws that do not derive from politics itself, whether a law of God or some kind of transcendent moral order or code. Machiavelli’s warning, we might say today, to the religious right, or his critique of the religious right, cannot make politics conform to transcendent moral law. But not only did Machiavelli bring a new worldliness to politics, he also introduced a new kind of populism, you might say. Plato and Aristotle imagined aristocratic republics that would invest power in an aristocracy of education and virtue. Machiavelli deliberately seeks to enlist the power of the people against aristocracies of education and virtue. He is a kind of proto-democrat almost who sought to re-create, not through accident and chance, but through planning and design a new kind of republic in the modern world. The republic that Machiavelli imagined, and it’s interesting while he tells us he’s only going to the effectual truth of things and not the imagination of it, nevertheless Machiavelli does himself imagine a new kind of regime, a new kind of republic in the modern world that would not be a city at peace but would be a city at war. It would be armed and expansive. Machiavelli’s republic feeds on conflict, on war and conquest. It is aggressive and imperialistic.
Does it sound familiar? Is it us? In fact, if you look at a brilliant article I think in this week’s New Republic by Robert Kagan called “Cowboy Nation,” Kagan demonstrates I think with a great deal of conviction that the American republic from its onset has been expansive, aggressive, imperialistic, from the conquest of the territories, the expropriation of the native Americans, the acquisition of Louisiana, wars of liberation against Mexico and Spain and so on, well into the twentieth and now the twenty first century, an aggressive, expansive, imperialistic republic. That, he says, has been our history and what it should say, what it doesn’t quite say I think, is that it has been this history not because it is American but because it is a republic, because of its regime type, its regime character. That kind of behavior seems perhaps to be built in to the natures of republic. It was Machiavelli’s admiration for the politics, what someone once called the lupine politics, the wolf-like politics, of republican Rome that led him to understand that all social and moral goods have been established by morally questionable means. Have we become or have we always been Machiavelli’s republic, Machiavelli’s desire? Think about that when you’re in your sections or writing your papers and you will get those paper topics on Wednesday, by the way. And finally, Machiavelli is the author of a new amoral realism. “By whatever means necessary” I think is his motto or should be his motto, “by whatever means necessary,” and oddly he claims to be merely stating out loud, merely stating aloud what all writers have known all along.
It is necessary, he says, for the prince to know well how to use the beast and the man, he writes in chapter 18, “This role,” he says, “was taught covertly by ancient writers.” The idea then that Machiavelli is doing no more than saying openly and overtly what ancient writers had wrapped in parable and enigma and myth says something about Machiavelli’s new political science. What was previously taught only subtly and in private will now be taught openly and in public. What was once available only to a few, will now be available to all. Perhaps more than anything else, Machiavelli’s new openness, his readiness to challenge received authority, and his willingness to consider authority as self-created, as self-made rather than bestowed by either nature or grace, is what fundamentally constitutes his modernity. One of Machiavelli’s greatest and most profound disciples in the modern world was a man by the name of Thomas Hobbes.