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Tuesday, December 14, 2004
The moral Machiavelli

Not sure if this will be of much interest, but here is an essay I wrote for college on Machiavelli's The Prince, defending Machiavelli against the usual charges levelled at him and praising the piercing insights he wrote down - and their positive consequences.

Machiavelli has been condemned as a 'teacher of evil' and praised as a clear-sighted 'realist'. How do you account for, and respond to, these contrasting interpretations of his political thought?

Those who have and those who have not read Machiavelli appear to share an understanding of what it means to describe a person or tactic as 'Machiavellian'. As Bernhard Klein puts it, the term is "still used to describe any politician whose actions appear motivated by cunning, duplicity, lack of scruples and bad faith, who seems to subscribe to the infamous maxim 'The end justifies the means'"[1], adding with reference to Shakespeare and his contemporaries that the weight of history is supportive of this conclusion: "Machiavelli's bad press has not, in fact, fundamentally changed over the past 500 years"[2]. This longstanding judgement is far from unique to popular, non-expert interpretations of Machiavelli. Academic thinkers such as Leo Strauss adhered firmly to the view that Machiavelli was a 'teacher of evil', The Prince literally a lesson in wickedness.

But there is an alternative perspective on Machiavelli, which both denies these criticisms and stresses other virtues of his thinking. By this account, The Prince is not a textbook for the wicked but an honest, realistic view of humanity and the ways of ruling people effectively. Machiavelli presents the world as it is, and advises accordingly - and his skill at both makes his most famous work laudable: a factual, empirical achievement.

In this essay, I will seek to argue first that the latter view is the more correct: that The Prince is intentionally an amoral work that does not really seek to intrude on the moral sphere one way or another, that this amorality accounts for why some see it as wicked and others as realistic, and that Machiavelli deserves more praise for his discoveries than disparagement for his supposed ethics. Second, I will respond to the claim that teaching such amoral advice is essentially wicked by arguing that the advice itself advances human knowledge and understanding by its publication, and that many morally beneficial consequences follow from this.

Perhaps the most comprehensive short exposition of what might be called the orthodox view of Machiavelli comes from Leo Strauss, as he introduces his Thoughts on Machiavelli. Of the view that Machiavelli was a "teacher of evil", Strauss argued:

"[W]hat other description would fit a man who teaches lessons like these: princes ought to exterminate the families of rulers whose territory they wish to possess securely; princes ought to murder their opponents rather than to confiscate their property, since those who have been robbed, but not those who are dead, can think of revenge; men forget the murder of their fathers sooner than the loss of their patrimony; true liberality consists in being stingy with one's own property and in being generous with what belongs to others; not virtue but the prudent use of virtue and vice leads to happiness; injuries ought all to be done together so that, being tasted less, they will hurt less, while benefits ought to be conferred little by little, so that they will be felt more strongly; a victorious general who fears that his prince might not reward him properly, may punish him for his anticipated ingratitude by raising the flag of rebellion; if one has to choose between inflicting severe injuries and inflicting light injuries, one ought to inflict severe injuries; one ought not to say to someone whom one wants to kill 'Give me your gun, I want to kill you with it,' but merely, 'Give me your gun,' for once you have the gun in your hand, you can satisfy your desire."[3]

It is a devastating list of charges, making clear that the advice Machiavelli gives is not constrained by the boundaries of conventional morality. But what the list misses does leave room for an alternative judgement than that Strauss proffers.

If one were to argue that Machiavelli was in fact an advocate of moral virtue, of selfless, exemplary leadership, just such a list could be produced in support. For what other description would fit a man who teaches lessons like these: conquering princes must leave the customs, ways of life, laws and taxes of his new subjects as he found them[4]; a prince should live in the conquered province partly in order to prevent its plunder by his officials, partly in order that new subjects have recourse directly to him[5]; settlements in such provinces are preferable to sending in the army, for the latter causes harassment to everyone in that province[6]; "to kill fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious ... can win a prince power but not glory"[7]; that cruelty used well - "if it is permissible to talk in this way of what is evil" - is once and for all, and used as far as possible to the benefit of one's subjects[8]; that the favour of the people as a whole is preferable to that of the nobles[9], and the prince who starts out with only the latter should take the people under his protection[10], the friendship of the people being "necessary" for a prince[11]; that a prince must honour and love those nobles who restrain their rapacity[12]; the prince must be frugal because his generosity is always at the expense of his subjects[13]; the prince must ensure he is not hated by those he rules[14], for avoiding this is the best fortress that exists[15]; the prince must abstain from taking the possessions and women of his subjects and only when a proper justification and manifest reason makes it necessary may he authorise an execution[16]; the prince must appear "compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless and devout" - and save for those occasions when he needs to be the opposite, "indeed he should be so"[17]; that the prince will escape conspiracies against him by earning the goodwill of the people[18]; and that a prince should show esteem for talent and must ensure that men do not refrain from improving their possessions or setting up business through fear of confiscation or punitive taxation[19]?

The point is not that Machiavelli really was an advocate of moral virtue, of selfless and exemplary leadership, but that the advice he offered was diverse and varied enough that one can use pieces of it to show many suggestions of virtue and of wickedness. The examples Strauss cites are not the whole story, and to reach one's conclusions about Machiavelli based only on them - as on the alternative examples above - leaves one very liable to get it wrong.

It may be argued that moral and immoral advice cannot simply be aggregated in this way, the good cancelling out the bad: the uniquely wicked nature of the darker advice is more revealing and meaningful than the virtuous, to the point where one who could advise the things Machiavelli advised must be evil irrespective of the positive and virtuous suggestions elsewhere in The Prince. This may offer a solution to the defence that in fact much good is advised aside so much cruelty. But it also misses the essential reason why such apparently incongruous advice appears together. Those who would argue against defending Machiavelli by moral aggregation would perhaps still be inclined to ask why it is that such a 'teacher of evil' happens to teach so much good.

The reason is that The Prince is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. Machiavelli is not attempting to set out the courses of action everyone should follow in order to be moral, and nor is he setting out to defend an ethics of selfishness and cruelty. What he offers is empirical guidance in those ways experience and history have led him to believe a prince can retain power and earn glory. Ethics is simply not the chief concern. The question of whether an action is right or wrong is subordinated to the question of whether or not it will lead to a firmer grip on power for the prince. As is obvious above, Machiavelli drew very varied conclusions in moral terms about those things that would or would not have this effect. But these examples demonstrate that Machiavelli was a teacher not of evil but of what works, good or evil. His advice was unrestrained by any normative perspective.

It is certainly possible to see these priorities as wicked in themselves - that right and wrong must come first, and it is to Machiavelli's shame that in Quentin Skinner's words Machiavelli "is not the least interested in questions of religious truth"[20] and that "he totally ignores the orthodox Christian injunction ... that a good ruler ought to avoid the temptations of worldly glory and wealth"[21]. Strauss argued that Machiavelli's attitude toward certain issues of importance can be surmised from the way he barely touches on them.[22] In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli noted that when a writer as wise as Livy ignores something normally thought integral to the subject at hand - in Livy's case the importance of money in military victories - it must be interpreted as an adverse judgement on that conventional wisdom. Similarly, when Machiavelli declines to mention the moral aspect of the issues he raises, it demonstrates a similar contempt for the ordinary rules of morality.

But because the work was fundamentally not about morals, it is reasonable to think that Machiavelli could write without much reference to morality and retain personal integrity. Just as we do not condemn a historian who notes that a ruler's choice to break a sacred promise or to destroy his predecessor's heirs was ultimately to secure their rule, we cannot condemn Machiavelli for advising future princes that following the same courses of action[23] will secure them in the same way. It may be immoral to do these things, but a historian who notes their effectiveness, even without making reference to their wickedness, is not judged morally deficient, because we understand the distinction between reporting facts and asserting values. Perhaps Machiavelli should be read the same way.

One begins to see the strength of this counter-argument by considering the alternative: that Machiavelli should have declined to give effective advice when it is morally wrong, and should have given bad advice when it is morally right. What value would his work have then been as an empirical document? What advances in understanding, in historical interpretation, could Machiavelli have brought about?

This amoral realism is not a repudiation of morality, but simply something different from a text on ethics. Machiavelli did not assert that men would be wrong to seek moral guidance. He merely did not attempt to offer it himself - for what expertise did he have to do so? One cannot aim to describe the real world truthfully if one then makes the facts of this description subordinate to any set of values. Machiavelli's aim was to give truthful advice, declining to allow normative judgements to interfere. The amorality of The Prince means not that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil, but that he succeeded in this aim.

If Machiavelli was not by intent a 'teacher of evil', it may be argued that his advice nonetheless can only serve evil purposes. Machiavelli may have set to work as an empirical scholar, but the consequence was that he broadcast advice that is morally disheartening and which schools the unscrupulous in how to stay at the top.

One charge that can justifiably be levelled is that The Prince appears to advance what would now be called Social Darwinism, an approach by which good and bad leaders are sifted and the very different consequences for each are determined. The prince who does not shun flatterers[24], or who employs mercenaries to defend his principality[25], may meet an untimely end while his wiser counterpart is left secure. Darwinian natural selection may have long taken place in this way, but is it not a morally dire diagnosis of the way in which rulers lose or maintain their rule?

Surprisingly, it may be that this is absolutely a morally optimistic theme of The Prince. Social Darwinism holds its repugnance because we know that the reverse of the 'survival of the fittest' coin is that the weak go to the wall, and the less fit are victimised. For most people, it is inherently unpleasant that mere 'fitness', rather than more obviously moral qualities, should determine one's fate in this way. But this view of ordinary morality does not necessarily extend to the government of a state. Just because we are loath to see such ruthless selection in everyday life does not mean we should fear it when it comes to choosing those who are to govern us. Machiavelli's Social Darwinism does not damn weak and 'unfit' people, but weak and unfit rulers. Is this not a good thing - almost a democratic thing - when the security of all subjects depends upon the abilities of their ruler? Unfortunate as it may be for an incompetent prince to lose his position or his life, it is greatly to the fortune of his subjects. That these will indeed be the respective fates of the unqualified prince and his subjects is the message Machiavelli unambiguously explicates. Machiavelli's prince appears to be a committed, determined ruler who lives, sleeps and breathes governance: like Philopoemen of the Achaeans, ever contemplating military manoeuvres[26], like Alexander the Great, Caesar and Scipio, always reading the history of eminent men so as to imitate them[27]. Those who are not up to the job will fail - but with the good of so many subjects dependent on them, perhaps it is morally right that they should.

Perhaps key to the question of Social Darwinism in the The Prince is such advice as "by arming your subjects, you arm yourself"[28] For Machiavelli, the strength of a prince lies in the strength of his state, their interests hand in hand. So much of what he does, even the worst of his actions, will be aimed toward the end of strengthening his realm, and securing his subjects. Those who fail in this task, in this duty, may meet an unfortunate end, but those who do what is the moral obligation of a ruler will secure their position. It is not a morally bleak message for the competent prince or for his dependent subjects.

Whether the advice itself will lead men to good or evil is a question worth asking, and it may best be answered by examining two very different types of aspiring ruler.

Consider first the case of a morally abominable heir to the throne, whose every instinct leads him to evil and cruelty. So far as possible, he intends as prince to steal from every man he envies and rape every woman he desires. He will kill when it suits him, caring nothing for whether the people think him a good, honest, faithful leader or despise him. In the provinces he conquers, he will destroy local customs and laws, imposing his will mercilessly. Then he comes across The Prince, and discovers that as we saw above Machiavelli warned strongly against all of these courses of action. Either he is unpersuaded and goes on as before, in which case Machiavelli's Social Darwinism would suggest he is unlikely to reign long, or he is convinced of the case it makes. If he is persuaded, then he will conclude that he must behave far more virtuously, whatever the direction in which his instincts would otherwise lead him. It is not the kindness of this prince's heart but the piercing realism of Machiavelli that has produced this morally preferable outcome.

Alternatively, one can imagine a clearly good man, ready to succeed to the throne. His aims are noble, his devotion to the good of his people total. But he happens also to be naive, imputing to others his own pure motivations, and blind to the wickedness of others, so unfamiliar is he with that side of human nature. Upon reading The Prince - if, again, he is persuaded - this unworldly heir is exposed to the realism of Machiavelli, and to the harsher realities of how a prince can maintain his power and defend the interests of his people. The likely outcome is not his moral degeneration, but his awakening to the realities of effective governance. Any advantage that a cynical usurper whose motivations are less selfless would have had over him, through better understanding the points Machiavelli makes, is cancelled. Realism does not make good men wicked: it makes good men more informed.

Even as damning a critic as Strauss was to interpret Machiavelli's intentions in just this way - an answer to the overly moralistic, insufficiently realistic education men of that era received. The intention was not to be evil, but to be a corrective:

"Those true addressees of the Prince have been brought up in the teachings which, in the light of Machiavelli's wholly new teaching, reveal themselves to be much too confident of human goodness, if not of the goodness of creation, and hence too gentle or effeminate. Just as a man who is timorous by training or nature cannot acquire courage, which is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, unless he drags himself in the direction of foolhardiness, so Machiavelli's pupils must go through a process of brutalization in order to be freed from effeminacy. Or just as one learns bayoneting by using weapons which are much heavier than those used in actual combat, one learns statecraft by seriously playing with extreme courses of action which are rarely, if ever, appropriate in actual politics."[29]

Perhaps one can most of all defend the moral consequences of Machiavelli by noting that any genuine contribution to human understanding has to be a positive thing. To take only one example, his contention that the 'miserly' prince is in fact "generous to all those from whom he takes nothing, and they are innumerable, and miserly towards all those to whom he gives nothing, and they are few"[30] shows Machiavelli to have anticipated what in economics centuries later was to be known as public choice theory - the idea that because the benefits of state subsidy tend to be concentrated and the costs dispersed, the general good can become subordinate to the grasping for public funds of particular beneficiaries. To interpret princely generosity in this way may have been amoral and cynical, but the empirical contribution is undeniable - and the question of which policies are moral is better answered with this knowledge than without.

Morality, like any other knowledge, must be based in real understanding, so no moral truth can emerge from factual errors. Machiavelli's competence in identifying harsh, unpleasant facts that many of us would prefer not to face was therefore a moral contribution as well as an empirical advance.

Niccolo Machiavelli is condemned as a teacher of evil and praised as a clear-sighted realist because when he sought to describe reality he did not temper his description of the benefits that can flow from evil. The correct response to these varying judgements is to see The Prince as an amoral work in its intent, its clear-sighted realism deservedly acknowledged, but also as a work whose empirical contributions can and will do much more moral good than harm.

[1] Bernhard Klein, Lecture on Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince, 9 November 2004, University of Essex, Colchester

[2] Ibid

[3] Leo Strauss (1958), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1969 Edition), University of Washington Press, Washington, Introduction, p.9

[4] Niccolo Machiavelli (1513), The Prince (1999 Edition), Penguin, London, pp.7-8

[5] Ibid, p.8

[6] Ibid, p.9

[7] Ibid, p.28

[8] Ibid, p.30

[9] Ibid, p.32

[10] Ibid, p.33

[11] Ibid, p.33

[12] Ibid, p.32

[13] Ibid, p.51

[14] Ibid, p.54

[15] Ibid, p.71

[16] Ibid, p.54

[17] Ibid, p.57

[18] Ibid, pp.59-60

[19] Ibid, p.74

[20] Quentin Skinner (1981), Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (2000 Edition), Oxford University Press, p.72

[21] Ibid, p.34

[22] Leo Strauss (1958), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1969 Edition), University of Washington Press, Washington, Chapter II

[23] Niccolo Machiavelli (1513), The Prince (1999 Edition), Penguin, London, p.56 & p.7

[24] Ibid, p.76

[25] Ibid, p.39

[26] Ibid, p.48

[27] Ibid, p.48-49

[28] Ibid, p.68

[29] Leo Strauss (1958), Thoughts on Machiavelli (1969 Edition), University of Washington Press, Washington, pp.81-82

[30] Niccolo Machiavelli (1513), The Prince (1999 Edition), Penguin, London, p.51

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