The Italian Renaissance politician and writer Nicolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) remains controversial. His defenders see him as a tough-minded “realist” and the founder of proper political science. Some writers find two Machiavellis: an advisor to aspiring despots, or (alternatively) a sincere republican theorist bent on freeing Italy from foreign rule. Either way, Machiavelli’s analysis of such categories as fortune, necessity, and virtue ended in an argument for releasing states from the chains of ordinary morality. States have to proceed in terms of raison d’état (“reason of state”) and Realpolitik and this very necessity proves the right. Monarchy or republic, Machiavelli’s state gets to do what it wants.
English liberal Kathleen Nott (see below) complained in 1977 of a whole “Machiavelli rehabilitation industry.” Today, Machiavelli’s patented excuses for power politics are found everywhere. Machiavellianism runs through popular culture — film, TV series, spy dramas, and police shows, and even news reporting — infecting public attitudes. America’s two venal war parties, the wars they undertake, and a hypertrophy of alleged “realism” owe their good fortune in part to Machiavelli.
A Machiavellian spectrum
Devotees of power politics from Left to Right admire Machiavelli. Historian Joseph Femia observes that Italian fascists failed to embrace Machiavelli rhetorically only because “their liberal and democratic enemies had already laid claim to his legacy.”
The once-famous American writer Max Lerner (New Dealer and Cold War liberal) admired Machiavelli, writing in 1950 that Machiavelli was “the first modern analyst of power,” who discovered “a grammar of power” and embraced “tough-minded methods” and “unsentimental realism.” Machiavelli’s “political realism” was compatible with democratic republicanism, provided that leaders were able and willing to embrace “ruthless measures.” Our very own New England Puritans had possessed the gift, Lerner noted.
English sociologist Steven Lukes has noted the implicit Machiavellian ethics in the writings of many Marxists: “The long-term character of marxist consequentialism, focusing on the future benefits of future persons, [makes] it markedly less sensitive than even utilitarianism to the moral requirement of respecting the interests of persons in the present and immediate future.” (Like Machiavelli, Marx himself had a republican side.)
Neither has the political Right been short on Machiavellian thinkers. One thinks immediately of James Burnham, a Cold War conservative and ex-Trotskyist, who wrote a manifesto called The Modern Machiavellians in 1943. Here, too, we find conservative political scientist Harvey Mansfield (one of many Straussian Machiavellians), along with truckloads of neo-conservatives, flanked by a whole congregation of American liberal imperialists.
But our task here is to engage some outstanding critics of Machiavellianism.
In 1891 Lord Acton, English Liberal (and Catholic) historian, wrote an introduction to Lawrence Burd’s new English edition of Machiavelli’s Prince. Being Acton, he naturally wrote a medium-sized essay packed with supporting quotations in Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, and German. His theme was that kings, dukes, foreign ministers, and even princes of the Church had long acted on Machiavelli’s principles, even when they denied them publicly.
Machiavelli’s central claim was that “extraordinary objects cannot be accomplished under ordinary rules.” Both clerics and secular princes had said much the same thing, even without Machiavelli’s guidance, but not because they “were in thrall to mediaeval antecedents.” Neither did medieval thinking account for their approval of regicide or official assassinations without trial. Acton added, “It is easier to expose errors in practical politics than to remove the ethical basis of judgments which the modern world employs in common with Machiavelli.”
Machiavelli’s 19th-century offspring was “the doctrine of the justice of History, of judgment by results.” This view was typical of “philosophers of the Titanic sort” along with many “masters of living thought.” (Acton mentions Pascal, Bacon, Locke, Maine de Biran, Ranke, Fustel, Mommsen, Hegel, and Cousin, among others.) Bacon had anticipated Machiavelli by writing, “It is the solecism of power, to think to command the end, and yet not to endure the means.”
For all these thinkers, the sure sign of a great statesman was that he dispensed with everyday morality.
French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote in 1955 that before Machiavelli, rulers often got a “bad conscience” from violating morality. After him, they saw it as “a matter of right.” Further: “Radical pessimism regarding human nature [was] at the basis of Machiavelli’s thought.” Statesmen must therefore “abandon what ought to be done for what is done.” Machiavelli thus set up “an illusory but deadly antinomy between what people call idealism (wrongly confused with ethics) and what they call realism (wrongly confused with politics).” Machiavelli “simply denies to moral values … any application in the political field.” Here was, Maritain thought, a “purely artistic conception of politics.”
Machiavelli’s virtue — virtù —was thus “brilliant, well-balanced and skilled strength.” It entailed a state-centric religion and the “artistic use of evil.” The resulting system differed completely from any real (and Christian) notion of the common good, in which “constructive peace … is the health of the state”; whereas, if “the aim of politics is power, war is the health of the state.”
Richelieu was a moderate Machiavellian, while Bismarck was a transitional figure. Positivism and Hegelianism fostered “absolute Machiavellianism” and allowed statesmen to draw on “endless reserves of evil.” Maritain counters that it “is never allowed to do evil for any good whatsoever.” Politics severed from ethics becomes one of “those demoniacal principalities of which St. Paul spoke.” Machiavellianism could produce only “the misfortune of men, which is the exact opposite of any genuinely political end.” Its “successes” benefited particular rulers in the short run; its attendant evils long outlasted them. (Here indeed are high time-preference and the short attention span!) Thus Machiavellianism cannot succeed, even on its own terms, but breeds “ruin and bankruptcy.”
What struck Maritain about Machiavellianism in its fascist and communist incarnations was its “ferocious impatience,” which revealed its adherents “as mere squanderers of the heritage of their nations.” (We may add Cold War and post–Cold War U.S. leaders to the list of squanderers.) It would be far better, Maritain wrote, to cultivate “justice and moral virtues,” and forego finding “necessary” exceptions outside all law and morality. That was because “justice tends by itself toward the welfare and survival of the community” and also because “the political whole is not a substantial or personal subject, but a community of human persons,” whose rights and duties (I would add) may not be set aside by rulers temporarily acting in the name of the political whole. “Machiavellianism devours itself,” leaving behind ruins, war memorials, and glorious stories for the credulous.
Ronald V. Sampson
Sampson, a lecturer in Politics at Bristol University, was a master anti-Machiavellian. In The Psychology of Power (1968), he summed up Machiavelli’s system as follows: “The key to success for princes … is first to create an élite; secondly to give them a vested interest in identifying the prince’s power and privilege with their own; and thirdly, to afford them the necessary coercive means to fasten their yoke on those who need to be so ruled but who may not be expected altogether to relish it.” Now this is exactly Machiavelli as lionized by Mansfield (Machiavelli’s Virtue, 1998 ), but Sampson did not accept this “realistic” view of politics. (Sampson commented that Machiavellians show “symptoms of suppressed irritation at the first signs of moral earnestness.”)
Machiavelli posited “a fundamental, unchanging human nature.” Raison d’état implies that “any act whatsoever will admit of ultimate justification, if it is necessary to the safety of the community.” But he “fatally underestimated … the human capacity for moral response.” Raison d’état, said to “secure the safety of the state,” actually aims at “the wealth, power and security of the ruling group,” a fact that greatly undercuts its proclaimed status as “a new sovereign absolute … to which every other human interest and value must give way.”
Sampson notes that Machiavellians consciously exploit an older communal and Christian morality of “altruism and self-sacrifice” while subordinating it to their practical foreign policy ends. On their view, “he who denies the facts of political power is insane,” as is “he who denies their normative status.” We must have states (they reason) and states must make war; it follows that we must bow to History’s iron necessity in its successive phases, nicely symbolized by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the French Revolution, and the “annihilation of Hiroshima in 1945.” Here is the key “realist” fallacy, namely, that “man lives by raison d’état.”
Nott sees “the supporters of order and discipline” as people who “simply prefer to be obeyed.” Their implicit Machiavellianism gives to “the preservation of the state … an absolute priority.” That seems “natural” to them, and since “natural” entails “right,” they declare the argument won. It now becomes “moral” to do anything that you can in fact do. Further, despite much contrary evidence, Machiavellians imagine that skillfully wielded force will usually “win.” Machiavelli equated might and right, but Nott finds it more important that “he divided power from right,” so that “public” (= state) actors could proceed under their own substitute “morality.”
But the public has never fully bought this sideshow, and rulers work at appearing to conform to ordinary morality; that task makes them resort to “fraud and deception.” (Consider how wars are orchestrated in the post–Cold War United States.) In democratic states, rulers must claim that their measures involve “the ultimate benefit of the community conceived as a whole.”
Nott notes that science, too, has its own raison d’état and blithely takes “the risk of completely altering our mental and cultural climate” — in the name (of course) of our supposed future good. And the privilege of being outside ordinary morality “is being claimed in many other fields and studies,” including economics and business, so that “collective immorality” marches on. (Such moral exemptions are traceable in part to William of Occam.)
Machiavellians perhaps sincerely believe that the devilish truth about human nature makes them do it. They may even see themselves as rentiers on Judeo-Christian values. Certainly they require “self-sacrificing, dedicated and patriotic” citizens who take rulers’ public rhetoric at face value.
Ends, means, and foreseeable consequences
If Machiavelli were only a value-free analyst of how things work, we might learn much from him about actions and consequences. But we cannot accept his exclusion of politics from the moral realm. Such a removal took place, of course, but its “success” may be doubted. Sampson thought Machiavelli correct in admitting “that the practice of power politics cannot by any logic be reconciled with the precepts of morality.” Sampson preferred to reexamine power politics rather than morality.
That brings us, somewhat inevitably, to the World Court’s (ICJ) feeble advisory opinion on the legality of using nuclear weapons (July 1996). Fixated on the extreme case where a state’s “very survival would be at stake,” the judges got nowhere. Dissenting, Judge George Jean Weeramantry argued that “no credible legal system could contain a rule within itself which rendered legitimate an act which could destroy the entire civilization of which that legal system formed a part.… [A] rule of this nature, which may find a place in the rules of a suicide club, could not be part of any reasonable legal system….” (Italics added.) As Maritain wrote in 1950, such rules mean “that the people will pay for the decisions made by the State in the name of their Sovereignty.… The woes of the people settle the accounts of the unaccountable supreme persons or agencies.…”
Machiavellianism and its near-cousins utilitarianism and consequentialism have justified many godforsaken causes. Recall the many essays from September 2001 to March 2003 explaining how an invasion of Iraq would kill only a few thousand Iraqi civilians but would stop Saddam Hussein from killing hundreds of thousands. With pretensions of mathematical certainty, idle speculators proclaimed the success and moral rightness of a proposed war of aggression. Such juggling of lives — many thousands about-to-be-saved and a few about-to-be-killed — underwrote a completely foreseeable disaster. Machiavelli might approve.
This article was originally published in the April 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.