Niccolo Machiavelli may help modern man to think more clearly about power and prudence, and to remember that the world is a dangerous place where all is not as it seems.
An argument can be made that Niccolo Machiavelli’s sinister reputation is unjust. This is not to gloss over the very deep flaws in the Florentine’s view of man, the world, and God, but to note that his work is not so devoid of moral sentiment as the popular image of him as a conniving super-villain suggests. Even his most infamous book The Prince provides us with evidence that Machiavellian politics might be an improvement over the crypto-socialism that has come to dominate much of the West. The prince “should inspire his citizens to follow their pursuits quietly, in trade and in agriculture and in every other pursuit of men, so that one person does not fear to adorn his possessions for fear that they be taken away from him, and another to open up a trade for fear of taxes.” Let it be noted that there is nothing here about reconstructing social relations, imposing egalitarian ideology, or confiscating income as part of a wealth redistribution plan.
More striking still, after relating how Agathocles of Sicily became ruler of Syracuse and enjoyed a long and successful career based upon brutality and treachery, Machiavelli cautions that “one cannot call it virtue to kill one’s citizens, betray one’s friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; these modes can enable one to acquire empire, but not glory.” Whatever The Prince’s flaws, it is glory, not mere empire, which motivates the book. Machiavelli commends not purely self-centered ambition, but Italy’s liberation from a state of foreign domination, “without a head, without order, beaten, despoiled, torn, pillaged, and having endured ruin of every sort.” The solution, he argues, is a leader single-mindedly committed to rescuing the troubled country: “One may see how she prays God to send her someone to redeem her from these barbarous cruelties and insults.” Interestingly enough, Machiavelli was especially fascinated by the figure of Moses, a man both celebrated for righteousness and indefatigability when it came to defending the good of his people.
And as surprising as it might be to those who know him only by his popular image, Machiavelli in fact favored democracy over monarchy: A corrupted people might be brought round by persuasion and skilled leadership, insists Machiavelli, whereas “a bad prince cannot be spoken to by anyone, and the only remedy for his case is cold steel.” Using reasoning instantly comprehensible to modern-day localists and proponents of states’ rights, he advises rulers to occupy troubled provinces in person, instead of trying to direct them from a distant position of comfortable detachment:
For if you stay there, disorders may be seen as they arise, and you can soon remedy them; if you are not there, disorders become understood when they are great and there is no longer a remedy. Besides this, the province is not despoiled by your officials; the subjects are satisfied with ready access to the prince, so that they have more cause to love him if they want to be good and, if they want to be otherwise, more cause to fear him.
Machiavelli deserves credit for such statements, insofar as they call attention to inherent flaws in the American system. How can anyone take seriously the claim that Olympian elites secluded within the District of Columbia meaningfully represent a “republic” comprised of more than 300 million “citizens” inhabiting an enormous diversity of communities spread out over three million square miles? As Donald Livingston of Emory has pointed out, the inhuman scale of the United States is utterly foreign to all republican theory, whether ancient or modern, Platonic, Jeffersonian, or Machiavellian, and it is simply absurd to pretend that those of us in Flyover Country can ever enjoy “ready access” to the Beltway officials and powerbrokers who have turned the democratic process into a rigged game. If conservatives are to make good use of the Trump effect, they must resist the temptation to “federalize” everything and instead work to restore authority to state and local institutions, so that “disorders may be seen as they arise” by those holding power.
None of this is meant to suggest that Machiavelli should be unconditionally celebrated. Perhaps the biggest problem with The Prince lies not in its emphasis upon the adversarial aspect of political life–an undeniable reality, especially now–but in the idea that it represents a new political “science,” a precise, tidy, and reliably predictive discipline equivalent to mechanical engineering or chemistry. For a better picture of reality, an equally hard-headed but philosophically deeper authority should be consulted. Politics is a very human and messy art rather than a science, explains Aristotle: “For the educated person seeks exactness in each area to the extent that the nature of the subject allows, for apparently it is just as mistaken to demand demonstrations from a rhetorician as to accept [merely] persuasive arguments from a mathematician.” When it comes to complex studies of man, we must be satisfied “to indicate the truth roughly and in outline.”
So if taken with a grain of salt, Machiavelli may help modern man to think more clearly about power and prudence, and to remember that the world is a dangerous place where all is not as it seems. At the same time, political schemes always must be restrained by a respect for God’s laws–and informed by common sense. Otherwise, we may find ourselves looking less like the Godfather than like Wile E. Coyote.
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