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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Machiavelli’s Break with the Tradition

In the year 1512 CE a relatively minor diplomat in the service of the Republic of Florence was stripped of his post by the armies of the King of Spain, which were by force replacing the Republic with the rule of the Medici family who had ruled the city of Florence for much of the previous century. But the minor diplomat in question, Niccolo Machiavelli, was not simply deprived of a job. Mistakenly believed to be part of a Republican conspiracy, he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned. A year later, he was released as part of a general amnesty and the first thing he did was scheme to get into the good graces of the Medici family – those responsible for his false imprisonment. The avenue he chose to advertise his skills was to write a little book of advice for princes which he could present to the Medicis to show his “good faith” and potential usefulness. As it turns out, this book was never presented, nor was it published during his lifetime.

The above recounts what is certainly a minor incident  in the total scheme of human history. And certainly The Prince was not then, nor is it now, a work of great philosophical depth or rigour or scope. In fact, “how to” books on getting and holding power were common by that time in Renaissance Italy. So why study it? Why not some manual on “dirty tricks” by the CIA or some electoral campaign manager? In part, Machiavelli’s longevity is due to the impression given by The Prince of scandalous deceit and immorality. And this is what is specifically “Machiavellian” – a theory that accepts the necessity of violence, cruelty, cunning and manipulation as the basis of a stable society, together with a coherent set of recommendations on the use of immoral and amoral means in getting and holding power. If this were all there were to Machiavelli, then he would not be very important, except as a theorist of war and civil war, as a technician of craft, guile, treachery and intimidation. You could learn as much or more from The Godfather (the book or the movie). But, in addition, there is in Machiavelli’s writings the beginnings of a general theory of much greater significance to the development of Western political thought, and that is what is of most interest to us in this course. Machiavelli’s general theory, which is implicit and lies behind, and is only sometimes expressed directly (and often through significant omission), makes him the founder of modern political thought and also the founder of liberalism.

Machiavelli represents the first significant break with the classical and medieval traditions of political thought; his is the first full expression of modernity in politics. He is, to begin with, the first political thinker of real note who is not a philosopher or theologian. In fact, he is definitely anti-theological. He is someone who insists that politics must be studied coolly and objectively, and in its own terms. Machiavelli insists that politics is autonomous. One can only understand politics by excluding from a theory whatever is not strictly “political”. You should exclude not only religious considerations as well as attempts to place politics within a philosophical grasp of cosmic order. One should also cut oneself free from tradition, from reliance upon tradition theoretically and practically (which is probably why, in The Prince, he concentrates on new principalities won by prowess and arms).

I want to discuss this break with the philosophical tradition along three interrelated dimensions. First: Machiavelli moves decisively from a teleological conception of human nature (in which human nature is inherently striving to develop towards ends that are higher, better and intrinsically more worthwhile than the undeveloped urges that dominate it in its beginnings) – to what I will, fairly clumsily, call a “genealogical” or “mechanical” view of human nature. Second: he is moving from a view of humans as fundamentally social beings to a view of them as fundamentally separate and independent (in their deepest motivations, at least); that is, he is moving from social organicism to social atomism. Third: he is moving from an ethical view of politics to a view that understands itself as being instead scientific.

Before I move directly into discussing the first dimension, I would like to approach it, this question of human nature, by way of mentioning two books by a well-known anthropologist by the name of Colin Turnbull. Among others, Turnbull wrote two fairly famous books of ethnography. The first was called The Forest People and is about a tribe of pygmies known as the Mbuti. Turnbull’s description of them gives a picture of a people who are co-operative, free, joyous and equal (even to a significant degree as between genders); who enjoy a simple form of affluence and whose abundant leisure time is much occupied with singing and dance, communing with the Forest (which is their only divinity (and in no way a vengeful one) and with festivals (often enough festivals end in couples slipping away into the forest and doing what couples in the forest do…). Turnbull also wrote a second book, called the Mountain People about another society known as the Ik. The environment of the Ik people was a very harsh one, and Turnbull himself describes the Ik as being virtually monsters: they were cruel, vicious, grasping and aggressive even to the point of stupidity; that is, it was not uncommon for someone to go well out of their way and spend a lot of trouble and time to take something away from someone else even if that thing held little or no value for the person who took it. Now the interesting and relevant thing for our purposes is that the anthropologist Turnbull, in reflecting upon these two societies, will find human nature, like Machiavelli, to be especially like the behaviour of the Ik. For him, this would be the rule, rather than the exception; this grasping aggressivity would be what is spontaneous, what is initially given to us to work with; it would also be what is most fundamental and most powerful; as “nature” it would be ineradicable; it could be added to, but not removed. The question for students of political theory is what sort of evidence would be needed  to decide with confidence that the Ik are closer to human nature?

1. At the core of every political theory of a comprehensive character there is a theory of human nature. Turnbull is operating with Machiavelli’s assumption – that what is visible in the worst case is human nature.  Under this assumption, one would not find human nature in a supportive environment with a stable social setting. To find human nature one should look instead at instances where society has broken down. To find human nature, in this sort of thinking, one looks to, or imagines life, in the absence of a stable social setting. Machiavelli is seeking realism about human nature, but here realism is identified only with the worst that has existed, and it is not identified with the good that might be, might have been or ought to be.  For the tradition with which Machiavelli is breaking, what is most fundamental about human nature is its telos or end. The question of what a human being is is combined with a quest for the knowledge and practice of the good life. Nature is conceived as the possibility of development towards the good life in which reason rules. Nature and human nature is identified as a potential for living justly striving to realize itself.

Machiavelli’s “genealogical” view is based on taking nature as simply the “origins”. What are human beings when they are stripped of everything artificial, superadded and therefore “superficial”. For the ancients, the end or goal, the highest possible achievement is the foundation. For Machiavellian modernity, the beginning is the foundation. Nature is stripped of any inherent movement in the direction of transcending origins.  For Aristotle, one can know a process, as well as any part or aspect of the process, only by knowing its end or highest development. For Machiavelli, the end is just another version of the origin. Because of this, for the tradition, political knowledge was a set of prescriptive remedies (oughts) aimed at the steady elimination of evils from political society. For Machiavelli, a new science of politics will be based on the premise that the quantity of evil is always fairly constant, human nature being what it is – aggressive acquisitiveness – and the premise that political action could therefore not be dissociated from cruel consequences and violent behaviour.

2. This replacement of teleology with “genealogy” also involves a switch from  understanding the human as a social being (a being who is or becomes what she is only in and through her social relations, through membership in a society) to understanding society as essentially external to the individual; society tends now to be seen as the artificial creation originating in the wills of separate, but fundamentally identical and equivalent individuals. Individuals in their identities, functioning and capacities are no longer seen as essentially interdependent. They are no longer defined and formed by their place within a social whole. Instead, society is seen to be the result of the collision of self-propelled atoms; these individual atoms would act in essentially the same way even if there were no other similar atoms around.  Machiavelli therefore takes a fundamental condition of war as original or basic. Society, rules, laws, institutions, political power are therefore essentially a means of ending war, or of muting its ferocity or of reducing its volume. The question of the good life is replaced by the question of maintaining life. From the ancient teleological standpoint one assumes that the environment is or can be a stable social setting providing a basis for development towards higher ends. This will involve an acceptance of traditional roles, duties and functions. Machiavelli replaces this assumption with the assumption of individuals at war as the natural social environment.

These two changes also involve a switch from a view of politics as embedded in ethics to an aspiration to ethical neutrality in political knowledge; a switch from a view of politics as part of a larger understanding of the ultimate ends of human life and also the nature of cosmic reality to the modern scientific world view, to the objective and verifiable understanding of the principles that govern observable phenomena. In Machiavelli’s version of this new scientific world view one should base one’s conclusions strictly on inductions drawn from empirical evidence drawn from history and the observation of present society. For Machiavelli, Aristotle would not have been inductive enough; he had to read his observations into some fanciful narrative of development and cosmic moral order. For Machiavelli political knowledge should be simply a set of if…then statements derived from comparative case studies instead of  including a reasoning from the ends of human being or from first principles embedded in reality but not accessible to mere observation. The older view saw the political order as a microcosm displaying essentially the same order as the cosmos as a whole, and that cosmos was thought to be fundamentally rational, purposeful and beneficent. This fundamental presupposition is now fundamentally shattered. The world of human actions is now a nearly aimless flux. Since there is nothing beyond the cave, to say anything meaningful about politics one should restrict one’s study to events inside it. Political action is no longer aimed at adjusting actions to transcendent norms or at harmonizing human wills with the principles of cosmic order. Instead, political action to be meaningful must rid itself of just such illusions. It should abandon the false security of eternal truths and accept what is without reading it in the light of what ought to be.

Machiavelli’s science thus becomes the inversion of Plato’s. What for Plato is the realm of mere belief and opinion is for Machiavelli the only reality. What for Plato is reality is for Machiavelli merely illusion, Plato’s flight into a false security, the flight of an effeminate philosopher who does not want to face facts and who shies away from getting his hands dirty. This inversion of Plato brings us to the question of  the relation of Machiavelli’s science to morality. But this will be left to the next lecture.

Topic V – Study Questions

  1. What is the essential function of a Prince? What is Machiavelli’s idea of a good society?
  1. What is the relation between princely virtue and fortune?
  1. What is Machiavelli’s conception of human nature, and how does it differ from that of Plato and Aristotle?
  1. What is the role of violence in Machiavelli? How does it relate to reason or rationality?
  1. How does the sort of republic Machiavelli sketches in the Discourses differ from a principality?
  1. Can anyone use Machiavelli’s insights in their political action or does it require a certain sort of actor in a certain sort of situation?

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