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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Machiavelli on Republics and on Fortune

I would like to move on now to consider two more of Machiavelli’s accomplishments, accomplishments that presuppose the break with tradition described earlier. The aim of Machiavelli’s political science is the establishment and preservation of order, order that will protect a universal egoism – the pursuit of life, liberty and property.  Against the ancients, the virtues are judged by whether or not they contribute to order, not vice-versa. Only that which contributes to order is judged a virtue. And if something otherwise vicious contributes to order under certain circumstances, then it is not to be judged a vice. Thus the cruelties of a Prince, when necessary and economical, are virtues because they bring order out of chaos.

1. Yet Machiavelli is not only the theorist of princely virtue. He is also the theorist of Republics. One of the questions that has entertained interpreters of Machiavelli the most is the question of why the switch from his reliance on great men and heroic acts in The Prince to his reliance on the people and the institutions of a republic in The Discourses. The answer is, first of all, that the monarchical absolutism of a prince is a desperate remedy for a situation of near complete breakdown and corruption. But, once peace and order are established Machiavelli thinks that they can be entrusted to the people to maintain. This possibility and its conditions are explored in The Discourses.

Already in The Prince, however, there is a move in that direction (in Chapter IX on the Alliance of a Prince and the People). To be sure, in The Prince, Machiavelli treats the people as merely malleable matter, as gullible, manipulable, open to the arts of illusion and especially as being of limited ambition. Remember as long as the Prince stays away from the property and women of the people, such a ruler will be safe. They will, he says, even complain more about the loss of their property than about the murder of their fathers.

It is this combination of traits (not exactly flattering ones)  that leads him there to propose an alliance of  a prince governing by the consent of the people against the aristocrats. The Prince may have a difficult time creating order out of chaos, but maintaining it is at least relatively easy. The first situation calls for action of heroic proportions; the second depends essentially on keeping the people satisfied.

Machiavelli in his role as a political sociologist sees the possibility of three basic types of regime:  the first is a feudal situation, where nobles exist (this is a class of very wealthy landed warriors, with their own private armies) This is the most dangerous situation, because nobles as a class are insatiable and rapacious. The second sort of situation has gentlemen, but no nobles; gentlemen may be aristocratic and wealthy, but they do not field armies. They are therefore far less dangerous. The third situation is one that Machiavelli describes as one of “equality”. Here there are neither nobles, nor gentlemen. There is instead a mercantile society together with the prominence of a “productive” bourgeoisie. This will be the best situation in which to attempt a republic – what Machiavelli calls a situation of “great equality”. This last situation is especially proper for a republic because the many, “the people”, are largely content with what they have.

In the unhealthy, anarchical situation, everyone is forced to act like the few, the nobles, in order to protect whatever it is they have. But in peace most will be content to simply keep what they have. If all classes of people were as rapacious as the nobility, the problem of a republic would be much harder.

Now, you might pause for a moment to compare this with Aristotle in his Politics, who is attempting to balance the claims of wealth, numbers and moral virtue in his theory of the best of the possible states. Here, with Machiavelli, the tension is simply one between wealth and numbers. No one is more “virtuous” than anyone else. The people are not “moderate”; they are simply timid and unambitious. Their timidity is not an adherence to rational goodness, it is simply fear and/or sloth when it comes to the pursuit of glory. Groups of people are only more “virtuous” in the sense that some are more relatively non-threatening to the stability of social order. Now, compared to Aristotle, it is the few who are the greater danger, since unlike in his situation, the few in Machiavelli’s no longer want only to preserve their wealth to such an extent that it serves as the inherently limited basis of a life of rational goodness.

But, like Aristotle, Machiavelli is still interested in a balance. It is, however, no longer a balance of virtue restraining power. Instead it is simply a balance of power restraining power in the mixed constitution of a republic. Rome is, for Machiavelli, the clearest example of  the greatness of a republican, mixed constitution. Thus the “virtu” of a prince may be replaced by the lesser but less rare virtue of the people under a republican constitution. In such a constitution, the laws must made to engineer a tensely balanced equilibrium between opposed social forces in which all relevant parties or interests are involved  in government and each keeps watch over the others.  The resolution of these opposed forces means that only those laws will be passed which are “conducive to public liberty”. The selfish interests will thus be guided by an invisible hand to promote the public good. Lawfulness will be the result of a balancing of powers, set free from or indifferent to  inward moral restraint and checked only by other powers. Once again, in The Discourses, good results from evil.

To be sure, a few other things are needed: good Fortune, good leadership --- these things are dependent upon chance and are unreliable. Other institutions, especially a religion that instills civic virtue, i.e. a permanent readiness to sacrifice narrow private selfishness to the sum of individual selfishnesses that for Machiavelli is the “common good”; also needed is policy of permanent foreign expansion.

So republics, as Rome demonstrated, are under the right circumstances possible – at least temporarily, for a few hundred years. But why are they superior to principalities? They are superior in the last analysis only because they are longer lasting. They remain more energetic over a longer period of time than a prince and his heirs would. They are more lasting because they economize internal violence, being maintained by the force of a people and not by force over the people. Popular support was a form of social power that, when properly exploited, reduced the amount of violence directed inward at society as a whole.

So the test of a true prince is whether he can make himself superfluous. If  a prince were not to court the people, he would have to resort to more violence, which would eventually bring instability back. Here in The Discourses, the people are still malleable and gullible and lacking in ambition; but they have a form of virtue that can support institutions even if it cannot create them. Under conditions of established social order, a prince’s destructive-creative virtue becomes anachronistic. The true prince will know that to truly win glory he must become a founder and not the founder of a dynasty but of a republic.

So, Machiavelli is one of, if not the first to say that the rule of a people is better than the rule of a few. The problem of unity is not to be solved by recognizing the goodness of a few, but by institutionalizing the clash and resolution of competing interests. And the problem of interests now will become the central problem of political theory, making Machiavelli in yet another way the grandfather of liberal democracy, the grandfather of the interest-group politics and pluralism of later liberal democracy. Political society is now seen not as an education of souls to a life of virtue, but as a parallelogram of interest-propelled forces. The unity of this society is not a unity of value and purpose, but the mechanical result of the partial satisfaction that can be gained by one interest limiting and being limited by another.

But you should remember that for Machiavelli, “the people” does not mean the mass of the population and does not include the vast majority. It would only include those “who count”, those with some measure of independent wealth. In most cases the mass can be ignored and disregarded because it is powerless. It is only groups with actual social and economic power that must be taken into the game. And this aspect of interest-group liberalism has plagued liberal-democracy to the present day: the appeasement of the interests of powerful groups cuts across and ignores the principle of equality.

2. So much for Machiavelli’s first accomplishment, the discovery of the people and the beginning of a liberal theory of  a politics devoted to the balancing and compromise of selfish interests. The second accomplishment I would like to introduce through some remarks loosely organized around the concept of Fortune. In The Prince, Machiavelli is most interested in the case of the prince who acquires power through his virtu rather than through reliance on Fortune. This contrast between self-reliance and reliance on Fortune has been called the most important antithesis of Machiavelli’s entire political theory.  The major message of The Prince, as we’ve said, is never to rely on Fortune. But virtu and Fortune are not simply opposites. As Machiavelli says, Fortune “is a woman” who can be seduced and brought over to one’s side through a display of virtu. And Machiavelli is using this term “virtu” in its original Latin sense of “manly qualities”: courage, boldness, strength, daring, self-reliance. But there is something going on here just below the surface of the text  that is of greater significance.

In opposing virtue to Fortune, Machiavelli is implying that the opposite of virtue is not vice or evil. As we’ve seen, it is necessity that dictates that evils be used. Being able to use evils wisely and economically is a part, an essential part, of virtue. The opposite of virtue is not vice, but reliance on Fortune. Virtue is not a moral force; but then neither is Fortune. The connection between reliance on Fortune and the reliance on some cosmic moral purpose is just below the surface of the text. Now, virtue in the Christian sense is the opposite of virtue in Machiavelli’s sense. In the Christian sense it means humility, peacefulness, self-sacrifice, gentleness, love, charity, generosity. As St. Augustine said, it is “first, humility; second, humility; third, humility”. So, for Machiavelli, when we trust in morality, we are trusting in Fortune or providence or some greater power. Cesare Borgia, for example, failed because he trusted Fortune more than his own virtu; that is he trusted Pope Julius II to live up to his word. He trusted the other’s morality. Virtue in the old sense, the Christian sense, meant dependence on the Church , in either a worldly or a spiritual way. It meant leaving oneself open to the fickleness or caprice of Fortune. It meant putting events in the hands of God’s providence. For Machiavelli, such “virtue” amounts to a surrender of virtue. He sees that it is the power of the worldly Church that lies behind the supposed power of Fortune. The Church’s power relies on belief in Fortune as God’s providence.

According to the Medieval Christian philosopher Boethius (much read at the time still), the Church, unlike the Romans, assumed that Fortune could not be influenced. She was not, for the Church, a woman who could be seduced --- but instead a blind, arbitrary and inexorable power; not a potential friend and ally, but merely a pitiless, insensitive force. In Boethius’ Christian doctrine, she serves the providence of the Christian God by reminding us that the goods that Fortune dispensed to the Romans, power, wealth, glory are, as Boethius says “really nothing at all”. As a blind and pitiless force, Fortune encourages us to look to the life beyond by despising earthly affairs and achievements.  For Boethius, God placed the world’s goods under the direction of Fortune in order to teach us “that sufficiency cannot be obtained through wealth, nor power through kingship, nor respect through office, nor fame through glory.”

Machiavelli, however, in tune with much of Renaissance humanism, no longer thinks of Fortune as blind. Also, for him there is no providence and no natural moral order worth worrying about. This means that Fortune is no longer to be thought of as a power largely outside of man, but a weakness inside human beings. The power of Fortune would be the result of pacifying illusions, of an absence of knowledge, foresight, power. Power would come from a clear-sighted recognition of earthly necessity, of what is. A prince’s mistakes, his lapses from virtue (in this new sense) are always the result of a residual entrapment in Christian values (trust each other; rely on the Church and God). In fact, what people call God would be very similar to Fortune: everything beyond the human power of prediction and control. Machiavelli is, in opposing virtue to Fortune rather than to vice, demystifying God and providence. They are really nothing but the power of the earthly Church. The power of Fortune is really nothing other than unrecognized, unanalyzed, but correctible human weakness.

Machiavelli is anticipating the idea that God is simply a projection of latent but misunderstood and misapplied human powers onto something non-human. In projecting this power onto another (here fictional) being, it is lost. Therefore Machiavelli is also the first to almost formulate the concept of alienation. There is no natural or divine order that makes moral action also expedient. To allow political acts to be unnecessarily restricted by morality is to act irrationally, against reason, not with it. Much too much power is ascribed to Fortune which becomes the lame excuse of weak men, because the fault is in ourselves and not in the stars. The only rationality is the rationality of individuals who can, by ridding themselves of pious illusions, control and form their own destinies. Humans can make their world by manipulating, controlling and dominating nature.  In this way, Machiavelli is  the predecessor of later liberalism, and also of what Marx inherits from that – linking the goal of human freedom to the goal of full rational control stripped of pious moral illusions.

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