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A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli

For Renzo Sereni it is a fantasy indeed but of a bitterly frustrated man, and its dedication is the “desperate plea” of a victim of “severe and constant misfortune.” A psychoanalytic interpretation of one queer episode in Machiavelli’s life is offered in support of this thesis.

For Macaulay he is a political pragmatist and a patriot who cared most of all for the independence of Florence, and acclaimed any form of rule that would ensure it. Marx calls The Discourses a “genuine masterpiece,” and Engels (in the Dialectics of Nature) speaks of Machiavelli as “one of the giants of the Enlightenment,” a man “free from petit-bourgeois outlook….” Soviet criticism is more ambivalent.2

For the restorers of the short-lived Florentine republic he was evidently nothing but a venal and treacherous toady, anxious to serve any master, who had unsuccessfully tried to flatter the Medici in the hope of gaining their favor. Professor Sabine in his well-known textbook views him as an anti-metaphysical empiricist, a Hume or Popper before his time, free from obscurantist, theological, and metaphysical preconceptions. For Antonio Gramsci he is above all a revolutionary innovator who directs his shafts against the obsolescent feudal aristocracy and Papacy and their mercenaries. His Prince is a myth which signifies the dictatorship of new, progressive forces: ultimately of the coming role of the masses and of the need for the emergence of new politically realistic leaders—The Prince is “an anthropomorphic symbol” of the hegemony of the “collective will.”

Like Jakob Burckhardt and Friedrich Meinecke, Professors C. J. Friedrich and Charles Singleton maintain that he has a developed conception of the state as a work of art. The great men who have founded or maintain human associations are conceived as analogous to artists whose aim is beauty, and whose essential qualification is understanding of their material—they are molders of men, as sculptors are molders of marble or clay. Politics, in this view, leaves the realm of ethics and approaches that of aesthetics. Singleton argues that Machiavelli’s originality consists in his view of political action as a form of what Aristotle called “making”—the goal of which is a non-moral artifact, an object of beauty or use external to man (in this case a particular arrangement of human affairs)—and not of “doing” (where Aristotle and Aquinas had placed it), the goal of which is internal and moral, not the creation of an object, but a particular kind—the right way—of living or being.

This position is not distant from that of Villari, Croce, and others, inasmuch as it ascribes to Machiavelli the divorce of politics from ethics. Professor Singleton transfers Machiavelli’s conception of politics to the region of art, which is conceived as being amoral. Croce gives it an independent status of its own: of politics for politics’ sake.

But the commonest view of him, at least as a political thinker, is still that of most Elizabethans, dramatists and scholars alike, for whom he is a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago. This is the “murderous Machiavel” of the famous 400 references in Elizabethan literature.

His name adds a new ingredient to the more ancient figure of Old Nick. For the Jesuits he is “the devil’s partner in crime,” “a dishonorable writer and an unbeliever,” and The Prince is, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “a handbook for gangsters” (compare with this Mussolini’s description of it as a “vade mecum for statesmen,” a view tacitly shared, perhaps, by other heads of state). This is the view common to Protestants and Catholics, Gentillet and François Hotman, Cardinal Pole, Bodin, and Frederick the Great, followed by the authors of all the many anti-Machiavels, the latest of whom are Jacques Maritain and Professor Leo Strauss.

There is prima facie something strange about so violent a disparity of judgments. What other thinker has presented so many facets to the students of his ideas? What other writer—and he not even a recognized philosopher—has caused his readers to disagree about his purposes so deeply and so widely? Yet I must repeat, Machiavelli does not write obscurely; nearly all his interpreters praise him for his terse, dry, clear prose.

What is it that has proved so arresting to so many?


Machiavelli, we are often told, was not concerned with morals. The most influential of all modern interpretations—that of Benedetto Croce, followed to some extent by Chabod, Russo, and others—is that Machiavelli, in E. W. Cochrane’s words, “did not deny the validity of Christian morality, and did not pretend that a crime required by political necessity was any the less a crime. Rather he discovered…that this morality simply did not hold in political affairs, and that any policy based on the assumption that it did, would end in disaster. His factual objective description of contemporary practices is a sign not of cynicism or detachment but of anguish.”

This account, it seems to me, contains two basic misinterpretations. The first is that the clash is one between “this [i.e., Christian] morality” and “political necessity.” The implication is that there is an incompatibility between, on the one hand, morality—the region of ultimate values sought after for their own sakes, values recognition of which alone enables us to speak of “crimes” or morally to justify and condemn anything; and on the other, politics—the art of adapting means to ends, the region of technical skills, of what Kant was to call “hypothetical imperatives,” which take the form “If you want to achieve x, do y” (e.g., betray a friend, kill an innocent man) without necessarily asking whether x is itself intrinsically desirable or not. This is the heart of the divorce of politics from ethics which Croce and many others attribute to Machiavelli. But this seems to me to rest on a mistake.

If ethics is confined to, let us say, Stoic or Christian or Kantian, or even some types of utilitarian ethics, where the source and criterion of value are the word of God, or eternal reason, or some inner sense or knowledge of good and evil, of right and wrong, voices which speak directly to the individual consciousness with absolute authority, this might have been tenable. But there exists an equally time-honored ethics, that of the Greek polis, of which Aristotle provided the clearest exposition. Since men are beings made by nature to live in communities, their communal purposes are the ultimate values from which the rest are derived, or with which their ends as individuals are identified. Politics—the art of living in a polis—is not an activity that can be dispensed with by those who prefer private life: it is not like seafaring or sculpture which those who do not wish to do so need not undertake. Political conduct is intrinsic to being a human being at a certain stage of civilization, and what it demands is intrinsic to living a successful human life.

Ethics so conceived—the code of conduct or the ideal to be pursued by the individual—cannot be known save by understanding the purpose and character of his polis; still less be capable of being divorced from it, even in thought. This is the kind of pre-Christian morality that Machiavelli takes for granted. “It is well-known,” says Benedetto Croce, “that Machiavelli discovered the necessity and autonomy of politics, which is beyond moral good and evil, which has its own laws against which it is useless to rebel, which cannot be exorcised and made to vanish by holy water.” Beyond good and evil in some non-Aristotelian, religious, or liberal-Kantian sense; but not beyond the good and evil of those communities, ancient or modern, whose sacred values are social through and through. The arts of colonization or of mass murder (let us say) may also have their “own laws against which it is useless to rebel” for those who wish to practice them successfully. But if or when these laws collide with those of morality, it is possible, and indeed morally imperative, to abandon such activities.

But if Aristotle and Machiavelli are right about what men are (and should be—and Machiavelli’s ideal is, particularly in The Discourses, drawn in vivid colors), political activity is intrinsic to human nature, and while individuals here and there may opt out, the mass of mankind cannot do so; and its communal life determines the moral duties of its members. Hence in opposing the “laws of politics” to “good and evil” Machiavelli is not contrasting two “autonomous” spheres of acting—the “political” and the “moral”: he is contrasting his own “political” ethics with another ethical conception which governs the lives of persons who are of no interest to him. He is indeed rejecting one morality—the Christian—but not in favor of something that is not a morality at all but a game of skill, an activity called political, which is not concerned with ultimate human ends and is therefore not ethical at all.

He is indeed rejecting Christian ethics, but in favor of another system, another moral universe—the world of Pericles or of Scipio, or even of the Duke Valentino, a society geared to ends just as ultimate as the Christian faith, a society in which men fight and are ready to die for (public) ends which they pursue for their own sakes. They are choosing not a realm of means (called politics) as opposed to a realm of ends (called morals), but opt for a rival (Roman or classical) morality, an alternative realm of ends. In other, words the conflict is between two moralities, Christian and pagan (or as some wish to call it, aesthetic), not between autonomous realms of morals and politics.

Nor is this a mere question of nomenclature, unless politics is conceived as being concerned (as it usually is) not with means, skills, methods, technique, “knowhow” (whether or not governed by unbreakable rules of its own), but with an independent kingdom of ends of its own, sought for their own sake; unless politics is conceived as a substitute for ethics. When Machiavelli said (in a letter to Guicciardini) that he loved his country more than his soul, he revealed his basic moral beliefs—a position with which Croce does not credit him.

The second implausible hypothesis in this connection is the idea that Machiavelli viewed the crimes of his society with anguish. (Chabod in his excellent study, unlike Croce and some Croceans, does not insist on this.) This entails that he accepts the dire necessities of the raison d’état with reluctance, because he sees no alternative. But there is no evidence for this: there is no trace of agony in his political works, any more than in his plays or letters.

The pagan world that Machiavelli prefers is built on recognition of the need for systematic guile and force by rulers, and he seems to think it natural and not at all exceptional or morally agonizing that they should employ these weapons wherever they are needed. Nor does he seem to think exceptional the distinction he draws between the rulers and the ruled. The subjects or citizens must be Romans too: they do not need the virtù of the rulers, but if they also cheat, Machiavelli’s maxims will not work; they must be poor, militarized, honest, and obedient; if they lead Christian lives, they will accept too uncomplainingly the rule of mere bullies and scoundrels. No sound republic can be built of such materials as these. Theseus and Romulus, Moses and Cyrus did not preach humility or a view of this world as but a temporary resting place for their subjects.

  1. 2

    The only extended treatment of Machiavelli by a prominent Bolshevik intellectual known to me is in Kamenev’s short-lived introduction to the Russian translation of The Prince (Akademia, Moscow, 1934). This unswervingly follows the full historicist-sociological approach criticized by Cassirer. Machiavelli is described as an active publicist, preoccupied by the “mechanism of the struggles for power” within and between the Italian principalities, a sociologist who gave a masterly analysis of the “sociological” jungle that preceded the formation of “a powerful, national, essentially bourgeois” Italian state. His almost “dialectical” grasp of the realities of power and freedom from metaphysical and theological fantasies establish him as a worthy forerunner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin.

    These opinions were brought up and pilloried by Vyshinsky, the prosecutor at Kamenev’s trial. See on this, “Kamenev’s Last Essay” by Ch. Abramsky in New Left Review, London, June, 1962, pp. 34-42.

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