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A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli

But it is the first misinterpretation that goes deepest, that which represents Machiavelli as caring little or nothing for moral issues. This is surely not borne out by his own language. Anyone whose thought revolves round central concepts such as the good and the bad, the corrupt and the pure, has an ethical scale in mind in terms of which he gives moral praise and blame. Machiavelli’s values are not Christian, but they are moral values.

On this crucial point Professor Hans Baron’s criticism of the Croce-Russo thesis seems to me correct. Against the view that for Machiavelli politics were beyond moral criticism Professor Baron cites some of the passionately patriotic, republican, and libertarian passages in The Discourses in which the (moral) qualities of the citizens of a republic are favorably compared with those of the subjects of a despotic prince. The last chapter of The Prince is scarcely the work of a detached, morally neutral observer, or of a self-absorbed man, preoccupied with his own inner personal problems, who looks on public life “with anguish” as the graveyard of moral principles. Like Aristotle’s or Cicero’s, Machiavelli’s morality was social and not individual: but it was a morality no less than theirs, not an amoral region, beyond good or evil.

It does not, of course, follow that he was not often fascinated by the techniques of political life as such. The advice given equally to conspirators and their enemies, the professional appraisal of the methods of Oliverotto or Sforza or Baglioni spring from typical humanist curiosity, the search for an applied science of politics, fascination by knowledge for its own sake, whatever the implications. But the moral ideal, that of the citizen of the Roman Republic, is never far away. Political skills are valued solely as means—for their effectiveness in re-creating conditions in which sick men recover their health and can flourish. And this is precisely what Aristotle would have called the moral end proper to man.

This leaves still with us the thorny problem of the relation of The Prince to The Discourses. But whatever the disparities, the central strain which runs through both is one and the same. The vision, the dream—typical of many writers who see themselves as tough-minded realists—of the strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid, and victorious patria, whether it is saved by the virtù of one man or many, remains central and constant. Political judgments, attitudes toward individuals or states, toward Fortuna and necessità, evaluation of methods, degree of optimism, the fundamental mood—these vary between one work and another, perhaps within the same exposition. But the basic values, the ultimate end—Machiavelli’s beatific vision—does not vary.

His vision is social and political. Hence the traditional view of him as simply a specialist in how to get the better of others, a vulgar cynic who says that Sunday school precepts are all very well, but in a world full of evil men, a man must lie, kill, and betray if he is to get somewhere, is incorrect. The philosophy summarized by “eat or be eaten, beat or be beaten”—the kind of worldly wisdom to be found in, say, Lappo Mazzei or Giovanni Morelli, with whom he has been compared, is not what is central in him. Machiavelli is not specially concerned with the opportunism of ambitious individuals; the ideal before his eyes is a shining vision of Florence or of Italy. In this respect he is a typically impassioned humanist of the Renaissance, save that his ideal is not artistic or cultural but political, unless the state—or regenerated Italy—is considered, in Burckhardt’s sense, as an artistic goal. This is very different from mere advocacy of tough-mindedness as such, or of a realism irrespective of its goal.

Machiavelli’s values, I should like to repeat, are not instrumental but moral and ultimate, and he calls for great sacrifices in their name. For them he rejects the rival scale—the Christian principles of ozio and meekness, not, indeed, as being defective in themselves, but as inapplicable to the conditions of real life; and real life for him means not merely (as is sometimes alleged) life as it was lived around him in Italy—the crimes, hypocrisies, brutalities, follies of Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan. This is not the touchstone of reality. His purpose is not to leave unchanged or to reproduce this kind of life, but to lift it to a new plane, to rescue Italy from squalor and slavery, to restore her to health and sanity.

The moral ideal for which he thinks no sacrifice too great—the welfare of the patria—is for him the highest form of social existence attainable by man; but attainable, not unattainable; not a world outside the limits of human capacity, given human beings as we know them, that is, creatures compounded out of those emotional, intellectual, and physical properties of which history and observation provide examples. He asks for men improved but not transfigured, not superhuman; not for a world of angelic beings unknown on this earth, who, even if they could be created, could not be called human.

If you object to the political methods recommended because they seem to you morally detestable, if you refuse to embark upon them because they are, to use Ritter’s word, “erschreckend,” too frightening, Machiavelli has no answer, no argument. In that case you are perfectly entitled to lead a morally good life, be a private citizen (or a monk), seek some corner of your own. But, in that event, you must not make yourself responsible for the lives of others or expect good fortune; in a material sense you must expect to be ignored or destroyed.

In other words you can opt out of the public world, but in that case he has nothing to say to you, for it is to the public world and to the men in it that he addresses himself. This is expressed most clearly in his notorious advice to the victor who has to hold down a conquered province. He advises a clean sweep: new governors, new titles, new powers, and new men; “He should make the poor rich and the rich poor, as David did when he became king…who heaped riches on the needy and dismissed the wealthy empty-handed.” Besides this, he should destroy the old cities and build new ones, and transfer the inhabitants from one place to another. In short, he should leave nothing unchanged in that province, so that there should be “neither rank, nor grade, nor honor, nor wealth that would not be recognized as coming from him.” He should take Philip of Macedon as his model, who “by proceeding in that manner became…master of all Greece.”

Now Philip’s historian informs us—Machiavelli goes on to say—that he transferred the inhabitants from one province to another “as shepherds move their flocks” from one place to another. “Doubtless,” Machiavelli continues, “these means are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian nor even human, and should be avoided by everyone. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings. Nevertheless, whoever is unwilling to adopt the first and humane course must, if he wishes to maintain his power, follow the latter evil course. But men generally decide upon a middle course which is most hazardous; for they know neither how to be wholly good nor wholly bad, and so lose both worlds.”

This is plain enough. There are two worlds, that of personal morality and that of public organization. There are two ethical codes, both ultimate; not two “autonomous” regions, one of “ethics,” another of “politics,” but two (for him) exhaustive alternatives between two conflicting systems of value. If a man chooses the “first, humane course,” he must presumably give up all hope of Athens and Rome, of a noble and glorious society in which human beings can thrive and grow strong, proud, wise, and productive. Indeed, he must abandon all hope of a tolerable life on earth: for men cannot live outside society; they will not survive collectively if they are led by men who (like Soderini) are influenced by the first, “private” morality; they will not be able to realize their minimal goals as men; they will end in a state of moral, not merely political, degradation. But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during its pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall. Whoever has chosen to make an omelette cannot do so without breaking eggs.

Machiavelli is sometimes accused of too much relish at the prospect of breaking eggs—almost for its own sake. This is unjust. He thinks these ruthless methods are necessary—necessary as means to provide good results, good in terms not of a Christian, but of a secular, humanistic, naturalistic morality. His most shocking examples show this. The most famous, perhaps, is that of Giovanpaolo Baglioni, who caught Julius II during one of his campaigns, and let him escape, when in Machiavelli’s view he might have destroyed him and his cardinals and thereby committed a crime “the greatness of which would have overshadowed the infamy and all the danger that could possibly result from it.”

Like Frederick the Great (who called Machiavelli “the enemy of mankind” and followed his advice),3 Machiavelli is, in effect, saying “Le vin est tiré: il faut le boire.” Once you embark on a plan for the transformation of a society you must carry it through no matter at what cost: to fumble, to retreat, to be overcome by scruples is to betray your chosen cause. To be a physician is to be a professional, ready to burn, to cauterize, to amputate; if that is what the disease requires, then to stop halfway because of personal qualms, or some rule unrelated to your art and its technique, is a sign of muddle and weakness, and will always give you the worst of both worlds. And there are at least two worlds: each of them has much, indeed everything, to be said for it; but they are two and not one. One must learn to choose between them and, having chosen, not look back.

There is more than one world, and more than one set of virtues: confusion between them is disastrous. One of the chief illusions caused by ignoring this is the Platonic-Hebraic-Christian view that virtuous rulers create virtuous men. This, according to Machiavelli, is not true. Generosity is a virtue, but not in princes. A generous prince will ruin the citizens by taxing them too heavily, a mean prince (and Machiavelli does not say that meanness is a good quality in private men) will save the purses of the citizens and so add to public welfare. A kind ruler—and kindness is a virtue—may let intriguers and stronger characters dominate him, and so cause chaos and corruption.

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    It is still not clear how much of this Frederick owed to his mentor Voltaire.

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