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A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli

Compromise with current morality leads to bungling, which is always despicable, and when practiced by statesmen involves men in ruin. The end “excuses” the means, however horrible these may be in terms of even pagan ethics, if it is (in terms of the ideal of Thucydides or Polybius, Cicero or Livy) lofty enough. Brutus was right to kill his children: he saved Rome. Soderini did not have the stomach to perpetrate such deeds, and ruined Florence. Savonarola, who had sound ideas about austerity and moral strength and corruption, perished because he did not realize that an unarmed prophet will always go to the gallows.

If one can produce the right result by using the devotion and affection of men, let this be done by all means. There is no value in causing suffering as such. But if one cannot, then Moses, Romulus, Theseus, Cyrus are the exemplars, and fear must be employed. There is no sinister satanism in Machiavelli, nothing of Dostoevsky’s great sinner, pursuing evil for evil’s sake. To Dostoevsky’s famous question “Is everything permitted?” Machiavelli, who for Dostoevsky would surely have been an atheist, answers, “Yes, if the end—that is, the pursuit of a society’s basic interests in a specific situation—cannot be realized in any other way.”

This position has not been properly understood by some of those who claim to be not unsympathetic to Machiavelli. Figgis, for example, thinks that he “permanently suspended the habeas corpus of the human race,” that is to say, that he advocated methods of terrorism because for him the situation was always critical, always desperate, so that he confused ordinary political principles with rules needed, if at all, only in extreme cases.

Others—perhaps the majority of his interpreters—look on him as the originator, or at least a defender, of what later came to be called “raison d’état,” “Staatsraison,” “Ragion di Stato“—the justification of immoral acts when undertaken on behalf of the state in exceptional circumstances. More than one scholar has pointed out, reasonably enough, that the notion that desperate cases require desperate remedies—that “necessity knows no law”—is to be found not only in antiquity but equally in Aquinas and Dante and other medieval writers long before Bellarmine or Machiavelli.

These parallels seem to me to rest on a deep but characteristic misunderstanding of Machiavelli’s thesis. He is not saying that while in normal situations current morality—that is, the Christian or semi-Christian code of ethics—should prevail, yet abnormal conditions can occur, in which the entire social structure in which alone this code can function becomes jeopardized, and that in emergencies of this kind acts that are usually regarded as wicked and rightly forbidden are justified.

This is the position of, among others, those who think that all morality ultimately rests on the existence of certain institutions—say, Roman Catholics who regard the existence of the Church and the Papacy as indispensable to Christianity, or nationalists who see in the political power of a nation the sole source of spiritual life. Such persons maintain that extreme and “frightful” measures needed for protecting the state or the Church or the national culture in moments of acute crisis may be justified, since the ruin of these institutions may fatally damage the indispensable framework of all other values. This is a doctrine in terms of which both Catholics and Protestants, both conservatives and communists have defended enormities which freeze the blood of ordinary men.

But it is not Machiavelli’s position. For the defenders of the raison d’état, the sole justification of these measures is that they are exceptional—that they are needed to preserve a system the purpose of which is precisely to preclude the need for such odious measures, so that the sole justification of such steps is that they will end the situations that render them necessary. But for Machiavelli these measures are, in a sense, themselves quite normal. No doubt they are called for only by extreme need; yet political life tends to generate a good many such needs, of varying degrees of “extremity”; hence Baglioni, who shied from the logical consequences of his own policies, was clearly unfit to rule.

The notion of raison d’état entails a conflict of values which may be agonizing to morally good and sensitive men. For Machiavelli there is no conflict. Public life has its own morality, to which Christian principles (or any absolute personal values) tend to be a gratuitous obstacle. This life has its own standards: it does not require perpetual terror, but it approves, or at least permits, the use of force where it is needed to promote the ends of political society.

Professor Sheldon Wolin6 seems to me right in insisting that Machiavelli believes in a permanent “economy of violence”—the need for a consistent reserve of force always in the background to keep things going in such a way that the virtues admired by him, and by the classical thinkers to whom he appeals, can be protected and allowed to flower. Men brought up within a community in which such force, or its possibility, is used rightly will live the happy lives of Greeks or Romans during their finest hours. They will be characterized by vitality, genius, variety, pride, power, success (Machiavelli scarcely ever speaks of arts or sciences); but it will not, in any clear sense, be a Christian commonwealth. The moral conflict which this situation raises will trouble only those who are not prepared to abandon either course: those who assume that the two incompatible lives are, in fact, reconcilable.

But to Machiavelli the claims of the official morality are scarcely worth discussing: they are not translatable into social practice. “If men were good…” but he feels sure that they can never be improved beyond the point at which power considerations are relevant. If morals relate to human conduct, and men are by nature social, Christian morality cannot be a guide for normal social existence. It remained for someone to state this. Machiavelli did so.

One is obliged to choose: and in choosing one form of life, give up the other. That is the central point. If Machiavelli is right, if it is in principle (or in fact: the frontier seems dim) impossible to be morally good and do one’s duty as this was conceived by common European, and especially Christian, ethics, and at the same time build Sparta or Periclean Athens or the Rome of the Republic or even of the Antonines, then a conclusion of the first importance follows: that the belief that the correct, objectively valid solution to the question of how men should live can in principle be discovered is itself, in principle, not true. This was a truly erschreckend proposition. Let me try to put it in its proper context.

One of the deepest assumptions of Western political thought is the doctrine, scarcely questioned during its long ascendancy, that there exists some single principle that not only regulates the course of the sun and the stars, but prescribes their proper behavior to all animate creatures. Animals and subrational beings of all kinds follow it by instinct; higher beings attain to consciousness of it, and are free to abandon it, but only to their doom. This doctrine in one version or another has dominated European thought since Plato; it has appeared in many forms, and has generated many similes and allegories. At its center is the vision of an impersonal Nature or Reason or cosmic purpose, or of a divine Creator whose power has endowed all things and creatures each with a specific function; these functions are elements in a single harmonious whole, and are intelligible in terms of it alone.

This was often expressed by images taken from architecture: of a great edifice of which each part fits uniquely in the total structure; or from the human body as an all-embracing organic whole; or from the life of society as a great hierarchy, with God as the ens realissimum at the summit of two parallel systems—the feudal order and the natural order—stretching downward from Him, and reaching upward to Him, obedient to His will. Or it is seen as the Great Chain of Being, the Platonic-Christian analogue of the world-tree Ygdrasil, which links time and space and all that they contain. Or it has been represented by an analogy drawn from music, as an orchestra in which each instrument or group of instruments has its own tune to play in the infinitely rich polyphonic score. When, after the seventeenth century, harmonic metaphors replaced polyphonic images, the instruments were no longer conceived as playing specific melodies, but as producing sounds which, although they might not be wholly intelligible to any given group of players (and even sound discordant or superfluous if taken in isolation), yet contributed to the total pattern perceptible only from a loftier stand-point.

The idea of the world and of human society as a single intelligible structure is at the root of all the many various versions of Natural Law—the mathematical harmonies of the Pythagoreans, the logical ladder of Platonic Forms, the genetic-logical pattern of Aristotle, the divine logos of the Stoics and the Christian churches and of their secularized offshoots. The advance of the natural sciences generated more empirically conceived versions of this image as well as anthropomorphic similes: of Dame Nature as an adjuster of conflicting tendencies (as in Hume or Adam Smith), of Mistress Nature as the teacher of the best way to happiness (as in the works of some French Encyclopaedists), of Nature as embodied in the actual customs or habits of organized social wholes; biological, aesthetic, psychological similes have reflected the dominant ideas of an age.

This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and atheistic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, which has been characteristic of Western civilization. It is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open. So great a reversal cannot, of course, be due to the acts of a single individual. It could scarcely have taken place in a stable social and moral order; many besides him, ancient Skeptics, medieval nominalists and secularists, Renaissance humanists, doubtless supplied their share of the dynamite. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that it was Machiavelli who lit the fatal fuse.

If to ask what are the ends of life is to ask a real question, it must be capable of being correctly answered. To claim rationality in matters of conduct was to claim that correct and final solutions to such questions can in principle be found.

When such solutions were discussed in earlier periods, it was normally assumed that the perfect society could be conceived, at least in outline; for otherwise what standard could one use to condemn existing arrangements as imperfect? It might not be realizable here, below. Men were too ignorant or too weak or too vicious to create it. Or it was said (by some materialistic thinkers in the centuries following The Prince) that it was technical means that were lacking, that no one had yet discovered methods of overcoming the material obstacles to the golden age; that we were not technologically or educationally or morally sufficiently advanced. But it was never said that there was something incoherent in the very notion itself.

  1. 6

    In his book Politics and Vision (Little, Brown, 1960).

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