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An Exchange on Machiavelli

In response to:

A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli from the November 4, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

As regards the excellent essay on Machiavelli by Isaiah Berlin. [NYR, November 4], broad as the coverage is, there is another possibility left unexamined. To get to the point as quickly as possible, let us review quickly the kind of advice formulated by Machiavelli as administrative policies for rulers who would widen their powers or keep themselves in power:

Either treat well or crush; defend weak neighbors and weaken the strong; where you foresee trouble, provoke war; don’t make others powerful; be like the prince who appointed a harsh governor to establish order (but after this governor had become an object of public hatred in carrying out the prince’s wishes, the prince earned popular acclaim by putting him to death for his cruelties); do necessary evils at one stroke, pay out benefits little by little; sometimes assure the citizens that the evil days will soon be over, at other times goad them to fear the cruelties of the enemy; appear merciful, dependable, humane, devout, upright, but be the opposite in actuality whenever circumstances so require; always do lip-service to the virtues, since most people judge by appearances; use religion as a pretext for conquest, since it permits of “pious cruelty.”

One could put together a corresponding list of human susceptibilities which the ruler should take into account or play upon:

New benefits won’t make great personages forget old injuries; it is easy to persuade people, but you need force to keep them persuaded; one can satisfy the people, but not the nobility, by fair dealing; mercenaries are to be feared for their dastardy, auxiliaries for their valor; often what we call virtue would ruin the state, and what we call vice can save it; men in general are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, greedy; it is safer to be feared than loved, since people are more likely to offend those they love than those they fear; yet the prince should be feared, not hated; the worst offense is an offense against property, for a man more quickly forgets the loss of his father than the loss of his patrimony; any faction within the state can always expect to find allies abroad.

If next, for comparison, you turn to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, you find page after page of devices to be employed for purposes of persuasion or dissuasion, ways of arousing sympathies or antipathies with regard to people’s real or imputed character, or of playing upon the emotions. And all such holds and counterholds are based on corresponding formulations as to typical human susceptibilities. Shop around in but a few pages of that ingenious tract, and you’ll see ample reasons why Machiavelli’s The Prince might well be treated as a species of rhetoric, in so far as it deals with the producing of persuasive effects upon various kinds of public (or audience). Though the case could be presented in a much more favorable light, here is a quotation from W.D. Ross’s book on Aristotle that helps bring out the similarity between the Greek philosopher’s treatise and Machiavelli’s recipes:

The Rhetoric may seem at first sight to be a curious jumble of literary criticism with second-rate logic, ethics, politics, and jurisprudence, mixed by the cunning of one who well knows how the weaknesses of the human heart are to be played upon. In understanding the book it is essential to bear in mind its purely practical purpose. It is not a theoretical work on any of these subjects; it is a manual for the speaker…. Much of what he says applies only to the conditions of Greek society, but very much is permanently true.

However, there is one notable difference between the two works. Whereas on the whole Aristotle’s stresses but the verbal aspect of rhetoric and its modes of persuasion, the means discussed by Machiavelli usually have a pronounced (and often preponderant) concern with extra-verbal, administrative maneuvers. Quite correctly, Mr. Berlin discusses the Politics, when referring to the great importance of the city-state (the polis) in Aristotle’s thinking. Yet he never once mentions the integrally related role of the Rhetoric with regard to the persuading of publics (or audiences).

As a matter of fact, the word “rhetoric” does not occur at all; and the corresponding word for the purpose of rhetoric as considered in Aristotle’s tract (namely, “persuasion”) occurs but once, and there but glancingly, in the expression “persuasion and force.” (Incidentally, Noam Chomsky’s review of B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in the December 30, 1971, issue of The New York Review, helps bring out the importance of “persuasion” in such debates on matters of public policy; and even while he is convincingly devastating as regards the Skinnerian treatment of the subject, I submit that the whole discussion serves well to back the point about rhetoric that I think is needed to correct an important oversight in Mr. Berlin’s coverage of theories about The Prince.)

There is a strongly valid reason why, though Mr. Berlin discussed Aristotle’s Politics with regard to the classical pagan culture that shaped part of Christianity’s past, he makes no reference to the Rhetoric. For although Aristotle’s treatise is called an “art” (techné) of rhetoric, his strong emphasis upon the sheerly verbal nature of this “art” leads him to apply the opposite word (atechnos, “inartificial”) as regards kinds of persuasion that rely upon motivating elements from outside the “art” itself. These include such “persuasive” devices as the eliciting of confessions by torture. But most are less drastic, as with the emotive use of witnesses, a practice often carried to excess in the law courts, or the use of legal documents as evidence.

But the inclusion (if only for thoroughness’ sake) of a section on “inartificial” proofs opens the door to a wider conception of rhetoric, an “administrative” mode of persuasion that would often fit Machiavelli’s recipes to perfection and that Skinnerian observations about persuasion and control are, however fumblingly, concerned with. For instance, consider a “ploy” of this sort: Let us say that, at a time of controversy, one nation amasses troops on the borders of another. The nature of such an operation, viewed as an imagery of threat, is obvious. Yet it can be accompanied by a blandly verbal rhetoric, as with a diplomatic announcement to the effect that the mobilization is but a routine maneuver, planned months ago, and having no relevance at all to the current controversy. Thus, when Theodore Roosevelt was President, and the German Emperor showed signs of feeling bellicose, our fleet (which by then had become quite large) was sent around the world on a “goodwill” mission that was implicitly a show of force. Here would be an example of “administrative rhetoric” as contrasted with the sheerly verbal. Similarly, President Johnson’s maneuvers in connection with the Gulf of Tonkin incident would owe much of their persuasiveness to an astute mixture of verbal and nonverbal elements.

Though “persuasion” and “force” are usually thought of as involving quite different modes of inducement, a mere show of force would fall somewhere in between. And as a matter of fact, the Greeks had a term, peithanagke, that jammed the two words into one, thereby involving an intermediate realm such as would fit many of the formulae I have cited from Machiavelli’s “topics” (if we may borrow Aristotle’s word for all such topoi, or “places”). Here are the makings of an intermediate realm in some examples that Aristotle gives of stinginess: “To borrow from someone who seems about to ask for a loan, to ask for a further loan from someone who wants his money back, to ask for repayment from someone who wants to borrow more.” Here are miniature “Machiavellian” plots that would have a certain rhetorical effectiveness, yet would also involve manipulations in nonverbal “contexts of situation.”

Even as I was writing this paragraph, my eye fell upon a headline that illustrates at least two possibilities in the way of an “administrative” rhetoric: Cutoff of US Aid Threatened by Nixon in Foreign Seizures. One possible administrative ploy here would be the granting of aid to gain influence by threatening to cease granting aid. Another possibility could concern cases where the ostensible granting of aid abroad can serve as a roundabout way of subsidizing domestic exporters (such as munitions manufacturers) who would sell their wares to foreign countries that could not otherwise afford such expensive purchases.

Also, there is a purely methodological reason for proposing that the concept of rhetoric be thus widened, to include The Prince as a species of rhetoric. Just as Marshall McLuhan got things a bit askew by his overstress upon “the medium as message,” there is the corresponding likelihood that Mr. Berlin’s too great stress upon the work’s content, in the purely doctrinal sense, tends to underplay the kinds of understanding made possible by the inclusion of such specifically formal considerations.

But once you introduce this angle into your spective, many other works fall into place. For instance, consider Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. It is written in praise of the “eloquence” that serves in the conquest of the public, of the senate, and of women; but the emphasis is upon the third—and where Machiavelli is telling how to get and hold a principality, Ovid is telling how to get and hold a woman, thereby transforming imperial motives into analogous terms of sexual courtship. Grounded in figures of soldiery, of gladiators, of the hunt, of animals enraged or ruttish, it is like a manual of instructions, such as The Prince. But whereas the Italian is in dead earnest, the Latin tinkers with playful persiflage. Having begun scenically, with a survey of locations where the hunting is good, Ovid proceeds by such topics as:

On deceiving in the name of friendship; feigning just enough drunkenness to be winsome; inducement value of belief in the gods; deceiving deceivers; the utility of tears; the need to guard against the risk that entreaties may merely feed a woman’s vanity; advisability of shifts in method, since a woman who resisted the courteous may yield to the crude; how to be servant and freeman in one; need for caution with gifts; if she has deceived you, let her think you don’t know it; give each of her faults the name of the good quality most like it.

All told, here was the sort of literary ostentation that De Quincey had in mind when selecting Ovid as prime example of rhetoric. Where Machiavelli says that war “is the sole art proper to rulers,” Ovid’s “how to” book on philandering is founded on the corresponding principle that “love is a kind of war.” Viewed thus, Stendhal’s concept of “crystallization” in his De l’Amour would belong to a poetics of love; and for a rhetoric of love we should turn rather to the account of Julien’s scheming in The Red and the Black (until Fortune changes the rules near the end, a point to be remembered later).

Once you extend the concept of rhetoric to include such “administrative” ingredients as apply to human relations in general (be they private, as with Ovid’s list of devices, or public as with Machiavelli’s, including various possible intermediate bureaucratic mixtures of doing and saying), you are also dealing with a kind of literature and with its corresponding possible variants (as per the difference between Machiavelli’s seriousness and Ovid’s smirk).

Everything promptly falls into place. For instance, the strongly competitive element that always figures in human relations brings to the fore such kinds of analysis and prescription as would fall under the general head of “any port in a storm.” Thus, Aritstotle’s Rhetoric is schematically thorough in describing both the thrusts available for persuasive purposes and the corresponding parries to such thrusts. And there is much talk of the susceptibilities that make such resources persuasive. But though Aristotle plays down (without wholly eliminating) the kinds of devices that involve doing as well as saying, the “problem” of Machiavelli’s recipes is promptly resolved, once the concepts of persuasion and identification are seen to include a wider range (generally in keeping with the notion that a blandly ambiguous show of force can sometimes be a sufficiently persuasive deterrent, or as Ovid prescribes ways of subduing by yielding, or as a medico may reinforce his therapeutic role by his parade of diagnostic equipment and his bedside manner).

If you consider La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims from this point of view, you readily see how an orthodox Christian view of motives fits with even the roughest of “pagan” texts. For whereas the Church was in principle aiming at a “Catholic” (that is, “universal”) realm of motives, Machiavelli was responding to the obviously divisive emergence of nationalism as a locus of motives. Here would be an acquisitive, competitive, conspiratorial set of values whereby my country might quite “naturally” honor as a hero a spy whom your country might condemn to death as a criminal. Yet with regard to all such manuals as either Machiavelli’s serious tract or Ovid’s playful one, there is no problem (quite as there is no problem with La Rochefoucauld’s mean maxims on the vagaries of self-love) when we conceive of such a rhetorical realm as necessarily concerned with motives typical of man after the “fall.”

Most of what I have been saying is repeated from my chapter on “‘Administrative’ Rhetoric in Machiavelli,” in my book A Rhetoric of Motives, published in 1950. Also, the same chapter is designed to show why, once you consider The Prince from this point of view, Ernst Cassirer’s very good account of Machiavelli in his Myth of the State gets into unnecessary difficulties as regards the end of the book, which he says is a misfit with all that went before.

Nay more, he even contends that the burden of proof rests with anyone who would contend otherwise. So let’s see.

Note that two quite different kinds of consideration are implicit in Machiavelli’s “administrative rhetoric.” Primarily, there is what Malinowski would call the “context of situation.” That is, Machiavelli is always saying in effect, “Given such-and-such conditions, do such-and-such.” But is that the whole story? Suppose, for instance, that the situation calls for a cruel act; but you, dear Prince, are in your very essence an exceptionally kindly man. In that case, dear beloved Prince, either you must act out of character, in being cruel whereas you are not cruel; or if you do act in character, then you cannot carry out the cruel policy that the situation demands of you.

Or let’s turn things around. Great Prince, whom I reverence in fright, though you have been severe with us, the context of situation was such that the good of the state demanded harsh measures. And your personal temperament made you exactly the kind of ruler needed to guide us through these trying times. On the other hand, it is conceivable that a ruler so personally given to austere ways might happen to be guiding us, your loyal subjects, at a time when considerable kindness was best suited to our state’s necessities.

Thus forgive me, dear Prince, if by way of peroration, I end on talk of “Fortune.” And by “Fortune” I have in mind those almost miraculous occasions when the kind of act that is most characteristic of you as a person also fits perfectly with the kind of act that considerations of state most urgently demand. Then, lo! all fits together. The “Fortune” will be our good fortune. Thus may there arise a Princely character whose character will be such that, in being himself, he will employ exactly the kinds of persuasive-administrative policies most needed, if our suffering country is to be made free.

So much for the “burden of proof.” Allow the category of “administrative rhetoric” and everything promptly falls into place. Rule it out—and as admirable as Mr. Berlin’s essay is, it cannot quite get to the “generating principle” of Machiavelli’s tract. Incidentally, we see a quite different mode of rhetoric involved in a work such as Cicero’s De Officiis, where the civic virtues are on parade.

Kenneth Burke
Englewood, Florida

Isaiah Berlin replies:

I do not disagree with anything that Professor Kenneth Burke says in his letter and the relevant chapter of his book to which he refers. Indeed, his view of the “rhetoric” advocated by Machiavelli, and the spectrum of pressure, stretching from violence to persuasion, seems to me original, important, and true. Moreover, I think Professor Burke to be entirely right, against Cassirer, in his conception of the relationship of the last chapter of The Prince to the rest of the treatise. The purpose of my article was, however, to find an answer to a problem different from that with which Professor Burke is concerned, namely, what it is that so deeply shocked so many readers of Machiavelli, who did not react similarly to equally tough-minded sentiments in Thucydides or Aristotle or the Old Testament and later writings. My answer to it—whether it is right or wrong—does not seem to me to conflict with anything in Mr. Burke’s argument. It is directed against the interpretations of those who believe either that Machiavelli had no moral position at all, or that he allowed the possibility of creating a successful secular state founded upon, or compatible with, the institutions or basic tenets of Christianity or of the secular beliefs that derive from it, or even the possibility of the kind of compromise between these ways of life (such as has historically obtained). Machiavelli does not seem to me to hold a realistic position; but it has enough truth in it to have upset many generations of readers. This is a different thesis from Mr. Burke’s, but seems to me wholly consistent with it.

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