What Should You Learn from Machiavelli?

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Scala/Art Resource
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Rosso Fiorentino, early sixteenth century

When the Florentine Republic collapsed in 1512 and the Medici princes returned to power, Niccolò Machiavelli was suddenly and violently ousted from the position he had occupied in the Chancery since 1498. Writing to his friend Francesco Vettori in December 1513, he reported that he was now living on his farm and beguiling the time by reading about ancient statecraft:

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Now clothed appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, graciously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine…. I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus.

As Philip Bobbitt observes in The Garments of Court and Palace, Machiavelli is evidently referring here (in what Bobbitt calls “the most famous letter written during the Renaissance”) to the completion of The Prince. Although Machiavelli subsequently revised his draft, most historians agreed to treat the year 2013 as the five hundredth anniversary of The Prince, and many conferences were held, many exhibitions mounted, and many new studies and translations appeared.

Confronting this tall pile of new scholarship, it is Bobbitt’s book that particularly catches the eye. One reason is that he is already celebrated as the author of two major works on the history and prospects of modern states, The Shield of Achilles (2002) and Terror and Consent (2008). These works have caused him to be denounced in some quarters, he tells us, as an agent of satan. But others have hailed him as a major prophet, and his publishers are able to quote no less an authority on recent developments in philosophy than Henry Kissinger for the view that Bobbitt is “perhaps the most outstanding political philosopher of our time.” Having already invoked Machiavelli’s name on several occasions in his earlier works, Bobbitt now brings him center stage.

A further reason for focusing on Bobbitt’s book is that, although he concentrates mainly on The Prince, he also defends a bold thesis about the character of Machiavelli’s political thinking as a whole. Bobbitt starts out from what he calls “the Machiavelli Paradox”:

How can a man’s body of work mark him out as one of the most—perhaps the most—influential political philosophers since Aristotle when there is such profound disagreement over what he was actually saying?

This does not strike me as paradoxical in the least. Machiavelli’s writings have been subject to varying interpretations because they are complicated and difficult to understand, and because they have been studied in many different languages over a long period. The reason why they have nevertheless been so influential is that, as the critical literature indicates, many people have come to believe that one or another of the varying accounts of what Machiavelli is saying captures the essence of his thought. This is surely just what one would expect.

Bobbitt is not only convinced, however, that there is something contradictory about the reception of Machiavelli’s ideas; he also believes that he can make the contradiction disappear. He claims to have resolved the Machiavelli Paradox with “a single, consistent and comprehensive reading,” and his resolution depends on seeing that The Prince and Machiavelli’s later Discourses are addressed to the same theme.

Bobbitt’s contention that Machiavelli has a single great truth to impart to us is carried to somewhat bizarre lengths. Machiavelli’s Prince is brief and systematic, whereas his Discourses is a long and discursive commentary on a classical text, Livy’s history of Rome. The two books differ not only in genre and scale, but were composed at different times for different audiences, and contain some strongly contrasting arguments. But Bobbitt insists that “Machiavelli is best understood as having written one great constitutional treatise,” and even speaks of his “great unacknowledged treatise, The State, whose constituent parts are The Prince and the Discourses.” He has set himself the unusual task of interpreting a text that Machiavelli never wrote.

When Bobbitt turns to the Discourses he has some very interesting things to say, especially about how the virtù of princes can be institutionalized and turned into an attribute of the people as a whole. But his book is chiefly about The Prince and how it has been misunderstood. He is particularly critical of those (like me, as he notes more than once) who have treated The Prince as a subversive yet recognizable contribution to the Renaissance genre of “mirror-for-princes” manuals, in which rulers were counseled about how to conduct themselves toward their allies and subjects. Bobbitt retorts that The Prince “is not really a mirror book” but “a treatise on the constitutional order,” and he admonishes us to approach it as “a profoundly constitutional book.”

Bobbitt’s evidence for this pivotal conclusion is mainly derived from the first eleven chapters of The Prince, in which Machiavelli not only surveys different types of principality but grounds his analysis on what Bobbitt calls a reification of the state. Here he draws on his discussion in The Shield of Achilles of the princely state as the name of an apparatus of power “objectified and separated from the person of the prince.” Bobbitt regards the introduction of this concept as “the most important constitutional aspect of Machiavelli’s work,” and speaks of his “path-breaking distinction between the prince and the princely state.”

Machiavelli is said to have introduced this epoch-making insight at a moment when the feudal order was dying, and Bobbitt finds it striking that “the three great works presaging this death—More’s Utopia, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and Machiavelli’s Prince”—were all written in the same year. In fact they were all written in different years, but for Bobbitt what matters is that Machiavelli was standing “at the cusp of a change in the constitutional order from a feudal order to that of the first modern state,” and was almost alone in perceiving the nature of the revolution taking place.

One could quibble at Bobbitt’s vague remarks about the dying feudal age. Machiavelli lived and wrote in northern Italy, where the early growth of towns, together with their success in organizing themselves as self-governing communes, meant that this part of Europe was never feudally organized. Bobbitt’s monolithic account of the supersession of feudalism by the modern state is crude even as a story about England or France, and it scarcely applies to Italy at all.

Nevertheless, Bobbitt’s central thesis about The Prince seems to me to embody a valuable corrective. He is right to stress that, not only in the famous letter to Vettori but in several subsequent references, Machiavelli speaks of his book not as The Prince but as a work on principalities. It is also true that the first half of The Prince is largely given over to a taxonomy of different kinds of state and how they can be acquired, whether by inheritance, donation, election, or conquest. Most important, Bobbitt is right to emphasize what he describes as Machiavelli’s reification of the state as an entity with its own reality that is not to be identified with the personal power of the prince.

This development seems especially worth emphasizing in view of the fact that the term state is so often used nowadays as little more than a synonym for government. Bobbitt has already stressed in The Shield of Achilles how much is lost if we refuse to conceptualize the state as a distinct apparatus of power, and he now points to Machiavelli as the originator of this line of thought.

That Machiavelli reifies the state, treating it not simply as a concept but as an actually existing entity, is a claim that Bobbitt could have defended even more emphatically. Bobbitt never discusses the opening chapter of The Prince, but it is there that Machiavelli distinguishes most unambiguously between individual rulers and the apparatus of the state. He begins by observing that all states (and he uses the word stati) are either republics or principalities, thereby separating the general idea of the state from the different constitutional forms in which it can be embodied. It is an extremely early instance of use of the term lo stato in this recognizably modern sense.

Although Bobbitt announces his conclusions with an irritating degree of repetition, he also turns some elegant phrases, mentions other writers on Machiavelli with consistent generosity, and presents us with some fresh and interesting insights. Like many another revisionist, however, he drastically overstates his case. It seems perverse to insist that The Prince is a constitutional treatise rather than a work in the mirror-for-princes genre when it is obviously both. Bobbitt rightly observes that “only chapters 14 to 23 address a prince of this new order,” but The Prince only contains twenty-six chapters, so there is a danger here of dismissing almost half the book.

If we turn to those central chapters, moreover, we find them following the rubrics of the mirror-for-princes genre rather closely. The Renaissance writers of such handbooks usually took their precepts from a limited range of classical texts. These included Seneca’s tracts on liberality and clemency, Plutarch’s essay on how to distinguish a true friend from a flatterer, and Cicero’s De officiis, in which he commends the keeping of promises as the foundation of justice.

Machiavelli’s Prince includes a discussion of all these themes: liberality (chapter 16), clemency (chapter 17), the keeping of promises (chapter 18), and how to deal with flatterers (chapter 23). It is of course true that some of his advice is subversive of accepted values. Chapter 18 is notorious for affirming that princes should keep their promises if and only if this will help them maintain their state. But it is very hard to deny that Machiavelli is offering advice to princes, and that in doing so he is covering most of the usual ground.

Bobbitt also goes much too far in hailing Machiavelli as “the first philosopher of the modern state.” When Machiavelli speaks of the prince’s obligation to maintain his state (mantenere lo stato) he is by no means always referring to a distinct apparatus of power that the prince has a duty to uphold. Sometimes he is simply speaking of the need for a prince to maintain his standing or stato. If we turn to Corrado Vivanti’s intellectual biography of Machiavelli, first published in 2008 and now translated into English, we find an extensive appendix summarizing a great deal of Italian scholarship on the semantics of lo stato. There it is made abundantly clear that Machiavelli continues to use the term in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes he is referring to what Vivanti describes as a structurally complex political entity, but more usually he is speaking of a regime, or a territorial possession, or the prince’s own standing and condition of life.

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School of Andrea del Verrocchio: detail from Madonna and Child and Saints showing a view of Florence, fifteenth century

Even if Machiavelli’s invocations of lo stato all referred to a set of institutions, it would still be an exaggeration to treat him, as Bobbitt does, as a fully fledged theorist of the modern state. When Thomas Hobbes and Samuel Pufendorf in the later seventeenth century spoke of the state, and when Emer de Vattel in the mid-eighteenth century extended their analysis into the realm of international relations, they were not merely distinguishing an apparatus of power from those who wield it. They were arguing that the state is the name of a distinct person—what Hobbes calls a person by fiction, what Pufendorf and Vattel call a moral person. No one, they argue, can exercise lawful power unless they have been authorized to speak and act in the name of the person of the state, and all acts of government can and must be attributable to that specific person, who is considered to be the true bearer of sovereignty. Machiavelli, by contrast, never talks about the person of the state, and there is no evidence that he had any grasp of the idea of state personality.

Nor can Machiavelli even be regarded as the originator of the idea that the state is an apparatus of power separate from those who hold it. To treat this insight as Machiavelli’s discovery is to overlook some important strands in late-medieval constitutional thought. When, for example, Sir John Fortescue wrote about the laws of England in the mid-fifteenth century, he already spoke of “political” rulers as heads of distinct bodies politic whose laws and institutions they have a duty to administer but no authority to change.

The body politic is not yet described as a state, but rather as a kingdom or realm. However, the distinction between the king and the institutions of the kingdom is already clearly marked, and rulers are explicitly warned that they have a duty to act in the interests of the body politic as a whole. The emergence of the modern theory of the state out of medieval ideas about corporate bodies and classical views about magistrates as bearers of public personae is a highly complex theme. It is not helpful to think of it as springing fully armed from the head of a single political philosopher, however finely attuned he may have been to the political changes of his age.

Bobbitt is an enthusiast for Machiavelli not merely as a theorist of the state but even more as a moralist with a distinctive vision of the obligations laid upon those who exercise public power. Those familiar with Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent will already know what to expect at this stage, but for new readers he simply transcribes a number of passages from that earlier work into The Garments of Court and Palace. We are told that Machiavelli’s great contribution stems from his recognition that traditional princely virtues such as liberality and clemency must be assessed with respect to the “real-world effects such behaviour brings about.” The fundamental duty of rulers is to strengthen the state and protect it, and they must never pursue the princely virtues if the effect of doing so may be to jeopardize the safety of the state. Machiavelli is warning us to “avoid the dangerous perils that come with detachment from reality.”

This view of political morality is characterized by Bobbitt in Terror and Consent as “the duty of consequentialism.” Anyone in a position of public authority must be prepared to do what is necessary to promote the good of the people. The basic good in which Bobbitt is interested, as he repeats several times in The Garments of Court and Palace, is the protection of the state and the preservation of its security against possible attack. The duty of consequentialism is simply the obligation to recognize that, if you believe the safety of the state to be in jeopardy, you must stand ready to do whatever may be required to uphold it. The insight that Bobbitt wishes us to carry away from our reading of Machiavelli is “that officials must disregard their personal moral codes in carrying out the duties of the state.”

Bobbitt expresses some impatience with those who are insufficiently alive to the duty of consequentialism, and in one of the passages transcribed from Terror and Consent he repeats his earlier attack on Michael Walzer for suggesting that politicians unavoidably have dirty hands. Bobbitt retorts that “officials of the Machiavellian state have hands at least as clean as those of the rest of us and possibly a good deal cleaner,” and he adds some dark remarks about the superstitious attitudes of those who believe otherwise, to say nothing of the “appalling public immaturity” to be found in “the editorial pages of one of our most prominent newspapers.”

This is one of many places where Bobbitt refers to “us” and “our” institutions and practices. It always turns out, however, that “we” are citizens of the United States, which can sometimes be a bit confusing for a non-American reader, especially when invited to consider such questions as what “we” should be doing about premiums for health care. But the effect is certainly to underscore what seems to be driving Bobbitt’s interest in Machiavelli’s moral and political thought. For Bobbitt, Machiavelli is there to remind us that, with very few exceptions, “we” must be prepared to do anything necessary to maintain and strengthen the state.

To suppose, however, that Machiavelli entertains such a simple view of political morality strikes me as a serious mistake. It is by no means clear in the first place that he is warning us to be wary of the quintessentially princely virtues of clemency and liberality. What he tells us in his discussion of these qualities is that, if we follow what are generally taken to be merciful and generous courses of action, we may indeed find ourselves in danger of losing our state. But he also tells us that much of what currently passes for clemency is really laxity, and much of what is currently praised as liberality is nothing but extravagance. The warning he issues is that “doing things that appear virtuous may result in your ruin, whereas doing other things that appear vicious may conduce to your well-being and security.” The possibility deliberately left open is that, if you properly appreciate the virtues of clemency and liberality, as opposed to following the prevailing but corrupt understanding of what they prescribe, you may find that these qualities help you to maintain rather than undermine your state.

A further objection to Bobbitt’s reading is that Machiavelli never asserts in The Prince that the sole or even the most important duty of rulers is that of maintaining the state. Machiavelli consistently declares that this goal should be regarded as subordinate to a higher purpose, that of doing great things (gran cose) of such a kind as will bring glory and greatness to the prince and benefit to the people as a whole. Alan Ryan nicely captures the significance of this point in his recent and very perceptive analysis of Machiavelli’s philosophy and its place in the politics of its time, which he entitles On Machiavelli: The Search for Glory (2013). There is no discussion in Bobbitt’s text of the quest for princely glory and greatness, but it is arguable that, if we attend to this aspect of Machiavelli’s thought, a more complex sense of the conduct appropriate to rulers begins to emerge.

Machiavelli engages most directly with the question of princely glory in chapter 8 of The Prince, in which he examines the case of Agathocles, one of the tyrants of ancient Sicily. Machiavelli’s verdict on Agathocles is that, although he rose to power solely through his own remarkable qualities, and although he successfully maintained his state against all who threatened it, he cannot be numbered among the great men of his time.

Why not? Bobbitt answers by drawing on the basic organizing category of his book Terror and Consent: Machiavelli despises Agathocles, he surmises, because he reduced what had been a state of consent to a state of terror. But Machiavelli says something very different. Agathocles, he writes, wanted to hold power “by violent methods and without having to feel under an obligation to anyone else,” and this prompted him to act treacherously, to betray his friends, and to kill a number of his fellow citizens. Although these policies enabled him to maintain his state, such methods are capable of winning us power but not glory (imperio, ma non gloria), and this is why Agathocles can never be numbered among rulers of the highest excellence.

Far from urging us to do anything that may seem necessary to maintain the state, Machiavelli is asking us to reserve a special contempt for those who execute this task in a despicably inglorious style. If we want a Machiavelli for our times, we could do a lot worse than make a beginning here and give some further consideration to the high value he always sets on maintaining our reputation in the world.

Letters

What Was Machiavelli Up To? September 25, 2014