Isaiah Berlin on Machiavelli

In 2013, The New York Review of Books celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. During the course of the year we will reprint excerpts from some other notable pieces published in the Review over the last five decades.

Between 1965 and 2009 The New York Review published over thirty articles and letters by the historian of ideas and political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997). The following is an extract from “The Question of Machiavelli,” which appeared in the November 4, 1971 issue. It can be read in full at www.nybooks.com/50/Machiavelli.

Isaiah Berlin and New York Review editor Robert Silvers, New York City, 1982
Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin and New York Review editor Robert Silvers, New York City, 1982

The Question of Machiavelli

Isaiah Berlin

…What has been shown by Machiavelli, who is often (like Nietzsche) congratulated for tearing off hypocritical masks, brutally revealing the truth, and so on, is not that men profess one thing and do another (although no doubt he shows this too) but that when they assume that the two ideals are compatible, or perhaps are even one and the same ideal, and do not allow this assumption to be questioned, they are guilty of bad faith (as the existentialists call it, or of “false consciousness,” to use a Marxist formula) which their actual behavior exhibits. Machiavelli calls the bluff not just of official morality—the hypocrisies of ordinary life—but of one of the foundations of the central Western philosophical tradition, the belief in the ultimate compatibility of all genuine values. His own withers are unwrung. He has made his choice. He seems wholly unworried by, indeed scarcely aware of, parting company with traditional Western morality….

Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.

For those who look on such collisions as rare, exceptional, and disastrous, the choice to be made is necessarily an agonizing experience for which, as a rational being, one cannot prepare (since no rules apply). But for Machiavelli, at least in The Prince, The Discourses, Mandragola, there is no agony. One chooses as one chooses because one knows what one wants, and is ready to pay the price. One chooses classical civilization rather than the Theban desert, Rome and not Jerusalem, whatever the priests may say, because such is one’s nature, and—he is no existentialist or romantic individualist avant la parole—because it is that of men in general, at all times, everywhere. If others prefer solitude or martyrdom, he shrugs his shoulders. Such men are not for him. He has nothing to say to them, nothing to argue with them about. All that matters to him and those who agree with him is that such men be not allowed to meddle with politics or education or any of the cardinal factors in human life; their outlook unfits them for such tasks.

I do not mean that Machiavelli explicitly asserts that there…


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