PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 10

 - New Modes and Orders: Machiavelli, The Prince (chaps. 1-12)


The lecture begins with an introduction of Machiavelli’s life and the political scene in Renaissance Florence. Professor Smith asserts that Machiavelli can be credited as the founder of the modern state, having reconfigured elements from both the Christian empire and the Roman republic, creating therefore a new form of political organization that is distinctly his own. Machiavelli’s state has universalist ambitions, just like its predecessors, but it has been liberated from Christian and classical conceptions of virtue. The management of affairs is left to the princes, a new kind of political leaders, endowed with ambition, love of glory, and even elements of prophetic authority.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 10 - New Modes and Orders: Machiavelli, The Prince (chaps. 1-12)

Chapter 1. Introduction: Video of The Third Man [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Because it’s a makeup class, we’ll do something a little special. We’re going to show a clip from a movie that I think is particularly appropriate. As we get into it, I’ll tell you why. It’s about a five-minute segment from the film called The Third Man. Has anyone ever seen it? Okay, maybe more than I thought. Just to set up the scene, for those of you have seen it and more for those of you who haven’t, this is a film that was made in 1948 called The Third Man from a Graham Greene short story. It takes place in post World War II Vienna. And the clip we’re going to see is the most famous part of the movie. It takes place of a conversation between two old friends. One of them, played by Orson Welles, is in a black market racket in Vienna and is making a living doing something very bad in the black market. In this scene, he’s trying to convince an old school friend of his, played by Joseph Cotten, to join this thing. I should say the Orson Welles character has also faked his death, so no one except his immediate conspirators knows he’s still alive. I should have said that. He’s faked his death and here he has a scene with his old school friend, played by Joseph Cotten, and he’s trying to convince him to come into his black market racket. So here comes The Third Man.

Be good. We may watch the whole movie. Good scene. It’s good because I think it conveys something of the flavor of Machiavelli’s thought in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias. This is Machiavelli’s time. Blood shed and murder and Leonardo da Vinci and the Renais sance. Under Switzerland for 500 years, peace and democracy. What did it produce? The cuckoo clock. I’m going to talk about that in a moment.

Chapter 2. Introduction: Who Was Machiavelli? [00:02:20]

I want to begin by talking about who was Machiavelli. How do we read The Prince? Machiavelli was a Florentine. To know that is to know virtually everything you need to know about him. I’m exaggerating but I do so to make a point. Florence was a republic. It was a city-state. And Machiavelli spent a good deal of his adult life in the service of the republic. Living in Florence, the center of the Renaissance at the height of the Renais sance, Machiavelli wished to do for politics what his contemporaries, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, had done for art and sculpture. In other words, he hoped to revive in some way the spirit of the ancients of antiquity, but to modify it in the lights of his own experience. As he puts it in the dedication of his most famous book, he writes that this book The Prince ”is a product of long experience with modern things and a continuous reading of the ancient ones.” In Machiavelli, we have what we have come to call “modernity,” given its first and most powerful expres sion.

But Machiavelli was not an ordinary Florentine. He grew up under the rule of the Medici. That is to say, the first family of Florence, and lived to see them deposed by a Dominican friar by the name of Savonarola. Savonarola attempted to impose a kind of theocracy in Florence, a sort of Christian republic of virtue. But the Florentines, being what they were, rejected this idea and the rule of Savonarola was short-lived. In its place, a republic was re-established where Machiavelli occupied the office of secretary to the second chancery, a kind of diplomatic post which he held for 14 years from 1498 to 1512. After the fall of the republic and the return of the Medici to princely rule there, Machiavelli was exiled from the city, from politics to a small estate that he owned on the out skirts of the city. You can visit it today. It was here, from a place of political exile, that he wrote his major works–The Prince, the Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War. It was from here, also, that he wrote voluminous letters to friends seeking knowledge about politics. Machiavelli was a kind of political junkie, you could say, in things happening in Italy and else where.

In one of these letters, a famous letter to his friend, a man named Francesco Vettori, he describes how he came to write his most famous book. I want to read a passage from that letter. It is also, I should say, on the basis of this letter, which is why I ask people from time to time to remove their caps in the class room, from the House of Study. This is the way Machiavelli approached study. “When evening comes,”–he writes, “When evening comes, I return to my house and go to my study. At the door, I take off my clothes of the day covered with muck and dirt and I put on my regal and courtly garments. And decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reasons for their actions and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours every night, I feel no boredom. I forget every pain. I do not fear poverty and death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely unto them. And because Dante says that to have understood without retention does not make knowledge, I have noted what capital I have made from their conversations and have composed a little work on principalities, where I delve as deeply as I can into reflections on this subject, debating what a principality is, of what kinds they are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, and why they are lost.

So there, Machiavelli gives us a sense of the seriousness with which he approached his subject, how he studied, and what it was he came to write. Let me just say from the beginning, The Prince is a deceptive book. What else would we expect from the name of a man that has become synonymous with deception? It is a work, The Prince, that everybody has heard of, perhaps has some preconception about. I was checking the web yesterday and I found a new book about Machiavelli, which none of these every fail to surprise me. This one is called The Suit: a Machiavellian Guide to Men’s Fashion. Check it out. Who knows? Machiavelli’s name is everywhere. It is applied to everything, from corporate executives now to men’s fashion. Everybody knows or thinks they know what his work is about. His name, again, is synonymous with deception, treachery, cunning, deceit. Just look at the cover of your book. Look at his face. Look at his smile, really more of a smirk. He seems to be saying, “I know something you don’t know.” The difficulty with reading Machiavelli today is that we all think we already know what he knows and that is false.

Machiavelli was a revolutionary. In the preface to his largest book, the Discourses on Livy, he compares himself to Christopher Columbus for his discovery of what he calls “new modes and orders.” What Columbus had done for geography, Machiavelli claims he will do for politics. That is to say, discover an entirely new continent, a new world, so to speak, the new world of Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s new world, his new modes and orders, will require, clearly, a displacement of the earlier one, of the previous one. And Machiavelli wrote, of course, the dominant form of political organization was the empire or, to speak more precisely, the Christian empire. The Holy Roman Empire, as it was known in the time of Machiavelli, was the successor to the ancient Roman state, the older Roman Empire. Both of these empires had aspired to a kind of universality. And this universality was given expression in Dante’s famous treatise, De Monarchia, of monarchy, that set out a model for a universal Christian state, based on the unity and oneness of the human race under a Christian ruler. Machiavelli rejected this idea of the empire and harked back, instead, to the model of republican Rome. And there is much in his writing that recalls the sort of extraordinary virtues and capacities of the citizens of the ancient republican city-state. But you might say just as Machiavelli broke with the dominant model of Christian universalism, so too did he reject the ancient model of the small, autonomous republican state. He makes this clear in a famous passage at the beginning of chapter 15 of The Prince. And I just want to read that passage, as well. Here, Machiavelli says, “I depart from the orders of others. I depart from their modes,” he says. “But since it is my intent to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of things than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined,” –one thinks here of Plato, perhaps, but also to Christianity–“Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth. For it is far from how one lives to how one should live. That he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.”

In other words, no Platonic cities in speech. No Augustinian cities of God. We will only look, he says, to the effectual truth of things. The effectual truth of the matter, not the imagination of it or the utopia of it. That passage is often taken to be, the beginning of chapter 15, the essence of Machiavelli and realism, a kind of Realpolitik, as it were. His appeal from the “ought” to the “is,” to take one’s bearings again, from the effectual truth of things. This seems to be, in many ways, the essence of his teaching. To be sure, Machiavelli focuses on key aspects of political reality which are often ignored by thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. Murders, conspiracies, coup d’état, these are the kinds of political phenomena he is interested. He seems to be more interested in the evils that human beings do than the goods to which they aspire. You might even say that Machiavelli takes delight in demonstrating, much to our chagrin, the space between our lofty intentions and the actual consequences of our deeds.

Yet, it would seem to me there is more to Machiavelli than the term “realism” connotes, although that is certainly important. In this passage, Machiavelli announces his break, indeed his repudiation of all those who have come before, all those who have come before. He both replaces and yet reconfigures according to his own lights, elements from both the Christian empire and the Roman republic, to create a new form of political organization distinctly his own. What we might call today the modern state. Machiavelli is the founder, the discoverer, the inventor of the modern state. This modern, secular, sovereign state was refined and developed in the decades and centuries after Machiavelli in the writing of Hobbes, of Locke, of Rousseau, to say nothing of contemporary twentieth-century writers from both the right and the left–Max Weber, Karl Schmidt, to a man, an Italian philosopher named Antonio Gramsci, who was the author of a book interestingly called The Modern Prince, based on Machiavelli himself.

Machiavelli’s state itself has universalist ambitions, in many ways, much like its Christian and Roman predecessors. But this is a state, he believes, that has now been liberated or emancipated from Christian and classical conceptions of virtue. The management of affairs is left to those people who he calls princes, which in the Machiavellian usage designates a new kind of political founder or leader endowed with a new species of ambition, love of glory, and elements of prophetic authority that we might call charisma.

Chapter 3. The Prince: Title and Dedication of the Book [00:15:33]

But just what was the nature of the revolution contemplated by our founder, Machiavelli, the founder of modern political science? Consider, just for a moment, the title and dedication of the book. The Prince appears, on its surface, to be a most conventional work. It presents itself in the long tradition of what has come to be called the mirror of princes. Books that give a kind of guide to the dos and don’ts of princely behavior. Fair enough. It seems to go back a long, long time. And the appearance of conventionality is supported by the opening words of the book in his dedicatory letter. The first words or first line out of his mouth or the first lines are “it is customary,” he says. It is a work intended to ingratiate himself to Lorenzo de Medici, the man to whom the work is dedicated, a customary prince, a traditional prince who has just regained his power. But look again.

Consider the structure of the first three chapters. “All states, all dominions that have held and do hold empire over man are either republics or principalities,” he says in the opening sentence of chapter 1. Having distinguished two, and only two, kinds of regimes, republics and principalities, as the only ones worth mentioning, he goes on to distinguish two kinds of principalities. There are hereditary principalities, like those currently run by Lorenzo, which acquire their authority through tradition and hereditary bloodlines. Then he says there are new princes and new principalities. Machiavelli then asserts that his book will deal only with principalities, leaving, he says, the discussion of republics for elsewhere, what one assumes his Discourses of Livy, which he was already writing by this time. But then Machiavelli goes on to tell the reader that the exclusive subject of this book will be the new prince. In other words, not Lorenzo at all, but precisely princes who have or will achieve their authority through their own guile, their own force, or their own virtù, to use the famous Machiavellian term that I want to talk about later.

The true, in other words, recipient of this book must be necessarily the potential prince. That is to say, someone with sufficient political audacity to create their own authority, who has not simply received it from the past, but to create their own authority. Maybe one could even say Machiavelli’s prince is, in a way, the first truly self-made man. So what, then, is the character of this new prince and how does he differ from more conventional modes of political authority? In one of the most famous chapters of the book, chapter 6, entitled, “Of New Principalities that are Acquired Through One’s Own Arms and Virtue,” there is that word again, virtù, one’s own arms and virtue, Machiavelli discusses the character of the modern prince, the new prince. “A prudent man,” he writes, “should always enter upon the paths beaten by great men and imitate those who have been most excellent, so that if his own virtue does not reach that far, it at least is in the odor of it.” We at least come within, you might say, sniffing distance of their greatness. “One should do,” he says, “what archers do when attempting to reach a distant target, namely, aim your bow high, knowing that the force of gravity will bring the arrow down.” In other words, set your sights high, knowing you will probably fall short.

“So who are the greatest examples,” he says, “of princely rule that the prudent man”–interesting choice of words, “the prudent man”–“should imitate?” And here, Machiavelli gives a list of those heroic founders of peoples and states–Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and so on. “As one examines their actions and lives,” he writes, “one does not see that they had anything else from fortune than the opportunity which gave them the matter enabling them to introduce any form they please. Notice in that sentence, he uses those Aristotelian terms, “form” and “matter” that we spoke about in relation to the Aristotelian regime. “They had nothing else from fortune,” he says, again, “than the opportunity,” the occasion, that “gave them the matter enabling them to introduce any form they please.” In short, Machiavelli claims these were founders who created, in a way, ex nihilo, out of nothing. They only had the occasion in a kind of formless matter upon which they could adopt and impose any form they took. And they had, of course, the strength of mind, as well as the audacity and cunning, to take advantage of this situation. Such opportunities, he writes, such occasions, made these men successful. And their excellent virtue enabled the opportunity to be recognized. Hence, their fatherlands were ennobled by it and they became prosperous. They took advantage of their opportunity, seized their opportunity and imposed their own form upon it.

Chapter 4. The Distinction between Armed and Unarmed Prophets [00:21:52]

And it is here that Machiavelli introduces his famous distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. “All the armed prophets,” he says, “conquered and the unarmed were ruined.” This seems to be and is, clearly, a kind of classic statement of sheer Machiavellian power politics. “All politics grows out of the barrel of a gun,” as a famous twentieth-century Machiavellian once put it. The armed prophets conquer, the unarmed lose. But there seems to be more to it than this. Machiavelli compares the prince to a prophet. Why does he use that language? What is a prophet? The most obvious answer is a person to whom God speaks. Machiavelli’s armed prophets may not be religious figures and they are not necessarily recipients of divine knowledge, but they seem to be, at least on his account, people of exceptional personal qualities that allow them to bring laws, to be law bringers, lawgivers, shapers of institutions and also reformers of opinions that govern our lives. Machiavelli’s armed prophet is more than just a gangster, like Orson Welles in that part. He is a teacher and a kind of educator as well. You might even think in your class, in your sections, how or in what ways does Machiavelli’s armed prophet differ in important ways both from Plato’s philosopher king, as well as Aristotle’s notion of the megalopsychos as the sort of magnanimous statesman. Although this kind of talk about “armed prophets always win” is characteristic of Machiavelli, he likes this kind of tough talk. He clearly recognizes that there are clear exceptions to his rule about armed prophets. Who comes to mind most vividly? Who, in other words, is not present in Machiavelli’s list of great prophets that one should imitate?

Student: Jesus.

Professor Steven Smith: Yes. Most obvious, perhaps, certainly to his contemporaries, Jesus, who triumphed through words and teaching alone. He had no troops. He had no arms. He established a religion, first a sect, you might say, then a religion, then eventually an empire, the Holy Roman Empire, that was established in the name of that teaching. Words may well be a powerful weapon, as powerful as a gun. Then you might say, “What is Machiavelli himself?” Who is Machiavelli but an archetypal, unarmed prophet? He has no troops. He has no territory. He controls no real estate. He’s been banished, yet he is clearly attempting to conquer, comparing himself to Columbus, to conquer in large part through the transformation of our understanding of good and evil, of virtue and vice. In other words, to make people obey you, you must first make them believe you. Machiavelli’s prophetic prince, in other words, must have some of the qualities of a philosopher, as well as a religious reformer trying to reshape and remold human opinion, especially opinion over, as we said, good and evil, just and unjust.

What does this reformation, so to speak, or transformation consist of? We might even call this Machiavelli in the garden of good and evil, midnight in the garden of good and evil for Machiavelli.

Chapter 5. Good and Evil, Virtue and Vice [00:26:10]

One point often attributed about Machiavelli is that he introduced a new kind of immoralism into politics. In that famous chapter, chapter 15, he says he sets out to teach the prince how not to be good. A striking formulation. He will teach the prince how not to be good. And in perhaps the most important book on Machiavelli ever written, the author of that book declared Machiavelli to be a teacher of evil. You might want to think about that. A teacher of evil. Is that what Machiavelli was? Questions of good and bad, virtue and vice, appear on virtually every page of The Prince. He is not simply a teacher of political pragmatism, of how to adjust means to fit the ends. He seems to be offering nothing short of a comprehensive revolution, transformation. If you want to use the Nietzschean language, “transvaluation” of our most basic vocabulary about good and evil.

Machiavelli doesn’t reject the idea of the good. Rather, he redefines it. He is continually speaking, and in fact I would suggest on virtually every page of the book, he is continually speaking the language of virtue. His word “virtù,” which a word that retains the Latin word for the word “man,” virwir, man, and virtù, a word that is perhaps best translated or, by our word, “manliness.” What distinguishes Machiavelli’s use of this language of virtù, manliness, is that he seeks to locate it in certain extreme situations, such as political foundings, changes of regimes, wars, both of domestic and foreign kinds. What distinguishes Machiavelli from his predecessors, in many ways, is his attempt to take the extraordinary situation, the extreme situation, again, the extremes of political founding, conspiracies, wars, coups, as the normal situation and then makes morality fit that extreme. His examples are typically drawn from situations of human beings or polities in extremes where the very survival or independence of a society is at stake. In those situations, you might say, and only in those situations, is it permissible to violate the precepts of ordinary morality. In those situations one must learn, as he says, how not to be good, to have to violate the conventions and cannons of ordinary morality. Machiavelli takes his bearings from these extreme states of emergency and in his own way, seeks to normalize them, to present them as the normal condition of politics.

Machiavelli’s preference for these extreme situations expresses his belief that only in moments of great crisis, where the very existence of a state is at risk, does human nature truly reveal itself. We finally or fully understand what people are only in the most extreme situations. The paradox that, you might say, runs throughout all of Machiavelli’s morality is that the very possibility of virtue grows out of and, in fact, is even dependent upon the context of chaos, violence, and disorder that always threatens the political world. Think of it. Think of many of our great political models or heroes. What would the Duke of Marlborough have been without Louis XIV? What would Washington have been without George III? What would Lincoln have been without the slave interest? What would Churchill have been without Hitler? In other words, his point is that good is only possible because of the prior existence of bad. Good is founded upon evil. And even the greatest goods, the founding and preservation of cities, often require murder. What was Romulus’ murder of Remus or Cain’s murder of Abel, but the kind of murder that founded, at the basis of the founding of cities and civilizations?

One thinks, in a way, of Welles’ line in The Third Man when he looks down from above and says, “If I gave you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped moving, would you really tell me to keep my money?” It requires, for Machiavelli, the founding of regimes requires that kind of cold and cruel calculation. Of course, it’s being used in the movie just to support a criminal enterprise, not the founding of a city. We might investigate that as well. But Machiavelli does not deny that in ordinary terms, in what we might call times of normal politics, the ordinary rules of justice prevail. He also shows, however, that normal politics is, itself, dependent upon extraordinary politics, periods of crisis, anarchy, instability, revolution, where the normal rules of the game are suspended. It is in these times, you might say, when individuals of extraordinary virtue and capacity, prophetic qualities, as he calls it in chapter 6, are most likely to emerge. While the Aristotelian statesmen, just to make a contrast for a moment, is most likely to value stability and the means necessary to achieving it, the Machiavellian prince seeks war, because it is only, again, in the most extreme situations that one can prosper and be prosperous. Think about the lines again from the movie. “For 30 years under the Borgias, violence, murder, terror, bloodshed. But what did it produce? Greatness of an unprecedented type. Stability, democracy, brotherly love, peace. What does that produce? Mediocrity, the cuckoo clock.” There might be a little more of Nietzsche suggested in that, than Machiavelli, but I think the Machiavellian overtones are very evident.

Consider just the following. Every child, every one of you, every one of us was brought up to know that one must never do wrong, even if good consequences are seen to follow. It is never right to give bad examples to others, even if one expects good to come from it. Yet, Machiavelli breaks these rules about not giving bad examples. Virtue is not associated with the classical conceptions of moderation, of justice, of self-control over the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Virtue means for him a kind of manly self-assertion, audacity, ruthlessness, a reliance on one’s own arms and calculated use of cruelty to achieve one’s ends. The model of Machiavellian virtù is the Renaissance statesman, in general, Cesare Borgia. It’s very interesting that Orson Welles made a movie, not so often seen today, about Cesare Borgia.

I want to leave you with reading one passage from The Prince, chapter 7, in which Machiavelli illustrates the kind of virtùCesare represented and that he wants to recommend for those who follow him. “Once the duke,” that’s Cesare himself–“Once the duke had taken over the Romana,” an area outside of Florence, “he found it had been commanded by impotent lords who had been readier to despoil their subjects than to correct them and had given their subjects matter for disunion, not union. So Cesare put there,” he says “Messer Ramiro d’Orco, a cruel and ready man to whom he gave the fullest power.” So Cesare set up as a lieutenant of his to impose order on this area and to whom he delegated the fullest responsibility. “In short time,” he goes on, “Ramiro reduced it to peace and unity with the very greatest reputation for himself. Then the duke judged that such excessive authority was not necessary, because he feared it might become hateful and he set up a sort of a civil court in the middle of the province with the most excellent president where each city had its advocate. And because he knew that the past rigors had generated some hatred for Ramiro, to purge the spirits of that people and to gain them entirely to himself, he wishes to show that if any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from him, from Cesare, but from the harsh nature of his minister. And having seized this opportunity,” that language, seized the occasion, seized this opportunity, “he had emplaced one morning in the piazza in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. He had him cut in two. The bloody knife and piece of wood beside him. “The ferocity of this spectacle,” Machiavelli concludes, “left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.” That, of course, is Machiavelli’s virtù, princely virtue, what you do to leave the people satisfied and stupefied. What we might call today shock and awe. Okay, next week we’ll continue this learned man.

[end of transcript]

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