PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 11

 - New Modes and Orders: Machiavelli, The Prince (chaps. 13-26)


The discussion of Machiavelli’s politics continues in the context of his most famous work, The Prince. A reformer of the moral Christian and classical concepts of goodness and evil, Machiavelli proposes his own definitions of virtue and vice, replacing the vocabulary associated with Plato and the biblical sources. He relates virtue, or virtu, to manliness, force, ambition and the desire to achieve success at all costs. Fortune, or fortuna, is a woman, that must be conquered through policies of force, brutality, and audacity. The problem of “dirty hands” in political and philosophical literature is discussed in detail.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 11 - New Modes and Orders: Machiavelli, The Prince (chaps. 13-26)

Chapter 1. Introduction and Class Agenda

Professor Steven Smith: Last time, I ended by talking about Machiavelli as both a revolutionary in many ways and a reformer of the moral vocabulary about virtue and vice, good and evil. Machiavelli seeks to replace, to transpose an older vocabulary associated both with Plato and certainly, perhaps more importantly, with biblical sources, wants to transform altogether the language of virtue, to give it a new kind of meaning, to change it from either Platonic or Christian otherworldliness to a greater sense of worldly power. Virtue is, for him, or to use his term again, virtù is related with manliness, with force, with power. He tells us, in chapter 25 of The Prince, the ethic of the prince must be one of audacity and even more audacity and that famous and very volatile image he uses, fortune is a woman and you must know how- the prince must know how to conquer the woman, must be used through policies of force, brutality, audacity. This is the language of Machiavelli. Virtue is associated with the quest for worldly glory, with ambition, with the desire to achieve success, and that’s what I want to talk about at greater length today. I want to talk about what in the political and philosophical literature about this is called the problem of “dirty hands.” And if you want to join the political game, you must be prepared to get your hands dirty, and what Machiavelli means by that, how he comes to this problem.

In order, he argues, to effect a transformation of European morality, it is, in other words, to teach the prince, as he says in chapter 15, how not to be good, you have to go to the source of the morality. You have to go to the source of morality. To affect the maxims, to affect the standards that govern our lives, it is necessary to go to the source of those standards and those maxims and that can only be found in religion. Oddly, it seems in some ways, religion does not seem to be a major theme of The Prince. In a memorable passage from chapter 18, Machiavelli advises the prince always to cultivate the appearance of religion. The prince, he writes, should appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity and all religion, he writes, adding nothing is more necessary to appear to have this last quality. The point is clear. The appearance of religion, by which he clearly means Christianity, is good while the actual practice of it is harmful. Think about the way in which that transforms what Plato says about justice in his answer to Glaucon in Book II of the Republic where…or Thrasymachus…where they both say it is more important, is it not more important to have the appearance of being just than the reality of it? And here, you see Machiavelli in a way adding his voice to that chorus. It is much better to have the appearance than the reality of religion.

Chapter 2. Discourses on Livy [00:04:09]

But in order to understand or to discover the core of Machiavelli’s teachings about religion, I have to make a slight detour away from The Prince and to his Discourses on Livy and in maybe the most important chapter of that book, Book II, chapter 2, called “Concerning the Kinds of People the Romans had to Fight and how Obstinately they Defended their Freedom,” a long title for a chapter to be sure, but here Machiavelli develops a powerful contrast between two opposed and mutually incompatible moral codes, the Christian and the pagan. “If one asks oneself,” Machiavelli writes, “If one asks oneself how it came about that people of old,” in olden–in the ancient world, “were more fond of liberty than we are today, I think the answer,” he says, “is due to the same cause that makes men today less bold than they used to be,” less bold, “and this is due I think to the difference between our education and that of bygone days.”

So what precisely is the difference that Machiavelli refers to here between our education and the education of bygone days that makes people or that made people in the ancient world more fond of liberty, as he says, than those of our contemporaries or Machiavelli’s contemporaries? Machiavelli’s emphasis here on education, particularly moral and religious education, is the key difference between the ancient times and his own. These two different ages, he believes, advanced two very different systems of moral and religious education, one based on pagan worldliness and the other based on Christian innocence. And it is that conflict, as it were, between what we might call worldliness and innocence that is the core of Machiavelli’s moral code. Let me quote Machiavelli’s passage from the Discourses at some length because I think it’s very revealing: “Our religion,” he writes, obviously thinking of the Catholic Christianity of his time. “Our religion,” he writes, “has glorified humble and contemplative men, monks, priests, humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It is assigned as man’s highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things,” whereas the other, that is to say the ancient moral code, “whereas the other identified it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything that conduces to make men very bold. And if our religion,” he says, “demands that in you there be strength what it asks for is the strength to suffer rather than to do bold things.” In other words, he says Christian strength, the strength of the Christian, is the strength to suffer, thinking of Jesus on the Cross rather than to, as he puts it, do bold things.

And it is not for Machiavelli simply the existence of these two different moralities that is at stake. By softening morals, he believes, by making us gentler, Christianity has had some deeply perverse effects upon politics, so he claims. This pattern of life, Machiavelli continues, appears to have made the world weak and to have handed it over to the prey of the wicked. This pattern of life, this pattern of education, of moral education, introduced by the Bible and scripture and Christianity, has made the world weak. In other words, by teaching humility, self-abnegation, purity of heart, Christianity has made it difficult to develop qualities necessary for the defense of political liberty. Christianity has made the world weak or, if you want to use his again highly charged word for that, it has made the world effeminate. Machiavelli would no doubt be taken up against some board of offense today for using such a term but that’s his language. What can I say? This is why he concludes there are fewer republics today than in the time of the ancients because we do not have the same love of freedom that they did. Now Machiavelli’s explicit referencing of the ancient civil religions, the ancient civil theology, is a direct tribute to the role of Numa, N-u-m-a, in Livy’s famous History of the Roman Republic. Justin, who is an authority on this text, can tell you more about it if you like, but in the opening books of Livy, he tells the story of how Rome was founded by Romulus, who had murdered his brother, Remus, but after this it required a second founding and the second founding was the work of a man named Numa, who, Livy writes, determined that Rome, which had originally been established through force of arms, should be reestablished through justice, laws and proper observances, in other words, religion. In order to complete the founding of the city, it was necessary to establish its gods and ensure proper respect for the law. Numa was the bringer of the Roman legal codes respecting religion, proper observances and the like.

Chapter 3. The Problem of “Dirty Hands” [00:10:30]

But Machiavelli uses Livy and in the story about Rome’s second founding to bring home an important lesson about the utility of religion. “Religion,” he tells the reader, “is not to be evaluated by its truth content but for its consequences for society.” But the story of Numa or his use of that story tell us more than just a lesson about the social utility of religion. At the time of the founding of Rome, Machiavelli writes, religion was necessary to temper and control the warlike character of the Romans. Religion had to bring a softening effect upon against the violent and bestial character of the early Romans. But for us today, Machiavelli writes, religion has to serve the opposite purpose. It must instill something of a fighting spirit into people who have lost their instinct to resist encroachments on their liberty. In many ways, this is the deeper meaning of Machiavelli’s slogan, “one’s own arms.” He uses in a variety of passages the formula that a good republic depends upon one’s own arms and laws and in a deeper sense this idea of “one’s own arms” means developing the capacities to resist encroachments on your freedom. The prince, in other words, has to use religion to encourage his subjects to rely upon their own arms rather than on divine promises and that again is the teaching of his retelling of the story of David and Goliath, the biblical story of David and Goliath, in chapter 13 of The Prince.

You remember how Machiavelli retells and also rewrites that story. He writes the story saying that David went armed, went into battle with Goliath armed only, he says, with a sling and a knife, and those of you who know the story and checked against the biblical account of the story know that David only went into battle against Goliath armed with Saul’s armor and his sling. Machiavelli gives him a knife. Where did this come from? Why does he add this? His subtle alteration of the biblical story is hugely revealing. Its moral seems to be “trust in God’s promises, yes, but bring a knife just in case.” It’s like the old joke about the fighter who went in to the ring and before going in to the ring and he asked the priest to pray for him. He said, “I’ll pray for him but if he can punch it’ll help.” In a small respect, that’s Machiavelli. Machiavelli sensed that his own country was deeply deficient in these martial virtues, necessary to reassert greatness and this was a theme of a lengthy poem he wrote. Yes. You’re surprised. Yes, Machiavelli wrote poetry and plays. His play, The Mandragola, is still performed, but he wrote an interesting poem, a lengthy poem called Ambizione, ambition, something like Platonic thumos, which lamented his countrymen’s lack of civic spirit and their need to be reeducated in the art of war. I only want to read a small section to you from that poem:

“If you perchance are tempted to accuse nature, if Italy, so wary and wounded, does not produce hard and bellicose people, this I say is not sufficient to erase our cowardice for education can supplement where nature is deficient. Stern education made Italy bloom in ancient days and made her rise and conquer the entire world and for herself make room. But now she lives, if tears can be called life, beneath the ruins and unhappy fate that she has reaped from her long lack of strife. But now she lives, if tears can be called life, beneath the ruins and unhappy fate that she has reaped from her long lack of strife.”

And just from this little section of the poem, you can see that the theme of a new kind of education and only that can remedy nature’s defects, as Machiavelli calls them. It is this lack of strife, this long lack of strife, that makes people weak. People are weakened by prolonged peace and they are made strong, fierce and independent through war. Only by hardening themselves, he says, will it be possible for Italy, as he puts it, “to rise and conquer the entire world, in ancient days again and made her rise and conquer the entire world and for herself make room.” His point seems to be this. If you want liberty, you have to know how not to be good, at least as Christianity has defined goodness. The Christian virtue of humility, turning the other cheek, forgiveness of sins, must be rejected if you want to do good as opposed to just being good. You have to learn, in other words, how to get your hands dirty. Between the innocence of the Christian and the worldliness of Machiavelli’s new morality, there can be no reconciliation. These are just two incompatible moral positions that Machiavelli states but he goes further than this.

The safety and security enjoyed by the innocents, our freedom to live blameless lives and to have untroubled sleep, depends upon the prince’s clear-eyed and even ruthless use of power. The true statesman, the true prince for Machiavelli, must be prepared to mix a love of the common good, a love of his own people, with a streak of cruelty that is often regarded as essential for a great ruler in general, another part of knowing how not to be good, knowing when and how to use cruelty or what Machiavelli tellingly calls “cruelty well used.” When it’s well used, it’s a virtue. This is simply another example of how moral goodness grows out of and even requires a context of moral evil. Machiavelli’s advice to you is clear. If you cannot accept the responsibilities of political life, if you cannot afford to get your hands dirty, if you cannot accept the harsh necessities that may require cruelty, deceit and even murder, then get out of the way, then this is not for you. Don’t seem to impose, don’t seek to impose your own high-minded innocence, sometimes called justice, your own high-minded innocence on the requirements of statecraft because it will only lead to ruin. In the modern era, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, for example, is usually taken as exhibit A of the confusion between Christian humanitarianism and the necessities of reason of state. If you can’t do the tough thing, if you can’t do the harsh thing, Machiavelli says, then stay out of politics and don’t attempt to impose your high-minded morality on the state.

As I said at the beginning, in the philosophical literature, this has become known as the problem of dirty hands so named after a famous play written by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The problem of dirty hands refers to the conflict of duties, again conflict of moralities between the harsh requirements of politics and the equally demanding desire for moral purity, to keep the world at a distance. Machiavelli doesn’t deny that there is something deeply admirable about the desire to remain morally pure, morally decent, morally innocent, but he just wants to say this is a very different morality from the morality of politics. In Sartre’s play, the action takes place in a fictional eastern European country during World War II, probably something like Yugoslavia, where a communist resistance fighter reproaches an idealistic young recruit to the resistance who is resisting or is balking at the order to carry out a political assassination. “Why did you join us?” the communist resistance fighter asks. “Purity is an idea for the yogi or the monk. Do you think anyone can govern innocently?” “Do you think anyone can govern innocently,” the phrase taken of course from Saint-Just, one of the leaders of the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. What do you think politics is, a game of moral purity?

The same kind of conflict is really very much at the core of the great political fiction of John le Carre, the great novelist of the Cold War and so on, and in his great, one of his early political thrillers, a book called The Spy who Came in from the Cold, he depicts there a British agent who was working undercover and who at the same time is carrying on a love affair with an idealistic young English librarian who has joined the communist party. In this case, she, the communist, is the idealistic one. She’s joined the party because she believes it will aid the cause of nuclear disarmament and will bring international peace and when Lemas, the spy, reveals to her that he is a spy, he tells her his view of what politics is, the nature of politics. “There’s only one law in the game,” Lemas says, “the expediency of temporary alliances. Who do you think spies are, priests, saints, martyrs? They’re squalid little men, fools, queers, sadists, drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks weighing up right and wrong?”

Chapter 4. Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian? [00:22:50]

So both of these cases, the Sartre case, the John le Carre case, in a way are interesting but they’re also sort of cases of what I think of as faux Machiavellianism, kind of intellectuals engaging in tough talk to show that they have really lost their innocence, which is the sort of intellectual equivalent of losing your virginity, showing you’re not really innocent about the world. Machiavelli of course likes to play that game and it suggests that the world is divided between the weak and the strong, between the realists who see things the way they are and the idealists who require the comfort of moral illusions. Yes, Machiavelli sometimes seems to corroborate this point of view. Does he not say that armed prophets always win, the unarmed prophets lose? Did he not say that he wrote to reveal the effectual truth of things and not just what people have imagined the case to be? Yet it seems inconceivable that Machiavelli wrote an entire book simply to prove the obvious, that is to say that the strong will always crush the weak and that politics is left to those who leave their scruples at the door. The question is, was Machiavelli really that kind of Machiavellian?

Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian? Let’s see. What kind of government did Machiavelli think best? As he indicates at the beginning of The Prince, there are two kinds of regimes: there are principalities and republics. But each of these regimes, he says, is based on certain contrasting dispositions or what he calls humors, umori, humors. “In every society,” he writes, this is chapter 9 of The Prince, “two diverse humors are found from which this arise, that the people desire neither to be commanded nor oppressed by the great and the great desire to command and oppress the people.” These are the two great political psychological dispositions, the popular desire not to be oppressed and the disposition of what he calls the great to command and oppress. Machiavelli uses these two psychological and even in some ways quasi-medical terms, humors, to designate two classes of people on which every society is based.

His theory of the humors in chapter 9 seems in some ways to be reminiscent of Plato’s account of the three classes of the soul or the three parts of the soul with one vivid exception. “Each class of the city,” he says, “is bound or determined by a humor but neither humor is anchored in reason or rationality.” Every state is divided into two classes expressing these two qualities, these two psychological qualities, the grandi, the rich and powerful who wish to dominate, and the popolo, the common people who wish merely to be left alone, who wish neither to rule nor be ruled. Now, one might expect that the author of a book entitled The Prince would favor the great, would favor the grandi, those who desire to rule. Are not these aristocratic goals of honor and glory precisely what Machiavelli seems to be advocating? Yet in many ways, Machiavelli proceeds to deprecate the virtues of the nobility, perhaps to our surprise. The ends of the people, the ends, the purposes of the people, is more decent than that of the great since the great want to oppress and the people want not to be oppressed, he says. His advice is that the prince should seek to build his power base on the people rather than on the nobles. Because of their ambition for power, the nobles will always be a threat to the prince and, in an interesting reversal of the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of politics, it is the nobles here who are said to be the more fickle and unpredictable and the people are more constant and reliable. Remember in the Platonic and Aristotelian view of politics the democracy, the rule of the people, the demos, was always criticized for it being fickle and unstable and subject to whim and passion and so on. Here, Machiavelli tells us it is the great who are subject to this kind of inconstancy and the people are more reliable. The worst, he writes, that a prince can expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them but from the great, when they are hostile, he must fear not only being abandoned but also that they may move against him. The grandi are more dangerous and fickle.

So the main business of government consists in knowing how to control the elites because they are always a potential source of conflict and ambition. The prince must know how to chasten the ambition, to humble the pride, as it were, of the great and powerful, and this, we will see as early as Wednesday, becomes a major theme in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, humbling or chastening the pride of the few. The rule of the prince or sovereign requires the ability to control the ambition and to do so through selective policies of executions, of public accusations and political trials. Remember the example that we read at the end of class on Friday, I believe from chapter 7, the example of Cesare Borgia and Remirro d’Orco and how his execution, his bloody execution, left the people, Machiavelli says, stupefied and satisfied? Here is a perfect example of how to control the ambitions of the nobles and to win the people to your side. So Machiavelli’s prince, while not exactly a democrat, recognizes the essential decency of the people and the need to keep their faith. And by decency he seems to mean their absence of ambition, the absence of the desire to dominate and control. But this kind of decency is not the same as goodness for there is also a tendency on the part of the people to descend into what Machiavelli calls idleness or license.

The desire not to oppress others may be decent but at the same time the people have to be taught or educated how to defend their liberty. Fifteen hundred years of Christianity, he says, have left people weak, have left the people weak without their capacities to exercise political responsibility and the resources to defend themselves from attack. So just as princes must know how to control the ambitions of the multitude, how to control the ambitions of the nobles–excuse me–they, the princes, must know how to strengthen the desires of the common people. Some readers of The Prince, even some very astute readers of The Prince, have thought that Machiavelli’s work is really, or Machiavelli’s prince, is really a kind of democrat in disguise and that the prince is intended precisely to alert the people to the dangers of a usurpatory prince. This is for example what the great seventeenth-century political philosopher Spinoza believed about Machiavelli. In his book called, simply called, The Political Treatise, Spinoza wrote: “Machiavelli wished to show how careful a people should be before entrusting its welfare to a single prince. I am led,” Spinoza continues, “to this opinion concerning that most far-seeing man because it is known that he was favorable to liberty.” That’s Spinoza on Machiavelli, because “he was favorable to liberty” and that the book, he says, is kind of a satire on princely rule. Or, if you don’t believe Spinoza, if you don’t believe his authority is sufficient, consider someone who you’ll be reading in a couple of weeks, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from the Social Contract. “Machiavelli was an honorable man and a good citizen,” Rousseau says, “an honorable man and a good citizen who, being attached to the House of Medici, was forced, during the oppression of his homeland, to disguise his love of freedom.” So, The Prince was written in a way that disguised the real teaching of the book, which is the love of freedom and presumably the freedom of the people, something of the type that Rousseau himself spoke about. Maybe these comments go too far. Maybe they are exaggerations and I think to some degree they are but it’s revealing that both of these very serious readers of Machiavelli took him to be an apostle of freedom. Spinoza taking him, taking his book to be a warning to the people about the dangers of princely rule, Rousseau believing that he had deliberately disguised his love of freedom because he had to appeal to the tyrannical nature of the Medici family. In either case, they regard him as surreptitiously taking the side of the people against the nobles.

In any case, whatever one makes of those examples, Machiavelli seems to be challenging important aspects of the classical conceptions that we’ve been talking about up to this point. In the classical republic, for the ancient republic of Plato and Aristotle, these republics were ruled by nobilities, gentlemen possessed of wealth and leisure, who were therefore capable of forming sound political judgment, who will dominate, while in Machiavelli’s state it is the people who are going to be the dominant social and political power. Machiavelli wants to redirect power to some degree away from the nobles and toward the people. One wants to know why, why does he want to do that? In the first place, he judges the people to be more reliable, as he tells us, than the great. Once the people have been taught to value their liberty, have learned to oppose encroachments on their freedom, to be fierce and vigilant watchdogs rather than humble and subservient underlings, they will serve as a reliable basis for the greatness and power of a state. With the people on his side, the prince is more likely to achieve his goals of a robust civil life for his people and eternal glory for himself.

And, as Machiavelli likes to say, the prince must know how to adapt to the times. What is true for princes is no less true for advisers to princes like Machiavelli himself. One must know the times and character of a people. In the ancient republic, it may have been necessary to find and impose restraints on the passions of the demos but in the modern world, he says, where republics have become a thing of the past, the people need to be taught how to value their liberty above all else. The most excellent princes of the past were those like Moses, he tells us, who brought tables of law and prepared people for self-government. It is fitting and proper that The Prince concludes, the last chapter, chapter 26, concludes with a patriotic call to his countrymen to emancipate themselves and liberate Italy from foreign invaders.

Chapter 5. What Did Machiavelli Achieve? [00:36:19]

So what did Machiavelli achieve? What were his actual accomplishments? Did he accomplish all he set out to do, to rewrite or to write a new moral code for political life, to found a new political continent, as he speaks about, to found new modes and orders along the lines of Columbus? Did he achieve this? First of all, one should not and cannot underestimate his unprecedented break with both classical and biblical antiquity. More than anyone else before him, and perhaps more than anyone else since, he sought to liberate politics from ecclesiastical control. The new prince, as we’ve seen, must know how to use religion but needs to learn how not to be used by religion, must not become a dupe of the religious. He must know how to use religious passions and sentiments but not be used by them.

Politics must become a purely worldly affair. It should not be limited or constrained by any transcendent standards or moral laws that do not derive from politics itself, whether a law of God or some kind of transcendent moral order or code. Machiavelli’s warning, we might say today, to the religious right, or his critique of the religious right, cannot make politics conform to transcendent moral law. But not only did Machiavelli bring a new worldliness to politics, he also introduced a new kind of populism, you might say. Plato and Aristotle imagined aristocratic republics that would invest power in an aristocracy of education and virtue. Machiavelli deliberately seeks to enlist the power of the people against aristocracies of education and virtue. He is a kind of proto-democrat almost who sought to re-create, not through accident and chance, but through planning and design a new kind of republic in the modern world. The republic that Machiavelli imagined, and it’s interesting while he tells us he’s only going to the effectual truth of things and not the imagination of it, nevertheless Machiavelli does himself imagine a new kind of regime, a new kind of republic in the modern world that would not be a city at peace but would be a city at war. It would be armed and expansive. Machiavelli’s republic feeds on conflict, on war and conquest. It is aggressive and imperialistic.

Does it sound familiar? Is it us? In fact, if you look at a brilliant article I think in this week’s New Republic by Robert Kagan called “Cowboy Nation,” Kagan demonstrates I think with a great deal of conviction that the American republic from its onset has been expansive, aggressive, imperialistic, from the conquest of the territories, the expropriation of the native Americans, the acquisition of Louisiana, wars of liberation against Mexico and Spain and so on, well into the twentieth and now the twenty first century, an aggressive, expansive, imperialistic republic. That, he says, has been our history and what it should say, what it doesn’t quite say I think, is that it has been this history not because it is American but because it is a republic, because of its regime type, its regime character. That kind of behavior seems perhaps to be built in to the natures of republic. It was Machiavelli’s admiration for the politics, what someone once called the lupine politics, the wolf-like politics, of republican Rome that led him to understand that all social and moral goods have been established by morally questionable means. Have we become or have we always been Machiavelli’s republic, Machiavelli’s desire? Think about that when you’re in your sections or writing your papers and you will get those paper topics on Wednesday, by the way. And finally, Machiavelli is the author of a new amoral realism. “By whatever means necessary” I think is his motto or should be his motto, “by whatever means necessary,” and oddly he claims to be merely stating out loud, merely stating aloud what all writers have known all along.

It is necessary, he says, for the prince to know well how to use the beast and the man, he writes. “This role,” he says, “was taught covertly by ancient writers. It was taught covertly by ancient writers,” he says in chapter 18. The idea then that Machiavelli is doing no more than saying openly and overtly what ancient writers had wrapped in parable and enigma and myth says something about Machiavelli’s new political science. What was previously taught only subtly and in private will now be taught openly and in public. What was once available only to a few, will now be available to all. Perhaps more than anything else, Machiavelli’s new openness, his readiness to challenge received authority, and his willingness to consider authority as self-created, as self-made rather than bestowed by either nature or grace, is what fundamentally constitutes his modernity. So I’m going to leave it on that note and on Wednesday we will begin the study of one of Machiavelli’s greatest and most profound disciples in the modern world, a man by the name of Thomas Hobbes.

[end of transcript]

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