Niccolò Machiavelli is a pivotal transitional figure in the history of Western philosophy and political thought. His most famous work is The Prince, but his more important work in the Discourses on Livy. Both are meant to be read together and together The Prince and Discourses are a full treatise on Machiavelli’s theory of the State. The Prince, however, has had a more enduring legacy for the supposed connotation of Machiavelli’s “realpolitik.” The Prince’s true legacy, however, is its break with classical political philosophy and the inauguration of that realpolitik of modern politics.
Before we turn to the text itself, it is important to know some background. Machiavelli grew up in a turbulent time in Italian and Florentine history. The French had just invaded the north of Italy in bid to dominate Italy (especially Naples). Italy was now embroiled in the Italian Wars where the Italian states were sandwiched between the Kingdom of France and the Habsburg Empire. At the same time the Medici family had just arisen to power in Florence through a coup. Chaos was everywhere and Machiavelli takes this chaos and conflict as the basis of his politics (chaos and conflict is foundational to politics). Rather than virtue and the “good regime” of Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero, Machiavelli embraces a far starker and “secularized” Augustinian portrait of politics: power, chaos, and confusion; he breaks with Augustine in his support for the importance of sovereign power and the political order whereas Augustine thought it was best to be skeptical of political power precisely because of the dangers of power and abuse as the result of human sin. Additionally, although titled “The Prince,” the book is really a treatment over the nature of “principality”; in other words, a form of the State.
Chapters 1-2: Breaking with the Classics
Right away Machiavelli breaks with classical political thought which had concerned itself with questions of political virtue, virtue ethics, the good regime, why we should strive for virtue and the good regime, but most importantly: the three forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutionalism or democracy). Machiavelli establishes a new dialectic in politics: there is either hereditary political forms and non-hereditary political forms. This dichotomy can be found in monarchy, aristocracy, or constitutionalism/republicanism/democracy. Thus, the real understanding of political forms is this. It’s rather simple: hereditary political orders are based on bloodline and non-hereditary political orders are not.
Chapters 3-5: Mixed Princedoms and the Problems of Political Governance
After establishing this seemingly obvious observation as to the true nature of the political, Machiavelli turns to the problem of mixed princedoms which is becoming a more apparent problem in their time – though there are historical and ancient examples of mixed princedoms too. For Machiavelli, the mixed princedom is difficult to maintain because the people do not share similar languages and customs. Mixed polities are naturally more unstable because people do not feel attached to each other and are skeptical of the “other” and especially the “other Prince.” In short, it is easier to rule a uniform or homogenous state or nation than one divided by different languages, customs, and historical experiences. But since that age of politics seems to be expiring, we are left with the crisis of mixed princedoms and how to best rule in this new situation. (Note how this is reflective of the current geopolitical crisis in Italy where Italians, French, Germans, and Spaniards are fall fighting and vying for influence and control over Italy at this time.)
The mixed princedom is becoming a clearer reality of politics – the age of the homogenous state is dying – and therefore drastic measures must be taken for a political ruler to maintain their power and sovereignty in these situations. Machiavelli says that it is better to always be on the side of the people; people have expectations and will turn on the prince if he falls short of those expectations. Machiavelli is saying that there is a conflict between what the people expect and what the ruler desires. The astute prince who desires to hold onto his power will try to synthesize his bid for sovereignty with the hopes of the people. In this way one can avoid the constant distrust of the other concerning their foreign ruler. Thus, Machiavelli is basically advising the prince to be prudent, cautious, and not to alienate the people – especially if you rule over a mixed polity.
Here Machiavelli turns to the issue of sovereignty. The people are not sovereign. The prince is sovereign. The greater the sovereignty the greater the ability to hold onto power and the greater the prospects of people being attached to you.
Machiavelli highlights the dilemma of sovereignty and kingship with Alexander the Great, Darius of Persia, France, and the Ottoman Empire (Kingdom of the Turks). It was easy for Alexander’s heirs to retain hold over the conquered Persian Empire, paradoxically, because Darius ruled in a de-centralized manner. The people of Persia were more closely attached to the local governors and court ministers, so to speak, than to their king. Thus, when Alexander disposed Darius, and eliminated the local governors, establishing himself as the universal sovereign, the people of Persia were not clamoring for the “return of the hereditary king” upon Alexander’s death. There was a smooth transition to the Diadochi.
Kingdoms based in ancient bloodlines and centralized bloodline authority are much harder to conquer, Machiavelli says, than the benevolent kingdoms that are nominally rooted in bloodline but the real political apparatus are the local governors. Machiavelli is basically saying that the best way to hold onto power is through centralized sovereignty.
Machiavelli, in Chapter 5, turns to how to best govern over a new province, people, or territory that is ultimately different from yours. He says there are three historical examples of how rulers and states have dealt with new conquest: destruction of the new land, taking up residence in the new land, or appointed local rulers and peoples from the newly conquered land to rule as tributaries. Machiavelli explains that the latter option always fails. Thus, there are really only two viable options with how one deals with newly conquered territory: you either destroy it (like the Romans did to Carthage) and rebuild over the ruins, or you take up residence in the new land so the people can visibly see you, become attached to you, and therefore feel like you care about them. (Because you share the same heritage of your countrymen whom you moved residence away from, they will remain loyal to you based on ancestral lineage and patriotism.) Machiavelli seems to suggest that destruction and then taking up residence is the best of both worlds.
At the very end of the chapter, though only two sentences, these ending sentences of chapter 5 are very important as to why destruction is necessary. Political memory, Machiavelli tells us, especially in republics, is very powerful. People remember their freedom, their history, and what they and their ancestors have fought for. Thus, by not destroying that memory, you invite yourself to rebellion and discontent over time. If, on the other hand, you wipe out that memory you can much easier subjugate the newly conquered territories. One can read into these issues of modern political memory too where those nations and peoples who had successfully defended and fought for their national sovereignty are skeptical of ever surrendering it. Conversely, Machiavelli says if you don’t destroy them, then you must reside with them, so they don’t come to hate you. Again, there are only two viable options in dealing with newly conquered lands: destruction or moving residence to the newly conquered territories to ease animosity.
Chapters 6-9: The Skill, Merit, or Luck, of Princes
Machiavelli now turns to a discussion of merit, skill, virtue, luck, and fortune and how these all intersect with the ruler. Machiavelli begins by talking about the skillful, or meritorious ruler. Contrary to what Wikipedia says, a very careful reading of the text indicates that Machiavelli thinks that merit is how the ruler exploits favorable circumstances. Virtu is demonstrated in political leaders by those who “seize the moment” or the opportunity before them. Thus, opportunity (or good fortune) is entirely correspondent with merit – merit depends on circumstance and true merit is reflective in how the ruler exploits this situation. Basically, Machiavelli is setting up two forms of luck (of Fortuna/Fortune): there is the ruler who happens upon a fortunate circumstance, understands this, and acts to take advantage of this favorable circumstance (Ch. 6) vs. those who blindly blunder their way to success by sheer luck in of itself (Ch. 7).
As Machiavelli writes, which makes this clear: Moses had to find the Israelites in bondage first before leading them out of slavery; Romulus was fortunate he never made his home in Alba and therefore was able to found Rome as a result; Cyrus was lucky to find the Persians, like the Israelites in Egypt, disgruntled with their overlords; and Theseus was able to exploit the disunited Athenians. In each case, these rulers/princes “arrived at the right time” so to speak, but more importantly (and this is what true merit is according to Machiavelli) they were able to exploit for their own gain the favorable circumstances they happened upon. So yes, contrary to Wikipedia’s reading, merit and luck do go together. It is that Machiavelli sees merit tied to luck of circumstance which is exploited, vs. those who never really exploited such circumstances and happened to gain power by sheer luck in of itself.
Machiavelli argues in Chapters 6 and 7 then, that those who blunder their way to success have an easy time to achieving success (because it is all luck) but subsequently have a hard time maintaining what luck has granted to them, while those who calculated their strike have a hard time – initially – in rising to the top but once they do they secure their power and fortune. (In more modern cases, we can see Napoleon and Hitler, for instance, having been entirely lucky which is why they failed to hold onto their power; in contrast to the historical examples given by Machiavelli where men like Moses, Romulus, Cyrus, and Theseus struggled to rise to the top though the circumstances were calling for them to do so.) In sum, then, Machiavelli is saying that prudence and understanding of circumstance is necessary for the successful prince. The most skillful prince, that is, the most meritorious prince, is the one who understands his surrounding, the events taking place all around him, and the circumstances of his time.
Chapter 8 deals with princes who secure power by brutality and immoral deeds. Machiavelli takes this as a given in politics. Readers of Max Weber’s “Politics as Vocation” may find familiar overtures here in that politics is not the realm of the saint. Politics is a brutal, immoral, and often deadly enterprise. Machiavelli advises the prince that he will, in fact, have to get his hands dirty. There are no “pure” princes of absolute virtue (again, Machiavelli breaks with the ancients in this regard). He advises the prince that when he has to engage in such brutal deeds (and he will) that he does so in one fell-swoop so as to minimize the appearance of immorality and brutality. If one constantly acts brutally the people will catch on; but if one acts brutally very quickly and concisely, that memory will fade when good times arise in the aftermath of criminal and immoral actions.
Chapter 9 is very important, and, I think, very relevant for our time. Machiavelli argues that the prince is caught in a never-ending struggle between whom he represents: the people or the nobles (e.g. the “ruling class”). This is a problem for the prince because his sovereignty rests more on the will of the people than on the nobles. In other words, Machiavelli endorses a sort of national populism. The nobles, however, are those best suited to help the prince rule his territory and partake in the managerial engines of the political. To alienate the nobles means to have few supporters to run the important cogs of the political apparatus. Basically, we are stuck in a dilemma: 1) the people love the prince but the nobles despise the prince; 2) the people hate the prince but the nobles love the prince.
Machiavelli says that the prince who arrives on the will of the people should do everything possible to retain that good will of the people. However, when a prince arrives into power from the backing of the nobility he must reach out to the people so as to appear to be their friend. This is why Machiavelli is so hard to understand at times. Which does he actually support? (You need to read the Discourses for Machiavelli’s true thoughts.) Machiavelli is a pragmatist in offering political advice. If, as a prince, you came to rule because of the people you must keep the support of those who propelled you into power. If, as a prince, you came to rule because of the nobles, you keep on good terms with the nobles, but you have to subsequently reach out to the people so as to have their public support as well. Basically, one’s political situation is wholly relative.
Additionally, Machiavelli also thinks that being on the side of the populace is better to consolidate one’s own sovereign power. Being on the side of the people gives you a free hand of centralization, especially in times of crisis when you “act on behalf of the populace” so to speak. The nobles, on the other, always seek to constrain the prince and keep what power they have – or worse, expand the power they have which thereby deprives the prince of his greater power. Politics is about appearance and power. Which is why, as Machiavelli closes chapter 10, he states it is necessary for the prince to centralize his power, expand the power of the State, and command the fidelity of the populace to be willing to die for the State.
Again, it is important to remember the context in which The Prince was written: Italy is suffering from chaos and conflict, under invasion from France and the Habsburgs (the Germans and Spaniards). Already we should see that the basis of The Prince (and Discourses) is about how the Italians can re-unify and fend off invasion from the two great monarchial powers of Europe, and why, ultimately, that republicanism is far more potent and powerful than monarchies can ever dream of being. We will continue with our reading of the Prince, looking at Chapters 10-19 next. Whether we like Machiavelli so far might depend on whether we are “realists” or “idealists.” Machiavelli is no idealist and thinks idealism is for the foolish and naive. As he says in Chapter 15, which we will explore next, “And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than save himself.”
And yet, his realism, though perhaps frightening to idealists, is – undoubtedly – true if you’re not blinded by your own idealism. We must remember that the Prince is written about how to keep power. Machiavelli basically argues that the prince should embrace the reality of the politic concerning power because it is in the prince’s interest to do so and in the public’s interest that the prince do so. A much more nuanced Machiavelli, who is a staunch republican and advocate of mixed rule (though few people understand as to why), appears in the Discourses on Livy. How do we act within the realism of this framework is Machiavelli’s big question he is trying to answer. We must remember this when reading Machiavelli. He is not out to create the utopia or ideal society, for those who think this way will only end up destroying themselves and their people. Rather, we must embrace reality for what it really is about: power and conflict, and how to use power to confront conflict and end chaos.
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, January 21, 2018.