Political Philosophy Politics

Our Machiavellian Moment

The conventional narrative has been ever since Donald Trump’s campaign and election in 2016, the United States has suffered great internal conflict and division unlike ever before seen—this was compounded after yesterday’s events in the Capitol. If only that was the case. The false memory of a united America during the Cold—even though there were, especially in the 1960s, intense and bitter struggles that saw political assassinations and attempted assassinations—obscures the reality that ever since the formation of the United States there has been exhaustive domestic strife over politics. Despite 240 years of hardship, struggle, and conflict, a more perfect union and republic has slowly been growing from these divisions which would make Machiavelli smile.

It is pity, to my mind, that Machiavelli is so egregiously only associated with The Prince and not The Discourses on Livy or even The Art of War. Machiavelli’s primer for princes is famous for its rejection of virtue in politics, its insistence on power for the sake of power, and its gritty realism that forever, so the story goes, changed the art of politics. Whereas previous political philosophers, from Plato to Aristotle to Cicero, had given great consideration to the question of virtue in politics, Machiavelli dismissed such considerations when he asserted that man was evil and all rulers should begin the art of politics with that as their starting point.

The deeper Machiavelli is found not in The Prince but the Discourses. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is a grandiose treatment and reflection on the nature of politics through commentary on Livy’s History of Rome. It isn’t so much an exoteric commentary on Livy as it is an esoteric reflection on the universal nature of politics and political accretion through the particular example of Livy and the Roman republic. The Discourses is the mightiest example of Machiavelli’s political thought, for it also shows the development of politics instead of articulating the dark Machiavellian realism of princes and dismisses the notion of perfect political forms.

Machiavelli’s Discourses puts forward several counterintuitive points that would strike modern readers and would-be political philosophers as counterintuitive, or at least strike at the heart of our sacred myths. First is that political orders are not founded in liberty. On the contrary, political order is first established through the principle of security which lacks liberty: “cities do not have free origins.” Liberty subsequently grows out of security. Second, liberty is the outgrowth of conflict. Divided we do not fall but grow into liberty, equality, and a more perfect societal order.

That liberty, and even stability—indeed, “perfection,” as Machiavelli describes it—is the result of conflict ought to be readily apparent. But in our current climate so afraid of conflict and clamoring for calls of unity and healing we often miss this fundamental reality, even when considering our own history.

When analyzing the emergence of the laws and institutions of Rome, Machiavelli coldly notes the obvious, “In this way, after many disorders, disturbances, and the danger of disagreements that arose between the plebeians and the nobility, the creation of the tribunes came about for the security of the plebeians, and these tribunes were established with such power and prestige that they could always thereafter act as intermediaries between the plebeians and the senate and could curb the insolence of the nobles.” Through the Conflict of the Orders that regularly plagued early Roman society from roughly 500-287 BC, the Twelve Tables of the Roman Law were codified, the institutions and offices of the republic established, and the hard march to liberty and equality begun. As Machiavelli best summarizes, “If these disturbances were the cause for the creation of the tribunes, they deserve the highest praise, because besides giving to the people its role in democratic administration, the tribunes were established as the guardians of Roman liberty.”

As much as we like to celebrate the mythic origins of our republic, as all people naturally do, the American republic—itself modeled after Rome—has followed much the same pattern. The American Revolution did not conceive the nation in liberty. Liberty for some, perhaps. Liberty for all, certainly not. Nor were many of our cherished institutions or laws founded at the origin of the republic.

On the contrary, nearly all of our institutions and laws, even the Bill of Rights with those most sacred of amendments, came after the origin of the Union and emerged only after intense political conflict between the Federalists and the Antifederalists and the failure of the Articles of Confederation which saw numerous popular and populous uprisings and domestic protests and revolts. Additionally, laws that advanced liberty and equality that we take for granted emerged only after bitter struggles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that sometimes resulted in bloodshed, assassinations, even a civil war. Internal strife created new institutions which moved the new union toward a more perfect union (and continues to do so).

Through his analysis of Rome’s march to a stronger republic, Machiavelli celebrates the conflict that beset Rome which made her stronger. No Last Man need apply for the early Roman republic. In fact, it was only through the hardships of domestic struggle, bloody revolts, and sometimes murder, that helped the republic achieve a greater permanence and stability. Conflict, per Machiavelli, does not signify weakness as nearly all moderns would say. Rather, conflict which preserves unity—as the Roman conflict of the Orders did—is the greatest sign of vitality to political society. For again, it was only through the domestic quarrels between the elites and the people that the final vestiges of the old monarchy were swept away and new republican and democratic institutions, laws, and citizen participation emerged.

In fact, the Machiavellian law of republican progress is universally true. The American Revolution, as great and important as it was, gave way to the Constitutional Convention and the debates between the Federalists and Antifederalists. The original Constitutional Order premised on north-south parity soon collapsed due to conflicts over slavery, free soil, and economic industrialization which was resolved in the purgatorial fire of the Civil War. But America grew stronger, freer, and more equal. Segregation set back that progress but eventually fell under the pressures of the Civil Rights movement which more intimately realized the dreams of Reconstruction and the march to a “more perfect union.” One can continue to read the dialectic of conflict in American history and its perfecting of republican freedom, equality, and democratic participation from 1776 to the present.

While it is only natural to hear calls for unity and healing, we mustn’t lose sight of the insights and wisdom of Machiavelli. We are marching to greater freedom and equality, ideally. The constrictive and suffocating spirit of Big Tech, the Security-Surveillance State, and American imperialism—ironically championed by the American Left simply out of hatred of Donald Trump—are still conflicts needing resolution. The historic voting record turnout wasn’t the product of good feelings but the manifestation of the intense domestic political struggles that have so characterized American history but have been nostalgically forgotten because of a false memory of national unity in confronting the evils of Soviet communism and the nihilistic euphoria of the “end of history.” The vibrancy of American democracy and the republic are owed to bitter conflicts and struggles, not peace, prosperity, and good times.

One might say, in contrast to Machiavelli, that the constant conflict that was the enduring fabric of the Roman Republic eventually led to its demise. The conflict of the patricians and plebeians gave way to the optimates and populares and, with the murder of the brothers Gracchi, the rivalry between Marius and Sulla, and eventually the disintegration of the Triumvirate, the republic was swept away by the very conflict that Machiavelli celebrated as giving rise to the greatest republic the world had ever known. Machiavelli, however, would suggest that the problem wasn’t conflict in of itself. It was in the rigid inability to adapt from the new conflicts as had been the case in times past.

Conflict offers the opportunity to adapt, change, and perfect; it was only after the refusal of the Roman elite to cease inclusiveness enfranchisement that the republic began to crumble. The self-righteousness of the optimates caused the republic’s stagnation, not conflict. As Machiavelli had thoroughly shown in the opening books of the Discourses, conflict helped contribute to greater liberty, equality, and social order through adaptation and change—the ability to adapt and change, to become more perfect, is a sign of vitality.

We shouldn’t rush to write off the necessity for conflict in the movement to greater political freedom, equality, and stability. For even Machiavelli notes the seeming paradox of conflict and stability. After over two centuries of domestic quarrels, the unrivaled stability and of the Roman Republic emerged in its aftermath. But the perfecting of the Roman Republic after the Conflict of the Orders was subsequently found in its life and death struggle with Carthage.

American society has, and will, become a more perfect union and democratic republic precisely because of domestic conflict not in spite of it. Moreover, we should look—indeed, openly anticipate and even embrace—the coming conflict with the totalitarian ambitions of China. The heroism of America in the Cold War was not because America was inherently virtuous but because its better angels were called forth to confront that other specter of totalitarian darkness that loomed over the world in the ruins and rubble of World War II. As much as the world likes to mock America, the past four years have also shown the hypocrisy of the world in relation to America’s role as global and international leader as it yearns for a restoration of American global leadership which envies the American democratic ethos and spirit without ever publicly acknowledging so.

Perhaps the calling forth of our better spirits in confronting the darkness of China will further perfect our union, republic, and democracy. Machiavelli would undoubtedly think so. In fact, if Machiavelli were alive in 2100, he might write a discourse on the history of America and assert that through her many domestic struggles and disturbances, conflicts with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and (presumptively) China, that greater liberty, equality, and national strength were the outcomes. Only when there are no more conflicts does the spirit of liberty, equality, and even stability grind to a halt. That is not something to celebrate, but to lament.

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