Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Monday, July 02, 2007

Defending Niccolo

Perhaps no political philosopher in the history of political philosophy has gotten a worse rap than Niccolo Machiavelli. It says a lot about public perception about someone when his name becomes a byword for evil. The term “Machiavellian” has become synonymous with ambitious, self-centered politicians who seek to further their own ends at the expense of their country. This is a sad thing, I think, because it’s just the kind of thing Machiavelli himself was trying to avoid. A scholarly reading of his work reveals a far more complex philosophy, and one far less nakedly evil. As a medievalist and a student of humanity, I think it’s high time we revisit old Niccolo’s ideas and look at them properly. Maybe then we can understand how he got to be such a reviled thinker.

As with any great thinker, Machiavelli was a product of his time and place, and as such we need to put his ideas in proper historical context. Living in 16th-century Florence, Machiavelli was born into a complicated world. The Europe of his day was just starting to emerge as a modern society, and Italy in particular was a wild place, divided into a number of independent, quarrelsome states. Regimes changed hands at the drop of a hat, and a variety of vastly different interests fought for power. Merchant families like the Medicis. The mercenary warlords known as condotierres. Even the Pope had his own army and his own secular kingdom. Machiavelli himself was a government minister in Florence after the Medicis were expelled…and when the Medicis were reinstated, things did not go well for him. He was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled, and it was in his exile that he first began to write The Prince, his most famous work of political theory. Looking at this world and Machiavelli’s place in it, it’s easy to see how it shaped his beliefs and what he judged to be chief concerns. Stability. Strength. Wisdom. And of course, keeping wise courtiers on your side.

(Please note: I’m working from the Harvey Mansfield translation, which is considered to be a good balance between accuracy and readability, so bear with me if the wording is quite what you’ve heard before.)

The Prince is basically a how-to book for the new ruler. It attempts to be an instruction booklet for what a person who’s recently been made ruler of a kingdom should know and should expect. Machiavelli talks somewhat about the various ways a new prince can be put in power – conquest, election by the people, appointment by a conspiracy of nobles, etc. – but he makes it clear that, no matter how a prince comes to power, once he’s in power he has but one chief concern: creating and maintaining a stable kingdom. And this is where, I think, most people start to associate Machiavellian thought with pure evil; because Machiavelli believes this concern to be of such importance that a prince is justified in doing whatever he has to to meet it. It’s the kind of thing that sticks in the craw of moral philosophers, who believe that there are some things a person just shouldn’t do no matter what, but it’s a very modern notion. It’s the birth of Realpolitik, the doing of what is necessary for the good of the country even if it’s morally distasteful.

Now, in Machiavelli’s time, a crucial element in maintaining a stable kingdom meant having a well-trained and well-equipped standing army, to better defend a kingdom’s borders from potentially hostile neighbors. And as a former government minister, he knows what he’s talking about. The best army, he says, is a citizen militia. Mercenaries can’t be trusted – Niccolo apparently had a REALLY bad experience with one particular condotierre during his tenure – and a prince can’t count on the loyalty of foreign auxiliaries. This is good common sense, I think; any country should at least have a national guard, and recruiting from the people ensures their loyalty. They’d be fighting for their homes, if not necessarily for their leader.

The second pillar of a stable kingdom is the mitigation of internal politics. According to Machiavelli, it’s less important for a new prince to stay on good terms with his allies as it is to win new ones. He advocates reaching out to enemies or potential rivals and making peace, rather than simply rewarding supporters. After all, that’s where the real threat to stability lies. The people who support you are either going to continue to support you or will expect some kind of favor or reward for their support, and that kind of system of favors and obligations is what brings leaders down. But in reaching out to a rival, and offering them friendship, THEY become obligated to YOU. And that’s how a prince should operate.

The third pillar of a successful regime is for a prince to surround himself with reliable advisors. The ideal advisor is a wise man who is unafraid to tell his prince the truth, but only when the prince asks. The prince needs to keep his advisors on his terms, or else risk being controlled by them. Freely-given advice is to be avoided; courtiers who freely volunteer their opinions usually have some other motive. It’s also important that, if you have more than one advisor, you should keep them from talking to each other, lest they conspire together.

It’s all a lot of common sense, really, when you stop to think about it. In order to rule effectively, a ruler needs a clear head and a stable footing. Granted, when it comes to specific issues, Machiavelli shows off the dark side of Realpolitik. Many of the things he advocates can be quite disturbing to a modern reader. For example, should a prince conquer a formerly free people, Machiavelli advises following the ancient Persian example: destroy their country and scatter their people to other parts of the realm, so that they can never come together in a cohesive enough force to be a threat. It’s a rather distasteful thing to contemplate morally, but pragmatically it makes sense. A people used to governing themselves will never submit willingly to a conqueror, and while Machiavelli does admit there are other ways to deal with this situation – influencing the politics of the conquered people in a prince’s favor is another option – the way he advocates is the simplest and most efficient.

That’s how, I think, Machiavelli wound up being an avatar of evil in modern western thinking: he advocates stability of the state over individual rights, and efficiency over morality. As products of Western Democracy, we tend to see the oppression of the people by the state to be the worst evil imaginable. Machiavelli himself did not have a high opinion of democracy. Not exactly disdain, but rather an understanding that democracy is a good idea on paper that doesn’t really work in practice. Rule by the people is a dangerous thing, because the human animal tends to be selfish, avaricious, and capricious. When the people elect a leader, they will invariably vote for the candidate who they think will serve their best interests, and those don’t always coincide with the best interests of the country. A student of Classical history, Machiavelli knew too well that republics have a disturbing history of either turning into tyrannies or tearing themselves apart – sometimes both – so it would be wise for a leader to dedicate himself to creating a stable state, rather than appeasing the whims of the masses or seeking to glorify himself.

In fact, a close reading of The Prince indicates an attitude toward the people that is surprisingly liberal. It is the greatest wish of the common people, Machiavelli maintains, that they be left alone. So long as the government is not actively oppressing them, they’ll be happy to just get along with their lives. It’s a basic truth of political theory: happy people don’t rebel. So if a prince has to deal with a political revolt, he’s clearly not governing right.

It speaks to perhaps the most misquoted statement from the work, “it is better to be feared than to be loved.” That statement has been taken grossly out of context. Here it is in proper context:

“From this dispute arises whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The response is that one would want to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to put them together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two. For one can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, and eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children…when the need for them is far away; but when it is close to you, they revolt. And that prince who has founded himself entirely on their words, stripped of other preparation, is ruined; for friendships that are acquired at a price and not with greatness and nobility of spirit are bought, but they are not owned, and when the time comes they cannot be spent. And men have less hesitation to offend one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread punishment that never escapes you.” (Chapter 17)

Machiavelli goes on to say that if one can’t be loved, one should at least try not to be actively HATED by the people. Being unpopular is not the same as being oppressive, and a prince should take care not to become that. But the sense of the paragraph is clear: one cannot rule by goodwill alone. It’s nice to have goodwill if you can get it, but you also need rule of law behind you. Goodwill can go away, but rule of law stays with a ruler as long as he rules. Basically, Machiavelli is saying that it’s better to be an effective leader than a popular one, and it’s a shame that this truth has been twisted into a hateful meme.

Machiavelli makes it clear in his work that, while he considers human beings to be largely incapable of governing themselves, he acknowledges the power of the people when they gather in force and revolt against a bad leader. So it’s essential for a leader to keep the state stable, because a stable state means a happy populace. It’s also essential for a leader to at least APPEAR to be morally good, so as to serve as a role model for the people. Of course it’s always good to try to be a virtuous person, but sometimes personal virtue must be put aside for a greater good. There is a dichotomy present, that Machiavelli acknowledged and that few of his contemporaries would ever admit: that, in order to do that most virtuous deed of preserving the freedom and prosperity of his country, sometimes a prince is forced to do un-virtuous things. Sometimes a prince must cultivate a public image that is very different from who he actually needs to be to run his country. Ends justify means, but only if the ends are just to begin with – and even then, Machiavelli imposes limits. Excessive violence is NEVER acceptable, especially toward one’s own citizens. Not only is that morally reprehensible, but it also leads to civil unrest; the worst thing a monarch can do is undermine himself.

This philosophy is far from what the word “Machiavellian” conjures up in the imagination. In fact, a true Machiavellian is anything BUT self-serving. A prince who follows Machiavellian philosophy to the letter would be a man almost completely devoid of personal ambition, who seeks only to serve his country, and is willing to sacrifice his own personal morals to the service of this cause. An ideal that probably doesn’t exist – and is surprisingly close to the ideal of the elected official as well.

Machiavelli’s historical bad rap is due to a lot of factors. Most of western culture has its origins in British culture, and the Britain of the 16th century was fiercely opposed on general principle to all things Catholic and Continental, so Machiavelli would already have had two strikes against him. The Enlightenment of a century later introduced the concept of the basic goodness of man, and the American branch of this school of thought introduced the notion of the inalienable human right to personal freedom, perhaps the polar opposite of the pragmatic enlightened despotism Machiavelli advocated. And of course, as proponents of Fascism reaped horrors of world war and genocide during the mid-20th century, giving heavy lip service to the concept of Realpolitik all the way, such thinking fell out of favor.

And now, here we are, in the early 21st century, and we’re not doing much better. The United States, the great power of its time, is led by the most un-Machiavellian leader in the history of the world. In fact, the election of George W Bush is a concrete example of the inherent flaw in democracy: the people didn’t vote for the best person for the job. Instead they voted for the candidate who seemed most like an Average Joe to them. And an Average Joe should not be entrusted with the leadership of the most powerful country on Earth.

President Bush has his team of advisors, but they are predominately self-serving and only tell him what he needs to hear. Rather than look to the stability of his nation as a whole, the President has decided to reward supporters alone with lucrative government postings and contracts, and leave others out in the cold. The country is in the midst of a protracted foreign conflict with no clear purpose and no exit strategy, ostensibly to liberate the Iraqi people, but in reality to fulfill some vague agenda set down long before any terrorist attack was launched on the United States. Niccolo Machiavelli would be infuriated by it. Of course, he’d be outraged in different ways than most liberal thinkers would be. Pragmatist as he was, Machiavelli would probably find the concept of a war for an ideal to be unbelievably wrongheaded. In his day, wars were fought to acquire land or resources. And of course, they still are. But wars are also fought over concepts like freedom, abstract concepts that a pragmatic thinker would oppose. I think the bald-faced lying would be distasteful as well: when a monarch invaded another country, he just invaded another country. There wasn’t any kind of talk of liberating the people – especially a people who never explicitly asked to be liberated. It would be the half-measures involved that would infuriate Niccolo, I think: either openly call it a play for empire or don’t do it at all. Fighting a war of vague ideals is just cowardly. And reckless.

America is a nation founded on ideas, and I don’t know if a pragmatic, realist approach to government would work in the United States. We’re very concerned in this country with abstract notions, with the nature of morality, with things that can’t necessarily be quantified. Staying the course, sticking to one’s principles in the face of opposition, are the things that appeal to the American mindset, and changing allegiances or doing underhanded things to keep things together are anathema to traditional American values (which isn’t to say we don’t do them, but we just don’t like to think about it). But injecting a little pragmatism into the situation might help. A leader who cares more about what’s best for the country than what the Bible says would be a refreshing change. I’m not advocating a dictatorship by any means, but I’m definitely opposed to a theocracy. Government based on the tangible world is better than one based on the next one.

And having the trains run on time does have its appeal...


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