Machiavelli (1469 – 1527 CE) & The Prince
Niccolo Machiavelli is possibly one of the most misunderstood political philosophers in history. The word Machiavellian was an English word before there was an English translation of The Prince, his most famous work. While he does advocate holding power by ruthless brutality and deception in The Prince, some scholars point out that his other works argue for the very opposite of ruthless dictatorship and Machiavelli held a position in a republic like those he prized. It is still a debate as to whether Machiavelli meant The Prince to be taken as a joke and unmasking of the realities of power or whether he meant it as a work of political realism that is brutally honest about how power must be held. Rousseau, who we will soon study, believed The Prince to be a satire of the powerful Medici family. The Italian Communist Gramsci, who we will study in the second half of the class, believed that Machiavelli was serious but was explaining to the poor how politics work and not the rich who already understand how politics work. Either way, joke or treatise, it is a classic read by many thinkers and leaders we will study in this class because of its insightful descriptions of the reality and brutality of politics.
Machiavelli was not known for his political writings during his lifetime, and The Prince was published years after his death. He was a politician, and ambassador and a writer. While he was alive he was famous for his comic plays (another piece of evidence that may indicate The Prince is a farce). It was only after his death and the infamy of The Prince that he became primarily identified with this text and the word Machiavellian became a new word in several languages.
His political career flourished in the years of the republic that ruled the city of Florence between 1494 and 1512 when the Medici family was briefly out of power. At the time, there was no unified Italy. In fact, many living in Italy at the time would have no idea what Italy was. In addition, none of the great Renaissance artists or thinkers would have heard of the Renaissance, as it is a French word applied by a French historian to the period two hundred years later. Four city states, Florence, Venice, Milan and Naples, were warring powers and were involved against each other with the Catholic Church and the kings of France and Spain. The Medici family were the great patrons of the painters, sculptors and philosophers of the Renaissance and ruled Florence before and after the brief republic. The republic was ruled by nine citizens elected by drawing lots every two months. Citizenship was not common, however, as Machiavelli himself was well off but not high enough in the ranks to have citizenship himself. Nonetheless, he held powerful positions in the republic as chancellor, ambassador to France and Spain, and head of the military. This, and the time of warring states (like China) set the backdrop for The Prince.
After the Medici family regained control of Florence and abolished the republic, Machiavelli was accused of conspiracy and tortured. After he was found innocent and released, he withdrew into his estate and spent his time writing the comedies and political works that made him famous in his life and infamous after his death.
Speaking of comedy, here is a wonderfully Machiavellian joke before diving into The Prince.
Two young kids are talking about their families.
“My father is a politician”, says one.
“Really? Honest?”, asks the other.
“No, the regular kind”, replies the first.
Machiavelli dedicated his most famous work to Lorenzo de Medici, the great patron of Renaissance art and Neo-Platonism. Was this book making fun of the terrible power of the Medici, or was it a practical guide for maintaining public good in times of great war and terror? Scholars still debate. Either way, the work was privately circulated by Machiavelli amongst his friends and was only published years after his death.
The Prince focuses on “new princes”, leaders who come to power by rising up through the ranks and who do not receive power from a noble lineage. Machiavelli provides several examples from ancient times and his own time of such rulers. When a new ruler comes into power they must stabilize and consolidate their power to maintain it and the security of the public they rule. The main argument of the work is that one should cultivate both love and fear as a ruler, and one must be prepared to act with complete brutality and hypocritical deception. This is done out of necessity at inevitable times when the ruler and ruled are threatened. Like Hobbes, who was influenced by Machiavelli and we will study next time, he argues that a strong king is necessary in the brutal world and so evil is sometimes justified.
Unlike Plato & Aristotle, who were a great influence on Machiavelli as well as most Renaissance thinkers, Machiavelli does not believe in constructing an ideal city as a model and does not believe it to be good to rule people in terms of an ideal. Like Nietzsche, who we will study later and who was influenced by Machiavelli, he was a brute realist who believed in theorizing about how people and power is and not how things ought to be. He believed that people are naturally ambitious and warlike, so we must prepare for this and balance the bad in human nature with the good. Also like Nietzsche, Machiavelli considered religion to be a means of control and that a ruler should not be overly religious or pious because it will make them unable to be brutal when they must be. He does suggest, however, that it is in the ruler’s interests to make the ruled people as religious as possible, and I suggest that this equally applies to idealizing the objectivity of the sciences and the freedom and good will of democracies.
Like John Stuart Mill, who we will study soon, Machiavelli can be called a pragmatist who considers the true to be the useful and practical, not the perfect or immutable. Machiavelli, like Mill, is associated with the principle “the ends justify the means”. Like Mill, Machiavelli argues that sometimes this can result in harm, but if we consider the long view and the social view it is in the interest of everyone overall. Machiavelli argues that if a state is too nice, it will be overrun by conquerors and there will be terrible times for everyone. It is bad to routinely abuse people as this will lead to ruin, but brutality must be used occasionally or the state will be equally ruined. A good ruler must know how and when to be brutal as life is tough and some situations require violence or deception (like Plato suggested last week in the noble lie of The Republic).
Machiavelli argues that one should befriend weak rivals but crush strong ones. He writes that one should wipe out the entire family of those one crushes and completely destroy the lands of those one conquers such that one does not have to fear revenge or counter-attack. Consider the warring families of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well as modern gang warfare (such as the Black Widow, Griselda Blanca, who murdered entire families along with the children as one of the early cocaine kingpins of Miami in the early 80s).
One should not be brutal casually or needlessly, but if you have to be brutal then you have to go whole hog and ensure that your enemy will not be able to retaliate. When one has to be brutal, one should be brutal all at once such that it does not have to be a daily routine for maintaining authority. Otherwise, he writes, one must “always keep a knife in hand”. In other words, treat people the way you want to be treated unless you absolutely have to kill them and their entire family. He writes that it is best to delegate this task to someone else in the administration such that the ruler can be feared but also appear benevolent and blameless to the greatest extent possible. This was classic politics of middle age Europe, where kings would rely on particular noble houses to commit great atrocities and then condemn them publicly long after agreeing on exchange of favors in private.
Machiavelli famously writes that it is best to be both loved and feared, but if one has to choose between the two one should be feared. It is best to appear liberal to most of the people most of the time but be ruthlessly authoritarian to the individual who steps out of line. One should seek the safety of being feared, but avoid being despised and hated. One should be a patron of the arts, of festivals and spectacles, but prepare for trouble. One should try to keep one’s hands off the property and women of others, but be ready for total war. He refers to the myth of Achilles being nursed by the centaur Chiron of Greek mythology to illustrate how one must learn to be both human and animal to be, like Achilles, a great leader.
Influence and Legacy of The Prince and Machiavelli
The Pope put The Prince on the banned index in 1559, but it spread aided by the new development of the printing press. Block printing had arrived in Europe from China, where it was first used to print Buddhist texts. Interestingly, “humanist” thinkers like Erasmus who resisted Catholic authority equally despised the book. Catholics and Protestant kings read The Prince, while the Catholic kings condemned the work as Protestant rebellion and the Protestant kings condemned them as Catholic authoritarianism. One critic accused Machiavelli of being an atheist while simultaneously calling The Prince “the Koran of the courtiers”.
Hobbes, who we will study next time, was influenced by The Prince and came to similar conclusions about the power of the sovereign. Locke, who we will cover soon and who influenced the American founding fathers on the issue of rights, was influenced by the political writings of Machiavelli.
Hitler claimed he read Machiavelli’s Prince frequently in bed before falling asleep. Mussolini was fond of quoting the book, as is the Italian mafia don John Gotti. Gramsci, the communist opponent to the fascist Mussolini and jailed when Mussolini rose to power, considered The Prince to be a brilliant book that teaches everyone how power operates.
The founders of the American Republic and authors of the Constitution such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison all made use of Machiavelli’s idea of checks and balances between powers as a good way of securing a good republic.
As a final thought, Machiavelli did write in his other political works that the life of the king was a sad life and that the common person was much happier not to have to engage in necessary violence and lies. Perhaps unnecessary violence and lies are much more fun.
Hobbes and Leviathan
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is often called the second great philosopher (the first being Descartes) in the modern European philosophical tradition. He is known for his 1651 book Leviathan which argues that the people agree to transfer their rights to a sovereign by social contract, and that this agreement justly allows the sovereign to do whatever is necessary to protect the people including use of brute force and deception. Machiavelli, who influenced Hobbes and was the subject of the last lecture, argued that any sovereign must be good at these two evil but necessary aspects of society. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes was a realist and though he supported the traditional monarchy got in trouble even with the loyal Royalists he was trying to support by arguing that the king/sovereign derives authority not from God but from natural law (the basic way humanity and nature work). Like Machiavelli, Hobbes is infamous for supporting the brute power of the king but he is also famous and influential for his discussion of natural rights (self-evident liberties), the equality of humanity, and social contracts (government as an artificial agreement of individuals that concedes power to authority through consent).
Hobbes was working as a tutor and scholar in Florence and Paris, and had been working on a complete physics of natural motions that built up from inanimate objects to the motions of the body to the motions of society. He returned home to England in 1637, finding a country torn by civil wars and complex politics. While things were quite complicated between England, Scotland and Ireland, the two main sides of the English civil war were the Royalists who supported the rule of King Charles the first and the Parliamentarians who supported the rights of nobles in Parliament to check the powers of the king and guarantee liberties for the nobility. Just as in Florence in Machiavelli’s time, there was a brief period (10 years, 1649-1659) of Parliamentary rule after the execution of Charles the first before England returned to monarchy under Charles the second.
Before the civil war, Parliament was not a permanent body in English government. Parliaments were called at the king’s request to aid the king’s purposes, particularly the collection of taxes and the waging of warfare. Rulers have needed the help of local nobles for these purposes since the earliest city state societies, and so the earliest form of democracy in Sumer was just such a council of nobles as was Athenian democracy (though in Athens there was no ruler for a time above the council). In England before the civil war, Parliament could send bills to be considered as potential laws to the king (like we have in American law still today) as well as petition grievances, but the king had the right to call the council as well as dissolve the council, so it was not a permanent body that held the king’s powers in check.
The king needed the nobility, but could also ignore the needs of the nobles for the sake of the crown (according to both Machiavelli and Hobbes, for the greater good of all embodied in the king). Charles called and dismissed several parliaments that had grievances against him before ruling without a parliament for 11 years. The nobles and later historians called this period the Eleven Years Tyranny, which is ironic if you consider that the nobles held power over the people without any form of representation. Charles was forced to make peace with the kings of France and Spain, to levy great taxes on merchants, and occasionally torture and punish even nobles who rebelled (such as cutting off ears, a punishment common for the commoners but rare for the nobility).
Many in the cities of England and the military favored the parliament, while the rural areas favored the king. Both sides believed that they fought for the traditional English way and wished for Charles to remain on the throne. After several bloody wars and political back-stabbings, the Parliamentarians began to wonder whether Charles should remain king or whether Parliament itself could rule England (much like the brief period of Athenian democracy, a country ruled by a council of the noble families). Captured by the Parliamentarians, Charles was tried and found guilty of high treason against England, and executed in 1649. English Civil War Societies, much like those in America, reenact the wars every year (but with pikes and shields, not muskets as in America).
At this time, Hobbes was completing his book Leviathan, published the next year in 1650. In Paris he had good contact with Royalists in exile who believed, like Hobbes, that a strong central authority prevented injustice and civil war. The brief period of Parliamentary rule was messy and divided, which the Royalists and Hobbes watched from overseas. In 1660 Charles II returned from exile and re-conquered England and restored the monarchy of his father (a period known as the Restoration). Charles II, who had in fact been tutored by Hobbes as a boy, gave Hobbes protection during times of persecution and a pension.
While the Royalists did in this way win the long fight, only some were delighted by Hobbes’ Leviathan. Many Royalists were outraged by Hobbes’ idea that the king derived authority from the natural rights and protection of the people, not by the divine decree of God. Hobbes does mention God and divine covenants as a basic type of contract, but he argues that one can only enter a contract with God by God’s grace and not by natural right, unlike the mortal human contract that supports a human king. This is why Charles II had to offer him protection during purges of atheism and “profanity” when Hobbes’ book Leviathan was targeted openly. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes was intensely loved and hated and his work spread amongst those who hated him as much as anyone. While many today loath the idea of a sovereign without checks and balances, Hobbes is important for his ideas about the natural nature of society, liberty, rights, and equality.
In the selections I gave you from Leviathan, some of the most famous, Hobbes argues that in the natural condition, the basic state of humanity in nature, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Hobbes argues that human beings are more equal than they are different in strength and intelligence. People think that they are above others but this merely confirms their equality (like the DMV reports that 80% of those questioned say they are an above average driver). Everyone wants to obtain their ends and posses what they desire, but because they desire what others want they make enemies easily. Without power over them, there is little happiness and much grief. Each wants safety, even glory, at the expense of the others. The state of nature is therefore a war of all vs. all, a war against every other person.
Hobbes writes that there may never have been such a pure state of nature for all of humanity, but argues that the “savages of America”, the native Americans, live in such a state in his time and thus have no government at all. Next week, Rousseau will argue the opposite and look to the American tribes as well as others to argue that in the state of nature people were pure and uncorrupted. In the state of nature, when there is no government, nothing is unjust. There is neither justice nor injustice, neither right nor wrong. Force and fraud are cardinal virtues (consider the similarity with Machiavelli’s Prince). There is no permanent property that is rightfully one person’s or another’s (consider Plato & Aristotle arguing whether society provides or prohibits private property). The only reason to seek peace is fear of death, which is ironic considering that we call peace a sort of rest when we say “rest in peace”.
For Hobbes, the basic “right of nature” is self-preservation (much like Darwin’s survival of the fittest as a kind of natural law). Hobbes eventually argues that one can pledge one’s life to society, but one still has the right to defend oneself even when society comes to claim this debt. Hobbes draws the useful distinction between a law (a prohibition) and a right (a prohibition of a prohibition, a freedom or liberty). In the state of nature, everyone has the unchecked right to everything, including the lives of others. People should seek peace and form societies for their own sakes, but before the social contract there is nothing preventing anyone from doing anything. People should treat others the way they want to be treated, but to do this they have to voluntarily give up liberty. They must give up the liberty of harming others to prevent harm from being done to themselves.
Hobbes makes the further distinction that liberties and rights can be renounced or transferred to another, such as an authority. Basically, Hobbes argues through much of the Leviathan that people come to understand that they must transfer the liberty of harming others to the sovereign or state in order to ensure mutual peace and prosperity. Once they have entered into such an agreement, a social contract, they have agreed to a standard of justice and this is what creates justice and injustice. Following in accord with the contract is justice, and breaking the contract is injustice. Following the contract creates duty as well as the difference between right and wrong. A declaration of the contract is made by the participants, and now the participants are bound in duty to the contract and the authority in which the contract is embodied.
People naturally want liberty for themselves, but they also wish to dominate others. Unlike other animals, however, people can create voluntary and artificial structures such as social contracts and nation-states. The only way to do this is to confer/transfer power, strength and liberty to a sovereign. The sovereign is either one person (king, queen, sultan) or a group of people (parliament, congress, pow wow). Later in the text, Hobbes sides with the Royalists vs. the Parliamentarians and argues that it is best to have a single human sovereign (such as Charles the first, or second), because otherwise there will be civil war and strife (like that witnessed in the brief period between Charles the first and Charles the second).
The sovereign, the artificial and mortal God, as Hobbes calls it, is now owed allegiance underneath the authority of the natural and immortal God who only contacts humanity by grace and revelation. When the sovereign acts, it is as if everyone acts. This is famously captured in the image on the front of the publication of Leviathan with a king made out of smaller people, wielding a sword. Because one has pledged one’s strength and life to the sovereign, if you try to rebel the sovereign actually punishes you with your own hand as well as the hand of everyone else. If the sovereign believes you must be killed for the good of everyone else, it is as if you have condemned yourself to death voluntarily. Hobbes argues that you still have the right to try to defend yourself, but the social contract makes it right and legal for the king to have the liberty to end your life and the lives of others, foreign and domestic, if it is in the interest of the sovereign who embodies the interests of the whole populace. Also, Hobbes argues that even if the minority does not voluntarily enter the contract, they are bound to it through the interests of the majority and if they do not agree they can be killed without right to safety as this right only exists within the social contract through participation (consider colonialism, as we will near the end of the class, and how this can be used by foreign powers to set up empires and kill those who disagree in the name of security and liberty).
In the name of the social contract, the sovereign can’t commit injustice. Consider that this was the charge of the Parliamentarians against Charles the first, and the reason Charles was executed while Hobbes is writing the work. The sovereign has the right to censor all works of literature and art, to decide matters of property and war. Hobbes quotes the gospels, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, arguing that there must be an individual who embodies the whole as king or there will be continuous civil war. The king must be “like the sun to the stars”, eclipsing all other authority by natural right. He writes, “If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these powers were divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided and fallen into this civil war…and so continue, till their miseries be forgotten”. Consider that Hobbes is arguing against checks and balances to the King’s power, unlike Machiavelli did in his republican works.