the imaginative conservative logo

Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the ways of the nations, and have no fear of the signs of the heavens, even though the nations fear them. For the carvings of the nations are nonentities, wood cut from the forest, fashioned by artisans with the adze, adorned with silver and gold. With nails and hammers they are fastened, so they do not fall. Jeremiah 10:2-4[1]

Had Wolsey been without conscience he would have been simply an evil man, and we do not need Aristotle to tell us that the fall of an evil man is not tragic. Fr. James F. Donelan, S.J.[2]

MachiavellianIn a book chapter devoted to the endeavors of the Emergency Rescue Committee, Jacques Maritain discussed the prevalence of two forms of political and philosophical Machiavellianism with the current crisis, in this case the Second World War, serving as the context. These forms of Machiavellianism can be said to have shared what was at the core of the sixteenth century Florentine’s teachings. Political power was the ultimate, perhaps Aristotelian, end of the Prince, hence the state, and whatever means required to retain such power were justified by this end.

The first paradigm Maritain discussed was one preexisting modern times. This model held only a select few members of a state’s leadership should have the right to govern the majority. In this particular manifestation, a select few in a given society were exclusively privy to political affairs. Though this exclusivity separated them from the majority of society they governed, the former comprehended that certain rules pertaining the maintenance of justice were requisite to the overall benefit of the polis. However, due to incessant yearnings for power and greed, this select ruling class would provide itself exceptions to these moral statutes. Thus, mooring their own predilections to the supposed betterment of the state, they forsook what was best about themselves.

The second paradigm Maritain touched on involved, in his estimation, a much more contemporary despotism. An ambitious and potent singular leader, with the aid of a crew of attendants, gathered the whole of a society’s political structure unto himself. This figure quickly learned that the complete repudiation of the old standards of justice and right were most achievable when coupled with almost unlimited forms of control upon the populace. This strain of Machiavelli’s thought reversed the older paradigm in that instead of the ruling class sacrificing the health of their own souls in melding their ambitions with the betterment of the state, this new despot demands the populace surrender what is most cherished in and by the people themselves. Hence, although the former model leaves the inner lives of the majority relatively untouched by their leaders’ moral failings, this newer variation expands the decay of the soul at an exponential rate.

It will be this paper’s task to delve into these two variations on despotism cited by Maritain. In addition to examining examples of each, a comparison will be undertaken to evaluate the moral deficiencies in each. Lastly, it will be asked if these are the only two paradigms of Machiavelli’s political cynicism evident in human history and if not, what form would this previously undisclosed variation take.

When one encounters the persona of Niccolo Machiavelli in a political science, renaissance studies, or philosophy class, and even more casually yet, a conversation about the prevailing political climes of the day, images of ornate back room scheming fills the mind’s eye. As per Machiavelli’s own penchant for dichotomies, the ideal ruler of a society ought be both lion and fox for the former’s inherent strength and the latter’s adaptable cunning. Likewise, one espousing the Florentine’s thought, or one who is described as Machiavellian, dons the vestments of the silken cloak and iron dagger.

Yet, what is truly at the core of Machiavelli’s teachings that both make wary, or potentially repulse any human being aspiring to some level of moral rectitude in his or her life? Is there something beyond stale constructs of furtive underlings conspiring to silently, though meticulously, undermine a civilization from within?

It is too much of a caricature to simply relegate Machiavelli, or Machiavellianism to the contemplation and performance of acts one considers immoral. That is not to say the caricature is untrue, but rather less complex than the actuality of the Florentine’s impact upon political thought, be it philosophical or purely pragmatic. Machiavelli’s teachings to potential earthly princes are not merely confined to rote lessons on malfeasance.

Neither must one fall into the fashionably intellectual trap of deeming Machiavelli a purveyor, not of immoral teachings, but instead of something akin to postmodern amoral ambiguity. He would thus be taken as a man strictly seeking expediency and practicality in his instruction toward a would-be ruler, a mentor who existed beyond the rigid structures of moral and immoral behavior.

However, this would presuppose the Florentine not having been exposed to the ethical philosophical legitime passed down through the centuries; the moral intellectual correspondence that bound together the great minds of both pagan and Christian traditions. With the Renaissance Machiavelli was living amidst being so indebted to the budding of Catholic universities across Europe, as well as its having received refugees carrying forth pagan Greek learning after the fall of Constantinople, this simply could not have been the case. Chronological distance from the teachings of Athens and Jerusalem makes for a better excuse for the penumbra of amorality in our era, not in his. It would seem that the assumed possibility of amorality rests in more contemporaneous cultures in which the populace does not necessarily not know about the presence of ancient and medieval moral foundations, but perhaps considers them too inconvenient to know.

What then, is the particular teaching that is at the core of Machiavelli’s many centuries of notoriety? If not the one-dimensional contemplation and perpetration of wrongness, nor the promulgation of a pre-Nietzschean amoral malaise, how has the Florentine so effectively entrenched himself into the field of study which once so idealistically asked which regime, or political arrangement can justly be said to be the best?

Machiavelli, in his seminal work, provided a clue to this. He pointed to the manner in which his chosen audience, men possessing power, ought to live. “Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation…”[3] It is worthy here to note that Machiavelli, ostensibly authoring a manual on princely conduct, should evince some sort of axiological commentary. He posits a discrepancy presumably between men who fail at politics and those that succeed; the two breeds separated by their ability to mesh their own behavior to what is.

plato_statue_academy_smallerThis in itself is an interesting turn of phrase. What is meant is not some grand notion of Parmenidean Being, nor does it connote the Logos spoken off by John in the New Testament. Rather, Machiavelli hints at the repudiation of a legacy first handed down by Plato, a legacy of political philosophy wherein the most beneficial forms of a state were the sole focus of a citizen-thinker. Machiavelli cleverly juxtaposes cloaked moral imperatives where would-be rulers are not living as they should, which is to say they are giving too much heed to the concept that there is a way they morally ought to live. He further reinforces these new imperatives with an odd homage to Platonic metaphysics. “Leaving fancies about princes aside, therefore, and considering only what is true…”[4]

What it turns out is true to Machiavelli, is a departure from a Platonic, or Thomist perspective on the union of what is true to what is good. After first defining what is the ultimate, some may say Aristotelian end of a ruler, he elaborated on the means through which it is achieved. “Hence it is necessary that a prince who is interested in his survival learn to be other than good, making use of this capacity or refraining from it according to need.”[5]

In a sentence it is revealed. Cleverly, Machiavelli does not engage in the clear repudiation of a transcendent moral order as one would find in Nietzsche’s Dionysian aphorisms. Truth be told, the German can in the very least be thanked for his honesty in making manifest the abyss one descends into when both faith and reason are abandoned in order to satiate the will. Instead, outdoing even the sophists of old, Machiavelli weaves his way into the prevailing moral order that exists, what is. He does not pretend it does not exist, as in the sophists’ case, but merely suggests it is not one ordered to the ruler’s sole end. Thus, a prince, ought to know how to perform both good and evil as the means to retain power. This ability then becomes the good, or virtue held by a ruler.

With this central tenet of Machiavellianism established, it can now be applied to its two manifestations Maritain cited earlier. Maritain’s first manifestation had its roots in antiquity, in a realm where the prevailing ruling class “…most often knew that the rules of justice are necessary to the health of human societies, but who most often allow themselves exceptions to these rules.”[6] These were driven by the desire to rule over others and by greed. They, in their veiled hypocrisy, “..made, so to speak, the sacrifice of their own souls for the ambitions of the state.”[7]

A case could be made this earlier, perhaps more traditional form of Machiavellianism can be gleaned from viewing the fall of Republican Rome. From Plutarch, it is revealed that Marcus Junius Brutus, Caesar’s friend turned assassin, was descended from the most noble of the old Roman lines. His lauded ancestor of the same name, to whom the ancient Romans had erected a statue with unsheathed sword in hand in the capitol, was renowned for his efforts to expel the Tarquins, the last of the Etruscans Rome once called kings. This ancestral Junius Brutus, known for his nobility and strength, had these attributes untempered by reflection and study. Thus, he grew so inflexible against tyrannies that he slew his own sons believing the latter conspired with such hated monarchies.

In contrast, Marcus Brutus possessed a disposition groomed by the study of philosophy coupled with a sincere desire to lend his abilities to commerce and the affairs of the polity. The young Republican, according to Plutarch, appeared the right and noble heir of his illustrious ancestors. Improving on the liabilities of these past sires, his position and potential were the object of envy, as he, “…seems to have been of a temper exactly framed for virtue…”[8] How then could such a person descend into the first of Maritain’s Machiavellian paradigms?

When approached by his co-conspirator Cassius, Brutus at first displayed the sterling nobility of his lineage. As Cassius conjured the woe that would befall Rome should Caesar’s friends succeed in making him king, Brutus resisted the immediate call for preemptive murder. Informed that eventually Caesar would come for them both, Brutus stood firm. “ ‘It will be my business, then’ replied Brutus, ‘not to hold my piece, but to stand up boldly, and die for the liberty of my country.’ ”[9] Yet, Cassius precisely tapped into what he knew to be the most effective entreaty toward his friend. He chided Brutus to note that the writings the latter had so often studied were not the humble ramblings of shopkeepers. Rather, they were the inheritance passed down by Rome’s fathers, men of great vision and power. Being descended from this august line, Rome’s citizens demanded of Brutus that he eliminate any new attempt at tyranny.

This brought on a change in the man once deemed to possess a temper perfectly framed for virtue. Plutarch wrote of the man’s inner struggle. “Now Brutus, feeling that the noblest spirits of Rome for virtue, birth, or courage were depending on him…strove indeed, as much as possible, when abroad, to keep his uneasiness of mind to himself…”[10] One must ask why, if Brutus thought the act he was contemplating was inherently good, would uneasiness of mind creep into his thinking? Perhaps it was because he was balancing what he thought was a good, saving the Roman Republic and the influence of his Optimates class, with something less redeeming, the betrayal of a friend. Here is Brutus’ Machiavellian moment. He decides what he knows because of Roman tradition to be a wrong act, must nevertheless be done. Though he does not possess any vainglory with regard to his actions, he is primarily motivated because he believes that he, and only he, can save Rome from tyranny; thus subordinating himself to the welfare of the city at the same time that he undermines its traditions of loyalty and piety.

Maritain’s second manifestation of Machiavellianism juxtaposed the dynamic of power and sacrifice evident from the first. Borrowing heavily from Nietzsche’s legacy as the prophet of the twentieth century, Maritain evoked this newer paradigm. “Now, in the totalitarian regimes, a single leader, helped by his henchmen in the Party, holds in his hands the whole of politics…”[11] Describing this new Machiavellianism as both mad and cynical, the ruler pursues near omnipotence by the meshing of, “…an absolute unjustice, an absolute cruelty, an absolute falsehood, together with astronomical means of constraint…”[12] Seeing themselves as one with the state, the ruler and his henchmen, fueled by dreams of dominion, “…make the sacrifice of the souls and consciences of their entire peoples, the sacrifice of the blood of the peoples, and the sacrifice of the life and liberty of everyone who resists their will in the world.”[13] Not content with their subjects’ mere acquiescence, these few, “…want to make mankind share in their misdeeds, and approve of them.”[14]

It would be safe to assume Maritain was writing of what he saw was ravaging much of Europe in the first part of the last century. From the very beginnings of the Nuremberg Rallies in 1933, it was made manifest to Germany and the world as a whole that Hitler, as Teutonic father figure, was binding himself to the fates of his people. In the heady days of the mid to late 1930’s, the bond between the father and his people showed few signs of familial strife as the Nazi military juggernaut made its way through Austria and Czechoslovakia before igniting the Second World War with an attack on Poland. Even the victorious allies of the Great War, in this case France and Great Britain, stood as ineffectual challengers to the inevitable advance to the East, and the immense resources of the Soviet Union.

Yet, as fate, weather, and faulty decision making would have it, the German advance would halt at Stalingrad. As news from the East travelled home, the German people came to slowly realize the end, though intermittently abated by propaganda, was near. In the recesses of his Berlin bunker, Hitler issued forth an order which, if carried out, would have spelled doom for his people. Stating that Germany’s struggle against its enemies warranted and legitimized any and all means of resistance, Hitler emphasized that any chance that could be taken to weaken the Allies’ advance ought indeed be taken. “All military traffic, communications, industrial and supply installations as well as objects within Reich territory that might be used by the enemy in the continuation of this fight, either now or later, are to be destroyed.”[15]

adolf_hitlerIt is possible, if one has the appropriately elastic imagination, to believe that Hitler was merely advocating what the Russian leadership had done in the East. With vast expanses of land and resources in reserve, Soviet forces could afford to lay waste to their lands as they estimated the harm this would cause the advancing enemy. Yet, in 1945 Germany was being attacked from both the East and West, precluding any reliance on still untapped supplies to give aid to its people. Hence, as much as the Allies would have potentially been crippled by such an order, the ultimate victim would be the German nation itself. Why then, would Hitler issue forth such a decree, if it was not for any tactical advantage?

The answer lay with Hitler’s own architect and friend, Albert Speer. As Minister of Armaments and War Production, Speer would have been crucial in the order’s implementation. In a written response to the original decree, Speer recalled Hitler sharing the latter’s sentiments with him. It was clear in these conversations how even the mad understood Germany’s cause was lost. This being the case, Hitler felt that it was “…not necessary to show any consideration for the bases, which the people will need for their very primitive further existence; on the contrary, it is better to destroy even these things.”[16] Hitler expressed to Speer that “…the nation has showed itself to be the weaker one and the future belongs exclusively to the stronger eastern nation.”[17] Reinforcing his judgment and demand for his people’s sacrifice, Germany’s leader posited that those “…remaining after the struggle are in any case the less valuable ones because the good ones have been killed.”[18]

Marcus Brutus embodied the first of Maritain’s paradigms of Machiavellianism as he, donning the ancestral vestments of piety toward the city, deliberately and impiously broke with a man once called a friend in an attempt to consolidate power over the Republic. Hitler shrilly proclaimed Maritain’s second paradigm by first drawing the German people into a disastrous war and its attendant atrocities, then dragging them into his own personal flames of punishment and perdition.

This said, to discuss and describe Machiavellianism is not to entirely exhaust the field and scope of political intrigue. In a conversation with Eva Brann, renowned scholar and former Dean of St. John’s College in Annapolis, this author was reminded that indeed, there is an honesty, albeit dark, displayed in Machiavelli’s intentions. Though he advocates a quasi-sophistic interpretation of morality as something malleable to the powerful, he is absolutely transparent in his ultimate goal of the prince retaining the power he has. What if, then, one could combine Machiavellian means, with, unlike what was previously stated, an idealistic, even seemingly virtuous end? What would be the ensuing result?

In 1927, none other than the esteemed United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes penned an opinion that served as a harbinger for the decades, and era to come. Holmes wrote that it was within the boundaries of law to have a young woman whom the state of Virginia deemed to be feeble-minded have herself sterilized for the well-being of society.

Carrie Buck was a woman authorities in her home state claimed to descend from a family which had inherited imbecility or insanity. She was purported to have been promiscuous, bearing a child out of wedlock. However, there were accounts at the time which pointed to her being raped by a member of her adopted family and the claims of promiscuity established to protect said family’s reputation.

Holmes argued in a manner which connoted the forward, utopic progression of a society which itself organically cried out for expediency and sacrifice. Arguing for the concept of the greater good, he brought forth memories of the Great War. “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives.”[19] Therefore, it would have been odd “…if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.”[20] So vital was the public good, it would not be restricted to the mere borders of the state of Virginia. “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”[21] Buck vs. Bell was decided with an 8-1 vote, the one dissenter, the Catholic Associate Justice, Pierce Butler.

From this account, it would not appear that Maritain’s Machiavellianism paradigms are manifest. There is no ruler of society who conjoins himself to the state in order to appropriate power and control over the populace. Neither is there a tyrant whose hold over his people chains them to his malice and requires them to yield all they have to his destructive whim.

378378_1324992292_largeWhat is seen is a sentiment that seeks, even earnestly so, for the betterment not of people in particular, but of society in the abstract. In modern minds contenting themselves as being uncluttered by divine imperatives preaching the equal value of each and every human life, it is perfectly rational to analyze and remove any impediment which stands in the way of a brave new society. This is the great point of distinction between what Maritain had described in his paradigms of Machiavellianism, and what is more evident in contemporary cultures: the assumed self-exculpatory enlightenment of those who consider themselves their society’s betters. There is no longer need for a prince to refine his skill in performing right and wrong. The only wrong in this case would be standing in the way of this utopic progression. Here, a ruling class turns society’s eyes toward a bright, albeit opaque future, all the while power is surreptitiously administered by arbitrarily delegating to each human being his or her assigned value .

Machiavelli once wrote that he who built on the people built on mud. This was meant to reinforce to the prince the stark, yet honest reality of what was required to maintain his earthly power. It may be posited that it is equally if not more damaging, to attempt, because one possesses no patience for the coming of heaven, to build paradise from the dust of the earth. Unlike heaven, which illumines the worth of every human soul, an imposed utopia’s monolithic shadow swallows in its gloaming the value even of the very individuals who think themselves its new gods. It is then to us and those who may find themselves from time to time under this sway, to question its promises, and carefully measure its demands.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


  1. Jeremiah 10:2-4 (NAB)
  2. James Donelan, S.J., God’s Crooked Lines (Manila: Tahanan Books, 1998), 119.
  3. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (New York: Bantam Classic, 2003), 61.
  4. Machiavelli, The Prince, 62.
  5. Machiavelli, The Prince, 62.
  6. Jacques Maritain, Pour La Justice (New York: EMF, 1945), 36.
  7. Maritain, Pour La Justice, 36.
  8. Plutarch, Lives (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 574.
  9. Plutarch, Lives, 578.
  10. Plutarch, Lives, 580.
  11. Maritain, Pour La Justice, 36.
  12. Maritain, Pour La Justice, 36.
  13. Maritain, Pour La Justice, 36-37.
  14. Maritain, Pour La Justice, 37.
Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
4 replies to this post
  1. An excellent essay, for which thanks! There are Northern European, medieval myths of a queen who sells her soul to the Devil in order to save her people from famine, but who, after death, is welcomed by God because her sacrifice was for the Good. In the Age of Ideology, the people might have sold their souls, not even for food, but for some godless concept of the Good. This essay comes close to providing the West with its epitaph.

  2. Thanks Stephen. Perhaps the issue is that if one refuses to turn to any source of transcendent good, a vacuum is created in which only personal, subjective goods remain.

Leave a Reply