the imaginative conservative logo

Machiavelli may help modern man to think more clearly about power and prudence, and to remember that the world is a dangerous place where all is not as it seems…

MachiavelliAn argument can be made that Niccolo Machiavelli’s sinister reputation is unjust. This is not to gloss over the very deep flaws in the Florentine’s view of man, the world, and God, but to note that his work is not so devoid of moral sentiment as the popular image of him as a conniving super-villain suggests. Even his most infamous book The Prince provides us with evidence that Machiavellian politics might be an improvement over the crypto-socialism that has come to dominate much of the West. The prince “should inspire his citizens to follow their pursuits quietly, in trade and in agriculture and in every other pursuit of men, so that one person does not fear to adorn his possessions for fear that they be taken away from him, and another to open up a trade for fear of taxes.” Let it be noted that there is nothing here about reconstructing social relations, imposing egalitarian ideology, or confiscating income as part of a wealth redistribution plan.

More striking still, after relating how Agathocles of Sicily became ruler of Syracuse and enjoyed a long and successful career based upon brutality and treachery, Machiavelli cautions that “one cannot call it virtue to kill one’s citizens, betray one’s friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; these modes can enable one to acquire empire, but not glory.” Whatever The Prince’s flaws, it is glory, not mere empire, which motivates the book. Machiavelli commends not purely self-centered ambition, but Italy’s liberation from a state of foreign domination, “without a head, without order, beaten, despoiled, torn, pillaged, and having endured ruin of every sort.” The solution, he argues, is a leader single-mindedly committed to rescuing the troubled country: “One may see how she prays God to send her someone to redeem her from these barbarous cruelties and insults.” Interestingly enough, Machiavelli was especially fascinated by the figure of Moses, a man both celebrated for righteousness and indefatigability when it came to defending the good of his people.

And as surprising as it might be to those who know him only by his popular image, Machiavelli in fact favored democracy over monarchy: A corrupted people might be brought round by persuasion and skilled leadership, insists Machiavelli, whereas “a bad prince cannot be spoken to by anyone, and the only remedy for his case is cold steel.” Using reasoning instantly comprehensible to modern-day localists and proponents of states’ rights, he advises rulers to occupy troubled provinces in person, instead of trying to direct them from a distant position of comfortable detachment:

For if you stay there, disorders may be seen as they arise, and you can soon remedy them; if you are not there, disorders become understood when they are great and there is no longer a remedy. Besides this, the province is not despoiled by your officials; the subjects are satisfied with ready access to the prince, so that they have more cause to love him if they want to be good and, if they want to be otherwise, more cause to fear him.

Machiavelli deserves credit for such statements, insofar as they call attention to inherent flaws in the American system. How can anyone take seriously the claim that Olympian elites secluded within the District of Columbia meaningfully represent a “republic” comprised of more than 300 million “citizens” inhabiting an enormous diversity of communities spread out over three million square miles? As Donald Livingston of Emory has pointed out, the inhuman scale of the United States is utterly foreign to all republican theory, whether ancient or modern, Platonic, Jeffersonian, or Machiavellian, and it is simply absurd to pretend that those of us in Flyover Country can ever enjoy “ready access” to the Beltway officials and powerbrokers who have turned the democratic process into a rigged game. If conservatives are to make good use of the Trump effect, they must resist the temptation to “federalize” everything and instead work to restore authority to state and local institutions, so that “disorders may be seen as they arise” by those holding power.

None of this is meant to suggest that Machiavelli should be unconditionally celebrated. Perhaps the biggest problem with The Prince lies not in its emphasis upon the adversarial aspect of political life–an undeniable reality, especially now–but in the idea that it represents a new political “science,” a precise, tidy, and reliably predictive discipline equivalent to mechanical engineering or chemistry. For a better picture of reality, an equally hard-headed but philosophically deeper authority should be consulted. Politics is a very human and messy art rather than a science, explains Aristotle: “For the educated person seeks exactness in each area to the extent that the nature of the subject allows, for apparently it is just as mistaken to demand demonstrations from a rhetorician as to accept [merely] persuasive arguments from a mathematician.” When it comes to complex studies of man, we must be satisfied “to indicate the truth roughly and in outline.”

So if taken with a grain of salt, Machiavelli may help modern man to think more clearly about power and prudence, and to remember that the world is a dangerous place where all is not as it seems. At the same time, political schemes always must be restrained by a respect for God’s laws–and informed by common sense. Otherwise, we may find ourselves looking less like the Godfather than like Wile E. Coyote.

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. It’s helpful to read Discourses on Livy simultaneously. Then, we see the republican sentiments of Mach which makes it all go down a bit easier. Also, the amazing essay by Isaiah Berlin on Mach is always worth reading. He explains how there is pretty well a before Mach world, and an after Mach world…I suppose he is the first true modernist when it comes to politics.

  2. A very thought-provoking piece. Niccolo offered the world some eye-opening observations about how the world really operates, and was damned for it. I agree his works are worth a fresh look.

  3. James Burnham’s “The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom” made a fairly strong case that Machiavelli was unfairly maligned.

    • I’ve read “The Managerial Revolution” and “Suicide of the West.” I did not know of the existence of “The Machiavellians.” Will read it ASAP. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Machiavelli is wonderful. He’s taught in business schools, along with Sun Zhu.

    One good quote: “because he did not mix it (Popular state) with the power of the Principate and with that of the Aristocracy, Athens lived a very short time as compared to Sparta. ”

    Another: “The discussion is either of a Republic which wants to create an Empire, as Rome, or of one which is satisfied to maintain itself. In the first case it is necessary for it to do everything as Rome did; in the second, it can imitate Venice and Sparta, for those reasons why and how as will be described in the succeeding chapter.”

    And I choose Venice, Sparta: the ideal of a polity built to endure, not to commit suicide as the entire West desires today.

    Regarding “crypto-socialism”:

    I’m a longtime believer that socialism is a component of a natural reaction to wealth inequality. As such this is a natural law of political science, that wealth inequality leads to instability. And those defenders of the West who defend wealth inequality are then partly responsible for socialism’s popularity, stoking the fire.

    Machiavelli writes in Discources that part of Sparta’s durability is the result of “more
    equality of substance”:

    “Sparta, as I have said, being governed by a King and limited Senate could thus maintain
    itself for a long time because there being few inhabitants in Sparta, and the path having
    been closed to those who should want to live there, and the laws of Lycurgus having
    acquired such reputation that their observance removed all the causes for tumults. They
    were able to live united for a long time, for Lycurgus had established in Sparta more
    equality of substance and less equality in rank, because equal poverty existed here and
    the Plebs were lacking ambitious men, as the offices of the City were extended to few
    Citizens, and were kept distant from the Plebs, nor did the Nobles by not treating them
    badly ever create in them the desire to want them.”

    Here’s another, more lengthy, quote: “The other cause, is that that
    Republic, whose political existence is maintained uncorrupted, does not permit that any
    of its Citizens to be or live in the manner of a Gentleman, instead maintain among
    themselves a perfect equality, and are the greatest enemies of those Lords and Gentlemen
    who are in that province: and if, by chance, any should come into their hands, they kill
    them as being Princes of corruption and the cause of every trouble.

    And to clarify what is (meant by) this name of Gentleman, I say that those are called
    Gentlemen who live idly on the provisions of their abundant possessions, without having
    any care either to cultivate or to do any other work in order to live. Such as these are
    pernicious to every Republic and to every Province: but more pernicious are those who,
    in addition to the above mentioned fortune, also command castles, and have subjects who
    obey them.”

    I’m finding these quotes quickly, so there are likely better quotes to use.

  5. Thanks for publishing my comment. I would recommend Machiavelli be read with Burnham as suggested above but also with Aristotle and actually other history books/political books based on lessons from history.

    Machiavelli is fallible, but I love his pursuit of truth, truth be it pleasant or less so. He forces the reader to think. The reader may then choose to pursue what’s right after understanding his options and their consequences.

    To give an example, Putin is often today condemned, yet his power is secure. We can conclude Putin understands something of political science. Because Putin is in power, he can then choose to serve his people and Christ. Note: Putin is not publicly a Christian, though his wife was; but he is a man in a secure position of power.

    It is possible that some truth should not be learned, that a social organism is healthiest when kept ignorant of certain things. However, we do not live in an isolated society, so we must compete with fallen powers. Too often we blame political opponents rather than asking how we could improve. For example, Marxists are blamed.

    Also, power itself is corrupting, including political power. The wealthy struggle to get into Heaven, as we know. So, it could risk one’s soul to pursue legitimate political science, which deals with these very fallen men. So, that risk must be acknowledged.

    It’s like with Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”: There are timeless truths which the West is today in violation of, hence its decline.

    Just to add a disclaimer: I do not appreciate Nietzsche. So, I’m not some lover of evil. I love many of the conservative writers praised at this website, though not the classical liberal ones.

    I expect there are good arguments against Machiavelli. I just loved him, however.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: