September 17, 2007


The Florentine Enigma: A Review of Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power by Ross King (Matthew Simpson, September 17, 2007, First Things)

[T]his tension pervaded Machiavelli’s life and writings. A tireless champion of popular rule and civic humanism seemed to share a body with a most ruthless “Machiavellian,” who believed that the ends justify the means in politics even when the end in question is nothing more than personal ambition. To explain how these two people, the civic humanist and the ruthless power monger, could exist in one man is the challenge for all biographers of Machiavelli, most recently Ross King in his book Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. The author of the bestselling Renaissance histories Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, King tries, quite persuasively, to explain Machiavelli’s contradictions by looking at the epoch in which he lived. The Italian Renaissance was an age of contradictions, in which science and superstition, high art and squalor, Christian piety and extraordinary vice, lived side by side on the streets of the great Italian cities. King suggests that we should not expect to find inner coherence in a man who lived in such an incoherent age. “The key to some of [Machiavelli’s] ambiguities,” he writes, “may lie in the nature of the man himself.” [...]

King interprets the contradictions in Machiavelli’s writings as an expression of deeper contradictions in his mind and character, which should be understood in their historical context. This is a useful corrective. Today Machiavelli is too often read as if he were a contemporary professor of political science struggling to produce a coherent theory of democracy, or citizenship, or justice, or some such thing. King is right to note that an ambitious, successful Renaissance statesman like Machiavelli would be unlikely to measure himself by the academic values of systematic coherence and plodding argumentation. So it is foolish to begin by looking for these qualities in his work.

Yet King’s reading is not wholly convincing. While it’s true that Machiavelli was not an academic type, his works reveal an exceptionally lucid and thorough mind. It is impossible to believe King’s suggestion that Machiavelli flitted back and forth between these two radical extremes. In his Discourses, after reviewing policies like Borgia’s, he wrote “these are extremely cruel methods and inimical to every way of life, not only Christian but human, and every man should avoid them and prefer to live as a private citizen rather than as a king with so much damage to other men.” Yet in The Prince, he cheerfully described Borgia’s murders, frauds, and hypocrisy, only pausing to comment, “having reviewed all the actions of the Duke, then, I would not wish to criticize him; rather, he seems to me worthy to be held up as a model.” Some explanation is required here beyond the observation that Machiavelli was complex man living in a complex age.

Perhaps the most plausible interpretation of Machiavelli’s contradictions, one that has circulated since his own time, is that the Discourses present his true opinions on politics while The Prince is a satire intended to expose the tyrant’s secrets. It condemns his anti-democratic enemies by accepting their premises and then pushing them to their horrible but logical conclusion, much as Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” refuted the economic theory of its time by showing that, on these principles, the Irish should solve their financial crisis by eating the children of the poor. This is how Jean-Jacques Rousseau interpreted Machiavelli, saying, “While pretending to teach lessons to kings, he taught great lessons to peoples. Machiavelli’s Prince is the book of republicans.”

Yet this view also has its shortcomings. None of Machiavelli’s surviving private letters indicate that he or his friends thought The Prince was a satire. Furthermore, the hero of the work is Cesare Borgia, and it seems that Machiavelli really did admire him and his unspeakable methods. His diplomatic reports about his meetings with Borgia, which certainly were not intended satirically, were even more fawning than The Prince. Indeed, soon after meeting Borgia for the first time, Machiavelli wrote a breathless essay, the title of which ran in part, “Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino When Murdering Vitellozo Vitelli.” The most famous picture of Machiavelli is Santi di Tito’s half-length portrait hanging in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The subject’s expression is alert, knowing, almost smiling, and completely inscrutable.

The easiest way to understand the contradiction is that in Machiavelli's day, in at least the instance he was examining, a tyranny could be perceived to be as effective a form of government as a republic. Not necessarily as "good," in moral terms, but as efficient as a form of government, or moreso, though it's easy enough for us, after five hundred years of subsequent experience with the two forms, to note that republics have rather easily outperformed tyrannies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 17, 2007 7:57 AM

Yes, quite so.

Remember, M was also an Italian nationalist. That dominates the final sections of the Prince, iirc.

And he held to the classical theory of cycles of gvt -- monarchy degenerates into tyranny, is replaced by aristocracy, which degenerates into oligarchy, and after popular revolution, democracy replaces it, only to degenerate and be replaced by monarchy. For him the only way to break this cycle was for the state to inculcate virtu in its people.

While M believed republicanism, as in the Discorsi, to be the best gvt of all, it was also clear that the only way to establish an Italian republic was for a strong man to seize power, establish a powerful nation-state, a state which could then inculcate the virtu necessary for a republic to eventually flourish, and to ward of the classical degeneration referred to above.

I've never understood the school of thought that claimed the Discorsi and the Prince were in opposition, or even in tension. It's really rather simple.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 17, 2007 8:54 AM

I agree with Jim. The Prince is less a treatise about domestic politics than how a prince conducts foreign policy and deals with traitors and spies. He wanted an Italy freed from the predatory influence of France and Austria, among others.

As the saying goes when one lives in a rough neighborhood, you can get more from a kind word and a gun than just a kind word. Machiavelli understood this. Most of his modern day critics do not.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at September 17, 2007 10:42 AM

I especially liked how the authors have trouble comprehending someone not aspiring to be an academic or the academic style...

Posted by: Benny at September 17, 2007 3:27 PM

Pretty much all you have to know is that the values-based polity surpasses while the so-called, self-proclaimed "scientific" "realists" or "supermen" or whatever they may call themselves, go under.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 17, 2007 4:31 PM