Niccolo Machiavelli: The Pragmatic Turn

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in May 1469 and died in June 1527, also in Florence. Machiavelli is the most important Renaissance political philosopher with great influence on contemporary politics. Machiavelli was a lawyer, a diplomat, statesman, and secretary of the Republic of Florence. His most famous work, The Prince, is still a textbook of political pragmatism. [1]

Machiavelli is a good thinker to follow Sir Thomas More. Like More, Machiavelli was not a professional scholar, but a person of practical affairs with an inclination to reflect upon the meaning and purpose, the strategies and tactics, the ultimate principles of his life’s work. Like Cicero, when out of favor, he wrote books, some of which can be seen as a partial defense of his ideas. If More represents the continuity of the Renaissance with the thought and values of the Ancient and Medieval worlds, Machiavelli represents a pragmatic break with previous thought, though how serious a break is a matter of debate. [2] After Machiavelli, political thought begins its journey into the modern world.

The Context of the Prince

Italy at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries (the boundaries of Machiavelli’s life) was unstable. In fact, what we know as “Italy” did not exist as a unified political entity. Its territory was divided into a series of principalities that were constantly at war with one another and constantly in danger of domination by the great powers of the day. The fact that Rome was the center of the Roman Catholic Church, and the geographic area we know as Italy was in the center of Europe, made control of the area attractive to foreign powers, especially France, Germany and Spain. Machiavelli’s home, Florence, was inevitably caught up in the intrigues and conflict both of the princes of Italy and the kings of Spain and France. In 1494, Pietro Medici made a series of diplomatic and political mistakes, which ended the rule of the Medici and brought into existence the Florentine Republic. In the end, the Florentine Republic backed France, and the result was a disaster in which Florence was aligned alone against all the other principalities of Italy.

The end of the Medici dynasty left Florence without an established constitution and form of government, open to any kind of intrigue. There were those who wished the return of the Medici.  there were those who desired an oligarchy of the best families. Into this cauldron of intrigue, the priest Savonarola took power for a time and pitted the poor against the rich in a time of religious rule. He was eventually deposed and executed as a heretic.

Into the political vacuum thus created came Piero Soderini and his chief secretary, Niccolo Machiavelli. In his new position, Machiavelli was the chief diplomat of Florence and had influence over its military policy. He was a practitioner of what we today would call “real politic,” or the concentration of political life on the acquisition and use of power.

The Roman Catholic Church, which might have made the situation better, unfortunately made the situation worse under a series of popes. [3] In particular, Pope Alexander VI conspired with the French for aid for his son, the ruthless and immoral Cesare Borgia.  Alexander hoped his son could carve out a central Italian principality.  Unfortunately, Cesare made enemies easily and died young, leaving this dream empty.  Alexander’s successor Julius II was just as worldly and conniving as Alexander had been, often taking the field himself against his enemies as he attempted to create his own papal empire.

It was Julius who finally ended the Florentine Republic.  With Florence allied with the French, Julius conspired for his Spanish allies take the city and hand it back to a Medici, a cardinal who soon after became Pope Leo X, and thus ruled both Rome and Florence. This event ended Machiavelli’s political career. He retired in disgrace and fear of imprisonment.

I have taken the time to set out this history so that readers can understand that Machiavelli’s approach to politics was profoundly impacted by the unstable times in which he lived, the mendicity of the Catholic Popes of the day, and the machinations of European politics generally and that of Italy in particular. [4]

The Prince

In 1512, the Medici family regained their power and position in Florence. Machiavelli was dismissed and faced exile from public life. Whether to ingratiate himself with the Medici’s and thereby regain his political standing or from a desire to make amends for the past, Machiavelli The Prince, dedicating it to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de Piero of Medici.” The book a handbook for politicians on the use of ruthless, self-serving cunning, inspiring the term “Machiavellian” and establishing Machiavelli as the “father of modern political theory.”

Unlike other such handbooks for princes of the period, such as Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince,” Machiavelli does not use his treatise to urge Medici to become a model Christian prince, but instead urges dramatic and effective action to eliminate the chaos of the Italian peninsula. In other words, Machiavelli’s expressed motivation is to remedy the difficult situation in the Italy of his day through the efforts of a strong ruler.

This is important in understanding exactly what Machiavelli is about in the book. As mentioned earlier, Machiavelli’s views were formed by his experience as diplomat with both influence over, and some responsibility for, military policy. Most of the writers we have considered thus far focused to at least some degree on the communal aspects of government and the responsibly of political leaders to seek the common good and provide a just society. In Machiavelli, establishment of a sound polity able to achieve the good of a unified and stable Italy is the goal, and Machiavelli assumes this goal to be in the best interests of the people. A good bit of the bitterness of the advice given in the book can be attributed to the political situation of Florence and the other provinces of Italy as Machiavelli perceives it to be in The Prince. [5]

Fortune and Ability in The Prince

There are two concepts that are central to understanding The Prince: Fortune (Luck or Chance) and Virtue (Ability). Leaders come to power in a variety of ways: through their own merit or as a result of the merit of others, through inheritance from their forbearers or through their own abilities and success, yet all of this inevitably involves Fortune.  Political leaders, whatever their ability, arrive in power and remain in power in the face of a chaotic reality, good fortune and bad fortune, which Machiavelli terms “Fortuna.” I want to call this aspect of reality, “Chance.” The opportunity to lead is given to some and denied to others. Once in power, most leaders will experience both undeserved success (or at least success greater than their expectation) and opposition, difficulties, failure, and challenge. These circumstances provide the test of the abilities and character of every leader, political and otherwise.

In the end, however, no leader remains in power without the ability to secure his or her hold on power. This capacity and ability to rule is what Machiavelli terms “Virtue.” Machiavelli’s “Virtue” is what the Greeks termed “Dunamis” or the power to achieve a political end. I will refer to this capacity as “Ability.” The virtues of a Machiavellian leader are those that enable him or her to acquire and retain the power to rule the state.

In this regard, the categories of Machiavelli, Fortune and Virtue bear some resemblance to the categories of chance and order that have been referred to in prior blogs. The world is filled with both principles of order and of chaos, and leaders must use the tools they are given to bring order out of chaos. What is missing in Machiavelli is the third category, what I have called Political Love, and what one in the Augustinian tradition might call the love of Justice and the Common Good. If I am correct in my own reading of Machiavelli, this is related not so much to his underlying beliefs about reality but to the situation in Italy to which he is responding. Justice, order, and love all led Machiavelli to the belief that drastic action was needed, action that would require unusual action.

A Hobbesian View of Human Nature

In order to begin to see Machiavelli from a Christian perspective, one must begin with his view of human nature. Christians view human beings as made in the image of God, of inherent nobility, but flawed by what Christians call, “The Fall’” that is our inherent tendency towards sin, violence, greed, selfishness and other character flaws. In Machiavelli, the nobility of the human race is submerged (as we shall see when we discuss Hobbes) and is replaced by an almost entirely negative view of human character. Thus he says,

For of men it may generally be affirmed that they are ungrateful, fickle, false avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; devoted to while you work for their good, and ready while danger is distant to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lives and their children for you, but in the hour of need they turn against you. [6]

The prince must govern with an eye both to the glory and the infamy of human nature.

The Nihilistic Maxims

I have already said enough to alert a reader that the traditional interpretation of Machiavelli may need reinterpretation in light both of his other writings and the historical context in which he lived. Nevertheless, it is his advice to a Prince that has ensured his place in history. Many politicians and political thinkers have read The Prince. It is said that Adolf Hitler kept a copy at his bedside. Religious leaders have sometimes condemned his thinking. Therefore, it is important to give this aspect of his thinking some consideration.

The first aspect is what I will call the moral limitations upon leaders. Every leader knows that solving institutional problems can and does often require compromise, some of which compromises are moral in character. For Machiavelli, the situation facing Italy was of such a nature, that success in the endeavor of unifying its polity was a supreme value justifying deceit and dissembling in a leader. Those who are familiar with the art of diplomacy know that deceit concerning the objectives of a state, such as the Japanese deceit before attacking Pearl Harbor, is a part of the “Great Game” that nations play. As the example just given illustrates, deceit can backfire, as it did upon the Japanese during World War II. Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule wisely if one’s opponents know of every move in advance and can easily predict what response will be made to a strategy. Political leaders must often use stratagems.

Perhaps more disturbing from a moral perspective is the advice of Machiavelli to a new prince to completely destroy the family of the one he is replacing. [7] This tactic, used to kill millions by various totalitarian regimes, is justified by the danger of the family (or group of leaders) being deposed to create difficulties or even overthrow the new prince. This maxim is only one among many in which Machiavelli seems to justify lying, deceit, subterfuge, violence, and even criminal behavior. There is no getting around this aspect of his thought, though it helps to see his thought in a broader context of the good he seeks for Italy and the character of the powers he faced.

A few of his more famous nihilistic maxims are as follows:

  1. A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise
  2. A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.
  3. If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.
  4. Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.
  5. It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
  6. A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy.[8]

One can see from these maxims why the name “Machiavelli” is associated with amoral power-seeking.

The Pragmatic Maxims

Often forgotten in both scholarship and in popular writing are the many maxims and advice in The Prince that are simply common sense and also moral in their content. I do not have time to set out all of them in this blog, but here are just a few:

  1. A wise leader is careful not to prematurely change laws or impact the freedom, property or rights of the people. [9]
  2. The importance of presence: A wise leader is seen and loved by his or her people. [10]
  3. Time and fortune govern the actions and fortunes of leaders and territories. [11]
  4. The wise leader should study history and emulate successful leaders of the past. [12]
  5. Fortune may bring a leader to power, but it is time, ability and merit that brings success in maintaining and using power. [13]
  6. A wise leader should cultivate “Fortunate Astuteness” that is an understanding of the accidents of history and wisdom in guiding the state. [14]
  7. It is dangerous for a leader to rely upon other powers, mercenaries or paid soldiers from another state. [15]
  8. The mainstay of all states are good laws and sufficient defensive power to secure its safety. [16]
  9. A wise leader is never idle, being always vigilant in the care of the state. [17]

In these and other of his maxims, there is nothing amoral, only the common sense of the ages.

Christian Faith and Church in Machiavelli

As previously mentioned, the Roman Catholic Church, which might have been an influence for good in Italy of Machiavelli’s day was not. Instead, it was a part of the problem. During the Middle Ages. the church became both rich and deeply involved in the rule of Europe. In addition, various popes attempted to carve out for themselves or their family a secular kingdom in Italy. Thus, instead of being an influence for wisdom and love among the warring powers, the church became one of the warring powers. In so doing, it gave up any semblance of moral authority.

This historic circumstance has a message for religious institutions of our own day: Whenever we curry favor with those in power or seek to have secular power or maintain our positions by means of alliances with secular powers, we open the door to a kind of corruption that can injure our witness and message for a long time. The distaste of the Renaissance and Enlightenment leaders for the corruption of the medieval church is with us today, 500 years after the offenses complained of began to be eliminated.

Conclusion

Machiavelli is a writer well worth reading for both practical and historical reasons. He is of continuing importance to contemporary politics, which is drunk with a concentration on power to the exclusion of morals. A close reading, including a reading of his other works besides The Prince, is a corrective to the amoral purely pragmatic reading which is most commonly given the work. The good and bad uses to which The Prince has been put is both an encouragement and a warning: we cannot go back to a time before the Modern Era and its preoccupations with power and control. We can only transcend it.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Niccolo Machiavelli in the Britannica Online at https://www.britannica.com/topic/republic-government (Downloaded December 9, 2020. Quotations are from The Prince are from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince tr, N.H. Thomas (New York, NY: Dover Thrift Edition, 1992).

[2] Though The Prince is his most famous book, he also wrote Discourses on Livy (1551) in which the classical elements of his thought are more prominent. As will become clear, my own reading of Machiavelli is more balanced than many. In particular, I do not think that Machiavelli eliminated the moral element in political leadership.

[3] In this part of the blog, I am reliant upon Steve Muhlburger “Italy in the Time of Machiavelli” (Nipsing University, History 2155—Early Modern Europe) https://uts.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/2155/MACH.HTM (Downloaded December 9, 2020). I have also relied upon Niccolo Machiavelli Biography (1469–1527) at www.biography.com (Downloaded December 13, 2020).

[4] In some ways, the rise of the American empire and the tendency of American political leaders to employ military force to achieve objectives is a similar result of the unstable and dangerous years of the 20th century, with two world wars, three very dangerous dictatorships (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Chinese Communism), and the emergence of nuclear weapons. America has increasingly become narrowly and simplistically “Machiavellian” in its foreign, domestic and military policies.

[5] Thus, I do not believe that Machiavelli supports the amoral search for and acquisition of power as many if not most of his interpreters and practitioners believe. Instead, the moral elements of power are submerged in the book because of the need that Machiavelli perceives for a strong ruler to unify Italy and end its endless conflicts and wars.

[6] The Prince, 43. See also, Andrew Curry, “Political Morality: Machiavelli Encouraged a Flexible Approach Five Centuries Ag, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/1999/01/13/political-morality-machiavelli-encouraged-a-flexible-approach-five-centuries-ago/9c023e26-a838-4095-a7d4-a6dbfcecf76f/ (Washington Post, January 13, 1999) (Downloaded December 15, 2020). This is an excellent article on Machiavelli’s thought.

[7] The Prince, 3.

[8] I took much of this from a school list because it illustrates what young people are taught about Machiavelli in a simplistic way in our schools. Machiavellian Maxims. I edited the maxims because some of them were not so much Machiavellian as revolutionary maxims, showing the way in which complex matters are presented to young people. http://washington.sharpschool.com/UserFiles/Servers/Server_871002/File/hoxiebe/2011-2012/Machiavellian%20Maxims.pdf (downloaded December 16, 2020).

[9] The Prince, 3, 11

[10] The Prince, 4, 11

[11] The Prince, 6

[12] The Prince, 12

[13] The Prince, 13, 15, 39

[14] The Prince, 24. This particular phrase is used in describing the leader who comes to power neither by heredity nor fortune alone, but by service to the state and the favor of the people. In a constitutional system such as ours, this is the kind of leader we should seek.

[15] The Prince, 17

[16] The Prince, 31

[17] The Prince, 39.

2 thoughts on “Niccolo Machiavelli: The Pragmatic Turn”

    1. Dear Dr. Walker:

      I have been thinking since my return from Ohio, I should come and see you when its possible. As to your question, historical judgements evolve slowly and initial judgments are always impacted by contemporary events.Time alters many judgements. My blog is intended to advocate a change from the kind of politics both of our parties have engaged in for some time, what I would call “modern ideological divisive politics.” I am attempting to set out a “politics of wisdom and communal love” that is post-ideological, if that has any meaning. One aspect of wisdom as a political virtue is the importance of leaders understanding the limitations on what they can accomplish and living within those limitations, which our leaders seldom do. One of the implications of a “politics of communal love” is that the supreme duty of a leader is to build a free community of mutual respect. Recent leaders have failed miserably at this. If I was grading the 20th Century Presidents only Roosevelt and Eisenhower are honors students in my class. As to Machiavelli, I think he might agree. I suppose I must ask him some day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *