Machiavelli for Moderns
AEI Newsletter

Resident Scholar Michael A. Ledeen delivered the ninth of AEI's 1996-1997 Bradley Lectures on May 12, 1997. Excerpts follow.

Why another look at Machiavelli? There is certainly no shortage of analysis; in the early 1950s, Sir Isaiah Berlin calculated that the bibliography of such works ran to some three thousand entries, and interest has not flagged in the past half-century.

There are several reasons for Machiavelli's continuing relevance. The first is his pitiless view of mankind. Machiavelli is interested in facts. His generalizations are based on the record of human behavior from the beginning. The serious study of the past provides the raw material for wise decisions today and tomorrow. We are prone to the same kinds of mistakes that our predecessors made, and we can emulate the great acts of past heroes.

Second, Machiavelli looks at the modern world in its birth pangs. Before the Renaissance, the lord of a domain could protect himself against his foreign enemies by building a castle and a wall. But by the time Machiavelli rises to power in Florence, gunpowder has become commonplace, and armies have artillery capable of blowing holes in the walls. The lord's survival depends on the willingness of his people to fight and die for him. Dying for one's country does not come naturally; it requires a belief in the worthiness of one's cause and the nobility of one's leaders.

War and Other Normal Things

Most Americans believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind and are constantly astonished (and sometimes quite annoyed) at outbreaks of war or more limited forms of violence such as insurrection, revolution, and assassination. Each time, the armed forces have been dramatically reduced, the "boys" have been "brought home," and the public has largely lost interest in foreign policy, believing that this time, at long last, a stable peace has finally been established. In this unfortunate manner, the seeds of the next catastrophe are sown before the defeated enemy's body grows cold.

Machiavelli knows better. The tempo may vary from moment to moment, but stability exists only in the grave, not in this life. It therefore behooves men or women of action, and especially those who would lead great enterprises, to be ready at all times to change strategies and tactics.

War and the threat of war, not peace, are the normal condition of mankind. The urge for more, always more--we might almost call it an instinct, so strong is the impulse--overwhelms rational calculation. Those who pursue peace at all costs and do not take the necessary steps to defend themselves against the next attack risk something even more terrible than fighting: defeat in war and domination by their enemies.

We are not only menaced by enemies, within and without, eager to remove us from power, take our riches, and dominate us, but we are all too ready to do ourselves in. Sometimes the enemy is not even necessary; the rottenness is sufficient to produce ruin all by itself.

So two wars have to be waged: one with the real weapons of the battlefield or the figurative ones used in political, athletic, or business competition, against those trying to subdue us; the other, just as dramatic, against our own decadent impulses. The greater our success in the first, which makes us stronger and richer, the greater our peril in the second, as our wealth and power provoke the ruinous tendencies of our nature, not to mention the perilous envy of others.

Peace thus, paradoxically, increases our peril, by making discipline less urgent, encouraging some of our worst instincts, and depriving us of some of our best leaders. If we actually achieved peace, "indolence would either make [the state] effeminate or shatter her unity; and the two things together, or each by itself, would be the cause of her ruin."

Not a pretty picture is it? Nonetheless, Machiavelli insists that the proper mission of great leaders is to achieve the common good, to fashion good laws and enforce them. Despite his infamy as the tutor of dictators, he favors republics and does so for reasons we can now understand: a single ruler is more likely to be corrupted by wealth and power than the people, who will have less of each, and the single ruler will be more likely to advance his own interests than those of the whole state. The worst government is tyranny. The good state is one in which as many people as possible have maximum freedom and power, for "it is not without good reason that it is said, the voice of the people is the voice of God.'" It has been done in the past, so we can do it again today. The only thing standing in the way is man himself.

This is the insight that has made Machiavelli so challenging. Statecraft and good leadership are contrary to human nature. Even the best states--republics with mixed constitutions that give great freedom to the people--are subject to the deadly corrosive force of man's rotten nature.

Contemporary America

America today seems to fulfill Machiavelli's description of the good state headed downward. Created in war, led by a generation of remarkable founders who instituted good laws under a mixed constitution, inspired by religious belief that has traditionally reinforced Americans' willingness to risk all for the defense of their country, supported by a Puritan tradition that warns against the dangers of excess and stresses the value of self-discipline and dedication to the common good, this country now finds itself led by a president whose behavior mocks the very notion of virtue. The central issue for Machiavelli would be whether only the leadership is corrupt or whether the rot has extended down into the populace at large.

If it is only a matter of corrupt leadership, then things can probably be set aright by good leaders. Their primary task would be to renew and reinvigorate the state by good laws and good examples, thereby reasserting its first principles. The action by which the state would be brought back to its first principles should be a dramatic one: taking a powerful figure, for example, and subjecting him to merciless punishment, or passing a new law that either cracks down on those who have deviated from proper norms or eliminates procedures that undermine the state's basic principles, or elevating to a position of great power one who has shown exemplary devotion to the founding principles of the state.

Things are much worse if the people have been corrupted, for in this case the laws themselves will be disregarded unless there is "a leader of such supreme power that he may cause the laws to be observed until the mass has been restored to a healthy condition." Paradoxically, if a free society has been corrupted, it cannot be freely saved; only a single ruler with enormous power can do so, and even with such a figure available, the effort may not succeed.

Where to find a leader prepared to enter into evil and take extraordinary measures in the hope of accomplishing something that has never been done and may well be impossible? Machiavelli writes a book that both lays out the requirements for such a leader--the new prince--and serves as a recruiting poster. He calls for those who care about their country to risk everything, even their immortal souls, to achieve power and lift their people out of the moral slime into which they have fallen.

It is not going to be easy.

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