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Why another look at Machiavelli? There is certainly no shortage; in the early fifties, Sir Isaiah Berlin calculated that the bibliography ran to some three thousand entries, and interest has not flagged in the past half-century. This enormous quantity of material is often of exceptionally high quality; my Italian edition of The Prince has a long introduction by Hegel–a great fan–and virtually every major political philosopher since the publication of The Prince has felt it necessary to write something on Machiavelli.
Such obsessive attention bespeaks an ongoing debate about Machiavelli’s meaning and his standing. Berlin counted twenty different interpretations, ranging from Machiavelli-the-Antichrist to Machiavelli-the-tortured-humanist. This will surely surprise most of those who read The Prince in school, since few of the great books are as clearly and unambiguously written as that one; it would also surprise Machiavelli, because most of his work is intended for men and women of action, above all for leaders: leaders of religions, of armies and of states, whether dictatorial or republican, of monarchies or democracies. He wants to spend his time in combat, on the battlefield or in the courtroom or the legislative chamber. He does not expect or desire to be carried off to scholarly libraries. He is concerned with the rules of power: how to get it, and how to use it.
There are several reasons for his continuing relevance. The first is his pitiless view of mankind. Like Galileo, who pointed his telescope at the planets instead of reasoning from abstract religious or philosophical principles, Machiavelli is interested in facts. His generalizations are based on the record of human behavior from the beginning. It isn’t good enough to read the newspapers, or watch television, and try to understand today all by itself. The serious study of the past provides the raw material for wise decisions today and tomorrow, since we are prone to the same kinds of mistakes our predecessors made, and we can emulate the great acts of past heroes.
Second, Machiavelli is looking at the modern world in its birth pangs, and he understands a great deal about its DNA. As Roger Masters tells us, the rules of warfare are changing, and changing dramatically. Prior to the Renaissance, the lord of a domain could protect himself against his foreign enemies by building a castle and a wall. If he were besieged, he could hire mercenaries or find allies to lift the siege, and in the meantime his walls would protect him and his subjects. But by the time Machiavelli rises to a position of great power in the government of Florence, gunpowder has become commonplace, and armies have artillery capable of blowing holes in the walls. When the enemy enters the breach, it may be too late to find allies or professional soldiers outside his domain; the lord’s survival depends on the willingness of his people to fight and die for him. Convincing people to do this is a political task, and requires methods of leadership unknown or, as Machiavelli would prefer, forgotten in the Middle Ages. That is why Machiavelli insists on national armies, not mercenaries, and he understands that soldiers in such armies need to be motivated. Dying for one’s country does not come naturally; it requires belief in the worthiness of one’s cause and the nobility of one’s leaders. Modern politics are born from this necessity, which we ignore at our peril. Enemies are always ready to march, or fly, or launch.
It is no accident that the men and women of the Renaissance devoted so much energy to the study of movement and changes of all sorts. Galileo’s insistence that the earth is not fixed, but moves in space, is of a piece with a military and political universe in turmoil, which is Machiavelli’s subject and constant refrain: things are changing, often violently. We shouldn’t need this reminder; after all, this century began with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and ended with the implosion of the Soviet Empire, with the end of colonialism and the defeat of the fascists thrown in for extras. In the past quarter-century alone, so many tyrants have fallen all over the world, that nobody can remember their names any more. (Can you name the last communist dictators of East Germany and Hungary?) Despite this history of violence and revolution, the vast majority of 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 like insurrection, revolution, assassination, and the like. You might have thought that this most bloody and turbulent century would have taught us that peace is not normal, and that it is best to prepare for the next war, to be sure of winning it with the least cost. No! 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 were sown before the defeated enemy’s body grew 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 the man or woman of action, and especially those who would lead great enterprises, to be ready at all times to change strategies and tactics. As Emerson said,
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.
On the eve of the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was asked by one of his generals to describe his strategy for the next day, so that in the event Wellington fell, the others would be able to carry out his master plan to defeat Bonaparte’s armies. Wellington was flabbergasted by the question. “If you want to know my plan,” he replied, “you must first tell me what Napoleon is going to do.” Wellington intended to win by watching what his enemies did, and then acting accordingly, a strategy entirely in keeping with Machiavelli’s view of the world.
The most successful leader, therefore, is always ready to move with the times. “Anybody wise enough to understand the times and the types of affairs,” Machiavelli tells us in one of his typical “good news/bad news” phrases, “would always have good fortune…(and) the wise man would rule the stars and the Fates.” The bad news is that there are no such men; sooner or later we’re all going to be at the mercy of stars and Fates. First, we can’t change our own natures. (So, if we’re poorly suited for the changed conditions, we’re doomed.) Second, successful people assume that the same methods that got them there will keep them on top. “It is this,” Machiavelli reminds us, “that causes the varying success of a man; for the times change, but he does not.” And not merely a man alone; “the ruin of states is caused in like manner.”
But flexibility and insight are not enough, not by any means, even for the greatest leaders. There is a wild card in this deck: luck. Machiavelli is an avid player of games. At the height of his power, the Florentine Government is overthrown by the Medicis and he is fired, jailed, tortured, and sentenced to a year in internal exile. Bad luck! In this unhappy circumstance, he spends half of every day in the tavern near his farm, gambling at cards and at a version of backgammon. Game players spend a lot of time courting Fortune, for, with the exception of a couple of board games (go and chess are the clearest cases) where the outcome depends almost entirely on skill, most games contain a significant element of luck, and it may well be decisive.
Machiavelli has spent a lot of time thinking about luck and leadership–it’s one of the things that makes him the first really modern man–and he’s not happy with his conclusions. He very badly wants to believe–and to convince would-be leaders–that a great leader can almost always be confident about his ability to win, provided that he’s carefully studied history and has mastered the lessons of brilliant advisers like Machiavelli himself. But he knows that some events are determined entirely by luck, not by blunder or brilliance. When that happens, leaders, even the greatest leaders, are swept along by the tide: “Fortune thus blinds the minds of men,” he ruefully tells us, “when she does not wish them to resist her designs.” Machiavelli is not talking about an occasional force that determines a particular roll of the dice or the bounce of a ground ball over the third baseman’s head at a crucial moment of a world series game. Fortune is capable of grand design and historic vision. She is what Darth Vader has in mind when he implores Luke Skywalker to join him to fulfill his…destiny.
Meanwhile, you’re in a fight. Whether you’re on the way up, striving to acquire greater power, or at the top, fighting to maintain it, you’re involved in struggle. Attentive historian that he is, Machiavelli knows that most human behavior has been bad, and the worst behavior has come from very powerful men. Leaders and would-be leaders are bloody-minded. Man, he tells us from the outset, is more prone to do evil than to do good.
The bloody-mindedness derives from ambition, and human ambition is unlimited. The struggle for power begins with the attempt to carve out a zone of freedom from others, and continues by extending domination over others. “First they seek to secure themselves against attack; then they attack others.” First comes the fight for survival. Once that’s been accomplished, man fights for freedom from domination, and then comes the “fight for ambition, which is so powerful in human breasts that no matter to what rank they rise it never abandons them.” We have seen this process in many of the new democracies after the fall of the Soviet Empire. Heroic anti-communists like Lech Walesa rather quickly developed a passion for power, and continued to fight, no longer for a cause, but for their personal advancement. After defeating the Czech Communist dictatorship, Vaclav Havel became an international hero, in part because he was a playwright who vowed to return to his literary endeavors after a brief period in government, but he is still in Prague Castle.
The goal is power, which means the domination of others, and the winners revel in it, savoring what Machiavelli calls “the sweetness of domination.” Power over others is addictive, stimulating the desire for more of it. The drive to expand is therefore built into all human institutions, and it’s an illusion, a potentially fatal illusion, to believe that your family, your country, your business or your team, once comfortably and successfully established, can live happily ever after. “It is impossible for a republic (or any other human institution) to remain long in the quiet enjoyment of her freedom within her limited confines,” he lectures us,
For even if she does not molest others, others will molest her, and from being thus molested will spring the desire and the necessity of conquests, and even if she has no foreign foes, she will find domestic enemies amongst her own citizens…
War, and Other Normal Things
War, then, and the threat of war, not peace, is the normal condition of mankind. Centuries like the nineteenth–when Europe experienced a rare interregnum of relative tranquility between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the outbreak of the First World War–are rare. Bloody conflicts are history’s leitmotif. Anyone who believes otherwise will most likely go to his ruin. Conflict is not the consequence of the rational pursuit of self-interest, either by states or individuals; it flows straight from the deepest wellsprings of human nature. It is not an aberration, nor does it come from a failure of understanding; it is an integral, inescapable part of what we are. Our challengers will not be charmed by sweet reasonableness, for they seek domination over us, not some kind of evenhanded negotiated settlement.
The urge for more, always more–we might almost call it an instinct, so strong is the impulse–overwhelms rational calculation. Leaders and other ambitious people fall in love with their dreams of grandeur, and are as blind to reason as any love-lorn suitor. Machiavelli, who falls in love often and enthusiastically, knows well that one cannot reason effectively with someone in a seizure of power lust any more than with a man in passionate pursuit of his beloved.
This being the case, all those noble efforts to prevent war by “educating” people to solve their problems peaceably, or by drafting treaties making war, or certain kinds of warfare, illegal, are not only destined to fail, but will actually make things even worse. 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. Nor is there any safety in trying to opt out of the game; quite the contrary. It’s better to be a winner yourself, because you will then dominate, which, for a while at least, means you’ve got at least one less enemy to worry about. Flavius Vegetius Renatus had it all figured out in the fourth century: “Let him who desires peace, prepare for war.”
That is why one of the leading Machiavellians of modern times, the Green Bay Packers’ legendary coach Vincent Lombardi, was right to say “winning is not the most important thing; it’s the only thing.” If we are dominated, it’s probably our own fault. William Shakespeare, who knew his Machiavelli well, put it in verse: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Those prepared to learn from Machiavelli never make this mistake. The young Francois Mitterrand, writing to his sister in 1938, the year Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler and abandoned Czechoslovakia to the armies of the Third Reich, drafted his life’s motto: “All leads to this: to win or to lose. As things never remain stationary, not moving means to begin to lose.”
Anyone who tells you the most important thing is how you play the game, just doesn’t understand, for you will be hailed no matter how you played…so long as you win. The replays may show that Michael Jordan travels on his acrobatic drives to the basket, but that doesn’t dim his glory or diminish the adulation of basketball fans. Movie stars rarely lead exemplary lives, but their beauty, wealth, and elegance–Machiavelli would call it grandeur–make them heroes. These are mild examples; the more important cases are political, of which the most dramatic are surely the greatest mass murderers of this century of mass murder, Stalin and Mao. When Stalin died, millions of Russians, the overwhelming majority simple souls, stood hour after hour in line to parade past the cadaver lying in state in the Kremlin. Rivers of tears were shed, and the chorus of sobs was incessant. Yet Stalin had ordered the murder of tens of millions of innocent Russians. A similar scene followed the death of Mao, who had caused even more to be murdered. It would be easy to write off these displays of emotion as spurious, the people fearing to be accused of insufficient adoration of the dreaded tyrant. Yet we know from first-hand accounts, many of them from men and women who later rebelled against the Communist tyrannies, that the grief was genuine, as had been the reverence toward the dictators during their years of grandeur.
This is not to say that there are no differences–even moral differences–between winners, let alone that there are no grounds for preferring one to another. There are differences, and Machiavelli has strong preferences that are, by and large, quite close to ours. His observation, like Lombardi’s and like Leo Durocher’s celebrated “nice guys finish last,” is aimed at those good people who would be leaders, and their troops and allies. He doesn’t want them to shrink from combat, no matter how dirty it may be, and so he reassures them: just do it. Win, and they’ll love you.
Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and the reverse is equally true. In many parts of the world, even today, political losers pay with their lives, just as surely as if they had been killed on the battlefield. In these conflicts, as in those where defeat means only loss of position or prestige, the winner owes much to the behavior of those who fight for, or alongside him, and no one is born with the desire to risk his life or his career for company, team, or country. Many philosophers believe that man is a political and social animal, for whom it is altogether natural to associate with his fellows and make common cause. Not Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s world–the real world of conflict, as described in the truthful history books–is like the past few years’ stories out of Central and East Africa: Hutus slaughter Tutsis, and millions of Tutsi refugees panic and run, producing misery, disease, and mass death from starvation. Aid arrives, the situation briefly stabilizes, and then reverses: the Tutsis, supported by fellow tribesmen from the marauding forces of Zairean insurrectionaries, now slaughter Hutus, who panic and run, producing more misery, disease, and mass death from starvation. Forget all that cheerful talk about spontaneous association. To get people to work together, let alone risk their lives for a common enterprise, requires tough, dirty, nasty work, the work of leaders.
And that’s only the half of it. Mankind, as the great novelist Stanley Elkin once remarked, can be divided into two rough categories, the livers and the let-livers. Machiavelli is decidedly a liver, sometimes even a high liver. His letters, like his days and nights, are full of scatological excursions, and he is widely admired as a party animal. Writing to a friend, he remarks that anybody reading their letters would first think they were “grave men, wholly concerned with important matters,” but then, reading further along, would discover that “we, the very same persons, were light minded, inconstant, lascivious, concerned with empty things.” He finds this thoroughly natural, even though some would be inclined to criticize them for their lack of thoroughgoing seriousness. “We are imitating Nature, who is variable; and he who imitates her cannot be blamed.”
While natural enough, this element of human nature is dangerous. As men indulge their sensual desires, the insatiable quest for more pleasure quickly becomes unbalanced, overwhelming judgment just as surely, and just as ruinously, as the unbridled quest for more wealth and power. The desire for more races wildly after pleasures of all sorts: food, sex, narcotics, alcohol (tobacco has barely arrived; the rich and powerful cigars that bear the name of Tuscany are of later vintage), music. Our sensual desires are vast, and are never far from our attention, even when we are dealing with the most profound subjects. It’s hard to stay focused, because temptation is all around us. In the throes of passion or the mire of self-indulgence or the sweet lethargy of indolence, man pays little heed to moral sermons or standards of good conduct. He will do anything–lie, cheat, steal, rape, kill–to satisfy his urges. No family, no business, and surely no nation or army can long withstand such a degradation of its component parts.
Here is a new threat. 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 eager to do ourselves in. Men are not only ambitious, they are also lazy, slothful, arrogant, dissolute, and self-indulgent. Machiavelli knows it well, for he’s surrounded by it, and in his weaker moments sinks enthusiastically into it. In one of his letters he speaks of Florence as “a magnet for all the imposters of the world.” Ambition takes us up, to build new institutions, create and accumulate more wealth, expand our domination and thereby make possible new countries, even empires. Once there, however, the spoils of victory erode our passion for more, and lead us into the paths of temptation. We are happy to succumb. Indolence, sloth, greed, and the other self-centered sins and vices, lead downward to disintegration, internal discord, and domination by others. The language tells us which is easier (as if we didn’t know): the climb up the hill of success is hard work, while the slide into the muck is effortless. History’s garbage bin is full to overflowing with men, enterprises, nations, and empires that achieved great success through years, decades, even centuries of great effort, only to rot from within, making them easy prey to their enemies. Sometimes the enemy isn’t 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 do you in; the other, just as dramatic, against your own decadent impulses. The greater your success in the first–which makes you stronger and richer–the greater your peril in the second–as your wealth and power provoke the ruinous tendencies of your nature, and the perilous envy of others. Not that there are no good men; There are, but they are not players in this drama. They don’t threaten your rise, or participate in the fall. Their virtue, unlike yours, is its own reward. You only have to worry about the ones you find on the battlefield, or those that drag you over the edge, and they are fighting for quite different rewards.
The best chance to triumph on the battlefield and resist the seductions of indolence and self-indulgence lies in virtue and discipline, the qualities of good soldiers. “A prince,” Machiavelli warns, “must have no other objective or other thought or take anything for his craft, except war,” meaning that the virtues of the warrior are those of all great leaders of any successful organization. Preparing for war makes you tough, and builds the qualities necessary for victory: cold, prudent judgment, alertness to changing conditions, bravery under fire, courage when challenged, solidarity with your comrades-at-arms, and total commitment to mission. Such preparation is physically and mentally taxing, leaving little time or energy for the enjoyment of luxury, and the good warrior is dedicated to advancing the common cause (“the corps, the corps” as MacArthur intoned in his elegant farewell speech). The force of arms goes hand in hand with good laws, good leadership, and good religion to maintain a sound and secure nation.
Not least, military preparation, as war itself, provides a real test of character, and so creates a pool of suitable leaders. “In what man ought the country to find greater faith than in he who has to promise to die for her?” Machiavelli asks rhetorically, and we have generally done quite well when we followed this advice: America has had moments of real glory under the leadership of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, all advocates of manly vigor, moral rigor, and prudence in the conduct of our national affairs. All became political leaders in large part because of the heroic qualities they demonstrated in wartime, and to those who like to believe that such men would have become great national figures in more tranquil times, Machiavelli shakes his head. “It has always been, and always will be, that great and rare men in a republic are neglected in peacetime.”
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. Machiavelli, as usual, dots the i’s and crosses the t’s: it’s not just that peace undermines discipline and thereby gives the destructive vices greater sway. 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.” This is Machiavelli’s variation on a theme by Mitterrand: the absence of movement is the beginning of defeat.
Not a pretty picture is it? Driven by ambition, unconstrained by any political or social instinct, unguided by a hidden hand, men fight for wealth and power, including states and empires. Once victorious, they degenerate, and leave their conquests and acquisitions open to domination by others or disintegration caused by the rot within. Rising or falling, human reason is overwhelmed by passions that make them behave no better than animals.
Nonetheless, Machiavelli insists that the proper mission of great leaders is to achieve the common good, to fashion good laws and enforce them. He has this on the highest authority: God himself. The act “most gratifying to God” is one that benefits one’s country, and Machiavelli is quite outspoken about the best form of government, openly calling for the overthrow of tyrants, and devoting the longest chapter of the Discourses to explain how to organize a successful conspiracy. 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 people are likely to make better decisions. “This common good,” he writes in the Discourses, “is observed nowhere but in a republic.” He goes further still, explaining that while the creation of a good state depends on one great leader or a handful of great leaders, “the people are superior in maintaining those institutions, laws, and ordinances, which certainly places them on a par with those who established them.” This in a chapter entitled bluntly, “The People are Wiser Than Princes.” And he praises free enterprise, private property, and minimal taxation:
All lands and all countries that are in all respects free…derive greatest profit. For there one sees greater population, because of marriages being freer, and more desired by men: because each one procreates willingly those children he thinks he can nourish, not worrying that (his) patrimony may be taken from him, and that one knows not only that they are born free and not slaves, but they through their virtue may become princes. Riches multiply there in greater number…
A Wattenbergian hymn! 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.'” Machiavelli’s notion of the good state echoes the Federalist: “When there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.” He is not up on his Madison and Hamilton, but he knows well that Sparta, which had a mixed constitution, lasted eight hundred years, a record.
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. It is why we are drawn to him still, half a millenium later, like moths to the killer flame. Statecraft and good leadership–that is, leadership on behalf of the common good–are contrary to human nature. Left to our own devices we will not recreate Pericles’ polis, we will spawn Liberia, Zaire, Bosnia, the Cultural Revolution, Auschwitz, and the Gulags. Therefore, we must not be left to our own devices, and anyone who undertakes to lead us into the common good is going to be in for a hell of a fight.
It is worth noting in passing that Machiavelli is the first spin doctor, stressing that it is important for the people to believe in the noble qualities of their leaders. The primary reason for this is the necessity of convincing men to die for the good of the state. Modern armies, raised from the populace, must be inspired, motivated, indoctrinated. This can best be accomplished by the effective use of religion, which completes the trinity required for a good state: good laws, good arms, good religion. Without religious belief, no durable state can be created, no effective laws can be established, and no effective army can be maintained. Not any religion, of course; only a religion that stresses the common good, and that inspires men to fight for it. Machiavelli believes Christianity contains these themes, but it has been corrupted. “Our religion…places the supreme happiness in humility, lowliness, and a contempt for worldly objects,” he despairs. A proper religion–as that of ancient Rome or Sparta–“places the supreme good in grandeur of soul, strength of body, and all such other qualities as render men formidable.” As Machiavelli understands it, Christianity teaches men to exalt and defend their country, and therefore a good Christian should be willing to fight for it. But the faith has been misinterpreted, the triumph of virtue is postponed to another life, beyond the here and now, and men are urged to accept their fate, no matter how great their misery.
Machiavelli’s favorite example and greatest hero is a quite different sort of religious leader: Moses. At God’s behest, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert towards the Promised Land. He leaves them briefly to climb Mount Sinai, where he receives God’s sacred commandments. Descending the mountain, he sees, with horror, the orgy around the golden calf. He smashes the tablets, and asks Aaron for an explanation, to which Aaron replies, “Let not thy anger wax hot; thou knowest the people, that they are set on evil.” We are by now familiar with this notion. Then comes the part that most people have forgotten, or never knew, but which Machiavelli knows well and appreciates:
Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: ‘Whoso is on the Lord’s side, let him come unto me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: ‘Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.’ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
Machiavelli does not put the execution of the three thousand in a purely religious context, but deals with Moses as the creator of a new faith and a new state. “Whoever reads the Bible sensibly will see that Moses was forced, were his laws and institutions to go forward, to kill numberless men.” No hypocrisy here (just overstatement); Machiavelli doesn’t pretend that the means used by Moses were good. He knows that somewhere in the shards of the broken tablets it says “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” He readily admits that the means are evil, but he insists that they are the only ones that work in those circumstances. From here flows the well-known list of terrible measures that can be deployed against dangerous and unruly subjects and other potential or actual enemies: lying, cheating, deceiving, killing, and so forth.
These evil actions are not, with rare exceptions, proper to the leaders of a good state, who Machiavelli charges with strict observance of the laws, and moderate behavior in all things. The evil actions are required in three distinct circumstances: when constituting a state in the first place; when removing an evil, tyrannical regime; and when rescuing a state that has sunken into the mire of corruption. These are the circumstances that correspond to Machiavelli’s primal scream that if the survival of the nation is at stake, nothing, no moral stricture, no ethical restraint, may be permitted to prevent men of valour from taking every possible step to prevent its destruction. In these circumstances, to do good–to play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, to adhere strictly to the Sermon on the Mount–is to guarantee the triumph of evil. Machiavelli expands on the earlier paradox: just as the quest for peace at any price invites war, and worse than war (defeat and domination by evil), so there are times when evil acts are the only way to achieve the common good.
And because good guys, left to their own devices, will not be tough enough, Machiavelli lays down the rules for leadership in a moment of moral and political crisis. The most fundamental of these–and the one that the current crowd, from John Major to Newt Gingrich, always get wrong–is that, if you’re forced to choose, it’s better to be feared than loved.
…men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.
This is easier said than done, of course; Machiavelli doesn’t underestimate the difficulties facing the kind of leader he’s looking for:
It will…be exceedingly rare that a good man should be found willing to employ wicked means to become prince, even though his final object be good; or that a bad man, after having become prince, should be willing to labor for good ends…
Things are rarely so bad that they can’t get worse. Machiavelli doesn’t want to replace a corrupt republic with an evil tyrant, although he knows that the corrupt republic will get there anyway if corrective steps are not taken. 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. As Machiavelli looks around him, he sees his own country sinking relentlessly into the mire. The clearest evidence of the rot is contempt for military virtue, which leads to fatal weakness in the face of foreign and domestic enemies, and encourages the very vices that undermine discipline and valor. What he sees, sounds suspiciously familiar to us. “If we occasionally see a king (at the head of an army, it’s) for the sake of pomp only, and not from any praiseworthy motive.” A photo-op, in other words.
When these indolent princes or effeminate republics send a general with an army into the field, the wisest order they think they can give him is never to risk a battle…
When Saddam Hussein challenged the American-established safe haven in northern Iraq last summer, and sent his armour against the Kurds and Shi’ites we supported there, Bill Clinton gave strict orders to our military commanders that our response had to ensure that there would be no American casualties, no planes shot down, no soldiers taken hostage. No risk, and therefore no victory. We launched a few cruise missiles from a safe distance, hit a few radar antennae, killed a few unlucky janitors, and went away. In Bosnia, thousands of American soldiers are under strict instructions not to engage, and not to take any risks, even to arrest indicted war criminals. So great is the concern that our men and women might get hurt that enormous intelligence resources have been diverted to the region, watching day and night for anything moving on the ground that might threaten our troops.
In The Art of War, Machiavelli describes a generation of Italian leaders just before they were crushed by ambitious foreign invaders:
They thought…that it sufficed for a prince in the writing-rooms of palaces to think up a sharp reply, to write a beautiful letter, to demonstrate wit and readiness in saying and words, to know how to weave a fraud…to keep many lascivious women around, to conduct himself avariciously and proudly, to rot in idleness, to give military rank by favor, to be scornful if anyone might show them any praiseworthy path, to want their words to be oracular responses, nor did these no-accounts realize that they were preparing themselves to be the prey of whoever assaulted them…
Anyone looking closely at Bill Clinton’s America must be struck by the clinical accuracy with which Machiavelli has described this president and the political elite, and the intimate relationship between personal corruption and the rejection of military virtue. Clinton combines a passionate frenzy for self-satisfaction, verging on “obsessive and compulsive sexual behavior,” with lifelong contempt for the military. This narcissistic and indolent prince is extremely reluctant to send armies into battle, and even when he feels he must, as in Iraq, he orders his generals to avoid casualties, and therefore any hope of victory.
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 is whether it is only corrupt leadership, 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–as in normal circumstances–is to renew and reinvigorate the state by good laws and good examples, thereby reasserting its first principles. Machiavelli believes this should be done at least every ten years in any case, because a decade suffices for leaders and populace to stray from the principles that made the enterprise successful in the first place. The nature of the remedy will vary, according to the virulence of the disease in the body politic, and the kind of state. The general principle is that the action by which the state is brought back to its first principles should be a dramatic one, for example taking a powerful figure 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, or religion, or association. Our periodic purges of corrupt politicians are just the sort of thing he has in mind, whether Watergate, or the Jim Wright or Dan Rostenkowski affairs. The Contract With America similarly meets Machiavelli’s standards, as do the periodic “Great Awakenings” that unleash waves of religious fervor and political vigor. As we seem to be in a new Great Awakening now, and as Whitewater and related investigations give hope for a new purge, we may recover from the latest bout of indolence and corruption, provided that the people have remained sound, and new, virtuous leaders emerge.
Things are much worse if the people have been corrupted, for in this case the laws themselves will be disregarded, unless you get “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.” The usual paradox: if a free society has been corrupted, it cannot be freely saved; only a single ruler with enormous power can carry it off, and even then, Machiavelli is none too sure that it can work. The lifespan of a single ruler is probably too short to accomplish such a task. In his study of history, he cannot find such a case, and he muses that, since the corruption of free institutions produces enormous inequality–by which he means inequality of treatment before the law–“to reduce the inhabitants to equality requires the application of extraordinary measures, which few know how, or are willing, to employ…
These are ominous words–“extraordinary” for Machiavelli always refers to acts of terrible violence–and underline the gravity of the task. Where to find a leader prepared to enter into evil and take extraordinary measures in the hope of accomplishing something that’s never been done, and may well be impossible? He is not optimistic, but he cannot shirk the challenge. He 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 isn’t going to be easy.
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (1841), “Self-Reliance.”
2. Discourses, Book I, Chapter XLVI.
3. Discourses, Book I, Chapter XXXVII.
4. Discourses, Book II, IX.
5. Franz-Olivier Giesbert, Le Président (Paris, 1990), 384.
6. The Prince, Ch. 14.
7. Discourses, I, 6.
8. Discourses, I, LVIII.
9. Discourses, II, 2.
10. Discourses, I, 2.
11. Discourses, II, 1.
12. Exodus, XXXII, 26-28.
13. Discourses, III, 30.
14. Discourses, I, 17.
15. Discourses, III, 9.
16. Art of War, Ch. 7.
17. See, for example, Paul Flick, The Dysfunctional President (New York, 1995).
18. Discourses, I, 17.
Michael A. Ledeen is a resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at AEI.
A Bradley Lecture onthe continuing relevance of the study of Machiavelli to modern politcs.
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