Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Political Philosophy

Assignment for the Class

Walter Russell Mead, who, judging by his long-form blog posts over the last several months, has been on a diet of an extra helping of Wheaties every day, has a long post up right now on Machiavelli.  Much of his discussion is accessibly excellent.   But along the way he also says this:

Machiavelli is not a prophet of nihilism.  His Prince (unlike Nietzsche's) isn't fighting simply for power.  He is fighting to for the right and the ability to build a state and to become a lawgiver.

Hmm.   Discuss, especially the "prophet of nihilism" sentence.

Discussions - 85 Comments

We discussed Machiavelli recently in my honors section of Western Civ, using Erasmus's EDUCATION OF A CHRISTIAN PRINCE as a counterpoint. Would you rather live under a Machiavellian prince or an Erasmian one? Consider that:

1. The ideal Machiavellian prince is feared, thus avoiding conspiracies against him. Result: it's a stable, orderly society.

2. The ideal Machiavellian prince avoids hatred, and the way to do this is not to interfere with his subjects' women and property. Result: property rights are secure.

3. The ideal Machiavellian prince conducts foreign policy with only the interest of his state in mind. Now this could be really nasty if the interests of the state are defined much differently than the interests of the subjects. But if the two are one in the same, then result: safety from foreign attack, and possibly increased wealth as a result of successful expansion and elimination of rivals.

Compare this to that goody-goody Erasmus, who wants his princes to do the right thing all of the time....

I have never really discussed either, so I am coming on this fresh and struggling. Help me, Anonymous, please.

Then our ruler becomes a sort of scapegoat, taking our sins upon himself, and therefore Christlike in a more human way since he does not have Jesus' god-ness/goodness in him? He cleverly bears the brunt of inevitable political sin and that is a virtue. If he were good he would repudiate that sin and approach the world as if all were good when they are not.

How awful in a system like ours where there is life after political death; once out of office out Machiavellian president has to live out his life with that murky virtue.

How wonderful and how awful all at once.

The teachings of Christ might persuade someone to avoid a political career; they offer only very incomplete guidance about how leaders should operate.

True enough ... when the teachings of Christ are taken as a list of rules. But they are not that, despite centuries of people trying to make them so. We are a legalistic species, it seems.

And so it seems was Machiavelli, or at least by Mead's reckoning: "He is fighting to for the right and the ability to build a state and to become a lawgiver."

Morality is in the laws, it seems.

That's why Machiavelli is not a prophet of nihilism ... there is great purpose in the pursuit of power to craft law ... if in fact one sees laws as the very source of morality. Because then one becomes a god. And that, as I understand it, is more a matter of narcissism than nihilism.

But I'm no philosopher. Don't even play one on TV.

Sorry, "Anonymous" was me.

Machiavelli was writing in early 16th century Italy (a geographical term then rather than a country), a place as divided and unstable as modern Lebanon. He was tired of seeing his homeland regarded as a plaything by Popes, Holy Roman Emperors, Kings of Spain and France, and any number of lesser European adventurers. (This is a point that comes out more in his DISCOURSES ON LIVY than in the more famous THE PRINCE.) He studied their behavior in the hopes that some statesman would arise who would drive out the foreigners and bring peace and order to Italy, and such a statesman could only do so by playing his enemies' amoral game. Italy, he believed, had seen too many "unarmed prophets" such as Savonarola, who burned with faith in Jesus Christ but who were easily swept away by the first armed force that came along.

Kate, you don't know how perfect that post is.

Look Machiavelli is about flexibility and knowing when to break promises. There is no set standard for how good you have to be, but you have to be good enough and true enough to hit them comming and going. It is about harnessing a table image. It is not true that you want to be feared, or at least not true that you want to be feared in every instance. Strenghs are weaknesses, and being feared is certainly a weakness. Fear doesn't avoid conspiracies, it breeds them. In fact if someone is feared you should find a way to kill them. Let loose a rabid lion and then handle it. It is more about providing a solution to fear, than being feared. You have to handle everything that can be resolved positively, and be able to pass off everything that will be handled poorly, then you have to be willing to come in and blame those who are perceived to be the cause of screwing things up, unless you feel like pulling a 180 and defending them by making a strong case for why your competitors (those you fear) were really the bad guys. There is no such thing as nihilism and sometimes you have to be willing to do good, in order to accomplish an evil which will lead to a good. It is only a question of vision and exogeneous circumstances.

Would you rather live under a Machiavellian prince or an Erasmian one? I suppose I would shade towards Erasmus in this strawman. I would rather live under the rule of law governed by reasonable standards and free from the capricious designs of the "farsighted" speculator statesmen. I think Germany in 2011 is the best run state, because it avoids certain propensities for Machiavellian excess. Our corporate law is out of control, and the defense industry is unchecked by constitutional restraints. What we lack in overt German Corporatism, we make up for in under the radar admin law gamemanship. Our middle class is fractured, our unions are squeezed, and even our most proggressive president has decided to run the country by bringing in boards of directors. Our executive branch is out of control and neither the courts nor congress can stop it, everyone is trying to be a prince, so we will never ballance a budget, and we are going to empirically test the immortal words of Vice-Prince Cheney in regards the extent to which deficits matter. Lets just hope Cheney was right.

Machiavelli was probably trying to do something like recover classical prudence, but it seems pretty clear that he rejects Aristotelian teleology. The only classical reference he makes by name (besides Livy) is Xenophon. His teaching resembles the Xenophontic teaching, but it is not the same, though this is not fully clear: the upshot of The Prince may be that one is dissuaded from involvement in politics. Like Cambyses, Machiavelli warns the reader that politics is brutal; not all men are political animals. There is a rare breed suited for it.

But ya, I remain somewhat skeptical of the 'Machiavelli = defender of virtue' line of thinking. If he is trying to restore classical virtue, he does not believe in any other part of the classical teaching. He explicitly denies the primacy of the best regime, for example. Paradoxically this may be what it takes to rekindle great-souledness.

John Moser, I do know what everyone knows about Machiavelli. I don't know him beneath that surface and reading The Prince a few times over the years as well as a couple of small things, pieces I scarcely remember.

But retaining civilization is a kind of virtue. We watched "The Book of Eli" last night. Gary Oldman plays a bad guy who is a post-apocalyptic, ruthlessly Machiavellian thug-boss of a town. When he is destroyed by the good guy, Eli, and his own desire to own the Bible that Eli carries, all of the relative civilization (complete with live-in library) that he has built becomes lawless and chaotic. His order was not altogether wholesome, but it was a kind of order that seemed better than none at all to us.

How can we deny the virtue in authority when it is opposed to lawless chaos? Which next makes me ask, would a Prince make us rein in spending or would he have to spread largess to remain in power?

My next reading was this: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703712504576239813477489114.html?mod=WSJ_newsreel_opinion

about Donald Rumsfeld and a suggestion to read this: http://www.rumsfeld.com/ and especially the document library, which is intriguing. I am going to read it with this in mind:

Today, the shadow of Machiavelli hangs over American foreign policy debates. Wilsonians generally believe that one must do good to do well. If we want to build a world of law abiding nations that respect human rights, we must set an example. We cannot break the laws of nations to rid ourselves of people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Our CIA must not assassinate foreign rulers. We cannot keep our enemies prisoner in violation of the laws. We cannot lie or bribe; we must be better than those we fight. Machiavelli would not agree. While we should not do any of these things gratuitously, there might be times when we should not only do these things, but not be ashamed to have it known that we did them. The mullahs of Iran will not love us no matter what we do; perhaps it would be healthy for them to fear us.

Kate, I would refer to you The Prince, XVI.

What do you mean by the statement that Machiavelli rejects Aristotelian Teleology?

I assume and agree that Dr. Mosier is correct on the historical milieu of Machiavelli.

But Aristotle defines the constitution as “a certain ordering of the inhabitants of the city-state” He also speaks of the constitution of a community as “the form of the compound” and argues that whether the community is the same over time depends on whether it has the same constitution.

How rigid do you want to make the Teleology if the constitution is different?

Aristotle is not Plato. I do think that Mead might be in Book III and IV of the politics. The thing is even this is excessive utopianism. Aristotle I think explicitly denies the primacy of the best regime. The split between Aristotle and Machiavelli is simply one that is dependent upon where they are in time.

The idea that any of our presidents are bad per se is simply wrongheaded. Rather in order to rule they must relly upon intel and experts. Keynes was right about the dominance of philosophers and economists to a point.

Interestingly enough Keynes greatness was not itself reduceable to a formula, but it was. And scholastics continued to argue that Keynes actually believed that Monetary policy was powerless...but Keynes never actually believed that, or would not have outside of a particular financial order. Indeed Keynes, like Aristotle and Machiavelli and perhaps Bismark all built out from a sense of the constitution, and ment to test theory, economic or otherwise against practice.

In otherwords Keynes was great because he was a speculator. At first he simply applied his theories and went long the U.S. dollar and short the Mark and Franc. He made a bunch of money, but then was whiped out. By selling his book to fools he made enough money to keep trading. He basically learned that “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” This lead Keynes to an advanced set of theories, none of which was actually scaleable, to include his complex judgement of why the Treaty of Versailles was wrong headed. Due in part to this error he came out with a scalable solution to unemployment and aggregate demand, and helped establish Bretton Woods. To some extent one could say in the Aristotelian sense that Keynes and Churchill belonged to an age of Aristocracy, that was moving towards oligarchy, with a semblence of polity moving towards democracy.

I am not sure how this helps, but it doesn't seem very true that politics is brutal or that men are not political animals. Modern politics is not actually brutal at all, in fact our corporatism or oligarchy with its mixture of polity and democracy is by all historical(constitutional) standards one of the best regimes. I am not actually sure that Germany is better than the U.S., in fact I have good reason to believe that folks are always misguided by foreign conditions. Our Labor law might actually be near perfect, our corporate law and tax law seems to have problems, that the Germans have in other areas less consequential for the flourishing of a polity.

Let's just leave the status of the best regime in classical thought in an ambiguous state, because even that is beside the point on this. What I'm saying is that it would be hard to argue that Machiavelli sees any telos in nature, let alone human nature. Last I checked, Machiavelli did not think nature oriented and determined how one ought to live. Unless beating nature into submission is somehow Aristotelian?

"Modern politics is not actually brutal at all, in fact our corporatism or oligarchy with its mixture of polity and democracy is by all historical(constitutional) standards one of the best regimes."

I'll definitely grant you that, but then we mean something completely different by best regime, and furthermore we mean it is an 'effective regime.' I'm not sure than any except a few could live in Plato's best regime, for example. But that is not evidence that his regime was not best by nature, which is to say in the thing's perfected state.

And let's not forget that we had to get through several of the most brutal events in human history to even get to the point where we could (likely tentatively) say that modern politics isn't brutal.

Perfect! Thank you.

But that chapter does say, "spending what is someone else's does not take reputation from you, but adds it to you; only spending what is your own harms you." and if he is correct, we have cause to despair over the coming budget fight.

Very interesting. I had a prof. who taught that Machiavelli was an amoral atheist who wanted to destroy all conceptions of virtue and Christian belief. I had another prof. who believed that Machiavelli simply wanted political right to be divorced from religion--something along the lines of the First Amendment. He also argued that Machiavelli did have a natural teleology--see The Prince, Book XIV. And Strauss said that the US was the first country to be founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles.

My question has always been this: how should one view Machiavelli in light of the principles of the American Founding? Are the principles of the founding truly a rejection of all Machiavellian teachings?

Your proffessors gave you outlooks based upon moral biases. On protestant grounds Machiavelli is a prophet of Nihilism. On Kantian grounds Machiavelli is a prophet of Nihilism. It was the Machiavellian aspects of Catholicism that caused Luther to nail his Ninety-five theses to a church door. Thus was Germany born early, and from this the myth of the Faustian Bargain and Faust, and part of what Machiavellian Prince Bismark would flame to distinguish himself from catholic monarchs.

For contrast I think Dr. Mosier could have used Luther instead of Erasmus.

Today in simple terms the good objections of Don in AZ.

Also Kate has it seems to me a rather wild Faustian view of politics. We make a deal with the devil, and politics is the Cathedral of Lucifer. Dearly beloved we gather here today to hear the long litany of lies and political half truths, in reliance upon Christian Scripture which teaches us that satan was the prince of lies. What is to say that politics couldn't be recast as a form of devil worship?

I don't technically think americans buy this, I think the poll showing that independents would prefer Charlie Sheen vs. Palin shows to a certain extent that we aren't really buying the threat of Hell fire as a reliable check upon executive power. Palin is christian, she won't screw us! Even if you think Bush and Cheney were right, I still can't feel sorry for them when the true believers hunt them around the globle, seeking juridiction. It is rather amusing.

The founding might also be anti-machiavellian, in that the politicians should fear the people. But I believe it is also anti-machiavellian in the sense that reason should replace fear. It is important that the progressives are trying to get jurisdiction on Bush and Cheney, and not trying to assassinate them. But it seems to me if you piss these folks off, they might get Machiavellian and go weather underground on you. A gang of intellectual assassins is a motif, in fiction. Far more common however are simple gangs of the more catholic mafia sort, the actual Mafia, the Latin Kings. These gangs have more in common with Machiavelli, but naturally the glue that holds together crime is "Loyalty", this sense of "loyalty" is opposed to the concern with "truth and facts". In this sense Julian Assange is the prophet of Machiavelli's Nihilism.

That is the check against fascism from liberalism and the rule of law is actually a commitment to the positive truth. This is also why you are having a hard time finding good analysts, and the good generals that listen to them impartially, are starting to rebel. Even the Generals are not seeing the "forest from the trees", they are looking around they are seeing things, and they are blowing the whistle on corruption, and disagreeing on policy.

The United States was founded upon the Jeffersonian principle of Honesty, which he said was the first chapter in the book of wisdom, and a lot of the checks and ballances that lawyers create are created to restrain Machiavellians. On the other hand and paradoxically the 4th and 5th ammendment respect a level of humanity and loyalty and privacy. It is amazing that despite Miranda Rights, 80% of suspects will wave these rights, even if we are not a religious people, there is a deep seated desire to have a clean slate, or at least to spin out a story when cornered. It is almost always a horrible policy.

Machiavelli preached flexibility, there is nothing more that can be said about Machiavelli that isn't an attempt to defang him with a teleology he must follow that respects "due process."

Indeed Machiavelli teaches that all the teachers of the prince are "Imams". The "prince" is "Imamless", and only has to obey the important ones. You silly academics think you can unleash this Machiavellian prince upon america, you will all be left weeping like Chemerinski, and highly dependent upon the most enlightened statesman, left clinging to a complete line of puffery that isn't the least bit scalable.

On the other hand this is just "rhetoric", or "copyright", or "intellectual dominon" the prince doesn't have to obey it, and actual policy isn't based off of how the thing is sold to the people. The prince is he who determines what in the constitution of the people, the nation, and the world(with globalism) he must obey.

Just how close Obama is to playing the machiavellian prince?

John, they may have taught with a 'moral bias,' but that seems impossible to avoid. Heidegger, for example, still depended on Christian categories. To try to avoid a moral bias ends up producing another bias: this is what the social sciences tried to do. That's Strauss 101.

Mike, I would consider the 'separation of powers' and the like from the Discourses. Then again, even in this NM is opposed to the Founders. For NM, the separation of powers is all about balancing the two "humours" of society: the rich and poor. Madison tried to handle this question in Federalist 10, for what is the most obvious manifestation of the majority faction but the coming together of the many poor?

Madison's answer to this problem is way different than NM's. NM seems to favor throwing the many a bone once in a while to keep them appeased. Give them a tribune or something.

Madison tries to create a diverse variety of interests so that there are far more than 2 humours - and the more different humours there are, the better because the less likely a united majority will emerge.

And I think the question of acquisition in both cases is another instance where the Federalists/Founders and NM diverge. To be sure, both encourage acquisition. But I think NM sees wealth as zero-sum, whereas the Lockean uses conventional instruments in order to lift all boats with the rising tide.

You know how it is to be using your writing to try to figure something out.

It seems to me that Machiavelli suggests Faustian bargains, as if a ruler must nourish the worst aspects of his nature, but that's all right because it will be for the greater good. But as I said, I was never in a classroom where anyone told me what to think. I have only read and drawn my own conclusions. And I am doing that with Mead, too.

My dad used to tell me to expect the worst from everyone so I would never be disappointed and Machiavelli seems to have the same attitude. Heck, it's a point of view. Our Founders were much more hopeful, but not silly about that.

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link wheel shows us that the coming era of A.I. (i.e., artificial "intelligence") is not going to be grim and scary as in the Kubrick movie of the same, but delightfully ridiculous.

Lot's of stuff to tangle with in the thread and post above, but I'll leave it at saying the most practical starting point for thinking about Machiavellianism in politics and particularly in foreign policy, without getting endlessly sucked back into the question of what Machiavelli REALLY meant to teach, is the 1943 Raymond Aron essay "French Thought in Exile: Jacques Maritain and the Quarrel over Machiavellianism." (available in the Defense of Political Reason collection) See also chapters 19 and 20 of Aron's Peace and War.

John, the cc. w/ Erasmus sounds to be a fruitful teaching tip. thanks...

...I'll also tip teachers off to the Great Books and Film website, particularly its material on The Bronx Tale.

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