Machiavelli’s Morals

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Ultimately, Machiavelli’s approach to the relationship between politics and morality puts us face to face with the question of why, exactly, governments must resort to immorality in order to survive—especially if their subjects expect them to be moral. Machiavelli provides the answer in the same chapters of The Prince in which he advises the ruler to violate moral principles while pretending to personify them. Immediately after stating that the ruler must emulate the fox and the lion, Machiavelli contends that all this would not be necessary or even advisable “if all men were good.”51 But this is not the case. Machiavelli attributes to subjects the same traits he recommends to their ruler: They, too, are “pretenders and dissemblers” (but not “great”). And because they “do not observe faith to you, you also do not have to observe it with them.”52 In Machiavelli’s view, a ruler is not being immoral when he preempts his would-be betrayer by betraying him first. Man’s nature makes him prone to betraying his fellow; his only true loyalty is to himself. The problem of betrayal is therefore a general one, not confined merely to the relationship between ruler and ruled. Machiavelli’s position is therefore infinitely pessimistic: “For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good....”53

Politics derives from the nature of man as he is, not as he ought to be. The real problem, then, is not with politics, but with its objects.54 There are, unquestionably, good men, but not enough to refute Machiavelli’s political calculus. “For one can say this generally of men: That they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children… when the need for them is far away; but, when it is close to you, they revolt. And that prince who has founded himself entirely on their words, stripped of other preparation, is ruined.”55 Machiavelli’s political writings, literary works, and correspondence leave no doubt as to the depth and centrality of his anthropological pessimism.56

It should be added here that when Machiavelli uses the word “evil” and equivalent expressions to describe human nature, he does not have in mind some pathological need to hurt others. The wickedness about which he speaks consists, rather, of selfishness, ambition, envy, fear, and avarice. But men tire not only of evil; good, too, quickly becomes dull and irritating. Men worry when things are bad and are bored when they are good, and both these sentiments lead to the same result: When men are not compelled to fight, they fight out of ambition—a hunger that can never be satiated. “Nature has so constituted men that, though all things are objects of desire, not all things are attainable.”57 Hence men are always malcontent, subject to the tension between limited resources and unbounded ambition.

This view of human nature informs Machiavelli’s entire political teaching. Since men are by their nature both ambitious and selfish, it is impossible for them to build a society based on goodwill and genuine mutual recognition. Machiavelli’s views differ markedly in this regard from those of the ancient philosophers. According to Aristotle, for example, man is a social animal who fulfills himself through active involvement in the political commonwealth to which he belongs. To Machiavelli, however, man is essentially a beast, and the rational faculty he possesses is geared to attaining his own ends. Accordingly, virtue is a means and not an end. Man’s needs, desires, appetites, and fears are his main incentives to action, and not the conditions of the society in which he lives.58

Human solidarity and world peace are on this account no more than utopian concepts that endanger those naïve enough to believe in them. Successful politics may at best create domestic harmony in a given society,59 although such harmony almost always comes at the expense of another society. Though it is impossible to eliminate the evil in a society, this evil can at least be channeled toward other societies. “Ambition uses against foreign peoples that violence which neither the law nor the king permits her to use at home (wherefore home-born trouble almost always ceases).”60 The Roman republic, for instance, owed its greatness in part to the ability to channel outward the energies that otherwise would have created internal friction.61 It is the nature of the world, concludes Machiavelli, that men cannot ensure their security except by force.62

In such a world, moreover, no human society is truly secure, for there are always internal and external enemies that lie in wait. These dangers are not happenstance, but spring from the nature of man. Indeed, men themselves are the main reason for the instability of their world, and for the danger that constantly threatens their social order. Every society, every state, is ultimately doomed to decline. Nor are failure and weakness the only causes of a society’s demise. Prosperity, too, can lead to ruin, for it produces the illusion of security, which is always false. Such societies unfailingly lapse into the complacency and arrogance that lead in turn to a decline in personal discipline, a reduced willingness to obey laws, the abandonment of the general good, and, finally, a bitter end.63

The primary cause of this atrophy cannot be eliminated, since human nature cannot be changed. It is nonetheless possible to forestall the inevitable and extend the life of a society. The way to do this—to revive a society that has fallen into the depths of political impotence—is to bring it back to its first principles: To the fear and the need for security that once prevailed among its citizens. Thus Machiavelli estimates that about once in ten years, harsh measures must be taken against those who pose a threat to the state, thereby sowing fear in the hearts of men and curbing their desire to give vent to their passions.

The struggle for survival is pitiless, and even the most impressive success cannot endure forever.64 But the alternative is worse. Consequently, politics must address the ingrained human urges that threaten to demolish the social order from without and to subvert it from within. Thus, if for Aristotle, the objective of the state was to enable men to realize their human potential, for Machiavelli it is to prevent them from doing so.


The state, then, is a means to an end, not an ultimate value. For if it were a supreme end in itself, Machiavelli would not, as we have shown, have described as “evil” the means required to preserve it.65 Nevertheless, if a prince “wins and maintains his state, the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar; the few have a place there when the many have somewhere to lean on.”66 That is to say, the masses that expect a ruler to behave morally are the very same masses that will applaud immoral behavior if it results in political success. Thus we see that moral principles do not reign supreme. A hierarchy of values, with politics at the top, is a necessary consequence of the fact that morality presupposes politics.

Machiavelli maintained that the distinction between good and evil originated with the coming together of men in a political association.67 Politics is the necessary foundation of morality.68 If there is a tragic dimension to the relationship between the two, it is to be found precisely here: On the one hand, politics without moral sanction is liable to deteriorate into a destructive tool for the advancement of private interests that have nothing to do with the general good. Politics of this sort will create precisely the kind of situation that it was meant to avoid. On the other hand, giving the demands of ethics pride of place endangers the political order that safeguards morality.69

The real Machiavellian distinction, then, is not between politics and morality, but rather between a moral politics—that is, a politics that is subservient to moral codes and is therefore itself a threat to the very conditions which allow morality to exist—and political morality, which is to say, a morality that makes room for Machiavellian virtù. Machiavelli is not an enemy of morality as such. More than once he expresses his wish that men behave according to conventional moral norms; that is, that they be honest and decent.70 Yet he is undoubtedly an enemy of those ethical principles that are likely to thwart fundamental political objectives, and in so doing to destroy the essential basis for moral, civilized behavior. It is a deeply human paradox that politics has often to behave as if the morality that depends on it is neither a relevant consideration nor a significant goal.

For this reason, political morality of the type envisaged by Machiavelli is not a stable system. There are no universally applicable rules of conduct. And if one has to judge anew in every situation whether it is necessary to violate the conventional moral laws, then moral behavior is, in effect, a matter of expedience. Moreover, the nature of politics makes these situations fluid, and the dilemmas they present even more complicated: The instability and uncertainty that are characteristic of politics renders behavior that does not conform to a recognized moral code nothing unusual; it is frequently not easy to draw a clear distinction between “ordinary” political situations—in which people behave in an acceptable and predictable fashion—and “extraordinary” political situations that necessitate unusual measures. To Machiavelli, the life of a political community is indeed in a permanent state of crisis.71 The relevant distinction is not between security and danger, but between a present danger and a latent one. There will therefore always be a need to resort to “immoral” means in order to survive. It thus follows that the threat to ethics posed by politics is a permanent feature of human life. It is a rare thing when a society achieves extended periods of security and stability; then it may transpire that morality will take over. Yet, as Machiavelli points out, history shows that such situations are not just exceptional, but rife with dangers of their own.72

Machiavelli’s conclusion is clear enough, and is presented in moral terms: In a dangerous world filled with people keen to exploit the weakness of others, it is impossible to base morality on morality. In such a world, conscience invites abuse just as weakness invites aggression.73 Without the willingness to use what conventional morality would consider wrongful means, it is impossible to guarantee its survival. “I would like to find one who will teach them the way to go to the devil,” Machiavelli wrote on his mission to recruit a preacher for the Florentines, “For I believe that the following would be the true way to go to paradise: Learn the way to hell in order to steer clear of it.”74

Evil can never be eliminated, so one must know it in order to deal with it properly. Machiavelli does not—indeed cannot—draw a clear line between the moral and the immoral.75 He is well aware of the peril inherent in the fact that in the life of a state it is impossible to achieve good results without recourse to “evil” means. As he explained in the Discourses, a state whose political spirit has wilted, whose institutions have ossified, can be saved only by extraordinary and cruel means. It is difficult, however, to find a good man willing to use such means. Rather, it takes an evil man to succeed in that enterprise, but then it is difficult to believe that such a man, after he has imposed order, will suddenly begin working toward the common good.76

If Machiavelli’s is a morality without a stable foundation, that is because it is grounded in politics itself, which is in constant flux.77 It is a morality without definite rules, without a transcendent moral underpinning; it has neither an Archimedean point nor an unbending framework. Our only guide is politics, and the imitation of the lion and the fox.

Hillay Zmora is a senior lecturer in history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and a Contributing Editor of Azure. He is the editor of a new Hebrew translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince (Shalem Press and Dvir, 2003).

1. Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, trans. Laura F. Brandel and Harvey C. Mansfield (Princeton: Princeton, 1988), III 13, p. 123.

2. For a comprehensive interpretation of this passage see Gennaro Sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1993), vol. ii, pp. 312-330. [Italian]

3. Benedetto Croce, Politics and Morals, trans. Salvatore J. Castiglione (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945), pp. 59-60. See also Norberto Bobbio, “Ethics and Politics,” in Praise of Meekness: Essays on Ethics and Politics, trans. Teresa Chataway (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), pp. 39-71.

4. Isaiah Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli,” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (London: Hogarth, 1979), p. 45.

5. In this context it is worth noting that Leo Strauss defended the popular conception. See Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958), p. 10.

6. Brian Richardson, “‘The Prince’ and Its Early Italian Readers,” in Niccolò Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Martin Coyle (Manchester: Manchester, 1995), p. 35.

7. William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3, Act III, Scene 2.

8. Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1967), p. 74. See also Daniel A. Doneson’s review of The Dialogue in Hell later in this issue.

9. Mark Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton: Princeton, 1983), pp. ix-x, 219-256.

10. See Emanuele Cutinelli-Rèndina, Church and Religion in Machiavelli (Pisa: Instituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 1998), especially pp. 183-184, 201-252. [Italian] See also Irving Kristol, “Machiavelli and the Profanation of Politics,” in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Free Press, 1995), pp. 151-164.

11. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses II 2.

12. Berlin, “Originality of Machiavelli,” pp. 25-79.

13. Berlin, “Originality of Machiavelli,” pp. 52-53.

14. See Vittorio Hösle, Morals and Politics: Foundations of the Political Ethic for the Twenty-First Century (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1997), p. 41. [German] See also Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1992), pp. 17-54.

15. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Prometheus, 1998), p. 129.

16. Berlin, “Originality of Machiavelli,” p. 45.

17. A similar position is taken by Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (Princeton: Princeton, 1965), p. 197.

18. For criticism of Berlin, see Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli, pp. 8, 250-254. For another angle, see Sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli, vol. i, pp. 464-465, 473-477.

19. According to Hulliung, Machiavelli’s hope was that the Christian worldview would be crushed and replaced by another. Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli, p. 245.

20. Compare with Sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli, vol. i, pp. 475-476. See also George H.R. Parkinson, “Ethics and Politics in Machiavelli,” Philosophical Quarterly 5:18 (1955), pp. 37-44.

21.On Machiavelli’s anti-Aristotelian approach, see below. Compare with Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, pp. 262-263; Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996), passim; M. Fischer, “Machiavelli’s Political Psychology,” Review of Politics 59 (1997), p. 798.

22. For precisely this reason it is also difficult to agree with Berlin, “Originality of Machiavelli,” p. 45, that Machiavelli was one of the Renaissance humanists, looking for a “middle way” and trying to integrate Christianity with classical culture. On this, see Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli.

23. Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 36.

24. See, for example, Cicero, De Officiis, III.iii. 19-22, III.xviii. 75-xxii. 87; Cicero, On Duties, trans. Walter Miller (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1997).

25. Felix Gilbert, “The Humanist Concept of the Prince and the ‘Prince’ of Machiavelli,” Journal of Modern History 11 (1939), pp. 449-483. Reprinted in Felix Gilbert, History: Choice and Commitment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1977), p. 97.

26. Allan H. Gilbert, Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ and Its Forerunners: ‘The Prince’ as a Typical Book de Regimine Principum (Durham, N.C.: Duke, 1938), pp. 126-127.

27. Gilbert, “Humanist Concept of the Prince,” pp. 99-103; Skinner, Machiavelli, pp. 42-43.

28. Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), for example, one of the most illustrious of the Italian humanists, stressed that the objective of Christian virtue was not itself or tangible reward; it was a step towards the next world: J. Kraye, “Moral Philosophy,” in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, eds. Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1988), pp. 303-386.

29. Giorgio Inglese, The Prince (De principatibus),” in Italian Literature from Its Origins to 1500, ed. Alberto Asor Rosa (Turin: Einaudi, 1992), vol. i, p. 927. [Italian]

30. Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), p. 65.

31. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 65.

32. See Machiavelli, Discourses I 27.

33. See Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 21, for a condemnation of King Ferdinand of Aragon’s “pious cruelty” coupled with praise for his political effectiveness.

34. See Machiavelli, Discourses III 37.

35. Gilbert, Machiavelli’s ‘Prince, p. 119.

36. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 69.

37. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 69.

38. Cicero, De Officiis, I.xi. 34, I.xiii. 41; Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli, pp. 212-214; Inglese, “Il Principe,” p. 928; Gennaro Sasso, “Centaurs, Lions, and Foxes: On Some Sources of the Eighteenth Chapter of ‘The Prince,’” in Machiavelli, the Ancients and Other Essays (Milano: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1987-1997), vol. iv, pp. 153-188 [Italian]; E. Raimondi, “The Politician and the Centaur,” in Machiavelli and the Discourse of Literature, eds. Albert R. Ascoli and Victoria Kahn (Ithaca: Cornell, 1993), pp. 145-60. See also Machiavelli, Discourses II 13.

39. Machiavelli, Discourses I 52.

40. Compare with what Leo Strauss said concerning the United States: “Machiavelli would argue that America owes her greatness not only to her habitual adherence to the principles of freedom and justice, but also to her occasional deviation from them. He would not hesitate to suggest a mischievous interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase, and of the fate of the Red Indians. He would conclude that facts of this kind are an additional proof for his contention that there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus.” Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 14. See also Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue, pp. 181-182.

41. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 61.

42. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 70.

43. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 70.

44. In chapter 18, Machiavelli assumes that a balance can be struck between the need to break the moral code and the need to appear moral. Michel de Montaigne was critical of Machiavelli on this score, arguing that the profit from deceit is short-lived and that it does not pay in the long term. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works of Montaigne: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, trans. Donald M. Frame (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1958), p. 492. Machiavelli himself was aware of the problem, as seen in Machiavelli to Francesco Vettori, April 16, 1514: Niccolò Machiavelli, Opere, ed. C. Vivanti (Turin: Einaudi, 1997-1999), vol. ii,
p. 318. [Italian]

45. In his comedies, which are about private life, people do not behave differently in any essential way from how they do in public. Physical force is not used within the family, but deceit is a central element of the plot. See M. Fleischer, “Trust and Deceit in Machiavelli’s Comedies,” Journal of the History of Ideas

27:3 (1966), pp. 365-380.

46. The title of chapter 15 of The Prince (which opens with a resounding statement of political realism) is testimony of this: “Of Those Things for Which Men and Especially Princes Are Praised or Blamed.”

47. The reference is to Ferdinand II, king of Aragon.

48. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 71.

49. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 70.

50. Compare with Baruch Spinoza, “Theological-Political Treatise,” in Spinoza: Complete Works, ed. Michael L. Morgan, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hacket, 2002), p. 533: “And even if piety and religion are taken into account, we shall still see that no one who holds the reins of government can, without doing wrong, abide by his promises to the harm of his country. For he cannot keep whatever promise he sees likely to be detrimental to his country without violating his pledge to his subjects, a pledge by which he is most firmly bound, and whose fulfillment usually involves the most solemn promises.”

51. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 69.

52. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 69.

53. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 61.

54. See Sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli, vol. i, pp. 448, 460.

55. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 66.

56. For a discussion of Machiavelli’s anthropological pessimism, see Stelio Zeppi, “The Anthropological Pessimism in Machiavelli Before the ‘Discourses,’” Political Philosophy 6 (1992), pp. 193-242. [Italian] Another interpretation, according to which Machiavelli did not consider the source of evil to be in human nature, can be found in Sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli, vol. i, pp. 455-468. See also Emanuele Cutinelli-Rèndina, Introduction to Machiavelli (Rome: Laterza, 1999), p. 68. [Italian]

57. Machiavelli, Discourses I 37. Compare with Discourses III 21. See also Machiavelli in a letter to Giovan Batista Soderini, September 13-21, 1506.

58. Paul A. Rahe, “Situating Machiavelli,” in Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections, ed. James Hankins (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2000), pp. 270-309; Fischer, “Machiavelli’s Political Psychology,” pp. 808-810; Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, pp. 28-54, 261-267; Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell (Princeton: Princeton, 1989), pp. 269-270, 296. See also Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), pp. 226-227.

59. Niccolò Machiavelli, “Speech to a Magistrate,” in Machiavelli, Opere, vol. i, pp. 713-715 [Italian]. Compare with J.A. Parel, “Machiavelli’s Notions of Justice: Text and Analysis,” Political Theory 18:4 (1990), pp. 528-544. See also Maciavelli Discourses II Pr.

60. Machiavelli, On Ambition, lines 97-99; Discourses II 19. See also Discourses II Pr., III 16. Compare Fischer, “Machiavelli’s Political Psychology,” p. 827.

61. Machiavelli, Discourses I 2, 4, 6.

62. Machiavelli, Discourses I 1; “Words to say to her over the provision of the money, after some poetry and apologies,” Opere, vol. i, p. 13: “Without strength, the cities do not keep alive, but come to their end.” [Italian].

63. Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, v 1. See also VII 28; The Ass V 63; Discourses I 6, 18, III 16. Compare Fischer, “Machiavelli’s Political Psychology,” pp. 821-822. Compare Churchill: “As in the Roman state, when there are no more worlds to conquer and no rivals to destroy, nations exchange the desire for power for the love of art, and so by a gradual, yet continual, enervation and decline turn from the vigorous beauties of the nude to the more subtle allurements of the draped, and then sink to actual eroticism and ultimate decay.” Quoted by Paul A. Rahe, “The River War: Nature’s Provision, Man’s Desire to Prevail, and the Prospects for Peace,” in Churchill as Peacemaker, ed. James W. Muller (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997), p. 91.

64. Machiavelli, Discourses III 1.

65. A distinction must be made between preserving the state and the regime on the one hand, and the fatherland on the other, the latter being, for Machiavelli, the supreme value. See Machiavelli, Discourses III 41.

66. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 71.

67. Machiavelli, Discourses I 2.

68. Compare Herfried Münkler, Machiavelli: The Rise of Modern Political Thought Since the Crisis of the Florentine Republic (Frankfurt: Europaische Verlagsanstalt-Fischer, 1982), p. 266. [German]

69. Wolin, Politics and Vision, p. 226.

70. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 62: “I know that everyone will confess that it would be a very praiseworthy thing to find in a prince all of the above-mentioned qualities that are held good”; pp. 68-69: “How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his faith, and to live with honesty and not by astuteness, everyone understands”.

71. Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 91: “Nor should any state ever believe that it can always adopt safe courses; on the contrary, it should think it has to take them all as doubtful. For in the order of things it is found that one never seeks to avoid one inconvenience without running into another.”

72. Rahe, “Situating Machiavelli,” p. 305; Fischer, “Machiavelli’s Political Psychology,” pp. 808-810; Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, pp. 261-267, 542-548; de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, pp. 269-271, 296. See also Wolin, Politics and Vision, pp. 226-227.

73. Machiavelli, Discourses II 14. See also Machiavelli’s warning to the government of Florence in “Words to Be Spoken on the Law for Appropriating Money, After Giving a Little Introduction and Excuse,” in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, ed. Allan Gilbert (Durham, N.C.: Duke, 1989), vol. iii, p. 1442: “Among private men laws, writings and agreements make them keep their word; but among princes nothing but arms makes them keep it.”

74. Machiavelli to Francesco Guicciardini, May 17, 1521 in Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence, trans. and eds. James B. Atkinson and David Sices (De Kalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University, 1996), p. 336.

75. Machiavelli, Discourses III 37; The Ass V, lines 103-105.

76. Machiavelli, Discourses I 18.

77. Machiavelli, Discourses I 6; II Pr.

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