Reading Machiavelli in Tehran

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(Paper presented at the Colloquium “Reading Machiavelli in Tehran”, held on November 26-27, 2005 at the Residence of the Italian Embassy in Tehran)

Roberto Toscano

I believe that to most people addressing the theme “Machiavelli’s ethics” would seem and extremely easy, and brief, task. The Florentine thinker is commonly considered as the quintessential proponent of a totally a-moral approach to politics giving legitimacy to both violence and deceit, to the point that he has attained the dubious honor of having an adjective – Machiavellian – created after his name and was, although arbitrarily, awarded the paternity of the infamous saying “ the end justifies the means”.

But there is more than conventional wisdom and vulgar interpretation to this characterization. Ever since the appearance of his Il Principe he has been the target of a wide and powerful array of political and philosophical attacks centered on his supposed cynical challenge to ethical norms.

Paradoxically, although Machiavelli himself can hardly be placed outside the scope of Catholic culture, and although he never formulated heretical theories in the field of religion, it was the Church, and Catholic thinkers, starting from Jean Bodin, who were the most virulent in denouncing the immorality of his precepts.

The reason was certainly also political (Machiavelli’s republicanism), but it also pertained to the field of ethics, insofar as Machiavelli, while not far from the consequentialism that is certainly present in Catholic moral thinking (what could be more consequentialist than the theory of bellum justum, or Jesuit casuistry, or the social doctrine of the church?) paid no homage to the Church’s role in authoritatively assessing, for the benefit of the faithful, the occasions, and the modalities, for adapting moral principles to the expediency of social and political needs.1

It is even more paradoxical that Machiavelli is universally considered as the epitome of political immoralism whereas his contemporary, Guicciardini, whose precepts were even more radically questionable in moral terms, escaped such hard indictment.

The difference between the two comes out very clearly from a quote taken from Guicciardini’s comment to Machiavelli’s Discorsi:

Those who were to put the love of fatherland before their own well-being would be very laudable, but since such love and such strength are more frequently wished for than found, those who are inspired by the concern for their own well-being deserve to be excused .”2

And indeed Guicciardini was the pessimistic, conservative, conformist defender of il particulare, i.e. the moral priority given to one’s own interests, to be skillfully pursued in a dangerous world.

It is interesting to quote here Antonio Gramsci’s Notes on Machiavelli:

Guicciardini represents a step backward in political science with respect to Machiavelli. This is all that Guicciardini’s greater ‘pessimism’ means.(….) Guicciardini is not pessimistic, but skeptical and petty. (….) Guicciardini’s skepticism (not pessimism of the intelligence, which can be combined with an optimism of the will in active and realistic politicians) has other sources: 1) diplomatic habit, i.e. a subordinate, subaltern activity (executive-bureaucratic) which has to accept a will (the political will of the diplomat’s government or sovereign) which is extraneous to the diplomat’s political convictions (…..); 2) the actual convictions of Guicciardini, who, in the general context of Italian politics, as a conservative (….).3
Polemics and ideology aside, Machiavelli cannot be banished from the realm of ethics, so that it is quite possible to speak of “Machiavelli and ethics”.

In a remarkable essay 4, Isaiah Berlin very convincingly stated that, contrary to the vulgar caricature of Machiavelli’s amorality, all his political thinking is founded on a strong moral option: that which gives moral priority to the building, the security and the interests of the res publica, the state. Or, to quote Stuart Hampshire, “Machiavelli argued that it was irresponsible and morally wrong to apply to political action the moral standards that are appropriate to private life and to personal relations: standards of friendship and of justice. If one refused to be ruthless in the pursuit of objectives of public policy, and refused to use deceit and guile as instruments of policy, one betrayed those who had put their trust in the person who represents them.(…) Machiavelli implied that morality in politics must be a consequentialist morality, and the ‘must’ here marks a moral injunction. 5

But isn’t moral thinking always founded on a specific premise? Isn’t it always defined by the recognition of a central moral allegiance subordinating all the others? From individualism to familism, from tribalism to racism, from nationalism to religious fundamentalism or the allegiance to a totalitarian party what we see is the drawing of different “circles” centered around a basic, paramount moral norm.

Machiavelli is definitely not isolated in positing the interest of res publica as the foundation of his moral thinking. At the beginning of the XXI century we are still living, although with tensions and contradictions, within the same paradigm, the paradigm of nationalist realism.

What could be more “Machiavellian” than the saying “My country right or wrong”, which seems to be a still very widely shared principle even in cultures that are steeped in a thoroughly moralistic ethos ?

How could we denounce Machiavelli as immoral and accept realist thinking in international relations? Who can denounce Machiavelli’s recognition of the role of violence in the pursuit of political ends and maintain the moral legitimacy of war?

The matter is only a matter of “circles”, of recognition of moral duties toward other human individual and communities. And it is the scope of these “circles of moral recognition”, not their essence, that changes with the changing of historical and cultural realities.
Machiavelli is far from being a cynical or cold peddler of technical advice to ruthless rulers, and of course his Principe should be cross-read together with the Discorsi, with their passionate republican inspiration. On this, one cannot but agree with Raymond Aron: “La conciliation entre le Prince et les Discours, entre la theorie de la dictature et l’eloge de la liberte’ ne souleve plus de difficultes.6

The unabashed, politically incorrect bluntness of his precepts, on the other hand, cannot be explained only by the intensity of his republican convictions, but by very concrete facts and circumstances defining the time in which he lived. Violent times in which Machiavelli’s insistence on conservazione of the state is the product of realist thinking, not an exaggerated fixation.

There is, in ethical theory, a “ground zero” of morals, Spinoza’s conatus essendi, an urge to persist and survive which is not specifically human, and which comes before any moral precepts. Politics, both internal and international, has tried, with imperfect results, to create laws and institutions capable of limiting and governing the anarchic violence that otherwise would prevent any moral life.
But was Machiavelli a thinker “for all times” or should he be read in a historical context? The answer, I believe, is: both.

Let me try to explain.

Throughout the pages of Il Principe what we see is the description of a very specific political scenario – one characterized by a humiliating condition of national decadence, insignificance, subjection to external powers, from the pope to foreign forces, absence of the minimal conditions for a republican buon governo. 7 Far from being the cold “political scientist” that has been often depicted, Machiavelli was a passionate republican patriot living, thinking and writing in very dismal times. To quote again Aron, “ La pensee de Machiavel a pour cadre historique et pour objet les cites italiennes de la Renaissance, dechirees par les conflits des factions, et sans cesse en lutte les unes avec les autres, allies et victimes des grandes puissances rivales (…)8

Thus his ethics is both an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility, insofar as it posits the fundamental consequentialist question of what would happen to the res publica in case one or the other political path is chosen. An admirer of Roman republican virtues, he definitely does not exalt vices, but advises the Prince to be willing to accept the moral burden of “ l’ infamia di quelli vizi, sanza quali e’ possa difficilmente salvare lo stato” (“the infamy of those vices without which he could not save the state.”) 9

There is no glory, here, but the acceptance of “infamy” in the pursuit of what is conceived as a higher moral duty. I would not dare, of course, to suggest a parallel between Machiavelli and Camus, and yet I cannot avoid recalling the pages of L’homme revolte’ in which Camus talks about the tragic acceptance, for what is perceived as the good of others, of incurring in morally repulsive transgression without trying to cover it – as less honest thinkers and politicians usually do 10- with the grotesque makeup of rhetoric and lie: “son souci de l’autre, des autres…plus que de son ame” (“ the concern for the other, for others…more than of one’s own soul”)11.

Incidentally, the relevance of this permanent moral tension has been stressed in the debate on what Michael Walzer has called “the problem of dirty hands” .12

The same Walzer, one of the most interesting moral thinkers of our time, supplies us – developing his “dirty hands” concept - with another tool to go deeper into the analysis of Machiavelli’s moral outlook and, more specifically, to see to which extent it is relevant for our time.

In a way, it could be said that Machiavelli’s precepts, with their focus on the dismal conditions of early XVI-century Italy, can be inscribed within the paradigm of what Walzer calls “emergency ethics”. 13 According to Walzer, in moments of “supreme emergency” certain actions involving undeniable moral transgression can be justified not so much with reference to a permanent higher moral allegiance but rather to a contingent and dramatic challenge.

You will have of course understood where this comes from and where this leads to, and indeed Walzer, after his chapter on “Emergency Ethics” moves on to the following one: “Terrorism: A Critique of Excuses”.

It is very significant, as pointed out in a critique of Walzer’s book by David Rodin, of Oxford University, 14 that whereas in his Just and Unjust Wars Walzer had defined as “terrorist” the bombing of civilians during World War II, in his more recent book he justifies it on the basis of “emergency ethics”.

Just as it was true for Machiavelli, also our ethical outlook is marked, perhaps more deeply than by our moral foundations and convictions, by the times in which we live, and more specifically by what we perceive as threats to our individual and collective survival.

We had optimistically thought that we (“we” meaning “the civilized”) had attained moral levels well beyond the ethics of the XVI century, whose implications were so honestly and clearly spelled out by Machiavelli. We are now witnessing what can only be defined as a moral regression: facing enemies who claim the legitimacy of terrorism, some are now seriously debating the pros and cons of torture or preventive war, while others are calling the Geneva Conventions, founded on the strong moral principle of the distinction between combatants and civilians, as “quaint” Legal regression, political regression, but also moral regression.

Are we becoming “Machiavellians”? Are we finally, in other words, discarding the lies of rhetoric, the illusions of idealism, the hypocrisy of false pacifism in order to face reality and cope with it in a responsible and manly way? Indeed this sort of ideology seems to be on the rise, in the obsession for security and the state’s role in providing it, in its combination of fear and ostentatious toughness, but, if we do not stick to mere appearances, it cannot claim Machiavelli as its inspiration.

In the first place, it would be a gross exaggeration if we were to depict a world society that has gone back to the XVI century. Let us be wary: those who, confident in their power, would like to discard the limitations of legal and also moral rules, have a tendency to dramatize the threats and the devilish power of the enemy.

And, even more important, we should also be wary of the fact that the proponents of “emergency ethics” might have a hidden agenda founded on a different theoretical premise: that of Schmitt’s “state of exception”. An antidemocratic, inherently violent theory arbitrarily drawing the rule from the exception and militaristically reducing all politics to a permanent dichotomy friend/enemy, actually turning politics into a continuation of war by other means. A theory which arbitrarily turns into social physiology the pathology of confrontation and violence.

There is no straight path leading from Machiavelli to Schmitt. The great Florentine was neither in favor of militarism nor of despotism: again, one should not be allowed to read Il Principe without the Discorsi .

But what is a reading of Machiavelli’s ethics that can be both correct and meaningful at the beginning of the XXI century?

In the first place, we should focus on the republican ethos of Machiavelli, his strong belief in the possibility of creating a human community based on the citizen: his was a progressive project, not a reactionary utopia.

A progressive project for whose realization Machiavelli, in the concrete conditions of his time could only envisage the role of a determined, ruthless Prince. But democratic thought should be able to distinguish, both politically and morally, the contingent from the permanent in Machiavelli’s thought. What is permanent, and valid also in our time, is the republican ideal. What is contingent and historically defunct is the role of an individual condottiero.

Antonio Gramsci saw this with utmost clarity, focusing on the function, and not on the individuality, of the Prince, and suggesting that he could be replaced by a collective body.15 As a Communist, he saw it as being embodied in the Party, but democratic theory can today preserve and develop his very valuable intuition on the “collective Prince” translating it into the role of a pluralistic, organized citizenship.

Going back to the ethical core of Machiavelli’s thought, the priority given to the res publica, today we would say the national community, over other moral duties, there is another, more radical aspect of what it means to read Machiavelli at the beginning of the XXI century.

If ethics is a matter of the scope of inclusion/exclusion, if it all depends on what one considers a morally relevant community, how can we think to apply XVI-century moral criteria today?

How can we maintain that, in an era when – from migrations to terrorism to the Tsunami to Chernobyl to aviary flu to AIDS – we are obliged to cope with challenges that are global, “group ethics” (be it tribal, religious or nationalistic) matches our reality, our needs, our stage of human development?

Definitely we are not on the eve of a global state, and yet we are no longer able to confine our economic, political, cultural but also moral scope within the limits of the borders of our national res publica.

No easy solution, here. Neither the fuite en avant toward a hypothetical (and, let me add, hardly desirable) world state, nor an idiotically bellicose neo-nationalism (or, even worse, reactionary tribalism). Rather, the difficult work toward a complex system which will necessary be mixed, insofar as it will have to be founded on strong, democratic republics and at the same time of stronger international institutions and also a wider moral identification with individuals and groups whose destiny we objectively share in the age of globalization.
Machiavelli’s daring, his awareness of unadorned reality, his honesty and anti-hypocrisy, 16 his republican commitment can help us – if we are able to grasp the essence of his politics and his ethics – also in this very complex and problematic stage of human development.

1 On Machiavelli and religion, I do not agree with Isaiah Berlin who, although (see below) very brilliantly challenged the view of the immorality of Machiavelli and spoke about “two morals”(public and private), maintains that Machiavelli’s ethics was pagan as opposed to Christian. But perhaps the problem resides in the fact that, by referring generally to “Christian” ethics, Berlin did not take into account the specific nature of Catholic morality, steeped in consequentialism, lesser-evil, casuistry and a very flexible outlook on the relationship between ends and means, from the issue of war to that of personal enrichment.

2 Francesco Guicciardini, Considerazioni intorno ai discorsi del Machiavelli sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, Chapter X.

3 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks ( Lawrence and Wishart, London 1971), p. 171 and 173.

4 Isaiah Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli”, in Against the Current. Essays in the History of Ideas, (The Hogarth Press, London 1980) p. 25-79.

5 Stuart Hampshire, Morality and Conflict (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. 1983), p.122.

6 Raymond Aron, Machiavel et les tyrannies modernes (Editions de Fallois, Paris 1993), p. 61.

7 According to Negri, Machiavelli is not the theoretician of the modern state, but rather “the theoretician of the absence of every condition for a principle and a democracy “ ( Antonio Negri, Il potere costituente (Manifestolibri, Roma 2002), p. 126.

8 Ibid., p. 83.

9 Nicolo’ Machiavelli, Il Principe (BUR, Milano 1998), p. 152.

10 “ In killing, deceiving, betraying, Machiavelli’s princes and republicans are doing evil things, not condonable in terms of common morality. It is Machiavelli’s great merit that he does not deny this. Marsilio, Hobbes, Spinoza, and, in their own fashion, Hegel and Marx, did try to deny it. So did many a defender of the raison d’etat, imperialist and populist, Catholic and Protestant.” (Berlin, op.cit., p.63).

11 Albert Camus, L’homme revolte’ (Gallimard, Paris 1951), p. 45.

12 Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2 (1973), p. 163.

13 Michael Walzer, Arguing about War (Yale University Press, New Haven 2004).

14 Ethics and International Affairs, vol. 19, no. 2, 2005, p. 117.

15 Gramsci, op.cit., p. 20-23.

16 “Machiavelli calls the bluff not just of official morality – the hypocrisies of ordinary life – but of one of the foundations of the central western philosophical tradition, the belief in the ultimate compatibility of all genuine values.” (Berlin, op. cit., p. 71). This, I believe, would by itself be enough to grant him the recognition of being a moral thinker…

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