Thursday, August 9, 2012

Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli would have undoubtedly secured enduring fame for any one of the roles he mastered during his life in and out of Renaissance Florence: historian, diplomat, military strategist, civil servant, poet, playwright. However, it was in his capacity as political philosopher that Machiavelli earned eternal renown by sparking some of the most intense scholarly controversies in Western intellectual history. Not without reason, many commentators consider Machiavelli the father of modern political thought or modern political science—some even ordain him the founder of “modernity” itself. Yet the specific content and precise objectives of his political writings remain elusive: Was Machiavelli an adviser of tyranny or a partisan of liberty? A neutral technician of power politics or an Italian patriot? An anti-clerical reviver of pagan virtue or a devious initiator of modern nihilism? Put simply, to what extent was Machiavelli a “Machiavellian”? These questions, among countless others concerning the essence of Machiavelli’s thought, will continue to generate contentious debates for as long as people reflect seriously on political affairs.

Machiavelli’s most famous work, On Principalities [1512], or, as it was titled by others, The Prince, certainly announced a dramatic break with previous political doctrines anchored in moral and religious systems of thought. Unlike his classical or medieval predecessors, who took their political bearings from transcendentally valid or divinely sanctioned conceptions of justice, Machiavelli oriented himself to the “effectual truth” of politics; how the world actually “is” rather than how it “ought” to be. Indeed, Machiavelli’s brutally realistic advice seems intended to contravene all previous, socially respectable forms of political reflection. For instance, he boldly declares that it is safer for a prince to be feared rather than loved (if he must choose one between these two forms of regard) because subjects love at their own pleasure while they fear at the pleasure of a prince. Moreover, Machiavelli steadfastly insists that violence and cruelty are necessary means of effective political action (even if their deployment must be circumscribed meticulously to avoid unintended, deleterious consequences for a prince’s rule). Machiavelli accepted that the violations of moral norms can have justification, "in actions of men, especially princes , the end justifies the means"(The Prince). Machiavelli advises "he who diligently examines past events easily foresees future ones and can apply to them remedies used by ancients."

Cornerstone of Machiavelli's philosophy is that success particularly in the tricky realm of politics depends on willingness to adopt circumstances.Machiavelli's political philosophy was rooted in comparative biography of the kind at which Plutarch excelled.Rather than treating history as unfolding of impersonal forces an approach stressed by political thinkers like Hegel and Marx, Machiavelli grounded his science in psychology of men. 

In The Prince, Machiavelli barely feigns hesitation about recommending as exemplars of “well-used” fear and cruelty individuals, such as Agathocles the Sicilian, Cesare Borgia and Liverotto of Fermo, whom historians and contemporary opinion-setters considered criminals. And yet Machiavelli demonstrates that figures such as Moses, Romulus and Cyrus, whom established authors attempt to elevate beyond moral reproach, themselves achieved political greatness by recourse to crimes. One prominent difference between the first and second set of princes, Machiavelli insinuates, is that the latter’s crimes were minimized or obscured by the legendary attributes bestowed on them as a result of the longevity of the “new modes and orders” they founded.Machiavelli appropriately praises these successful founders of long-enduring republics, empires and religions as the most virtuous princes in history.

Yet his desire to lay bare the effectual truth of politics, stripped of its idealistic and mythic veneers, compels Machiavelli to devote considerable space in The Prince to generally under appreciated, less successful and, much more disreputable historical figures like Agathocles and Borgia. Precisely because the latter two accomplished demonstrably less than Romulus and Moses, perhaps their motivations, deeds and genuine achievements can be more readily apprehended and more easily analyzed.

Machiavelli loved going to diplomatic missions more than any other thing.He was adventurous and always keen to find solutions to diplomatic challenges.But Machiavelli was his own worst enemy due to his sharp tongue and prickly personality.

Machiavelli wrote the Prince during exile and while jobless.It was written at time of crises and out of depression.As Machiavelli sat down to write, his career lay in ruins and the loss of his salary threatened to plunge him into humiliating poverty.Surrounded by ghosts of history and the contemplation of eternal truths Machiavelli forgot his current misery and began writing his masterpiece.

Machiavellianism is superhuman, divine, transcendental, it will never be achieved by
man, at most approximated.
-Nietzsche Will to Power 304

Machiavelli intimates that careers of Agathocles and Borgia may provide important clues for those pursuing answers to the following crucial questions: What horrendous crimes, in addition to the few already recorded, did Romulus and Moses actually commit in order to achieve immortal fame? Conversely, what mistakes might have Agathocles and Borgia avoided if they were to succeed ultimately in gaining the success and renown attained by Romulus and Moses? Machiavelli famously places himself in the company of the most illustrious princes; he boasts that he, in formulating a startlingly unprecedented political doctrine, embarked upon the dangerous road of founding “new modes and orders.” Yet few scholars note how closely Machiavelli affiliates himself personally with what might be called the common criminal element in the history of princes and would-be founders. Indeed, this rather low-born Florentine of questionable parental lineage uses exactly the same phrases to describe himself--a victim of “fortune’s malignity,” who suffered countless “hardships and dangers” on behalf of his fatherland--as he does to evaluate, respectively, the Papal bastard, Borgia, and the abjectly poor “potter’s son,” Agathocles.

A careful assessment of Machiavelli’s accounts of these figures’ careers yields the conclusion that in many respects he considers a Borgia, despite his limited success, and an Agathocles, despite his infinite crimes, politically superior to, respectively,recent hereditary kings of France and the exalted hero of humanist literati, Scipio Africanus. What then are the princely qualities most conducive to political success as so assertively and realistically re conceived by Machiavelli? Flouting the ethical pretensions of classical, Christian and humanist political philosophy, Machiavelli unequivocally instructs readers of The Prince that “virtue” most certainly does not correspond with the interior moral character of an individual political actor. Instead, Machiavelli affiliates virtue with the latter’s proficiency at wielding force and fraud to overcome fortune’s sway over the external world. Machiavelli metaphorically presents fortune’s nearly inexorable power as a raging river overflowing its banks or a manipulative goddess determined to derail the grand designs of mortal men. More literally,Machiavelli identifies fortune with the unexpected events that emerge from the ever-changing conditions of human affairs, or, more pointedly, with the limits imposed on a prospective prince’s autonomy by his servile dependence on superiorly situated political actors. The virtuous would-be prince, Machiavelli argues, creates laws and institutions, political dams and dykes, that, at least temporarily, impose order on the unruly political universe; and he effectively slaps around Lady Fortune by ruthlessly eliminating any individuals who stand in the way of his attaining increased power and unfettered autonomy.

Further indicative of Machiavelli’s unorthodoxly realist approach to politics, the Florentine blatantly rejects the ideal of philosopher kings whose perfect judgment might be at least remotely approximated by the educated, wealthy and prominent noblemen of worldly cities. Machiavelli insists that there exist no few best men whose wisdom, prudence, or love of the common good can be counted upon to settle, with impartial justice, political controversies and crises. Defying the aristocratic preferences of “all” previous philosophers and historians, as he states in the Discourses, Machiavelli recommends in The Prince that individual princes militarily arm the common people, in whom the noble quality of onestà (honesty, decency or justice) actually resides, and crush at every opportunity self-styled nobles, “the great,” whose ambitious and avaricious motivations and machinations offer little more than oppression for the people and insecurity for a prince.

The image of ideal prince which Machiavelli conjures up in the pages is someone who is able to bend the course of history to his will, a man with superhuman strength of will, cunning and ruthless when required.

Machiavelli's masterpiece

  The Prince was written for Giuliano de Mdici but the final version was dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici after Giuliano's death,  though his work was never read by Medicis and not published while he was alive.His work was an attempt to win the favor of the Medici.

Though Machiavelli is considered immoral by some but he was not a teacher of evil , in fact he was a good citizen who is often (like Nietzsche) congratulated for tearing off hypocritical masks, brutally revealing the truth, and so on, is not that men profess one thing and do another (although no doubt he shows this too), but that when they assume that the two ideals [of politics and ethics] are compatible, or perhaps are even one and the same ideal, and do not allow this assumption to be questioned, they are guilty of bad faith (as the existentialists call it, or of “false consciousness,” to use a Marxist formula), which their actual behavior exhibits. Machiavelli calls the bluff not just of official morality .As men are evil in general so to live among them Machiavelli advices that one must be cunning to protect himself .

 The Florentine Republic [1494-1512], which Machiavelli served as an administrative secretary, diplomatic emissary and militia organizer for over a decade, was overthrown by an aristocratic coup, foreign intervention and Papal intrigue that returned the Medici family to power. Machiavelli responded by writing to the restored princes, delicately advising them to betray their allies among the nobility and align themselves instead with the presently disempowered Florentine people (Machiavelli, “Ai Palleschi”). For his troubles, Machiavelli was implicated in an anti-Medici conspiracy, tortured, imprisoned and subsequently confined to internal exile. Several years later, Machiavelli repeated his advice that the Medici ultimately re empower the Florentine people at the expense of the family’s aristocratic “friends” in an understudied but important memorandum on constitutional reforms.(Machiavelli, “Discursus Florentinarum rerum”).

Machiavelli’s Discourses [c. 1513-19] and Florentine Histories [1532] clearly exhibit the author’s admiration for republics, even if, ever intriguingly, these works generally affirm rather than repudiate the moral and practical lessons of The Prince. The near perfect, ancient Roman Republic is Machiavelli’s primary subject in the Discourses, while the hopelessly disordered, medieval Florentine republic takes center stage in the Histories. In Rome, a wise founder, Romulus, armed the poor and collected the wealthy in a senate, insuring that future conflicts between plebeians and patricians would produce two salutary institutions: an office, the plebeian tribunate, dedicated to the welfare of the common people, and large citizen assemblies in which the people themselves freely discussed and directly decided legislation and political trials. Intense but productive class conflict at home, and unprecedented territorial expansion abroad, herald, for Machiavelli, Rome’s singular greatness and its ultimate value as a model for all subsequent republics to emulate.

By contrast, in Florence, Machiavelli demonstrates how one individual after another emerged with the prospect of assuming the role of founder (e.g., Giano della Bella, Michele di Lando, the Duke of Athens); yet they each ultimately demurred from fully arming the people civically and militarily such that social conflicts (not only between classes but especially among families and factions) persisted in episodically destructive rather than constructive ways. Machiavelli exhaustively chronicles how the republic’s defective ordering and chronically tepid leadership result in its gradual enfeeblement, measured by both geo-political decline and civic corruption.
Bust of Machiavelli

Particularly emblematic in this respect is Machiavelli’s vivid account of Florence’s Ciompi Revolt in book III of the Histories. Since the city’s oppressed woolworkers had no recourse to tribunes who might air their grievances and were unable to confront directly Florence’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens assembled in an actual senate, the Ciompians were compelled to pursue the city’s nobles house to house in a series of bloody, destructive riots. These disturbances produce no longstanding progressive gains for Florence’s poorer citizens but rather facilitate conservative consolidation of power among the city’s richest families. From such entrenched oligarchic arrangements, Cosimo de’Medici and his family successors rise to the ranks of commercial princes. Rather than arm citizens, the Medici rendered the latter mere economic clients, definitively corrupting the city’s civic life and ensuring its military dependence on foreign mercenaries.

Machiavellie like Nietzsche is a preacher of enduring sufferings ,bravery, pride, overcoming hardships and confronting dangers.

Why were Rome’s founders and civic princes so virtuous and Florence’s so hesitant and inept? Machiavelli sometimes directly and sometimes more subtly blames Christianity for the weakness of modern republics and their leaders: unlike the teachings of previous, more robustly political belief systems, Christian tenets encourage passivity, subservience, and deferral of punishment to the next world and, perhaps worst of all, promote an inflexibly undifferentiated view of “the good.” These precepts seem to inhibit modern peoples and princes from behaving in the “bad” ways that actually prove salutary for political life. Ancient armed populaces often took matters into their own hands to discipline those who commit “sins” against the public; and ancient princes like Moses and Brutus never hesitated to eliminate rival threats to their new modes and orders that guaranteed the liberty and longevity of their regimes.Machiavelli states that ethics and politics should be separated and that a wise Price may not necessarily a moral man.He argues that a Prince must be ready to do anything for his country and that he must be intelligent and cunning as a fox to spot enemies and  forceful as a lion to fight with them.

Indeed, Machiavelli laments, Christian populaces suffer rather than punish ill-treatment by abusive elites; or, as the Ciompi Revolt makes plain, when finally provoked to the point of spirited response, they strike out against them in undisciplined and ineffective ways. Florentine princes like the Medici, Friar Girolamo Savonarola and Machiavelli’s own patron, Piero Soderini— who all maintained concrete ties of one kind or another with the Roman Catholic Church--seem hamstrung internally by Christian morality or externally by the Church’s secular power from acting decisively to found and maintain a healthy civic republic. In particular, Machiavelli avers, Christian princes seem especially incapable of arming the people with little more than platitudes attesting to their goodness, and of eliminating the metaphorical “sons of Brutus,” who forever threaten “a free and civil way of life”: oppressive minded aristocrats who invariably detest the people’s liberty, bitterly resent their participation in politics, and always intransigently oppose any reformer who attempts to limit their own power and privilege. Scholars often grossly overstate Machiavelli’s concrete impact on practical politics and constitutional forms in the modern world. The “republicans” of the broad Enlightenment era drew upon the Florentine’s prescriptions in a highly selective fashion: they only partially adopted his call for neo-Roman full militarization of the people, and almost completely rejected the democratic institutions and practices that Machiavelli hoped would be demanded by such newly armed citizenries. They explicitly rejected his call for modern plebeian tribunates, and for assemblies in which common citizens themselves discuss and enact public policy. Instead, the framers of modern constitutions opted exclusively for generally elected offices in which the people might choose the most wise and prudent (read: richest and most prominent) individuals,and for elected assemblies of notables that purportedly would faithfully and effectively “represent” the interests of common people.

Machiavelli achieved perhaps his greatest practical influence, and hence earned his greatest infamy, in literatures associated with “reason of state,” a phrase he never used. Architects of the European absolute monarchies appropriated Machiavelli’s apparently cynical, amoral doctrines, but decisively severed these from the Florentine’s own crypto-normative political concerns. They successfully elevated individuals to the status of national monarchs— Tudors and Stuarts; Valois, Hapsburgs and Hohenzoellerns--and certainly helped subordinate traditional aristocracies to the latter’s authority. But by relying on professional militaries and by endorsing “representation” of the public’s interest, modern statebuilders failed to empower the people to the full extent that Machiavelli recommended. The economic dependence of these modern princes--and, notably, the bureaucratic states that succeeded them--on newly emerging capitalist aristocracies, would leave the citizens of modern republics without recourse to the military or civic arms that the Florentine thought eternally necessary for the defense of their liberty from rapacious elites.

"So a new ruler who thinks he has to secure himself in his new principality must secure friends,overcome obstacles either by fraud or force,be followed and respected by soldiers,eliminate potential enemies,maintain friendship with kings and princes,replace old laws with new ones and break up disloyal army and make a new one ."

The radically democratic spirit of Machiavelli’s political philosophy was perhaps best recognized by twentieth century Marxist and post-Marxist theorists on the continent, especially, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Claude Lefort and Michel Foucault. They often ingeniously translated his ideas concerning the struggle between the “humors” of the great and the people in terms of capitalist class conflict; or recognized the affinity between Machiavelli’s Prince and the party vanguard who would lead the people to socio-economic liberation; or appropriated for contemporary circumstances Machiavelli’s notion of politics as a game of strategy in which various actors negotiate a field of myriad opposing forces. However, perhaps precisely due to the powerful legacy of “reason of state” on the continent, “the state,” a concept that Machiavelli never really deployed, became for this literature an unproductive idée fixe. Moreover, perhaps bewitched by orthodox illusions of eliminating elites or overcoming “rule” altogether, most authors in this tradition failed to revive or elaborate anew the institutional means through which Machiavelli intended the common people to realize civic liberty; that is, to rule themselves and control socio-economic and political elites.