Machiavelli’s Revenge

For many years, one of my dream classes to teach on the university level would be a course on Machiavelli that would look at him from the point of view of history, literary criticism, and political philosophy, and that would present his writing in a way that would put his popular work The Prince in a context that would include his diplomatic writings, his career as a high-level official in the Florentine Republic, his writing of witty Italian plays like Clizia and the Mandragola, and the eternal ill repute his name fell under when he suggested, in an attempt to win favor with the returned Medici after he had been subjected several times to the torture of the strappado, that it was safer for rulers to be feared than loved, leading to centuries of lunk-headed bullies using his chilling advice to abuse their people through tyranny.  Unlike many people who write about government, Machiavelli himself had participated in government, and however much better his republican regime was than the corrupt Medici regime it had replaced which would replace it in turn, the popular militia he trained was not able to defeat the mercenaries and professional soldiers that placed the resurgent Medici on their throne.  The bias against republican regimes in Italy was such that the only two Italian regimes that were not restored by the victorious Concert of Nations after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo were republican Genoa, which was swallowed up by the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia and republican Venice, which was made a part of the Austrian Empire.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Fortunately, San Marino preserved its precarious independence [1].

Yet for a long time Machiavelli has suffered because his readers have often taken him at face value without any understanding of his context or his commitment to republican ideals.  To be sure, Machiavelli was not a man who had a great deal of respect for Christianity, and he was far too cynical of a man to be noted for his high-minded religious ideals.  On the contrary, he has been blamed a bit unfairly for the unscrupulous behavior of the absolutist monarchs and militaristic dictators who cast off the divine-right theory in the face of religious restrictions and quibbles in favor of a desire to rule by naked brute force over a cowed populace.  For one, such leaders did not need his encouragement or endorsement.  Machiavelli was a cultured, sophisticated cynic, someone familiar enough with Greco-Roman culture to write a commentary on the first ten books of Livy and to adapt classical plays in both koine Greek and Latin for the audiences of his time in the vernacular.  Uncultured and unlettered bullies using his sophisticated writings to justify contempt for him and brutish and bullying favors should be at least savvy enough to realize that they might not want to take him at face value for their own sake, yet people continue to take him literally without a sense of irony.

Of course, not everyone takes his writing without a sense of irony.  An entire school of political philosophy, a school of political philosophy I am immensely fond of, it should be noted, was founded by Leo Strauss, who viewed Machiavelli’s notorious work The Prince as a profoundly ironic work.  How is it possible to view such a work ironically, even when considering that Machiavelli certainly had little respect for Christian ideals of servant leadership?  It is not that hard, when one has a fondness for irony, something that our contemporary age has in spades, a quality not unlike the intensely ironic culture of Renaissance society, it should be noted.  For one, let us note that when leaders reject any appeals to love and instead depend on cultivating obedience through fear, they often make it difficult for their population to succeed than they would otherwise, and also make it more likely that people will not go through any effort at all to support an oppressive regime in its hour of need, letting it be thrown out the window so that it can be eaten by dogs and left without enough of a corpse to bury.  For another, the refusal of a regime to make any sort of appeal to religious support cuts the ground out of legitimacy.  If there are no religious or moral scruples in the behavior of rulers, there is none on the part of those who oppose rulers, and if authorities govern by force in the absence of love, then there will be no limits of force and no love to shown to them or to their memory when their powers grow weak, and when instead of vigorous and youthful rulers authority is concentrated in the aged and infirm.  It is sufficiently difficult to encourage restraint of conduct by any means that no means of restraint, including moral suasion, can be cast off as unprofitable given the immense importance and difficulty of the task any authorities have in restraining the unruly and anti-authoritarian tendencies of humankind that chafes against any restraint to its wishes and desires and its colossal and limitless ambition.

How has Machiavelli gotten his revenge, despite the fact that many people have taken his writings at face value without an appreciation of layers of likely irony?  For one, the bullies and princelings that ruled over the fragments of Italy in his lifetime have joined many failed regimes by imitators of “Machiavellian” thought in the dustbin of history.  The line of the Medici failed in the 18th century as an aged Florentine ruler was unable to sire any more heirs for his derelict house.  The Italian republic, while not the most stable or illustrious of states, is a unified nation which has for more than a half a century been without any sort of glittering monarchy.  Most of the people who have sought to use The Prince as a guidebook for their rule have, in the end, behaved like brutal thugs and been viewed as the worst sort of sub-morons by the verdict of history, testimony to the fact that most who try to rule by fear and pretend to be the lords of all they purvey end up looking as ridiculous as Mussolini, no matter the destructiveness that they cause before their inevitable doom.  But what more can we expect when authorities cut out the foundation of legitimacy from under themselves?  Can those who reject appeals to love, to tradition, or to the nobility of religion and ethics expect to create anything worthwhile and lofty and lasting on a foundation of force and brutality?  Despite his bad reputation, there have been few opponents of tyranny of such lasting importance and power as Machiavelli himself, for with his pretended friendship and encouragement to tyrants he led them to destroy the very foundations of their rule, making their doom and destruction certain and inevitable.  Is that not a great irony, after all that has been said and written against him?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Machiavelli’s Revenge

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