Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince while unemployed and in exile following the restoration of the Medici to Florentine rule in 1512. He dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, proposing “to discuss the behavior of rulers and to make recommendations regarding policy.” Such was necessary, Machiavelli thought, given the recent trouble caused variously by the invading French and their opportune Italian allies, all of whom Machiavelli considered representatives of regimes objectively inferior to the Florentine.
In addition, there were the ongoing troubles at the time associated with the radical ideas of Savonarola, a charismatic preacher who helped oust the Medici in 1494. Foreshadowing the Peasant Revolts in Germany, Savonarola tried to set up a puritanical theocracy that would establish Florence as the New Jerusalem spoken of in the Book of Revelation. Rome eventually got hold of him and he was executed as a heretic. However, his followers (called the Piagnoni or “wailers”) were legion, and their political libertinism made life difficult for sensible figures in the interim republic. Under proper instruction, perhaps the young Medici princes Giuliano and Lorenzo might bring greater order, stability, and honor to Florence.
Such considerations help us to understand the nature of the advice found in The Prince. As an early contributor to the modern realist school of international relations, Machiavelli was convinced that practical and material considerations, rather than moral or ideological ones, were the key to effective political leadership.
For Machiavelli, the highest good is not the life of virtue in the Aristotelian sense but a kind of worldly political success marked by order, stability, longevity, and civilizational glory. It is for this reason that his advice is based not on “imaginary worlds” but on the way leaders behave who are interested in the preservation of actual regimes.
As a consequence of embracing this good, however, Machiavelli could not just ignore the whole matter of traditional morality. On the contrary, he had to confront it as an enemy—not because it was so much nonsense, but because it would spell ruin for the prince who abides by it. The successful ruler must learn how not to be good—how to perform vicious, “beastly” acts, carefully measured to consolidate power, maintain it, and earn lasting glory.
It is the timid, hesitant, and squeamish prince who, while perhaps in possession of a superior civilization, nonetheless will fall victim to an inferior force that is not hindered by abstract moral considerations. We learn in The Prince that this was the fate of Savonarola. He exemplified the “unarmed prophet” who could persuade people to follow him, but was wholly unprepared to compel them once they changed their minds.
There are two points worth reflecting upon here, besides the usual condemnation of Machiavelli as a teacher of evil. The first is an ironic one: that he is not really a “Machiavellian” in the colloquial sense. The Prince is not a defense of tyranny; nowhere does it endorse the use of power for personal aggrandizement. Quite the contrary, in fact; Machiavelli unequivocally condemns vicious acts that are not related to the preservation of the regime. His recommendations are not abstract principles but pragmatic pieces of advice set within the context of a leader establishing or defending himself and his own against “barbarian” enemies.
The order to be established is one in which both ruler and ruled, as members of the same community, participate. This historical contingency means that some restraint is called for on the part of the contemporary moralist, one whose own comfortable role as critic ultimately depends upon someone else’s Machiavellian actions. Machiavelli has a point when he says that a civilizational order capable of sustaining anything worthy in human affairs depends more upon those willing to get their hands dirty than it does on passive peddlers of moral platitudes.
The second point is a related one, and perhaps more concretely relevant to our modern predicament. Among the critics of political realism are those of strong moral conviction who resent any characterization of universal political ideals as “imaginary.” Like modern day Piagnoni, many are eager to embrace ambitious programs for radical change that promise to bring reality into line with some idyllic vision of what ought to be.
The problem with such abstractions is not that they apply moral criteria to politics, but that they often fail to do so in a genuine way. There is a strong psychological temptation, when faced with the harsh realities of life, to escape into an imaginary utopian world in which all such problems have been solved. Dwelling in the purity of this world is comforting, for it creates strong feelings of prideful satisfaction in one’s status among the righteous. Moreover, when put into activist mode, it functions as a kind of sacrament of absolution.
Participation in easy, empty gestures on behalf of some fashionable cause, or writing large checks to philanthropic organizations, relieve one of the inconvenient work of following the concrete injunction to “love thy neighbor.” The irony is that much of what passes for political virtue may tend to eclipse precisely the sort of localized, properly scaled moral activity that makes for humane, livable communities.
I will not argue that Machiavelli is above reproach. His cold cynicism, among other things, is rightly condemned. I will argue, however, that he was wise to caution us against those who are mesmerized by “imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed.” Ruin awaits the city that follows the false prophet of virtue.
Why the city of Florence was objectively superior to, say, the Kingdom of Naples, Machiavelli does not say. What he does say is that those inhabiting imaginary worlds tend to shirk their responsibilities to the real, concrete places that, in the end, matter most. They matter most not because of their objective superiority to other places, but because they are the only places in which we, as concrete living human beings, actually live, work, and love.
A Few Links
There is no substitute for reading the text. The Prince in its entirety (Marriott translation, public domain): http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince00.htm
Leo Strauss on Machiavelli: https://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/jbell/strauss.pdf
Ralph Hancock on Strauss on Machiavelli: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2009/04/30/thoughts-on-thoughts-on-machiavellil-the-inconvenient-truth-of-modernity/
Claes G. Ryn on the temptation of the Ideal in politics: http://www.nhinet.org/ryn12-2.htm