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Saying Goodbye to Machiavelli

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“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” In other words, hit him so hard he can’t get back up. “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.” And the most well known piece of advice to come down to us from the famous Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli is, “It is better to be feared than loved.” We know these sayings so well, or at least their sentiments, they have become commonplace. But when they were written readers were shocked. So new and shocking was his advice in The Prince, that it ushered in what we now call modern political theory. Politics had never been discussed in this way before.

However, this is the only way we discuss politics now. Movies like J. Edgar and The Ides of March hardly cause the watcher to raise an eyebrow, because we expect those in power to abuse it. Opinion polls show that politicians are perceived to be among the least trustworthy among us.

When Machiavelli wrote The Prince he had two audiences in mind. The first was Lorenzo de Medici to whom he offered it as a gift and meant for Lorenzo to read the book as a how-to guide. The ostensible message, “If you want to come to power and stay there; this is what you will have to do.” The second audience was the average person. Having written the book in Italian, ‘the vulgar tongue’, and not the customary Latin, Machiavelli was signaling to this audience a different message entirely. He was exposing the means and modes of securing political power to the average person with the hope that this audience might begin to desire a republican form of government rather than rule by the Medicis. Let’s remember, Machiavelli was sent into exile by the Medicis, and wouldn’t it be perfectly Machiavellian to give his greatest political opponent a Trojan Horse? After all, it was Machiavelli who proclaimed, “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”

If Machiavelli wrote today, however, his book would be mundane. We have become accustomed to politicians who act badly. Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Solyndra are only a few of the hundreds of examples in American politics that come to mind when we think of abuses of power. Of course, this is child’s play compared to Pol Pot, Stalin, Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, and Mubarack.

American college students are just as jaded as the rest of us, which is why I have stopped assigning The Prince. Machiavelli was under the impression that if the people knew just how nasty and deceitful political leaders were, they would rise up and demand a republican form of government in which the people could hold the leaders in check. Presumably, if the people had this power, politicians would behave themselves. I would assign The Prince to try to convince students that it was important to be politically engaged. I thought The Prince, with its tales of gruesome murders and apparent disdain for morality, would drive the point home. But, if news headlines and popular culture don’t shock students and convince them that we need to remain vigilant in the political arena, a book nearly 500 years old certainly won’t.

I have found that if you want to shock students, or really anyone, you propose the radical idea that politicians should be pillars of virtue and the end of government should be a just society.

A just society, borrowing from Plato, is one that reflects the properly ordered soul. The properly ordered soul is one in which the higher desires: moderation, wisdom, courage, guide the base desires: greed, stupidity, vanity. Society is merely the individual soul writ large. If the souls of the people are upside down then society will be too. Therefore, if we want a properly ordered society those in charge of the ordering should have properly ordered souls. Political leaders must themselves be just if society is to be just.

I can hear you laughing.

Students are shocked to read something that suggests there is a higher form of the good. They are shocked to hear one propose that we ought to strive for virtue in the political arena, that the government is something more than a provider of services and a means by which to wage war. I expose myself to good natured ridicule when I make the same suggestion to my friends and colleagues.

I don’t expect anyone to accept what I say out of hand. But it is useful to shock people for the same reason Machiavelli thought it useful. Shocking people is the only way to get them to question what they think they know about politics;about what it should be and can be. Thinking differently about important matters is the only way to move the political debate in a positive direction; which we need because the current debates are going nowhere good.

On one side of the political spectrum are those saying that we need more regulation to control the bad behavior of those who can’t regulate themselves. If history has shown us anything, it is that lawbreakers will always stay ahead of lawmakers. Also, it makes no sense to think that those who make laws will make good laws if the lawmakers are not first found to be good people. If we do not go back, before every instance of lawmaking, and ask what it is to be just, then nothing is guiding our laws but randomness. We cannot say our laws are good unless we first know what is required to be good. We do not typically ask these questions with any depth, which is why we cannot expect lawmakers or laws to be just.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we hear that we need fewer regulations; if we allow individuals the freedom to choose their own course, everything will work out for the best. The reason why government exists is because people won’t do the right thing if left alone. If you don’t believe me, ask Adam and Eve. Imagine if a society were created new, with almost no regulation, what people would make of it. The first and most lucrative operations would be those that catered to vices, and all we have to do is look at what businesses rose quickest on the Internet and still remain the most lucrative. Porn and gambling is what you get when you leave people to their own devices.

I overstate the point, of course, but the idea is that people need guidance if they are to make the right decisions. The government must play some role in guiding our behavior, for as James Madison wrote in his famous Federalist #10, “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.”

But a government without checks will not do much good either. The first step in creating good government, and thus a just society, is self-examination. This might be an unrealistic solution but it is the only solution.

The only chance a government has to achieve justice is when we recognize that the source of society’s disorder does not lie in the Other, or somewhere outside of ourselves. To make things better we must first make ourselves better. “Tend to your own garden,” I think Voltaire would have said. We must govern ourselves as we would like to see our country governed. And when politicians fail to achieve the level of virtue that a just society demands, we kick them out.

Of course what I suggest is a lofty ideal, one which is perhaps never to be achieved, and never has been achieved. But to paraphrase Machiavelli, I suggest that like the prudent archer, we aim for the furthest spot on the horizon, for even if we fall short we will have still traveled a great distance further than if we started with only modest ambitions.

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About Kyle Scott

  • Deano

    I always find it interesting that people begin and end their Machiavelli with The Prince and never bother to read his Discourses, the content of which is much more focused on the ideals and workings of a republic and less on cold realpolitick.

  • Baronius

    El – The writing style is heavy-handed Miller, and that *is* boring, but I was referring mostly to the sentiments expressed in it.

    The Prince doesn’t shake up kids today because they’re brought up suspicious of governments’ intentions. Likewise, Death of a Salesman won’t startle the youth, because they didn’t grow up believing in the American Dream of hard work guaranteeing success.

  • Cicero, Flaubert, Arthur Miller, Dante — whatever one thinks of them, we’ve got an educated audience here.

    One would think it’s the Kenyon Review.

  • Who’s bored by Death of a Salesman? I never ceased to be amazed by what people write in the comments

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Kyle –

    Excellent article – it sorta reminds me of a quote by Cicero: “The youth of today are so disrespectful, and they all want to write a book”. For when it comes to human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In order to address your observation below:

    Students are shocked to read something that suggests there is a higher form of the good. They are shocked to hear one propose that we ought to strive for virtue in the political arena, that the government is something more than a provider of services and a means by which to wage war. I expose myself to good natured ridicule when I make the same suggestion to my friends and colleagues.

    I would suggest that you find one that is more relevant to the modern day, such as The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China which goes in depth into good government and is studied and used today in China. Remember the fears that the “Y2K computer problem” was going to crash the world’s computers at the turn of the millennium? In order to make sure that the jetliners wouldn’t fall out of the sky, the Chinese premier directed that all their airline CEO’s would be in the air at midnight at Y2K. Of course Y2K caused a lot few problems than we thought it would, but what the Chinese airline CEO’s were forced to do came right out of the Seven Military Classics, as does much else of what their government does.

    As far as holding the government accountable, I would recommend teaching the importance of the Fourth Estate, for there are so many examples not only of how the traditional media are so often manipulated to the nations detriment (examples can be found in almost any nation), but also of how as time marches on, the truth will out; it (almost) always does. Sadly, the truth often doesn’t come out in time to save the lives of so many, but still it always comes out.

    When it comes to corruption in government, there is nothing going on that hasn’t happened before except with the speed at which it occurs. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, greed and treachery and spite are part and parcel of human intercourse, as have courage, compassion, and – above all – honor. The students have to be made to understand that most people inside or outside of government really do try to do the right thing (in the point of view of those people), and that the cynicism that they (the students) feel is based on fear and frustration, and that they must have the courage to reject the cynicism that would stop them from doing their best for themselves and for the world.

    Kyle, I apologize for going on such a rant – my sanctimony is showing – but those are just a few suggestions for overcoming the cynicism of the youth of today…who are really not so different from the youth of Cicero’s time.

  • zingzing

    that’s a pretty dim view of contempory academics, igor. from his bio, it says that kyle works at duke, which is no chump school (except in basketball, where they are awful, awful people). nobody’s going to work hard enough to get into duke, and then shell out that much money, just to cheat themselves out of the education they’ve worked for the last dozen years to achieve.

    unless they’re some legacy student who has a spot at daddy’s firm on the other side. but those don’t make up the bulk of students in america, or at duke. not that duke students aren’t snobby little blue… ugh.

  • If you were to assign “The Prince” in class for a term paper most students would search the web for a ready-made essay immediately, perhaps even finding one of your own and submitting it as their own.

    No they wouldn’t, Igor, much as they might be tempted to.

    Just about the first thing students are asked to do nowadays when embarking on a new class is to read and sign the anti-plagiarism statement, in which the dire consequences of doing such a thing are made crystal clear, as is the ease of detection.

    Doubtless there are still a few dumb enough to try, but “most”? Nope.

  • Igor

    Excellent article, Kyle!

    The diminution of morality and clear thinking in American society is well known. If you were to assign “The Prince” in class for a term paper most students would search the web for a ready-made essay immediately, perhaps even finding one of your own and submitting it as their own.

    Of course our sick society focuses entirely on money as the all-purpose good, with which all the thrills of life can be purchased. Little wonder that students are eager to fake their way through school so they can get in on The Big Time scamming of Big Business.

  • Baronius

    Excellent article.

    On a side note, it’s always driven me crazy that high school English teachers assign works that would have shocked the 1950’s establishment, but bore people today. I’m thinking of Death of a Salesman, Madame Bovary, The Scarlet Letter, et cetera. It’s been a while since I was in h.s., but I think they’re still doing it.

    Have you thought about assigning Utopia? The first portion addresses the question of morality under an immoral government. Considering how that question played itself out in More’s life, it may be the shock for your students that you’re looking for. Of course, if you’re looking for a good study of Italian political science, you can’t do better than Dante.

  • Kyle Scott

    Dr. Dreadful,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my pieces. I appreciate the respsonse. Good call on the dedication as well. You are right, most people do not pick up on the satire.

  • Great piece, Kyle. It’s always worthwhile pointing out that Machiavelli did not endorse the advice he set forth in The Prince, and that it was meant to be satirical. That much is obvious even before you start reading the book: look at the barely-concealed sarcasm of the dedication to Lorenzo de Medici. (Which Machiavelli knew was likely to pass right over his sponsor’s head, as it does over most people’s.)