Mining Value from Machiavelli: You Need Me On That Wall!

As mentioned in the previous post, which is about something else entirely, I was delighted by a 41-year-old essay in the New York Review of Books by Isaiah Berlin on Machiavelli’s The Prince, a piece that kind of bowled me over.
Berlin makes a case for where he thinks Machiavelli is coming from morally: Is he an evil bastard who thinks it’s fine to just crush people underfoot? Or is he a pragmatist who understands that sometimes you have to be an angel, and other times you have to be a son of a bitch? Is he simply amoral? Berlin says none of the above:

There are two worlds, that of personal morality and that of public organization. There are two ethical codes, both ultimate; not two “autonomous” regions, one of “ethics,” another of “politics,” but two (for him) exhaustive alternatives between two conflicting systems of value. If a man chooses the “first, humane course,” he must presumably give up all hope of Athens and Rome, of a noble and glorious society in which human beings can thrive and grow strong, proud, wise, and productive. Indeed, he must abandon all hope of a tolerable life on earth: for men cannot live outside society; they will not survive collectively if they are led by men who . . . are influenced by the first, “private” morality; they will not be able to realize their minimal goals as men; they will end in a state of moral, not merely political, degradation. But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during its pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall.

This, according to Berlin, is what has been blowing people’s minds for centuries: Machiavelli isn’t talking about one moral system, he’s talking about two. Two systems that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, both pursuing ends that are justified only within their own systems. You can have men (and in this context, they’re only talking about men) who live in a traditionally “moral” way (Berlin refers to this as “Christian” morality), valuing altruism, sacrifice, and a kind of spiritual wholeness; and you can also have princes who get shit done however they must for the good of the state. More Berlin:

If you object to the political methods recommended because they seem to you morally detestable, if you refuse to embark upon them because they are . . . too frightening, Machiavelli has no answer, no argument. In that case you are perfectly entitled to lead a morally good life, be a private citizen (or a monk), seek some corner of your own. But, in that event, you must not make yourself responsible for the lives of others or expect good fortune; in a material sense you must expect to be ignored or destroyed.

And woe be the society that is led by such men, because, the argument goes, it takes Machiavellians to actually conduct affairs of state and realize what we think of as civilization:

If men practice Christian humility, they cannot also be inspired by the burning ambitions of the great classical founders of cultures and religions; if their gaze is centered upon the world beyond—if their ideas are infected by even lip-service to such an outlook—they will not be likely to give all that they have to an attempt to build a perfect city. If suffering and sacrifice and martyrdom are not always evil and inescapable necessities, but may be of supreme value in themselves, then the glorious victories over fortune, which go to the bold, the impetuous, and the young, might neither be won nor thought worth winning. If spiritual goods alone are worth striving for, then of how much value is the study of necessita—of the laws that govern nature and human lives—by the manipulation of which men might accomplish unheard-of things in the arts and the sciences and the organization of social lives?

This started to make me a little nervous, as though we’re no longer just talking about princes, but any secular person who values the meaning and value that can be extracted from our short, mortal existence, rather than aspiring to some fuzzy posthumous reward.

Reading through this piece, I found myself feeling a kind of sympathy for the Machiavellian position. Trying to erase images of Dick Morris and Karl Rove from my mind, I understood how, as Spock would remind us, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one. And that good can often only be attained by the “prince” behaving in such a way that would not meet the “traditionally moral” smell-test. Just think back over the past 150 years or so of American history, and recall all the morally dubious actions taken by presidents that may have also saved civilization (or not!) or at least maintained American superiority (or not!). The prince’s moral system has no qualms about these actions, it has no room for qualms. The “good person,” meanwhile, looks on in horror.

(I suddenly hear the “sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide” monologue from A Few Good Men in my head. “You need me on that wall!”)

But Karl Rove came back. As I read this passage of Berlin, I felt like I was reading a manifesto of the Republican Party, particularly circa 2003:

Let me cite the best known of his most notoriously wicked pieces of advice to princes. One must employ terrorism or kindness, as the case dictates. Severity is usually more effective, but humanity, in some situations, brings better fruit. You may excite fear but not hatred, for hatred will destroy you in the end. It is best to keep men poor and on a permanent war footing, for this will be an antidote to the two great enemies of obedience—ambition and boredom—and the ruled will then feel in constant need of great men to lead them (the twentieth century offers us only too much evidence for this sharp insight). Competition—divisions between classes—in a society is desirable, for it generates energy and ambition in the right degree.

Religion must be promoted even though it may be false, provided it is of a kind that preserves social solidarity and promotes manly virtues, as Christianity has historically failed to do.

It screams Bush administration, Iraq War, War on Terror, “Jesus is my favorite philosopher,” etc. It reeks of everything the neoconservative GOP, using the religious right as its tool, tried to entrench into the American psyche, and everything they tried to do to Iraq and other parts of the world. America could only be “glorious” at the expense of a conquered state, along with other cowed lesser states. The American public would be kept in line by believing that their Prince was, like them, pious and religious. And we’re all pious and religious, right?

So that caused something of a shudder.

Berlin in 1971 saw the flaws in this approach, and if the Bushies of the 2000s were Machiavellians, Berlin would have clearly seen right through them and disapproved:

[Machiavelli’s] distrust of unworldly attitudes, absolute principles divorced from empirical observation, is fanatically strong—almost romantic in its violence; the vision of the great prince playing upon human beings like an instrument intoxicates him. He assumes that different societies must always be at war with each other, since they have conflicting purposes. He sees history as one endless process of cutthroat competition, in which the only goal that rational men can have is to succeed in the eyes of their contemporaries and of posterity. He is good at bringing fantasies down to earth, but he assumes . . . that this is enough. He allows too little to the ideal impulses of men. He has no historical sense and little sense of economics. He has no inkling of the technological progress that is about to transform political and social life, and in particular the art of war. He does not understand how either individuals, communities, or cultures develop and transform themselves. Like Hobbes, he assumes that the argument or motive for self-preservation automatically outweighs all others.

I have to admit, as I began to cozy up to a little Machiavelli, despite the recall to the Bush era, this passage was the coffee that sobered me up.

Berlin has inspired me to revisit Machiavelli all the same, to better understand what the fuss has been about. Because, as Berlin says, he does bring fantasies down to earth, and champion a political leadership that values the here and now over the imaginary eternal. There must be something to be mined from that.

16 thoughts on “Mining Value from Machiavelli: You Need Me On That Wall!”

  1. Via PZ last year, Ex Urbe explained Machiavelli’s historical setting and political novelty. From memory (notoriously unreliable) he does advocate two codes of morality and says that it’s the double-faced murderin’ bastard public organisation morality which is required to form a successful state.
    ps this link looks seriously borked in preview. Here’s hoping..


  2. Plus, considering how the Prince contrasts so much with the rest of Machiavelli’s work, there is the view that he wrote it either to kiss someone’s butt and/or be satirical.


  3. @Badland.You beat me to it. I was going to link to the same post. There’s a series of them in which the writer delves more into what was going on at the time to provide more context. I’m still waiting for the next post in the series but the blog hasn’t been updated in some time


  4. You write: Because, as Berlin says, he does bring fantasies down to earth, and champion a political leadership that values the here and now over the imaginary eternal. There must be something to be mined from that. There is a lot to be mined from that, for sure. The first is that the here and now is more valuable than the imaginary eternal, period. It helps to realize that. For example: God will not solve climate change issues. We have to. And we are not eternal, we can doom ourselves as a species pretty quickly if we are not using critical thinking. But besides from that, I think an important lesson from Machiavelli is that morality is not always a black and white subject. What is morally wrong changes not only with the times, but with the situation. We are constantly confronted by moral dilemmas, and even if they are not outright dilemmas in the classical “trolley dilemma” sense, we are all constantly having to make moral decisions that sometimes lead to the breaking of our moral principles, at the individual level, and at the government/social level as well. I’m not advocating a Machiavellian system of making decisions (let alone a Bush administration model!) but what i’m trying to say is that sometimes to get things done, one has to get one’s hands dirty. There is no such thing as 100% moral purity. The trick is how to decide when it is necessary, and the morally right thing to do, to get your hands dirty, and not end up living in a mud pit from which the only way out is to get even deeper into the mud.


  5. My use of html tags is obviously deficient. I humbly ask for your forgiveness for the lack of “” marks, italics, bold, and paragraph formatting.


  6. I just finished A Team of Rivals. Lincoln genuinely grieved the slaughter of hundreds of thousands but he gave the orders anyway. He did what he had to do and then he stopped.Later Republicans probably thought that they were continuing his legacy but i notice they only want to free oil soaked nations.


  7. [Machiavelli] has no historical sense and little sense of economics.
    Uh, say what?
    … no inkling of the technological progress that is about to transform political and social life…
    Not even Leonardo had such inklings – despite his many inventions and his collaboration with Machiavelli on a failed attempt to create navigable canals from the Arno River to make Florence into a seaport. But how the hell does the lack of a working crystal ball correlate with “historical sense”?


  8. Oddity:
    About three years ago my daughter got her master’s degree from the University of Texas. Sharing the same building as her ceremony was a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Texas ( is there an oxymoron there already??), for whom “Membership is by invitation only and is limited to two hundred persons of distinction whose life and character have furthered the purposes for which the Society was established.”
    Present, and apparently speaking at that event was none other than Karl Rove. I first thought WTF????!!, but quickly realized that ol’ Machiavelli is often referred to as a philosopher – so maybe there was some precedent.
    I had failed to pack my harpoon that morning, as I didn’t see any possible need for it a a graduation. Another fail from only getting to Second Class Boy Scout, I guess.


      1. He unfortunately remained in my field of view even when I did look at him. But then, I had on a suit and looked very vaguely Republican……


  9. He spoke at my college as well my senior year. To be fair, it was the South. He can be pretty darn personable. I went because I figured I should at least hear what he had to say rather. The questions could have been better, though, seeing as most people there were more of his mindset.
    Like when he talked about people in Africa being so happy at the Bush Administration sending over drugs to help manage AIDS that they named their kids after George and Laura, I wanted to ask how much happier they’d be if they sent over condoms that would have prevented people from getting AIDS and meant less money could be spent on the drugs to manage it.
    So yeah, I did my part to make sure I was hearing what the guy actually said. Sometimes it is important to do that in these times where some people sound like strawmen.


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