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Monday, February 14, 2011

Machiavelli in England, Part 1

The following is the text of a paper I delivered on Machiavelli to the Richard III Society of Canada yesterday. I’m not entirely happy with the way it’s organized, but I was under time constraints, so it is what it is. Since it is rather long, I’ve divided it in two, with the second part to follow in the near future.

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Much ink has been spilled by literary scholars in examining the extent to which Shakespeare’s Richard III was consciously intended to be a representative of Machiavellianism, mainly on the basis of the following famous lines of Gloucester’s from Henry VI, Part 3:

"I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down."
(Henry VI, Part 3, III.ii.191-195)

Whether or not this was Shakespeare’s intent, in this paper I will argue that, despite the popular view, Richard is not a Machiavellian character, for several reasons. First, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Machiavelli’s political theory was about as deep as a puddle, so that when he mentions Machiavelli, he is really doing little more than name-dropping. Second, when one looks at Machiavelli’s political theory, Henry VII is probably a better match for a true Machiavellian prince. Along the way, we’ll encounter a few ironies about Machiavelli’s life and work. I’ll also examine the legacy of Machiavellianism in English political history. One thing we’ll learn is that the popular view of Machiavelli — as exemplified by Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III — is based in large part on ignorance of his works. The real Machiavelli was not who you might think he was.

Machiavelli, the Man

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a citizen of Florence, where he rose to high office in the Florentine Republic, travelling on many diplomatic missions. His experience taught him much about statecraft, or so he would have liked his readers to believe. In reality, as a politician he was largely a failure. After the battle of Prato (1513), the Republic was overthrown, the Medici returned to rule Florence, and Machiavelli fell from favour. Indeed, because his loyalty was suspected by the new regime, he was tortured and imprisoned, before being forced into retirement. In his retirement he took up writing. (For those interested in how Machiavelli was tortured, the strappado was employed on him. It was a cunningly simple method: the victim had his hands tied behind his back and was then suspended by the wrists. Great strength was needed to hold oneself in such a position as to avoid having one’s shoulders dislocated.)

Machiavelli was not happy in retirement; he tried desperately to find employment again, but nobody was much interested in his services. Thus, in some ways, Machiavelli’s knowledge of politics comes less from his having been an actor in them, and more from his experience as an anxious and unwilling spectator watching from the sidelines.

The Renaissance Italy of Machiavelli’s time was very chaotic, with perpetual warfare between states, and Florence was no exception. What Machiavelli saw was that a certain degree of ruthlessness and ethical “corner-cutting” were necessary in circumstances of strife and warfare. Sometimes it seemed as if, despite the moralizing sermons of priests and the tidy logical arguments of theologians, worthy political ends could only be served by rather shabby and unworthy means. This is very much the Machiavelli of The Prince and forms much of the basis of the popular view of his work. As we will see, there was quite a bit more to his philosophy of government than this caricature implies.

So far we have noted one irony about Machiavelli: he was a political theorist who was a failure in politics. To this we can add two more. First, in his own time, at least in terms of his literary output, he was really better known to his contemporaries as a playwright and man of letters than as a political theorist. As I said, his fellow Florentines were largely uninterested in what he had to say about politics. Second, for our times, although Machiavelli the political theorist is best known by The Prince, if he were alive today he would most likely recommend that we read his Discourses on Livy instead.

The Two Machiavellis

Most political philosophy courses limit discussion of Machiavelli to The Prince. But I think the true political philosophy of Machiavelli is to be found in the Discourses. Here’s why: The Prince was basically written with an ulterior motive, to toady to Lorenzo d’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, in the hopes of getting a job. It’s written in a style flattering to princes, and is basically a handbook of advice for a prince, providing justification for him to do whatever he finds necessary to secure his rule (although, as we will soon see, there is a little bit more to it than this). Machiavelli was in the political wilderness at the time, and he wasn’t taking his forced retirement very well. He wanted back in the game.

Also, as shocking as the advice of The Prince was — and continues to be — to so many of its readers, it would have seemed like a book of commonplace platitudes to a real prince in Renaissance Italy (or even in the late medieval England of Richard III). To much of what Machiavelli has to say, we can picture Lorenzo d’ Medici replying, “Well duh! Tell me something I didn’t know.” Some princes were certainly bad at executing such advice, but none of them would have likely thought the advice was immoral or forbidden, at least in private. In short, I find it hard to imagine that Machiavelli had much to teach the Medici or the Borgias about Realpolitik.

I contend that in The Prince Machiavelli had other motives than to give us his fully worked-out political philosophy. Or rather, in it he was giving us his view of “the politics of the possible”, politics for an imperfect world, far from Machiavelli’s ideal. For that ideal, we have to turn to his Discourses.

As it purports to be a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s history of Rome, which mostly deals with the early years of the Roman Republic, it should come as no surprise that the Discourses advocates republicanism rather than monarchy. There are no ulterior motives in it, and the work is dedicated to two fellow citizens of Florence, friends of Machiavelli’s. He believed that monarchy was suited to certain abnormal circumstances, but that once those circumstances had passed, a monarch should hand over some or all of his power to others.

How are we to reconcile these two seemingly opposed works, the one masquerading as a handbook for autocratic princes, the other advocating a republic with a democratic element? In order to answer this question, we should first get ourselves familiar with the works themselves.

The Prince

The Prince wasn’t printed until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death, but it had circulated amongst his friends in manuscript form as early as 1513. A small clue to the work’s real concern, and to its relationship with his Discourses, occurs in the first chapter, where he distinguishes between long-established states, and those states that are newly founded or conquered. For the most part, Machiavelli is only concerned with the latter. Long-established states offer few problems for the philosopher to grapple with, and he points out that a hereditary monarch from an old ruling family would have to be very incompetent indeed if he had to worry about his throne: under such a regime internal opposition faces almost insuperable resistance from the people’s love of habit and tradition, while the people’s loyalty to the ruling family forms a bulwark against the plots of foreign enemies. In short, the hereditary monarch of an established dynasty has a stock of political capital left to him by his illustrious ancestors.

So we can assume that in The Prince, Machiavelli’s advice is mainly aimed at the founder or conqueror of a state. These represent rather special circumstances, historically speaking, and so his counsel is correspondingly extreme. Interestingly though, for our purposes, it was these special circumstances in which both Richard III and Henry VII found themselves. So as I describe The Prince, I leave it as an exercise for you to consider which of these respective monarchs was a better representative of Machiavelli’s ideal.

Incidentally, Machiavelli’s own ideal prince was Cesare Borgia. In the following rhapsody on Cesare, we are given a list of many of the qualities and deeds Machiavelli would like to see united in the ideal conqueror or founder prince:

“So anyone who decides that the policy to follow when one has newly acquired power is to destroy one’s enemies, to secure some allies, to win wars, whether by force or by fraud, to make oneself both loved and feared by one’s subjects, to make one’s soldiers loyal and respectful, to wipe out those who can or would want to hurt one, to innovate, replacing old institutions with new practices, to be both harsh and generous, magnanimous and open-handed, to disband disloyal troops and form new armies, to build alliances with other powers, so kings and princes either have to win your favour or else think twice before going against your wishes ― anyone who thinks in these terms cannot hope to find, in the recent past, a better model to imitate than Cesare Borgia.” (Prince p. 27. This and subsequent citations of Machiavelli’s writings are from his Selected Political Works, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994.)

Virtue (virtù) and Fortune (fortuna)

Throughout Machiavelli’s philosophy of politics, we see repeatedly the subtle interplay between two great historical forces: Fortune (fortuna) and Virtue (virtù). They seem at first sight like straightforward concepts, but in Machiavelli’s philosophy they have a somewhat different ― and highly sexist ― twist. Let us first look at the concept of virtue.

When we think of virtue or the virtues today, in our (post)Christian world, we often tend to think of a certain constellation of particular virtues. Prominent among these might be humility, charity, forgiveness. However, since Machiavelli was consciously following an older, Roman, tradition, these Christian virtues would not have been to his purpose.

To get an idea of what Machiavelli had in mind, it might help to look at the etymology of the word “virtue”. It comes from two very closely related Latin words: vir (“man”) and vis (“power, force”, in the direct, physical sense). Thus, whenever we encounter the word virtù in the text of The Prince, we might best translate it as “manly virtue”. In particular applications, it often tends to mean something like “boldness” or “strength”. So Machiavelli’s ideal prince will be someone abounding in the manly virtues, meaning that he is bold, strong, even ruthless. He is not the turn-the-other-cheek, forgive-your-enemies type.

However, to use philosopher’s jargon, such virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful ruler. Virtue alone is not enough. This is because although a virtuous ruler has some of what it takes to move history, history also has another prime mover: fortune. There is an irreducible element of blind luck in all human affairs. This puts limits on how far politics can be reduced to a science, since not all events are predictable. Thus, besides virtue, a ruler must depend on a certain amount of good luck, an example of this being advantageous birth and family connections.

As has already been shown, for Machiavelli, virtue is masculine. Similarly, fortune, being fickle, changeable, and inconstant, is feminine (indeed the Latin and Italian noun fortuna is feminine). When it comes to dealing with fortune, part of the virtue of a successful ruler consists in boldness, in seizing the opportunities that fortune provides. The following passage likening fortune to a lady illustrates rather starkly both the aspect of fortune as opportunity, and the brutally masculine nature of virtue:

“I do think, however, that it is better to be headstrong than cautious, for fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her. And one sees she more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in a calculating fashion. Moreover, since she is a lady, she smiles on the young, for they are less cautious, more ruthless, and overcome her with their boldness.” (Prince pp. 76-77)

It is perhaps no coincidence that Lorenzo d’ Medici, the man from whom Machiavelli was shamelessly soliciting employment, would also have been one of fortune’s youthful favourites, dying in 1519 at the age of 26. In any case, Machiavelli’s imagery here is ugly, and perhaps says something about Italian culture at the time. As Robert Burton wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), “England is a paradise for women and hell for horses. Italy is a paradise for horses, hell for women.”

Of course, it is not always opportunity that fortune throws in one’s path, and so boldness is not the only virtue required of a prince in dealing with her. Since she is predictable in her changeability, fortune also offers adversity, and so prudence is the effective virtue with which to ride out such adversity. Here, instead of a lady, the image of fortune for Machiavelli is that of a river: although we never know exactly when, sooner or later a river will overflow its banks. The prudent prince will build embankments to prepare for inevitable flooding.

Politics and “Dirty Hands”

The Prince has become a byword for moral bankruptcy in politics. It is taken to claim that any conduct is excusable, even laudable, so long as it is done for politically expedient reasons, for reasons of state. It was a long-standing maxim of politics that salus populi est suprema lex — “the well-being of the people is the highest law”. But does this mean that so long as lawbreaking is done for the supposed good of the people, anything goes? Or, to put it another way, is it the case that sometimes politics will require of public figures certain actions that would be grossly immoral if done in private life? This is, in essence, the problem of “dirty hands” in politics. Machiavelli has long been read as claiming that politics inevitably requires rulers to get their hands dirty. However nice morality seems, it is a luxury a prince can ill-afford. Is this a fair characterization of Machiavelli’s public morality? On the basis of passages like the following, it would certainly appear so:

“You should therefore know there are two ways to fight: one while respecting the rules, the other with no holds barred. Men alone fight in the first fashion, and animals fight in the second. But because you cannot always win if you respect the rules, you must be prepared to break them. A ruler, in particular, needs to know how to be both an animal and a man.” (Prince p. 54)

In other words, follow the rules, except when they stand in the way of your winning, in which case, disregard them. This would seem to indicate a cavalier attitude towards rules, to say the least. One of the first lessons a child learns about ethics and moral conduct is to ask themselves the golden question: “What if everyone did that?” That, for example, was the way I learned that littering was wrong. What if everyone ignored the rules when they were no longer convenient? Well, the rules would simply disappear. Take the sports analogy: if all the competitors in a game habitually broke the rules when it suited them, nobody would trust anyone else to follow the rules. In such a situation you’d be a sucker to continue observing the rules. The game would dissolve, and whatever benefits one gets from playing the game would disappear with it.

When it comes to nations rather than, say, baseball or hockey teams, the stakes are rather higher. In sports I can take my bat and ball and go home, but international relations is a true prisoner’s dilemma: when trust in the rules breaks down, everyone is ultimately worse off than they would be if everyone stuck to them. The alternative to playing the game is no holds barred warfare, an outcome that ultimately benefits nobody.

Is there anything that can be said in Machiavelli’s defense here? Perhaps. First, we must remember what was noted earlier, that The Prince is mainly concerned with new rulers who have recently conquered or founded states or dynasties. For one of these, once he has seized power, the trick is to keep it. He will often be a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by people of doubtful loyalty. And since hostile neighbours will be aware of his weak domestic position, they will likely try to foster disaffection with his rule and give succour to his enemies. The new ruler is in danger from both internal and external opponents. Therefore, it is imperative that he sweep away all the old institutions and interests. He must be quick and ruthless in crushing opposition to the new regime. In a sense, he must create a new state.

The nuance in the Machiavellian exercise of power lies in thoroughness and speed. First, once the decision is made to eliminate enemies, it must be done thoroughly; no loose ends must be left:

“There is a general rule to be noted here: People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”  (Prince pp. 9-10)

Second, it must be done in such a way that it isn’t dragged out. As his position rests on a relatively shaky foundation, the new prince cannot afford to make himself hated by a wide constituency. If he must get his hands dirty, he is advised to be quick about it, otherwise he risks making himself hated, and people who would otherwise accept his rule begin to feel insecure and may come to believe it worthwhile to risk opposing him:

“Well-used cruelty (if one can speak well of evil) one may call those atrocities that are committed at a stroke, in order to secure one’s power, and are not then repeated, rather every effort is made to ensure one’s subjects benefit in the long run. An abuse of cruelty one may call those policies that, even if in the beginning they involve little bloodshed, lead to more rather than less as time goes by. Those who use cruelty well may indeed find both God and their subjects are prepared to let bygones be bygones…. So the conclusion is: If you take control of a state, you should make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once. That way you will not have to commit new atrocities every day, and you will be able, by not repeating your evil deeds, to reassure your subjects and to win their support by treating them well. He who acts otherwise, either out of squeamishness or out of bad judgment, has to hold a bloody knife in his hand all the time.” (Prince pp. 30-31, my italics)

It is interesting that many modern books on management give similar advice. For example, if a company proposes downsizing, it’s better to get all the layoffs done at once. “Get the misery out the door,” as the saying goes. If layoffs are done repeatedly over extended periods of time, the remaining employees feel unsafe, and morale and loyalty suffer. If it is all done at once, there is shock, followed by relief (that it’s not me), followed by forgiveness and forgetting.

Indeed, the shock and relief are a side benefit: remaining employees will probably increase their productivity after being shaken from their complaisance. This is the idea behind Machiavelli’s notorious advice that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved, for fear is more in the ruler’s control: “I conclude, then, that, as far as being feared and loved is concerned, since men decide for themselves whom they love, and rulers decide whom they fear, a wise ruler should rely on the emotion he can control, not the one he cannot” (Prince p. 53).

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