Machiavelli's Realism

By Schaub, Diana | The National Interest, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Machiavelli's Realism


Schaub, Diana, The National Interest


This new translation of Machiavelli's The Prince appears as part of a series called "Rethinking the Western Tradition." Now, the Western tradition is rather odd as traditions go, for it is a tradition of subversion. The tradition that Machiavelli was heir to was a compound of classical and Christian thought. Neither of the founders of those traditions endeared themselves to the holders of power; Socrates was put to death by the Athenians and Jesus by the rulers of Rome. Those who followed in their wake (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas), although they found ways to adjust themselves to political power, did not relent on the essential point: namely, that there is a law higher than the laws of men. This natural law (or moral law, or divine law) offers a transcendent standard by which to judge political life and, potentially, offers a principled ground for disobedience to authority.

Machiavelli clinched his reputation with the devotees of power by subverting this subversive tradition. Decisively and spectacularly, he aligned philosophy with power. As the rethinker bar none, Machiavelli inaugurated modernity and its new truth: what Machiavelli in chapter fifteen of The Prince calls "the effective truth" - a real, tangible, felt truth opposed to the imagined, utopian truths of Greeks and Christians. Here is the key passage:

And many have imagined for themselves republics and principalities that no one has ever seen or known to be in reality. Because how one ought to live is so far removed from how one lives that he who lets go of what is done for that which one ought to do sooner learns ruin than his own preservation: because a man who might want to make a show of goodness in all things necessarily comes to ruin among so many who are not good. Because of this it is necessary for a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use it according to necessity.

This is where realism begins - realism defined, in the words of one of the volume's commentators, as "an approach to politics rooted in a cynical view of human motives and possibilities, and devoted to advancing the interests of a state without regard for moral or religious strictures." It is a view that lends itself to pithy formulations: "Might makes right", "Do or be done to", "It's a dog-eat-dog world", and Machiavelli's own contribution, "Men must either be caressed or extinguished."

This volume surrounds Old Nick's brief for obligatory badness with essays by the editor and three scholars, each of whom suggests it is time to rethink Machiavelli's rethinking.! While granting Machiavelli's importance, the commentators are uniformly hostile to his influence. In opposing Machiavellian realism, however, they do not embrace the designation "idealist" for themselves. As Angelo Codevilla argues in the prefatory essay entitled "Words and Power", Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon, not to kill his classical and Christian opponents, but to pare them into risible and dismissable shapes (i.e., naive idealists). Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion, committing character assassination via caricature. His campaign of misrepresentation won him the hearts and minds of future generations to such an extent that today, according to Hadley Arkes ("Machiavelli and America"), "virtue is not something that the urbane will proclaim openly and teach in public."

We are all Machiavellians now. As a result, Carnes Lord suggests ("Machiavelli's Realism"), "it is difficult to gain the necessary perspective on the specific character and limitation of Machiavellian realism." The most obvious thing so many miss is that Machiavelli's enterprise was not purely descriptive, value-neutral, or non-normative. The Prince is the work of a polemicist, intent on replacing Christianity with "a new ethical framework structured by the concepts of necessity and usefulness.

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