A New Argument for Morality: Machiavelli and the Ancients

By Major, Rafael | Political Research Quarterly, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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A New Argument for Morality: Machiavelli and the Ancients


Major, Rafael, Political Research Quarterly


Machiavelli is best known for his bold realism, and The Prince is a self-conscious alternative to the moral teachings of Christian and classical thought. The author demonstrates, however, that most of Machiavelli's famous maxims are in fact derivative from ancient authors. Given the similarities between The Prince and classical texts, Machiavelli's realism must be reexamined. The author analyzes chapter 3 of The Prince to show that Machiavelli appropriates the decisive rhetorical strategy of many religious texts by appealing to an inevitable fear as the basis for his new moral outlook. If Machiavelli appropriates the methods he criticizes in others, then this article serves as an invitation to read both Machiavelli and classical thinkers with a renewed and genuine interest in the originality and realism of each.

Keywords: Machiavelli; classical philosophy; morality

But however it may be, I do not judge nor shall I ever judge it to be a defect to defend any opinion with reasons [italics added], without wishing to use either authority or force for it.

-Machiavelli, Discourses, 1.58.1 (1996)

Machiavelli's The Prince is best known for his bold and liberating attack on older traditions of political thought. He openly assaults the naive hope in the salvific rewards of virtue, held out by Christian apologists, and the parallel assertions by classical thinkers that the just or virtuous life yields an unassailable intrinsic happiness. By comparison to previous thinkers, Machiavelli consciously sets himself apart with a willingness to expose the harshest truths of political life. If the truth be told, a realistic understanding of the intractable nature of mankind may prove to be the best foundation for achieving the very rewards of political life that were merely hoped for by his predecessors. As a further testament to his candor, however, Machiavelli admits that his "realism" was shared by many of the ancient authors he claimed to surpass. According to Machiavelli then, the ancients covertly taught many of the same lessons contained in The Prince.1 If these similarities are real, it becomes imperative to reexamine both Machiavelli and the ancients with a fresh attention to the rhetorical strategies of each. By sifting through the apparent disagreements, we will be able to pinpoint and judge the character of Machiavelli's bold endeavor.

In what follows, I demonstrate that most of Machiavelli's infamous political proscriptions are in fact derivative from classical sources of political thought. By seeing this agreement, we will be able to sharpen our attention to the massive choice of Machiavelli to be openly "realistic" in contrast to the apparent "reticence" of classical authors. If Machiavelli's self-proclaimed quarrel with the ancients is greatly exaggerated, we become forced to reassess both his "realism" and the apparent "idealism" he opposed. For example, several characters in The Prince seem very adept at furthering their own political designs by claiming spiritual authority for their oft times inhumane actions (e.g., Pope Alexander or Ferdinand of France). These crafty appeals to spiritual knowledge, however, seem to be a short distance from the "imagined republics" of antiquity. It appears that the moral authority of both Christianity and classical political thought rest on imaginative grounds that too frequently become the very source of political unrest. Machiavelli's all but explicit aim, then, is to recast moral discourse on a down-to-earth level that is open and accessible to reasonable investigation.2 But if this is true, how do we account for the fact that so much of Machiavelli's seemingly candid advice comes directly from antiquity? Do his own arguments suffer the same defects he is at such pains to expose in others?

With this question in mind, I analyze chapter 3 of The Prince in an effort to judge the moral teaching of the book as a whole. Machiavelli's break with antiquity is more explicit in later chapters, but chapter 3 becomes important when viewed as a preliminary yet necessary logical step in the arguments that follow.

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