IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian?

We have previously discussed Martin Wight’s tripartite divison of international thought into the Machiavellians, Grotians, and Kantians, or realists, rationalists, and revolutionists. As Wight was the first to concede, these representations did not necessarily capture the spirit of the thinkers concerned. There was an important sense, for example, in which Machiavelli  was not a Machiavellian, with Wight pointing as evidence to Machiavelli’s demotion of Agathocles the Sicilian  in chapter eight of The Prince: "It cannot be called virtue to kill one's fellow citizens, betray one's friends, be without faith, without pity, and without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory."

Of course, a perfectly intelliglble ideal type of Machiavellism can be constructed that leaves the historical Machiavelli in the dust, and so far as IR theory is concerned the question—“Was Machiavelli  a Machiavellian?-- may be deemed of secondary importance. Nevertheless, the question continues to fascinate. An excellent foray into this problem was made a generation ago by Mark Hulliung, a political theorist, in Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton University Press, 1983). Hulliung gave a resounding "yes" to the question. The book was not especially well received by fellow political theorists or historians of political thought. Harvey Mansfield, objecting to Hulliung’s slighting treatment of Leo Strauss, pronounced it vulgar; J.G.A. Pocock, speaking for the humanists, called it “an extraordinarily one-eyed book.” Hulliung, wrote Pocock, seeks “to show that Machiavelli valued citizenship for the sake of conquest, the free plebeian republic because it could dominate and destroy its neighbors. This has been noticed before, but as Hulliung isolates it and makes it the absolute presupposition of everything Machiavelli ever wrote, he is in a position to declare that it has never been noticed enough, and that those who have noticed it share with those who have not a disposition to deny its importance.”

Neither Mansfield nor Pocock, despite their harsh criticism, can quite bring themselves to the accusation that Hulliung is mistaken in his principal theses. It’s the emphases he gets all wrong. Marshalling evidence for a particular thesis may seem like myopia, as it evidently did for Pocock, but I find Hulliung’s clarity of expression and appreciation of the stakes to be very bracing. Especially interesting is Hulliung’s treatment of Machiavelli’s relation to the humanists who championed “the cause of republican peace against monarchical aggression and evoked “the ‘free peoples’ of Italy” as a “brotherhood of republics.”   (1950 words) 

* * *
Our age, it seems, is too much one of embattled humanism for humanists to be willing to recognize Machiavelli for what he was, the first and one of the greatest subversives of the humanist tradition. We understandably but mistakenly prefer to believe that Machiavelli was a humanist misunderstood, or that his immersion in the humanist tradition proves we have nothing to fear from him, or better yet, that he was, in anticipation of ourselves, a humanist grappling with the problem of "dirty hands," the dilemma of the necessity of doing evil for the sake of the good.
But in truth, as I hope to prove, a Machiavelli so much to our liking is not Machiavelli at all. The real Machiavelli deliberately inverted the master symbols of Latin literature, and each of his inversions was an intentional subversion of the humanist creed: by turning the Stoicism of Cicero upside down, Machiavelli forced the studia humanitatis to give birth to Machiavellism—a Machiavellism born not of "necessity," but of a yearning for the grandeur of conquest, matched by an impatience with—and disdain for—any humanistic sympathies standing in the way of the glory of republican empire. By force and by fraud, the Roman republic of Machiavelli's imagination had devoured the ancient world, and Machiavelli's most heartfelt dream was that Florence might one day do the same for the modern world. (ix-x)

Of all republics past and present to choose from, it was the world-conquering Roman republic that arrested Machiavelli's attention. The ancient model he admired and hoped to reproduce in modern times was none other than that singularly expansionary, singularly successful Roman republic whose way of life had been the fulfilment of virtus, an ethic of glory, grandeur, and heroism. While the individual excellence of the prince may be admirable, the greatest feats of heroism are collective and popular in nature. In its democratic form, virtus taps the potential greatness of the common man, his willingness to fight and die for his country, and can claim as its due meed of glory the conquest of all other republics. Machiavelli, then, is admittedly not the prophet of a life "beyond good and evil"—he is not an amoralist; rather, he is one possible fulfilment of pagan morality—but none the less frightening for that.

By no means is imperialism an obscure or occasional topic in Machiavelli's writings. On the contrary, it is a central theme running throughout all his works, from beginning to end. The Discorsi deal with the successful empire-building of the Romans, the Istorie Fiorentine with the failed empire-building of the Florentines; the "new prince" of II Principe is frequently an old prince in a foreign land, Louis XII of France, whose blundering efforts to annex a chunk of Italy are criticized and superior methods suggested. Alternatively, the methods employed by Cesare Borgia to carve out an Italian empire are praised in Il Principe as models worthy of imitation. (5-6)

Why historians have been no more effective than philosophers and political theorists in weeding revisionism out of the literature on Machiavelli is not immediately obvious. On the face of it, all has been going well. Studies of the Italian Renaissance have highlighted the birth and growth of republican ideology, so that we can now view Machiavelli in the cultural context that nourished him. At long last Burckhardt's coupling of humanistic studies with the courts of tyrants has been broken. A humanism that was republican and civic, as Hans Baron, Eugenio Garin, and others have shown, competed vigorously with the humanism that consorted with despots. Around 1400, argues Baron, a "civic humanism" emerged when those intellectuals who studied ancient languages and art forms began to revive ancient political ideals in response to the life and death struggle of the Florentine republic with the tyrant of Milan. Provoked by political crisis, classicism became politicized, patriotic, and republican, and exerted its new-found fervor through reworking the symbols common to the educated. Under the sponsorship of the civic humanists Cicero was restored to his position, lost during the Middle Ages, of citizen and advocate of the vita activa, and Brutus, slayer of Caesar, was rescued from the jaws of Satan, where Dante had placed him, his vacated spot being offered to Caesar, murderer of the republic. At the end of this line of development, more than a century removed from its inception, and standing as its chief beneficiary and culminating point, is Niccolo Machiavelli.

So far as Machiavelli is concerned, Baron's thesis errs by omission; it accounts for intellectual continuity from Leonardo Bruni in the early quattrocento to Machiavelli a century later but says nothing about discontinuity—the differences between Machiavelli and his forebears, which on questions of foreign affairs are especially radical. Juxtaposition of Baron's account of the years 1400 to 1450 with Machiavelli's rendering of that same half-century in his Florentine History reveals a great deal. With skill and formidable erudition Baron shows how, in the face of repeated threats from the Visconti, the humanists of Florence united with their counterparts in Venice, each republican intelligentsia sounding the phrases of liberty and carrying this theme from the domestic to the interstate realm: the "free peoples" of Italy, a kind of brotherhood of republics, became a centerpiece of political rhetoric. Machiavelli, however, sees the same period in an altogether different light. In his account the early quattrocento was a period of politics-as-usual in which republic confronted republic fully as often as republic confronted monarchy. What little pride he takes in the conflict with Milan is local pride, reserved for the efforts of Florence. And when we finally come upon a passage in which Machiavelli has Florentines exhorting Venetians to take up arms in a common republican venture, the Florentines in question are exiles and very bad citizens. All their eloquence is disloyal, aimed at fostering foreign intervention in the politics of their patria. (8-10)

It would be mistaken to interpret Machiavelli's position as a foreign "form" imposed upon the reluctant native "matter" of civic humanism. Rather might his thought be properly regarded as a finale evoking one of the potentials always present in the humanist tradition. From civic humanism to power politics was a path previously trod by Leonardo Bruni in the early Renaissance, if less vigorously than by Machiavelli near its end. In certain passages Bruni is Baron's man, championing the cause of all free peoples against the king of Naples and the tyrant of Milan, or warning that just as the Etruscans fell to the Romans for want of solidarity among republics, so the Florentines and Venetians may meet their demise should they fail to forge a common front. This same Bruni then turns around and writes his Historiarum Florentini Populi without once questioning the propriety of a Florentine empire incorporating all of republic-breeding Tuscany. "Greatness" in the terminology of Bruni was already becoming what it was later to be in Machiavelli’s Istorie Fiorentine: the list of cities once free and now subject to the yoke of Florence. (13-14)

A scholar of Professor Baron's erudition and brilliance cannot be simply mistaken. Much must be conceded to him: his evidence for the existence of a generation and more of humanists championing the cause of republican peace against monarchical aggression is powerful, indeed. Missing, however, in his analysis is an appreciation of the extent to which the humanists' goal of peace was the result of their admission of the trader—mercilessly castigated by Aristotle and Cicero—to the rank of citizen in republican theory. By this adjustment in Greek and Roman political thought the humanists were, of course, merely admitting the facts of life (or perhaps the facts of patronage) in the modern city-state of traders as opposed to the ancient city-state of warriors. Yet their revision of classical norms, however pragmatic, was noteworthy for giving the humanists something in common with the nonhumanists Villani and Dati, namely, an economic anchor which prevented the theorized ship of state from becoming an idealized warship. So long as humanistic thought bore even a naive relationship to economic concerns, republican political thought was not predatory; its passion for glory and grandeur was kept under control.  (17)
Speech was the bond of society, lust for war its nemesis in Cicero's fusion of republicanism with Stoicism. "Those who say that one standard should be applied to fellow citizens but another to foreigners, destroy the common society of the human race," Cicero lamented. His conviction is the direct opposite of that voiced in Machiavelli's idealized Life of Castruccio Castracani: "He was gracious to his friends, to his enemies terrible, just with his subjects, not to be trusted by foreigners." It is also totally at odds with Machiavelli's understanding of the Roman republic, a predator if ever there was one, and of republics in general: Of all hard slaveries, the hardest is that subjecting you to a republic . . . because the purpose of a republic is to enfeeble and weaken all other bodies in order to increase its own." To read Cicero, Roman foreign policy was the most just ever known; to read Machiavelli, it was the most Machiavellian. (28)
Throughout the first book of the Discorsi, Machiavelli is anxious to discover in the Roman republic the Aristotelian polity that Polybius had imagined was the essence of internal Rome; throughout the second book Machiavelli argues his view, also Polybian in origin, that the internal strength of Rome, her mixed and balanced government, was the reason why that republic achieved universal domination. Polybius, present with Scipio at the final siege of Carthage, was dazzled by Rome's march in a mere fifty-three years to world empire, "a thing the like of which had never happened before," and he was certain that in discovering a Roman realization of the Aristotelian idea of polity he had explained why Rome attained unexampled success. Previous governments, in contrast, had all been unmixed, hence weak, vulnerable to foreign powers, and incapable of sustaining a successful imperialism. In Romanizing the concept of polity, Polybius made Aristotle advocate from the grave and against his will the urge to conquer from which the living Aristotle had attempted to dissuade Alexander. (46-47)

Usually missing from the . . . apology for Machiavelli is a recognition that "honor" and "glory," far from placing him within our moral universe, figure in his thought as expressions natural to a heroic and pagan moral code. Always missing is an account of how disconcerting, how dangerous, how explosive, Machiavelli's morality is from a liberal or socialist point of view. It is Machiavelli's moral utterances that are disturbing, not his amoral calculations of the method of overthrowing any regime, republican or princely. It is Machiavelli's very "humanism," his morality derived from and imposed upon the classics, that is so incompatible with our humanism. Lashing out against the weakness of Florence, against a millennium and more of a bad Christian "education," and more than two centuries of oscillations between an ignoble commercial republic and a monarchical Medicean government perched atop the coffin of civic hope, Machiavelli was a pagan with a vengeance. The incipient power politics of ancient pagan culture, which Plato and Aristotle had tried to bring under philosophical control, Euripides under dramatic control, the Romans under the control of Stoicism, and the Christians under the control of an antithetical set of values, was set free by Machiavelli. (227-28)

When Montaigne, some decades after the death of Machiavelli, remarked that "there is no other virtue that spreads so easily as military valor," he might as well have been quoting the Discourses on Livy, except that to the Frenchman such words were expressions of despair, whereas to Machiavelli they were the stuff dreams are made of. (35)

 * * *


The work to which Hulliung refers is Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, first published in 1955. This is a picture of the one volume paperback edition published by Princeton University Press in 1966.