Machiavelli and the Modern World

Machiavelli is generally seen as the first modern philosopher and political philosopher.  In his two famous works: The Prince and the Discourses on Livy, there are 14 uses of the word “Form” and 51 uses of the word “Matter.”  14 and 51 are numerological derivations of 7 and 17 respectively.  In Greek philosophical numerology, 7 embody the Greek concept of nomos and 17 the concept of physis.  Nomos equates to law and custom.  Physis equates to the natural, or nature.  What then, with this knowledge, is the essence of Machiavelli’s two great works The Prince and Discourses and what can we learn from it and from the masterful analysis of Machiavelli himself?

With this important, but more esoterically embedded, factor at the fore – we must understand that Machiavelli and his political views are predicated on an a-moral and materialistic understanding of the world.  All the forms and ideals that a society constructs are to the benefits of civil life and order, so as to prevent the slip into anarchy and chaos.  In other words, there is utility in religion, public law, civic organizations, fraternal clubs and societies, guilds, and all the rest – but this isn’t the interest of the statesman, or the prince.  Rather, the prince knows that while the sheep are busy being sheep, the prince attends to the matters of the cruel, harsh, and oppressive material world.

The purpose of politics is not idealism, since idealism is a false pretension.  After all, we already chalked up idealism to the realm of nomos – or convention.  It gives something for the masses to strive for in their lives (something that they will ultimately never attain), but is something that the astute political leader knows better than to indulge in.  Machiavelli is a realist, but a new type of realist.  Previously in the history of political philosophy, realism was associated with the political thoughts of Aristotle and St. Augustine, though the two went in separate directions.  Aristotle’s realism exhibit the dialectical tension between the call to cultivate virtue and harmony from phronesis and the ignorant, envious, and commercially-minded on the other hand seeking to break the bonds of wisdom and virtue and run amok in a reincarnated form of sophism and ethical egoism.  Augustine saw politics far bleaker, that we were all trapped in the civitas terrena where there was an insatiable lust for domination (libido dominandi) and that political order could only provide inadequate moments of peace, justice, and order – but this was, in of itself, worthwhile so citizens could pursue the good in their life.  Machiavelli’s realism is the beginning of “modern realism.”  The aim of ancient realism, in its Aristotelian (and Ciceronian) form was the cultivation of political virtue, while in its Augustinian form it was aimed at compromise and non-harm (cf. City of God, 19.14).

Machiavelli scoffs at the classical idea of political virtue in the early chapters of the Prince, citing that efficiency and cruelty, in essence, are the only meaningful virtues in solidifying rule.  The only other true virtue is understanding the nature of chance, which is to say you will never know which side fortune favors and this should always loom over the decision-making of any prince and state.  The virtuous prince, and the virtuous state, then, is not the morally excellent ruler or civil political body, but the one that was prudent in its efficient calculations and actions.  That is the virtuous Prince, Shakespeare’s Augustus.

Modern realism is premised off of Machiavelli’s threefold presumption: (1) the material world is all there is, (2) states compete with each other in a world of limited material resources, and (3) fortune has no favorites.  The genius of Machiavelli was his attempt to understand the best way for a state to successfully compete for limited material resources.  In this manner, Machiavelli was a true republican.  For Machiavelli, the republic was the best form of government because it allowed for the greatest “buy in,” so to speak, from the citizenry.  While the buy in was false in its foundation, it provided for a great glue that brought the many different strata of civil society together in a civic patriotism.  And following from above, modern realism doesn’t aim at virtue (per Aristotle and Cicero) or compromise (per Augustine), but cold efficiency above all since that is all that is truly real since the material world is all that exists and the conquest of the material world is what enhances living, prestige, and power.

If people felt like they had a stake in the political arena, they would defend it when push came to shove.  This was opposite in monarchies or other imperial-oriented entities (i.e. France or Spain) where only the elites had their share of plunder and power at stake.  For Machiavelli, the public weal was the most important element to political order, and the state that could craft an “ideal” (nomos) for the citizenry to strive for would lead to the greatest amount of common sacrifice toward the common good.  Of course, the main beneficiary of all of this was the civil princedom, but the argument is pretty straightforward.  In other words, the kingdoms and empires of the world – though seemingly strong and powerful – lacked the public legitimacy of the masses and would someday come to turn against them; the republics, on the other hand, thrived on cut-throat politics and civil life with all striving to be the “self-made” advancer, and only the republican state offered this opportunity and so the people would be willing to fight and die for this ideal more willingly than the peasantry would in kingdoms and empires to continue being servants of the land.

The political bodies that were in it “for the long haul,” which is only made possible by the commitment of the public through some form of public weal, is what best allows states to compete for limited material resources to enhance their power.  But, as with what we just explored, also allow for those “success stories” within civil society to keep fostering public participation and commitment to the ideal of the republic.  There needs to be visible success stories, however rare, to keep the public committed to its own ideals.

The quintessential Machiavellian is someone who realizes and promotes the public utility of forms and conventions, while he himself is willing to do all the grizzly and gritty work behind the scenes.  In this sense, the prince, and the state, is above the law.  The law is meant for the public, it is the nomos of civil society which the prince and the state oversee, but are not subject to because they are not subject to idealistic and fantastical forms but subject to the rule of matter and the grittiness of the material world which the sheep are incapable of living in without the firm hand of the pater.

Machiavelli, in many ways, anticipates the rise of materialistic bourgeois republicanism or “bourgeois democracy” insofar that politics is about the material world and the conquest of the material world, and that the best way to ensure this is through a stable “buy-in” type of political order (a republic, in his time) or a “democracy” in our time.  The prince is supported by those whose interests are at stake in the pursuit of the political – which are the bourgeoisie since they are the merchants, traders, bankers, and other commercial men who have the most to gain, and lose, in the zero-sum game of material politics.  But even this alliance cannot sustain itself without the public weal.  The buy-in is necessary; thus, the state with the strongest “ideal” in its conventions and constitutions will be the most enduring princedoms in the world, which then allow for the enduring principality to strike when the moment presents itself.

In Machiavelli’s worldview, the public need to be kept distracted with hopeful optimism, promises of the afterlife in religion, fraternity through civic organizations, and the illusion of meritocracy and upward mobility because this keeps society orderly and productive.  The political class, however, knows better.  They understand that the world of forms is merely the product of convention while they are the ones doing all the nitty-gritty dirty work in the world of mud and minerals.  Morality is for the sheep, but not for those willing to climb through conquest, plunder, and scheming.

In many ways, Machiavelli is the foundation of modern politics and the modern world.  His Prince and Discourses on Livy were always meant to be read together as companions, the full treatment on his ideas of political philosophy.  And the world he paints and cheerleads for is one that is always in the back of the mind of many, but one equally “terrifying” if true.  While many have challenged the Machiavellian concept of the political on grounds of metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, it goes without saying – as Philip Bobbitt has said – that Machiavelli is the man who “made the modern world.”  It is his concept of the political that Hobbes builds on.  It is his understanding of the world that Francis Bacon builds on.  It is his conception of politics that most self-styled republics and democracies are equally built on.  We live in a world of walls and monsters, and we need, to quote Colonel Jessup, certain men to stand post and make the decisions that the rest of us are unwilling, or incapable, of making – let alone ever want to contemplate.

2 thoughts on “Machiavelli and the Modern World

  1. Interesting. I had gotten the impression that the ultimate message of *The Prince* was that a prince’s power is tenuous and can only be held onto by courting the “good will” of the people, but I never thought to carry it quite that far.

    I wonder, then, if Machiavelli’s dedication of the book to the Medicis was just a bit backhanded in that context 😉


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