The American Interest
Essays & Longer Thoughts
Published on April 2, 2011
Stratblog: The Virtues of Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli is one of those rare writers so well known that his name has become an adjective; ‘Machiavellian’ means crafty and ruthless.  And over the centuries, Machiavelli’s most famous book, The Prince, has vexed moralists for its seeming defiance of all moral laws.

The ruler, Machiavelli tells us, must not just learn to do good; he must learn to do evil — and learn to do it well.  It is better, he tells us, to be feared than to be loved.  A ruler must not be afraid to commit atrocities — but he must commit them at the right time so that they will serve their intended purpose.  It is wise to break promises to the weak, and often necessary for a successful ruler to lie.  It is useless to think of wars as just or unjust — it is only necessary to know when wars can bring success.

Machiavelli has been a scandal for almost 500 years — a shocking contradiction at the heart of the western canon.  A long moral and philosophical tradition going back to the ancient Hebrews and Greeks insists on the opposite: that to do good is to do well.  God will bless those who deal justly and punish those who mistreat their fellow beings.

Since Aristotle tutored Alexander of Macedon, the wise have counseled the great to be good.  Machiavelli says that is all balderdash, and counsels rulers to be devious and ruthless rather than honorable and fair.  He is so shocking that we can’t quite make our peace with him — but also too smart to ignore.

Today, the shadow of Machiavelli hangs over American foreign policy debates.  Wilsonians generally believe that one must do good to do well.  If we want to build a world of law abiding nations that respect human rights, we must set an example.  We cannot break the laws of nations to rid ourselves of people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Our CIA must not assassinate foreign rulers.  We cannot keep our enemies prisoner in violation of the laws.  We cannot lie or bribe; we must be better than those we fight.

Machiavelli would not agree.  While we should not do any of these things gratuitously, there might be times when we should not only do these things, but not be ashamed to have it known that we did them.  The mullahs of Iran will not love us no matter what we do; perhaps it would be healthy for them to fear us.  The firebombings of Tokyo were an atrocity in World War Two; we have had peace with Japan ever since.

Machiavelli is scandalous not simply because his advice runs so counter to our highest ideals; he is scandalous because he is so difficult to refute.  His analysis of human nature is so clear and so intuitively sensible, the examples he draws from history are so numerous and so convincing, that his viewpoint cannot be dismissed.

Yet precisely because he is so morally shocking, it is sometimes difficult for students to grasp how subtle his thought really was.  In the grand strategy course at Bard, I asked the students to read Niccolo’s Smile, a biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli, alongside The Prince.  I wanted them to see Machiavelli’s political advice in the context of his life as a way for them to deepen their understanding of the contradictions and cross currents in his thought.

Niccolo Machiavelli (Wikimedia)

The historical Machiavelli was no cynic, or rather he was only normally cynical by Italian standards.  At heart he was a patriotic idealist.  He was loyal to the idea of Florence as a republic, and he was loyal to the vision of a united Italy.  He believed that the root cause of Italy’s weakness in his time was the decadence of her people and their leaders.  (Then as now Italy was an extraordinary country filled with extraordinary people — and suffered from worse than mediocre political leadership.)  He contrasted the civic virtue of the ancient Romans with the shortsighted selfishness of his contemporaries; he yearned for the day when Italy, united and free, would exhibit the virtues that once made her the mistress and the envy of the world.  He was prepared to, and did, make serious personal sacrifices for the sake of his values.  Machiavelli was not a Machiavellian.

The Prince he sought was a man who would use whatever means it took to liberate and unify Italy, but the goal of that longed-for Prince was not his own power and glory.  Machiavelli did not believe in power for power’s sake.  He believed that the greatest rulers were the ones like Moses, Cyrus, Lycurgus and Solon who not only ruled a people but gave them laws and institutions that made their peoples great.  His Prince would be an ‘armed prophet’, a lawgiver, who would do for the Italians what Cyrus did for the ancient Persians, or Moses for the Jews.

Cyrus the Great (Wikimedia)

The values in which Machiavelli believed were classical rather than Christian.  Machiavelli, a son of the Renaissance, looked to the civic virtues of the ancient Romans and Greeks as the qualities that could preserve the freedom and the dignity of a people.  Machiavelli’s goal in writing The Prince was not to persuade all Italians to disregard the normal laws of morality; it was to equip a ruler to end the state of anarchy, chaos and foreign oppression that was forcing so many Italians to live and think in Machiavellian ways.

A successful Machiavellian prince would make it unnecessary for his people to live Machiavellian lives by ensuring their security — and he would put in place institutions and laws that would keep them behaving virtuously into the future.

Machiavelli thinks a lot like Abraham Lincoln, who suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.  I am fighting, Lincoln said, to preserve the Constitution.  In order to save the whole thing, I may temporarily need to violate one small piece of it.  But would I be more faithful to my oath if I let the whole Constitution go down to defeat for the sake of preserving one of its clauses?

Machiavelli is not a prophet of nihilism.  His Prince (unlike Nietzsche’s) isn’t fighting simply for power.  He is fighting to for the right and the ability to build a state and to become a lawgiver.

The moral question Machiavelli poses isn’t that of whether power is its own justification.  Machiavelli forces us to think about two somewhat different questions: the relationship between means and ends, and the relationship between republican civic virtue and Christian values.

The ends and means debate is a familiar one.  How many eggs can we break to make an omelet?  How many clauses of the Constitution can we put into abeyance (and for how long) in order to preserve the Union?

If we accept Machiavelli’s viewpoint that some omelets are worth the sacrifice, then we come to his second teaching: that if we are to break eggs, we should break them thoroughly and well.  There are rules that can help us do evil effectively, and if we are going to do evil at all, we might as well do it in the smartest possible way.  To operate in the kitchen of history, we need to be dispassionate and objective: to commit our crimes in cold blooded calculation rather than in a frenzy of passion.

As one of my dorm masters in Pundit High used to tell his charges, “Boys, be good.  But if you can’t be good, be clever.”  This is timeless advice that the world’s teenagers still need.

The other moral question that Machiavelli puts on the table, the relationship between civic and Christian virtue, is an issue that haunts the Christian world.  Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Jesus was what Machiavelli would call an ‘unarmed prophet’.  “My kingdom is not of this earth,” said Jesus, and he rebuked the disciple who tried to defend him by force when the police came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus didn’t build a state, he didn’t negotiate with foreign powers, and during his lifetime his followers never tried to organize themselves into anything like a political society.  Many of the problems that perplex diplomats and policy makers simply never came up for Jesus and the early church.

Religion teaches Christians that we ought to follow Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, but it is very hard to square that teaching with the necessities of international politics.  It is not even easy to square it with the kind of driving ambition and tactical ruthlessness required for a successful political career in a democratic society.  The teachings of Christ might persuade someone to avoid a political career; they offer only very incomplete guidance about how leaders should operate.

The civic values of the western tradition, by contrast, are heavily focused on the virtues that make nations great: patriotism, military and political courage, incorruptibility, a capability for ruthless action for the common good.  There is some overlap between these virtues and the Christian ones, but the two sources of moral inspiration on which our culture has historically drawn are often at odds with each other.

The relationship of what might be called the pragmatic virtues of the civic republican tradition can never be totally reconciled with the otherworldly and transcendent teachings of Christ, and each person and each society must negotiate that tricky terrain as best they can.

Like so many of the great strategic thinkers, Machiavelli reminds us that we do not live in a closed and predictable universe.  There are times when important and valuable goals cannot be reached without the use of what moralists call evil.  It is not possible for the majority of the people to live safely in an ordered society that promotes and rewards moral behavior unless the ruler does whatever it takes to protect them from external enemies and to keep the peace at home.

What should ambitious young Americans take away from Machiavelli?  The unrealistically high minded would say “Nothing at all.”  The cheap cynics will say “Follow all of his advice, but don’t tell people that is what you are doing.”  In the spirit of Via Meadia, I would suggest a middle course.

Unlike the Italy of Machiavelli’s day, America does not need to be forcibly reunited.  We have our laws and, ragged and frayed as they are, we still have some shadows of the civic virtues that enabled our predecessors to rise as they did.  We do not need a Machiavellian Prince to give us a state at home.  Though good people may need to cut a few corners in the contest for political power, there is no need to repeat Cesare Borgia’s performance and leave dismembered bodies of unpopular henchmen next to butcher’s blocks in the public square — tempting though that course of action can sometimes be.

An American Prince needs to conserve and perhaps to regenerate an existing state, rather than found a new one.  Respect for the laws and the customs that have made us rich and free is enjoined upon those who would seek to lead a state like ours — just as Machiavelli praised the ancient Romans who built up their Republic and criticized those whose greed and ambition contributed to its ruin.

Should external or internal enemies seek to destroy our Republic, Machiavelli would counsel our Prince to do what it takes — but again as far as possible respecting the mores and laws of the land.  When the danger is sufficiently grave — as during the Civil War when one third of the nation was in open revolt — an American president can and should do whatever it takes.  But the legitimate leader of an established state, in Machiavelli’s view, has more to gain by at least a show of compliance with hallowed laws.

Internationally, I suspect that a modern Machiavelli would also offer an American president advice different from that he gave to an aspiring ruler of Italy.  Italy was weak and divided; its enemies were ruthless and strong.  To have a prayer of prevailing against the ambitions of great kingdoms like Spain and France, the Prince Machiavelli hoped for would first have to conquer and unify the squabbling Italian city states.  In the nature of things this Prince would have to play his enemies off against one another, to crush dissent here and raise it there, to kiss the Pope while plotting to betray him, and make both France and Spain at various times see him as an ally.

President Obama faces many problems in today’s world, but his situation differs fundamentally from that of Machiavelli’s Prince.  Obama is defending an existing great power; the Prince would have to establish a new one.  Obama inherits a network of global alliances and relationships; Machiavelli’s Prince would have to upset the existing international order and thwart the ambitions of the greatest kings of his day.

America’s power in the world rests partly on our military strength and the belief of others that we can and will use it.  It also rests on the widespread belief that, whatever our faults, American power is preferable to whatever would replace it.  On the one hand, others respect us because we have a history of summoning the force to crush anybody who tries to defeat us.  On the other hand, people respect us because we generally behave in predictable and conservative ways, promoting the rise of a global system of commerce and security that works reasonably well for other countries around the world.

From an Machiavellian perspective, an American president needs to be more respectable than an Italian prince.  That doesn’t mean that he should abstain from acting ruthlessly when the country requires it, but in a different situation and with a larger set of relationships to manage, the legitimate ruler of an established power will not lightly undermine the laws and customs on which his (or her) power rests.

Part of Machiavelli’s genius is his ability to understand that differently circumstanced rulers need to follow different policies.  A ruler who has just conquered another city cannot behave in the same way as a hereditary prince with centuries of tradition behind him.  A weak state must conduct a different kind of policy than a strong one; a city without allies will have to behave differently from a city that has them.

Like the other authors we’ve been reading this semester, Machiavelli doesn’t lay out a precise rule book to be followed at all times.  Like Sun Tzu, he seeks to shock us into a sharper awareness.  Like Thucydides and Livy, he is actually something of a moralist, believing that in the long run, virtue and liberty are ultimately connected with power.  And like all of these authors, he urges us to pay attention, and reminds us that the costs of strategic failure are incalculably high.

Join the discussion over at StratBlog.