This year, 2013, is the 500th anniversary of Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince. One might think that the arguments it introduced have long since been settled, but there will never be an end to this ancient debate: What are the rules of political power?
The question has an urgency for me as I work on the next-to-last draft of my novel. What does “freedom” mean to a slave girl who has escaped from the theocratic Ottoman Empire of the 1600’s? And what does it mean for a boy whose life so far has been waged on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years War, whose family has been killed by forces of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire?
But there is also a more conventional urgency to the question, as citizens the world over survey the ongoing fallout of our modern Great Recession, and the response by our national political leaders.
Which brings me back to The Prince, the treatise that helped launched the modern absolutist state. Written in 1513 after its author was exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, it was first published posthumously in 1532.
The world hasn’t been the same since.
Before Machiavelli, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In a sense, it was thought that rulers did well when they did good; they earned the right to be obeyed and respected inasmuch as they showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.”
As St. Augustine asked in City of God, “If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise?”
After Machiavelli … well, here’s where it gets interesting. Again, the Stanford Encyclopedia (emphasis mine):
For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command; but goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good. Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power. … Only by means of the proper application of power, Machiavelli believes, can individuals be brought to obey and will the ruler be able to maintain the state in safety and security.
It should be obvious to us all that rulers before Machiavelli were rarely virtuous or moral. It was that very fact which led him to write The Prince. In today’s parlance, we call his philosophy realpolitik, “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.” Again, from the Stanford Encyclopedia:
Without exception the authority of states and their laws will never be acknowledged when they are not supported by a show of power which renders obedience inescapable. The methods for achieving obedience are varied, and depend heavily upon the foresight that the prince exercises. Hence, the successful ruler needs special training.
Now, regardless of what the modern citizen of Western Civilization thinks of these ideas — and they elicit an almost universal hatred, at least in public discourse — the author himself was not the personification of evil. He had a wife and kids, he wrote poetry; and, as a book review of Miles Unger’s biography notes:
Rather than planning to write an ageless best-selling book, Machiavelli hoped to impress the new ruler of Florence, so that he might regain a salaried government job.
If the book had stayed within Italy’s borders, history would be different. But the ideas spread, as ideas are wont to do, and the German princes took hold to disastrous effect. German historian Friedrich Meinecke, whose The Doctrine of Statism in Modern History was published in English in 1957, wrote that Machiavelli’s ideas were nothing new to Italians; he simply confirmed what already existed.
In Italy the theorists’ doctrine, that raison d’état stood above statute law, had not really said anything new, but had only confirmed an existing situation. For here Roman Law, which was saturated with the spirit of the ancient raison d’état, and which absolved the rulers from being bound by the laws, had continued to remain alive; and the early decline of the feudal system, the early appearance of violently energetic city-tyrants and rulers, had not permitted here the formation of that tough crust of law founded on custom and privilege, which in Germany obstructed the rise of the modern State. Whatever rights and customs there were seemed to someone like Machiavelli so much the reverse of dangerous, that his raison d’état was capable of recommending that they should be respected as much as possible.
As noted above, Germans had a “tough crust of law [that] obstructed the rise of the modern State.” Not to be denied — especially not during the ravages of the Thirty Years War — Teutonic princes embraced Machiavelli with a vengeance.
The Corporate State of the Ancien Régime and with it the idea of a good old inviolable type of justice, contained in provincial customs and provincial laws, had become bankrupt during the Thirty Years War, because it had left the State defenceless. In order to create the new defence of the [standing army], and to overcome any resistance to it on the part of the Estates and established privilege, the will-to-power of the ruler was now able to invoke the assistance of just this new idea of justice, of the [public welfare], and thereby justify and ennoble itself spiritually.
Meinecke identifies one idea — “the one which was most useful from a practical point of view and most efficacious historically.” Namely:
[T]hat it was perfectly permissible for the demands and necessities of the ‘public good’ to violate statute law and the laws which the State had made.
Over a couple hundred years, as the modern European state grew from infancy to adolescence, Machiavelli’s ideas — as Meinecke put it — “became a weapon which the modern State could brandish with full conviction and with a good conscience.”
During that time, both authors and the public displayed a rabid interest in the subject of state power. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 18th century, the public’s interest in the abuses of realpolitik waned, as the public interest is wont to do, and finally “the subject went out of fashion altogether.”
The fervour slackened off when absolutism had on the whole attained its aim … It had now ceased to be modern — not because the thing itself had vanished from reality, but because it had become self-evident, and because the learned public, which took an interest in the State, had meanwhile diverted its attention to the new ideas arising out of the movement of the Enlightenment.
At least in Europe. Not so much in America, because in 1774 the First Continental Congress was established in the British colony of America, and Americans embraced an idea called “the consent of the governed.”
Continental Congress Appointing George Washington Commander and Chief
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776
Stop and consider these competing ideas for a moment:
1) Citizens of the State have no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. The State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is “the public good.”
2) The State is granted power by citizens, which it shall use to secure certain natural rights that belong to all human beings; and the State’s powers can be revoked by citizens who no longer consent to be governed.
Now compare these ideas to what is evident in your own personal life. Regardless of what country you live in:
Do you believe in your right to personal privacy? Good, because (in Western Democracies at least) the State has decreed that the right to privacy is paramount.
Or maybe the State will allow only certain kinds of privacy, because it routinely violates the spirit of the law with CCTV cameras on every corner, full body scanners at airports, and ultra-high-tech drones flying over your neighborhoods. Don’t like it? Get used to it.
Do you believe in the right to personal protection? Good, because (in America at least) the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.
On the other hand, if you simultaneously believe the State can arbitrarily criminalize the most popular form of self-protection (the semi-automatic rifle or handgun) “for the public good” — well, then, what will prevent the State from removing that right altogether if it determines that all gun ownership violates “the public good”?
Do you believe in the pursuit of happiness? Do you simultaneously believe — if your “happiness” is a 32-ounce soda on a blistering hot New York summer day — that the government can ban you from buying a 32-ounce cup of soda with 16 ounces of ice floating on top? Some people do, including Sarah Conly, author of “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.”
It seems to me that the very real advances in governing written down by America’s Founding Fathers — as flawed as they were in many respects — are being abandoned for the philosophy of Machiavelli.
Or at least for that of the German princes of 1666, for in that year Gustav Freytag reprinted Images from the German Past, a cutting satire on “the woes of the German people in the seventeenth century and its lifelessness and rigidity after the Thirty Years War.”
In the book, a young and promising lawyer is taken into secret chambers to view the devices of State.
Pretend that you are this young counselor. Look closely. I dare you to deny that what you see are the exact same tools of power used by the absolutists of old. (What follows is paraphrased from Meinecke.)
The cloaks of State. Beautifully trimmed on the outside but shabby on the inside, the cloaks are embroidered with names like “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Such cloaks are worn when one goes to meet the representatives of the people, when one wishes to make the subjects agree to pay subsidies, or when, under the pretext of a false doctrine, one wants to drive someone out of house and home.
One completely threadbare cloak, which is in daily use, is called “good intentions.” This is worn while laying new insupportable taxes on the citizens, infuriating them with endless regulations, or inaugurating unnecessary wars.
The spectacles of State. With these, gnats can be made into elephants, or little kindnesses on the part of the Prime Minister can be made into supreme acts of mercy.
There is an iron instrument with which the President can enlarge the gullets of his advisers, so that they can swallow great pumpkins.
Finally, a ball of knotted wire, furnished with sharp needles and heated by a fire within, so that it draws tears from the eyes of the beholder, represents the Principles of Machiavelli. The ruler is keeping this in hand too, but so far he has not yet used it, for his subjects are docile and he does not wish to pollute his name publicly.
Then naturally too, the politicians themselves are using their own private ratio status for enriching themselves quite shamelessly. One of them actually proposes that the cohabitation of heterosexual couples should be taxed, in order to raise money to stop global warming.
Having looked behind the curtain, it’s clear that we’re witnessing the return of the absolutists. The question is, will we do anything about it? Or, like the citizens of Europe before 1776, tired of trying to fend off the oppression, will we yawn and divert our gaze?
A tip of the hat to a few sources of inspiration:
(Edited for clarity and conclusion.)