Author’s note: In preparation for publishing a collection of essays and short fiction, this post has been edited.
The year 2013 was 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 had an urgency for me as I worked on the next-to-last draft of my first 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 Holy Roman Empire?
But there was also a more conventional urgency to the question, as citizens the world over surveyed the ongoing fallout of our modern Great Recession, and the response by our national political leaders.
So I looked back at 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.
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:
“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 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 – Machiavelli 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.”
So what if the Germans had a “tough crust of law” that “obstructed the rise of the modern State”? The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) destroyed old customs and laws, and Teutonic princes justified their will-to-power by invoking a different idea of justice: the public welfare. Thus, notes Meinecke, “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” and Machiavelli’s ideas “became a weapon which the modern State could brandish with full conviction and with a good conscience.”
The results – after much progress toward “enlightened despots” – were the American and French revolutions. 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.” In 1789, French revolutionaries introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming “liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression.”
As the Declaration of Independence says: “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…”
Once again, war destroyed old customs and laws.
1) Machiavelli insisted that citizens of the State have no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power; that the State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is “the public good.”
2) Americans insisted that 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.
Fast forward to the 21st century.
After more than 200 years of “progress” by “enlightened” socialists – including an epic world war with Soviet Socialists on one side and National Socialists on the other – Socialist Europe finds itself on the brink of another revolution.
America, thanks to “enlightened Progressives” like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Hussein Obama, has become Socialist enough to entertain the idea of a Socialist president.
But in what direction has this “progress” taken us? In the era of “open borders” and “undocumented immigrants” can ordinary citizens still consent to be governed? Or is citizenship a moral and political anachronism, while the State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is the “public good”?
In America, the State has upheld a Constitutional right to privacy, but the “public good” demands CCTV cameras on every corner, full body scanners at airports, police drones over your neighborhoods, and “stingray” devices that police use to intercept your cell phone calls.
The State has upheld the Constitutional right to personal protection, but the State can also arbitrarily criminalize the most popular form of self-protection (the semi-automatic rifle or handgun) for the “public good.”
What about the pursuit of happiness? If your “happiness” is a freezing cold 32-ounce soda on a hot and humid New York summer day, the State can ban the sale of sugary drinks in the name of the “public good.”
Let us end with a look back at 1666, from Gustav Freytag’s 1859 reprint of “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 (as described by Meinecke), a young and promising lawyer is taken into secret chambers to view the devices of State.
Pretend that you are this young counselor, and look closely at the cloaks of State. Beautiful on the outside but shabby on the inside, they are embroidered with phrases like “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Politicians wear these when meeting with constituents. Another – labeled “good intentions” – is worn while voting for new insupportable taxes, infuriating citizens with endless regulations, starting unnecessary wars, or declaring eminent domain for the “public good.”
Try on the eyeglasses of State. Gnats can be made into elephants, or little kindnesses on the part of the Prime Minister can be made into supreme acts of mercy.
Observe, but do not taste, the iron instrument with which the President can enlarge the gullets of his advisers so 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 politician keeps this in hand too; but she does not use it while her constituents are docile, because she does not wish to publicly ruin her good name unnecessarily.
Then naturally too, the politicians are using their own private ratio status for enriching themselves quite shamelessly.
Having looked behind the curtain of 1666, can you deny that what you see are the same tools of power used by our new absolutists? Some of the details are different, but their will-to-power remains the same. The pendulum is swinging back toward Machiavelli, and our modern princes are brandishing his weapons “with full conviction and with a good conscience.”