Machiavelli’s America


The Other Prince


Recently I picked up Philip Bobbitt’s The Garments Of Court And Palace: Machiavelli And The World That He Made after hearing the author interviewed on the John Batchelor Show.

I’ve written sympathetically of Machiavelli elsewhere but I’ve only explored the topic superficially.

Bobbitt’s book has been, to put it mildly, a revelation. Unfortunately, this revelation has been mainly due to the fact that the Florentine has been so badly framed to begin with. Bobbitt sets out to correct the record in his succinct little work.


Machiavelli’s “Ideal”


Machiavelli had a vision for Florence and Italy, a new order, but as he articulates this vision in The Discourses and The Prince he does so from a unique standpoint: “I shall depart,” he writes, “from the practices of other writers who depict an imaginary world and shall instead describe the ways princes actually behave and how the world reacts.” Out with utopias, in with experience and history (35)! Realism (dealing with the world as it is) trounces idealism (dealing with the world as it should be).

But to what end does he seek to ascertain lessons from the past? 

This is where it gets interesting. Too often The Prince is portrayed as a ruthless little handbook on how a leader can obtain and maintain power. Considering the Italian context in the early 16th century when Machiavelli wrote, such a handbook would make sense: Italy was divided into warring city states and France and Spain threatened invasion.

The thing is, Bobbitt argues, that Machiavelli’s animating principle is not the acquisition of power, but the creation of and maintenance of a constitutional Italian republic in the vein of ancient Rome.

To this end, Italy needed a leader; indeed, a “redeemer” in Machiavelli’s phrasing. This redeemer would not only unify the Italians politically, but then would create a republican constitution, create laws to ensure justice, create a citizen army to defend the land, create a bureaucracy to ensure the prosperity of the state, and create a system of checks and balances between different branches of government. Finally, the legitimacy of the new regime would be rooted in the citizens. One can only think of the preamble to the American Constitution: “We the people…”. Without such dramatic reforms, Machiavelli believed Italy would be crushed and dominated by foreign monarchies (30). But Italy needed, first, a Garibaldi, a redeemer, to unify it. And it’s to that wished-for character that Machiavelli addresses The Prince. 

In light of Machiavelli’s goal, then, far from advising a prince on how to seize power for the prince’s own sake, Machiavelli is actually advising a prince on how to seize power, maintain power, and create a constitution for the sake of serving the state (35-36).

Of course, such a prince has fortuna to battle. History is full of twists and turns and man is not absolute master of his destiny. Neither is he totally a slave to fortuna. If he can garner virtu (strength and cunning), he can create a state with an ordini, a constitution with laws to ensure justice.


Is None Righteous?


What of Machiavelli’s nasty reputation (the ends justify the means!)?

Machiavelli had a grim view of human nature but was hopeful. Like James Madison in The Federalist Papers, Machiavelli could say, “If men were angels…but they ain’t.” In light of this, Machiavelli proposed a constitution based on checks and balances in which “ambition was made to counteract ambition” (James Madison again). A well-constructed law would promote justice and ensure domestic tranquility.

In the realm of foreign affairs, though, Machiavelli foreshadows Hobbes: all states exist in the state of nature wherein life is nasty, brutish, and short. Rival states will always look for a way to gain an advantage over one another by hook or crook. In such a state of nature, the only thing a good executive can do is check one’s international opponents through trickery and force (or in Machiavelli’s memorable image, a good executive must be a combination of a fox and lion). Of course, directing such powers at the citizens of the republic would result in tyranny, but outside the state, the wise prince must do whatever he must to secure the republic (41-42).

Consequently, Machiavelli had no qualms about advocating measures the many would find distasteful in their private affairs. But this is key: Machiavelli was “an intense moralist” who believed that the “moral imperatives for the official are different from those of the rest of us” (37). The trick is figuring out “what is truly” necessary to preserve the state. In this way, Machiavelli is no advocate of wanton butchery or excessive deceit. A wise prince knows how to use the right amount of force; indeed, a misapplication of too much force could end up undermining the common good of the Republic: see the Vietnam War (43).

To this end, Machiavelli counsels: “The prince should not pursue those qualities thought to be the most praiseworthy all the time, when, in some contexts such behaviour will have the effect of jeopardizing the safety of the state” (35).

This runs him afoul the likes of Cicero (“some things are so disgraceful, or so outrageous, that a wise man would not do them even to protect his country” [51]) but Machiavelli has no time for such deontological absolutes: “When the safety of one’s country is at stake, there must be no scruple of justice of mercy or blame; on the contrary, one should wholly pursue that policy that saves the life of the state and preserves its liberty, regardless of any other considerations” (51-52). Here is the nasty.

But is it really that nasty?

Elsewhere I wrote that Machiavelli was an amoralist on account of the state of nature. When it’s dog-eat-dog, when it’s let your family die or kill the other guy, morality doesn’t come into play. It’s all driven by necessity.

But Bobbitt (who is the expert, I’m not) disagrees. He finds Machiavelli’s “nastiness” profoundly moral. The state, the homeland is all. And the end of preserving that innate good is what justifies the calibrated means to that end. Indeed, the official “has no legitimate authority to act in contradiction to the common good” of his country.*

This leads Machiavelli to make his infamous comment about it being better to be feared than loved. But within the context of his main constitutional goal the odious phrase takes on a different form: “With only a few demonstrations of harshness, [the prince] will ultimately prove more compassionate than those who, through excessive clemency, allow disorders to arise out of which come murders and robberies that injure the entire community while the executions ordered by the prince injure only particular individuals.” Fear, then, is synonymous with credibility: people must believe that you will uphold the laws of the land and that you will protect your state from external threats. Is this not what America’s president swears to do in his oath of office?**

Of course enforcing the laws of the land and protecting it from foreign threats involves unpleasantries (executions, wars, deportations).

But what of it?

If you object to the political methods recommended [by Machiavelli] because they seem to you morally detestable, if you refuse to embark upon them because they are…too frightening, Machiavelli has no answer, no argument. In that case you are perfectly entitled to lead a morally good life, be a private citizen (or monk), seek some corner of your own. But, in that event, you must not make yourself responsible for the life of others…In other words you can opt out of hte poublic world, but in that case he has nothing to say to you, for it is to the public world and to the men in it that he addresses himself. (40).


Machiavelli understands public squeamishness over the brutal unpleasantries of statecraft. Machiavelli also appreciates the importance of the chief executive winning over the public. And thus in another little bit of nasty advice that doesn’t seem so nasty now he counsels a chief executive to  “appear good” so that the greater good (the survival of the republic) is ensured (57-58). Considering the actions of any number of good American presidents and you can see that this advice is not wholly cynical.


Final Thoughts: Lost Americas


Machiavelli wrote both The Discourses (a defense of Republican government) and The Prince (advice to a man on how to obtain and maintain power). This has led to some confusion: Machiavelli defends republics and counsels princes on how to seize power. But there is no confusion. Machiavelli believed that in the midst of Italian chaos, a prince was needed to establish a new state, but to preserve the state a republic was needed. In short, Machiavelli was looking for an Italian George Washington (the prince) and an Italian Madison (co-author of the Constitution).

Machiavelli did not get them.

We did.

So spins the wheel of fortune.


* Indeed, “For Machiavelli…—the obligation to serve the public good when one is acting as the public’s agent in preference to serving one’s own objectives, including one’s personal moral objectives—arises from the fact that the agent wields power solely because it has been delegated to him by the public. The agent has no legitimate authority to act in contradiction to the common good” (158).

** Presidential oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”


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