Machiavelli and the
Moral Dilemma of Statecraft

Kṛṣṇa replied... "If he fights fairly, Bhīma will never succeed in gaining victory. If, however, he fights unfairly, he will surely be able to kill Duryodhana. At the time of the gambling Bhīma promised to break the thighs of Duryodhana with his mace in battle. Let him now fulfil his vow. Let him, by deception, kill the Kuru king who is the master of deception! If Bhīma does not kill him by unfair means, the son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra will surely retain the kingdom!".....

Kṛṣṇa seeing the Pāṇḍavas stricken with remorse, said.... "Out of the desire to do you good, I repeatedly applied my illusory powers and caused them to be killed by various means in battle. If I had not adopted such deceitful ways, you would never have been victorious, nor could you have regained your kingdom or your wealth."

He continued, "You should not mind the fact that your enemy has been killed deceitfully. When one is outnumbered by his enemies, then destruction should be brought about by stratagem. The gods themselves, in killing the asuras, have followed the same methods. The way that was followed by the celestials may be followed by all. We have been crowned with success..."

The Mahābhārata, translated by Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan, "Shalya Parva" [Columbia University Press, 1965, p.172 & 175]

Συνήγαγον οὖν οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι συνέδριον καὶ
ἔλεγον· τί ποιοῦμεν ὅτι οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος πολλὰ ποιεῖ σημεῖα;

Collegerunt ergo pontifices et Pharisaei concilium et
dicebant, quid facimus quia hic homo multa signa facit?

Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and
said, "What are we to do? For this man does many signs."

ἐαν ἀφῶμεν αὐτὸν οὕτως, πάντες πιστεύσουσιν εἰς αὐτόν,
καὶ ἐλεύσονται οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι καὶ ἀροῦσιν ἡμῶν
καὶ τὸν τόπον καὶ τὸ ἔθνος.

Si dimittimus eum sic, omnes credent in eum,
et venient Romani et tollent nostrum et locum et gentem.

"If we let him thus alone, all will believe in him,
and the Romans will come and take away from us
both the Place [τόπος] and the nation [ἔθνος]."

εἷς δὲ τις ἐξ αὐτῶν Καϊάφας, ἀρχιερεὺς
ὢν τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ ἐκείνου, εἶπεν αὐτοῖς·

Unus autem ex ipsis Caiaphas cum esset pontifex anni illius, dixit eis,

But one of them, Caiaphas, being the high priest
that same year, said to them,

ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε οὐδεν, οὐδε λογίζεσθε ὅτι συμφέρει ὑμῖν
ἵνα εἷς ἄνθρωπος ἀποθάνῃ ὑπὲρ τοῦ λαοῦ
καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ ἔθνος ἀπόληται.

Vos nescitis quicquam, nec cogitatis quia expedit nobis
ut unus moriatur homo pro populo et non tota gens pereat.

"You know nothing at all, nor do you stop to consider that it is expedient
[συμφέρειν] for you that one man should die for the people [λαός], that the whole nation [ἔθνος] should not perish."

John 11:47-50

Issetsu Tashō
Kill One That Many May Live.

Japanese Buddhist saying [note]

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.
It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), speech, House of Commons, 18 November 1783.

μὴ πεποίθατε ἐπ᾽ ἄρχοντας.
nolite confidere in principibus.

Put not your trust in Princes.

Psalms 146:3 (Septuagint 145:3, Vulgate 145:2)

Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), Christ before the High Priest, 1617, National Gallery, London
The High Priest Caiaphas, in the Biblical quote above, and as examining Jesus in the painting at left (from Matthew 26:57-65), is often taken as an archetype of the unprincipled person, willing to sacrifice an innocent man for the sake of expediency.

For instance, in Killing Jesus, by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard [Henry Hold and Company, 2013], we find the statement, "it is Caiaphas who oversees the day-to-day running of Jerusalem, disguising his own cruel agenda in religiosity and piety" [p.169]. The "cruel agenda" is apparently merely to promote his self-interest and that of the priestly class, in part through the unnecessary ritual elaboration of Judaism. Later, when we find the quote, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" [p.176], the authors remark, "Nothing more needs to be said" [ibid.]. But a great deal more needs to be said.

Christians have been quite content with the negative interpretation of Caiaphas, which makes Jesus a victim of injustice, and Jews have understandably seen the portrayal as anti-Semitic. However, both of these views are based on a misconception. Jesus can be a tragic victim of wrong without Caiaphas having been a bad person or done the wrong thing, let alone an anti-Semitic caricature. Caiaphas was in fact doing his duty, as we must construe the duty of a statesman, as opposed to the duty of a private person. Whatever the institutional self-interest of Caiaphas may have been, what we see in his reasoning is a proper appreciation of his position of political responsibility.

There is a difference because of the characteristic moral dilemma that occurs with political power. The lives of many, the "whole nation," depend on Caiaphas; and if he must truly chose between the innocent lives of many and the innocent life of one, then, however unpleasant, disturbing, or regretable, the trust that the many have placed in him must predominate and he must do what is necessary that "that the whole nation should not perish." The reality of the kind of choices Caiaphas had to make is confirmed by the fact that the "whole nation" -- ὅλον τὸ ἔθνος -- did perish in the great revolt against the Romans, the Jewish War of 66-73 AD, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and Jews were actually expelled from the city. The peril of Caiaphas' position is revealed when we find that the High Priest Ananus and his colleague Jesus ben Gamaliel were murdered by the Zealots, led by John of Gischala, in 67. This meant that the Revolt would be a fight to the death, with no compromise sought from the Romans. We must credit Caiaphas with avoiding, for a time, such evils [note].

The clearest expression of the kind of dilemma in which Caiaphas found himself comes in The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527):

It must be understood, however, that a prince... cannot observe all of those virtues for which men are reputed good, because it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion in order to preserve the state. Thus he must be disposed to change according as the winds of fortune and the alternations of circumstance dictate. As I have aleady said, he must stick to the good so long as he can, but being compelled by necessity, he must be ready to take the way of evil [e, come di sopra dissi, non partirsi dal bene, potendo, ma sapere entrare, nel male, necessitato]...

In all men's acts, and in those of princes most especially, it is the result that renders the verdict when there is no court of appeal [e nelle azioni di tutti li uomini, e maxime de' principi, dove non è iudizio a chi reclamare si guarda al fine]. [Daniel Donno translation, Bantam Books, 1981, pp.63-64; Italian text, Il Principe, Nuova edizione a cura di Giorgio Inglese, Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino, 2013 e 2014, pp.126-127]

While this passage especially has often been interpreted as advice to completely unprincipled rulers for the purpose merely of promoting their own power, Machiavelli himself did not admire tyrants and did not endorse an amoral opportunism. Thus, the implication of amorality or immorality in the passage above, although very limited if it is read carefully, contrasts with a passage in Machiavelli's own Discourses:

...those are held to be infamous and detestable who extirpate religion, subvert kingdoms and republics, make war on virtue, on letters, and on any art that brings advantage and honour to the human race, i.e. the profane, the violent, the ignorant, the worthless, the idle, the coward. [I:10, Leslie J. Walker translation, Penguin Books, p. 135]

The problem for Machiavelli is not that the amoral are somehow better statesmen, but that,

...almost all men, deceived by the false semblance of good and the false semblance of renown, allow themselves either wilfully or ignorantly to slip into the ranks of those who deserve blame rather than praise; and, when they might have founded a republic or kingdom to their immortal honour, turn their thoughts to tyranny, and fail to see what fame, what glory, security, tranquility, conjoined with peace of mind, they are missing by adopting this course, and what infamy, scorn, abhorrence, danger and disquiet they are incurring. [ibid.]

"Machiavellian" has become a term for vicious opportunism, and the terms "necessity," "raison d'état," Staatsraison, and "Realpolitik" have become shameless pretexts for multiple crimes, as when Lenin wrote to Trotsky in February 1920, "If it must be so, then let thousands die as a result, but the country must be saved" [Nicolas Werth, "A State against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union," The Black Book of Communism, Harvard University Press, 1999, p.89]. This superficially looks like another statement by Machiavelli in the Discourses:

For when the safety of one's country wholly depends on the decision to be taken, no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness or cruelty, or to its being praiseworthy or ignominious. [op.cit., III:41, p. 515]

Lenin can be said to be a true disciple of this maxim, since he shrank from no injustice or cruelty to achieve his goals. However, he was no disciple of Machiavelli just because of those goals. The quote just given is immediately followed by:

On the contrary, every other consideration being set aside, that alternative should be wholeheartedly adopted which will save the life and preserve the freedom of one's country. [ibid.]
The life and freedom of the country, in fact, were not saved, but destroyed, by Lenin, who achieved for himself the "infamy, scorn, abhorrence" that we have seen Machiavelli describe elsewhere. Only the Bolsheviks were saved, so that they could continue slaughtering the workers and peasants in whose name they had seized power.

There is a legitimate use for all of the terms -- "necessity," "raison d'état," and "Realpolitik" -- and Machiavelli himself knew the difference. He admired republics, especially the Roman Republic; he admired and revered Marcus Aurelius. He did not admire tyranny; he did not admire, but despised, Caesar. He would have had no difficulty recognizing Lenin and Trotsky, or Hitler and Stalin, for the monsters that they were -- all of whom made "war on virtue, on letters, and on any art that brings advantage and honour to the human race." His advice can be misused, as any principles of prudence can be misused for improper ends; but this does not change the difference between prudence and folly, wisdom and evil.

A genuine moral dilemma arises when a wrong must be committed, not just for any purpose, but unavoidably for a genuinely good purpose. If the purpose of a prince or leader is simply his own personal or dynastic ambition, regardless of the cost to his country or its citizens, this is not a worthy purpose, and we have an evil, not a dilemma. Machiavelli does say that "it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion in order to preserve the state," which does seem to say that the state, and not personal or dynastic ambition, is the proper end of statecraft. Perhaps so, but this also depends on what the state is supposed to be. If the state is an end in itself, then a dilemma does not arise if some individuals must be sacrificed to it. This again turns "raison d'état" into an amoral principle, using real individuals for the sake of an abstract, collective entity. But if the state is not an end or a good in itself, but an instrumental good to some truly moral end, then a genuine dilemma can arise, as the service of the moral end of the state may conflict with the means that become necessary for its pursuit.

The essence of the dilemma for Caiaphas was simply the existence of one in comparison to the existence of many, the "whole nation." In the Discourses, again, Machiavelli says:

...and it is beyond question that it is only in republics that the common good is looked to properly in that all that promotes it is carried out; and, however much this or that private person may be the loser on this account, there are so many who benefit thereby that the common good can be realized in spite of those few who suffer in consequence. [ibid., II:2, p.275]

Machiavelli is not sophisticated enough to know how rent seeking can corrupt even republics to the service of private interest, but his point can be well taken that the many will be better served in a government that is accountable to the many. If the good of the many, or the common good, could be realized without harm ever occurring to the innocent interests of individuals, that would be wonderful; but life does not always operate that way, which is the problem.

We see the moral dilemma of the state and the individual clearly over the course of Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel of lunar revolution in 2076, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress [1965, 1966, A Tom Doherty Associates Book, New York, 1996]. We find the "rational anarchist," libertarian purist Professor Bernardo de la Paz asking our narrator, Manuel:

"...under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?" ....

"Prof, as I see, are no circumstances under which State is justified in placing its welfare ahead of mine."

"Good. We have a starting point." [p.82]

Later, while the revolution is being prepared, Manuel is worried about how they are getting the money for it:

"Still doesn't say how to pay for what we are doing now."

"'How,' Manuel? You know how we are doing it. We're stealing it. I'm neither proud of it nor ashamed; it's the means we have. If they ever catch on, they may eliminate us -- and that I am prepared to face. At least, in stealing, we have not created the villainous precedent of taxation." [p. 303]

Of course, to the strictest libertarian, taxation is stealing, so the Professor is doing what states do anyway. Has not this violated the Professor's principles? We see the rationale next:

He chuckled. "Dear Manuel! Has it taken you all these years to decide that I am a hypocrite?"

"Then you admit it?"

"No. But if it makes you feel better to think that I am one, you are welcome to use me as your scapegoat. But I am not a hypocrite to myself because I was aware the day we declared the Revolution that we would need much money and would have to steal it. It did not trouble me because I considered it better than food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight. I made my choice and have no regrets." [pp. 303-304]

To Professor de la Paz, stealing money for the Revolution is "the means we have" to avoid food riots and cannibalism (because, by the way, limited lunar water was being steadily shipped to earth as grain). This is Machiavellian in the best sense. These are not means to preserving the state, but means to preserving people. Professor de la Paz is not troubled by the immorality of theft because the preservation of human lives is more important. In these terms, the question would not be whether the state has the right to tax, but whether taxation is necessary to the means effecting the purpose of the state in protecting and preserving the lives of the citizens. The discussion in Mistress is not about sacrificing individuals against their will, but with his poetic license Heinlein has spared the Professor the travail of facing a case of that. But if he is willing to steal, which he regards as an unambiguous crime against natural rights, to prevent cannibalism, the magnitude of the end will be no different if he is required by necessity to sacrifice some individual, or small number of individuals, to prevent the deaths of many more. He may be troubled and unhappy, properly, about that, but he has already conceded the principle -- or rather the exceptions to the principle. Fate, with no poetic license, was not so kind to Caiaphas and the later leaders responsible for the survival of the Jewish nation.

The supreme metaphysic of the state as an end in itself is that of Hegel, for whom the state is simply more real and more divine than any individual. The life, growth, and glory of the state thus would have an absolute claim on any individual; and one could even argue that the conquests of Napoleon and Hitler, although ephemeral and vicious, nevertheless accrued memorable and so indisputable glory, of a sort, to their states, with both regimes the continuing objects of study, fascination, literature, and art. Although few of sound mind would take that "glory" seriously today in regard to Hitler (who, unlike Napoleon, may be said to have created a Hell on earth), in fact we face the unsettling threat of the fame of Stalin reasserting itself in Russia and redirecting that unhappy country back into the ways of tyranny. Indeed, in late 1999, the Russian press is so far back under the control of the government as to contribute no more than cheerleading to the Russian reconquest of Chechnya, whose entire population was once deported by Stalin for suspected disloyalty during the brief German occupation of 1942.

The liberal ideal of Locke, and the basis of morality for Kant, is the individual. The moral basis of the government of the United States is set out in the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson affirms the existence of natural, individual rights and then says, "That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..." Thus, the state is not an end in itself but merely the means to "secure these Rights." If a government fails to do that, Jefferson says, as Locke said earlier, "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." Nothing could be further from the statism, and state worship, of Hegel, let alone Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin.

"Necessity" is itself written into the Constitution of the United States, since Article I, Section 8 says that "The Congress shall have Power... To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper to carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States..." Now, this "necessary and proper clause" was viewed with suspicion by the Anti-Federalists, and reasonably so, since it was suspected as a device for improperly expanding the power of the federal government. Indeed, I do not think that any law has ever been voided for not being "proper." The greatest damage, however, was effected by the word "necessary" itself being misconstrued by John Marshall, who denied that it meant "without which not," the proper logical meaning of necessity, and decided that a "necessary" means is "any means calculated to produce the end." The sophistry and dishonesty of this has been examined elsewhere. The danger then became, not that the federal government would do what was necessary, but that it could do anything "calculated to produce the end." That is a prescription, not for preserving the life and freedom of the nation, but for implementing the kind of tyrannies that we see now.

In addition to these legal and institutional usurpations of liberty, the attacks on individualism itself by socialism and communism have continued under the guise of "communitarianism," and trendy thinkers now like to say that only as much freedom as "possible" should be allowed given the fundamental priority of the state, of "society as a collective unit" (they know that they will sound like Nazis if they start talking about "the state," so they say "society" instead). It is not, indeed, that freedom must never be abridged, but it is a very different matter to see this as a choice by necessity in a moral dilemma rather than as an unproblematic pursuit of a fundamental "collective" good. If the abstract entity (the "state," "society," or the "collective") has the moral priority, then the even permanent abridgment of any amount of freedom is no moral wrong. What the state giveth, the state taketh away.

What about Machiavelli? He lived prior to when the debate between statism and individualism started and so does not articulate its terms, though the idea of the subordination of the individual to the state already existed in Classical political thought (the sort of thing we find in Plato's Crito). Machiavelli could have insensibly gone along with that, or he may have given more thought to what even a Classical state was supposed to accomplish for its citizens. Although not clearly delineated, Machiavelli often does speak as though the worthy and glorious state is the one, not only of secure and substantial dominion, but one where the lives, property, and prosperity of its citizens are secured.

Still it cannot be called virtue to slay one's fellow citizens, to betray one's friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion. By such methods one may win dominion but not glory. [The Prince, op.cit., p.36]

Thus, although Cesare Borgia is often thought of as the archetype of the amoral opportunist, Machiavelli's praise of him (The Prince, Chapter VII) in great measure depends on his judgment that he had secured "the good will of all the inhabitants of Romagna, who were beginning to get a taste of good government" [ibid., p.31]. Borgia is contrasted with the previous rulers of Romagna, who were "impotent lords who had been more inclined to despoil than to govern their subjects" [ibid.].

Machiavelli's advice on the treatment of one's citizens is the most revealing:

A prince...ought to encourage his citizens peaceably to pursue their affairs, whether in trade, in agriculture, or in any other human acitivity, so that no one will hesitate to improve his possessions for fear that they will be taken from him, and no one will hesitate to open a new avenue of trade for fear of taxes. [ibid., p.79]

Even in America, much investment is daunted by the fear of taxes. Elsewhere it is altogether halted. Indeed, it is the hallmark of tyranny in the 20th century that the property, let alone the persons, of citizens is not secure. But a ruler who is basically a robber, or who uses his power to take women, will come to be hated. Hatred and contempt, says Machiavelli, are the worst things that can happen to a ruler, the former because nothing else be needed to motivate opposition, even assassination, while the latter means that few will fear to act in opposition. Machiavelli is famous for claiming that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved by the people (cf. ibid., Chapter XVII), but this is for the very sensible reason that in times of crisis, it is essential that a ruler be obeyed. A ruler who is loved but not feared may not be obeyed in need, which could spell disaster for all. A ruler need not be loved to rule well, but he must be feared to the extent that he will be obeyed.

Debbe nondimanco el principe farsi temere in modo che, se non acquista lo amore, ch'e fugga l'odio: perché e' può molto bene stare insieme essere temuto e non odioato. Il che farà sempre, quando si astenga da la roba de' sua cittadini e de' sua sudditi e da le donne loro; e quando pure gli bisognassi procedere contro al sangue di alcuno, farlo quando vi sia iustificazione conveniente e causa manifesta; ma soprattutto astenersi da la roba di altri, perché li uomini sdimenticano piú presto la morte del padre che la perdita del patrimonio.

Still a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, though he does not gain love, he escapes hatred; for being feared but not hated go readily together. Such a condition he may always attain if he will not touch the property of his citizens and subjects, nor their women. And if he finds it necessary to take someone's life, he should do so when there is suitable justification and manfest cause; but above all, he should refrain from the property of others, for men are quicker to forget the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony. [The Prince, op.cit., p.60; Italian text, Il Principe, Nuova edizione a cura di Giorgio Inglese, Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino, 2013 e 2014, p.119]

A ruler who is both feared and hated may be successful -- as Machiavelli says, "one may win dominion" -- but the foundations of success will be unsound:  Shihuangdi died unchallenged in power and dominion, but his son reigned only two years before universal rebellion overthrew the Qin Dynasty. Stalin had achieved similar status, but three years after his death he was denounced by Khrushchev for his crimes (the "secret" speech of 1956), and the legitimacy of the Soviet regime was shaken in the minds of many who had been true believers. Many Russians now remember Stalin fondly because it is easy to forget the murders and tortures but comforting to remember his strength, making him fearful in Machiavelli's sense but not hateful.

One way in which a ruler can avoid hatred is for him to give the citizens some sense that he respects and depends on them. There is no clearer way that this can be done than to trust them with arms.

This is an issue that has become increasingly important in modern democracies, where the forms of police state authority that have been increasingly put into place are inherently hostile to armed citizens. Large segments of the population, not just in European democracies but now even in America, are deceived by this tyrannical program, under the influence of a press and intelligentsia that has long been dominated by statists, who have always sought to deny to citizens the means of resisting the state. In this case, Machiavelli's observations and recommendations are the most revealing for the nature of government and the purpose of the state. There is nothing more necessary for the preservation of the state than the military, which is why Machiavelli says:

A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, not take up any profession but that of war [Debbe dunque uno principe non avere altro obietto né altro pensiero né prendere cosa alcuna per sua arte fuora della guerrra], its methods and its discipline [e ordini e disciplina di essa], for that is the only art expected of a ruler [perché quella è sola arte che si aspetta a chi comanda]. [ibid., pp. 53-54; Italian, ibid., p.104]

So what is the proper relation of a citizen to the military power of his country? a power that can be used to oppress him, as well as to effect the necessary and proper defense of the nation? This may even be the very essence of the dilemma of statecraft, wherein the existence of the state may contradict the freedom of the individual. How are "necessity" and freedom to be reconciled? This must be examined in some detail, beginning with Machiavelli's advice to a prince:

For by arming your subjects, you make their arms your own [perché armandosi quelle arme diventano tua]. Those among them who are suspicious become loyal, while those who are already loyal remain so [diventano fedeli quelli che ti sono sospetti e quelli che erano fedeli si mantengono], and from subjects they are transformed into partisans [e di sudditi si fanno tua partigiani]. [ibid., p. 73; Italian, ibid., p.149]

There is no more telling hallmark of tyranny and malevolence than a ruler or a government that sets about to disarm the citizens. In Germany and Russia, the policy was to put the people at the mercy of the government. And when the Nazis wanted to massacre the Jews, or the Soviets their "class enemies," resistance was no longer possible. Nor were totalitarian governments alone in this. The democracies of Europe and America now pursue their project of dependent and helpless citizens with relentless attacks on the right of citizens to bear arms or defend themselves.

When you disarm your subjects, however, you offend them [Ma quando tu gli disarmi, tu cominci a offendergli] by showing that, either from cowardliness or from lack of faith, you distrust them [mostri che tu abbi in loro diffidenzia, o per viltà o per poca fede]; and either conclusion will induce them to hate you [e l'una e l'altra di queste opinioni concepe odio contro di te]. [ibid., p. 73; Italian, ibid., p.150]

Democratic governments get away with this by telling the public "you are the government" and buying them off with "benefits," even while people are systematically looted and subjugated for the sake of rent-seeking political and bureaucratic interest groups. As Jefferson wisely said, "they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price." Although the Founders of the country were on the watch for this, people are now dumbed-down and indoctrinated by "public education" not to notice. Stupified with their "benefits," people now do not appreciate this "Machiavellian" principle:

There can be no proper relation between one who is armed and one who is not [Perché da uno armato a uno disarmato non è proporzione alcuna]... [ibid., p. 54; Italian, ibid., p.105]

But even dictatorial governments have gotten away with disarming citizens through a sufficiently dense ideological smokescreen.

What Machiavelli wanted, like the Founding Fathers of the United States, for the defense of the state was a citizen militia. The alternative in the Italy of Machiavelli's day was an army of mercenaries, which he recognized as worthless.

Anyone searching for the first cause of the ruin of the Roman Empire will find that it began with the hiring of mercenaries. From that point the strength of the Roman Empire started to decline, and all the valor it lost was transferred to the Goths. [ibid., p. 53]

Although Machiavelli was quite right about mercenaries, militias have often not worked out well, since they tend to be insufficiently disciplined or hardened as fighting forces. That was the case when the citizens of Renaissance Italian cities attempted to resist foreign armies (French and Spanish), and it was the case in American history, mainly in the War of 1812, when Militia forces often performed badly. By the time of the Civil War, units were raised and trained specifically for the war. Although the Militia Act of 1792 made every "free able-bodied white male citizen" of 18 a member of the Militia, in time, the idea lapsed that the Militia should be the actual body of the citizenry, especially when the Southern States did not want new color-blind Federal civil rights principles, enforced by the Fourteenth Amendment, arming the mass of freed slaves. So in 1903 the Dick Act established the National Guard as a volunteer organization on a much more restricted basis than the old Militia. Indeed, it must be emphasized and remembered that the motivation for this was, in great measure, racism:  an extension of the Segregationist regime that intended to crush the means of resistance among Southern blacks.

Those who now prefer to see the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" of the Second Amendment as discharged by the National Guard, however, must overlook (or explain away) the circumstance that National Guardsmen are in fact not allowed to "keep" their arms. Weapons are kept in National Guard Armories, and Guardsmen bear them only in service, under military discipline. Nor are officers elected, as they usually were in Militias, or even in many Civil War regiments. The National Guard, like the Regular Army, is now part of the establishment of a Standing Army, which the Founders feared as a threat to freedom (they would have called it merely a "select militia"). Even worse, the lapse of the Militia has meant that armed citizens are no longer available for the posse comitatus, where ordinary citizens become deputy sheriffs of their county to enforce the law. This means that increasingly para-military police departments (which orginally were prohibited from carrying arms) have become virtual armies of occupation in American cities, vulnerable to many of the abuses practiced by any such armies.

This is where the dilemma of statecraft emerges in a fundamental way. Militias are too weak for the security of the state, while standing armies are dangerous temptations to tyranny and foreign adventures -- Americans will have noticed that several undeclared wars have been fought since the United States began to maintain a large standing army and that recent involvements -- Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the continuous bombing of Iraq -- have been undertaken without any clear idea of how the involvement was to be wrapped up. This is a degree of foolishness that the Founders thought they were preventing by giving Congress the power to declare war. A President, as Commander-in-Chief, with an army already in existence, can send it into battle without a declaration of war.

Clearly, a regular army is necessary for the security of a state; but it cannot be so big as to represent a temptation to foreign adventures or internal repression. Indeed, after the Civil War, Congress prohibited the use of the regular army for internal police matters. A militia, however, cannot provide a ready or reliable enough back-up for the regular army in case of emergencies. Reserves of some form, whether as adjuncts of the regular army or as national guard units, or both, are essential. But there still must be a militia, which would stand to the national guard in the same sense that Army Reserves stand to the regular army. The "weekend warriors," a derisive term for National Guardsmen, would be just a rather more organized and trained fraction of an armed citizenry, which also means that they would keep their own basic military weapon with them. More basic members of the militia would be more like "vacation warriors."

Nothing is so essential to the legitimate purpose of the state than the protection of its citizens, both from conquest and from tyranny. The dilemma is how we maintain an effective military force, which must be as disciplined and hardened as possible, that will consist of free citizens and not pose a danger to a free civil society. These seem like incompatible purposes, though they are simply of a piece with having a state whose purpose is the protection of individual rights but whose requirements are often, of necessity, abridgement of those rights and the sacrifice of some individuals. This incompatibility seems nowhere clearer than when it comes to conscription, by which "involuntary servitude" is imposed on citizens in order to use them, in the judgment of generals and politicians, for the preservation of the state. Although many people fled Europe for the United States in order to avoid conscription, it has now been put in force several times in America on the principal that it is "necessary" for the preservation of the individual freedom that would otherwise be permanently endangered by foreign conquest. It can even be argued that a conscript army, full of men resentful of their loss of freedom, will constantly remind the generals and politicians that there are limits to what the men will tolerate, both in terms of their treatment and in terms of the use to which they are put.

Conscription, however, is a device that is meaningful only in the absence of a militia. By the Militia Act of 1792, the male citizens of the era (or at least the white ones), were already in the military. If that is the case, then it cannot happen that individual civilians are drafted into the military.
1Regular ArmyFederal
2Army Reserve
3National GuardState
4County Militia
5Unorganized Militia
Instead, in need, it is the Reserve, the National Guard, and the Militia units that are called up, in turn, as the gravity of a situation increases [
note]. This gives us a system of checks and balances, by which here, as elsewhere, alone there is a hope of restraining the power of government in any form. It is a system based on the natural right of self-defense and then degrees of voluntary association with government; for every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms as part of the "unorganized" militia, but any citizen also, with a minimum of commitment and training, can formally join an organized militia at the County level. That should also make them reserve sheriff's deputies, as an official part of the posse comitatus, the only armed police force that should be allowed, and reserve members of the National Guard, which of course is organized at the State level. Such a system keeps in place a small but professional, volunteer regular army (and professional sheriff's deputies) but has behind it a very broad citizen's army, trained to varying degrees in case of national need. It also keeps in place the means of resistance for ordinary citizens against the usurpations of tyranny and statism. A few years ago, when the officials of Nye County, Nevada, wanted to enforce the Tenth Amendment against the Federal Government, which of course unconstitutionally owns most of the land in Nevada and now all but ignores the Tenth Amendment, they backed down simply when threatened by a Federal judge. This goes to show how far what Jefferson called the "spirit of resistance" has been broken among us. If they had the armed body of their own citizens behind them, in the reasonably organized and official form of the County Militia, they might have had more leverage and more courage.

There is no more sobering a corrective for the false path upon which the democracies have entered than to realize that the replacement of the Militia by the National Guard in America was probably motivated in part by racism and the desire to oppress freed slaves, and that the advice that Machiavelli himself gives even to autocrats is to arm their own citizens. The tyrannical, statist purposes behind the "gun control" movement are thus revealed, as are the principles of Machiavelli's viewpoint, where the most successful rulers must be those who achieve good government, while good government is that which fosters the liberty, security, and prosperity of the citizens.

...nor is it reasonable to expect that one who is armed will voluntarily obey one who is not, or that the latter will feel secure among servants who are armed [e non è ragionevole che chi è armato ubbedisca volentieri a chi è disarmato e che el disarmato stia sicuro in tra servitori armati]. [ibid., p. 54; Italian, ibid., p.105]

Thus, Machiavelli expects disarmed citizens to be vulnerable and insecure, which is precisely what statists and tyrants wish.

These reflections began above with one man who, out of his responsibility for the many, thought it necessary to sacrifice another innocent man for their sake -- a sacrifice, ironically, that Christianity interprets as willingly accepted by the victim in order to morally and religiously redeem all of humanity. By an examination of Machiavelli's theory about this, we have come to the theory of such institutional arragements as would preserve the proper purpose of the state, to serve the liberty of its citizens, and to protect citizens who might be targeted, either by unjust rulers or by the tyranny of the majority, for oppression and unnecessary, improper sacrifice. If the only force that a ruler, or any government, can muster is the voluntary mass of the citizens, then no policy can be pursued to which the mass of the citizens does not consent. Thus, the military adventures, and social enginnering within the military, of the Clinton Presidency have resulted in poor retention and recruitment rates. In the voluntary military, this indicates that something is wrong. The fear that it endangers national security leads many to think that conscription should be reintroduced. This, however, treats one evil with another evil. The truth is that the regular military is too large anyway, but that even so it could be easily maintained without the discouraging actions into which the military has been sent and the oppressive social policies for which the military was made a laboratory.

The voluntary military is therefore a check and a balance against foolish government. At the same time, good government sometimes requires that the people be led rather than just followed. When Neville Chamberlain decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia to Hitler, ridiculously hoping to satisfy all his desires, public opinion, equally foolish, was behind him completely. But the appeasement of Hitler violated one of Machiavelli's wisest precepts: should never permit a disorder to persist in order to avoid a war, for war is not avoided thereby but merely deferred to one's own disadvantage [...che non si debbe mai lasciare seguire uno disordine per fuggire una guerra: perché la non si fugge ma si differisce a tuo disavvantaggio]. [ibid., p. 20; Italian, ibid., p.24]

The disadvantage of deferring war against Hitler was bitter and substantial. But, although we could blame this case on the sentiment of the people, rather than just on Chamberlain, Machiavelli himself said, "Government by the populace is better than government by princes" [Discourses, op.cit., p. 256]. One reason for this is stated thus:

For a licentious and turbulent populace, when a good man can obtain a hearing, can easily be brought to behave itself; but there is no one to talk to a bad prince, nor is there any remedy except the sword. [ibid., p. 256].

In the same way that a misbehaving crowd can be calmed, a foolish and ill advised populace can be directed towards wisdom by the proper leadership. This, to be sure, calls for great gifts. A Churchill or a Reagan who can rally a nation to the wise and prudent path is rare, while a demagogue who can urge the people down a foolish and improper path by pandering, like a Roosevelt or a Clinton, is more common. Which kind of leader becomes available is unfortunately left to the happenstance of history, where demagogues definitely are in greater supply.

Machiavelli's own explanation for why the righteous do not succeed as rulers is of interest.

...for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good. [The Prince, op.cit., p. 56]


It follows, then, that a wise prince cannot and should not keep his pledge when it is against his interest to do so and when his reasons for making the pledge are no longer operative. If all men were good, this would be a bad precept [e se li uomini fussino tutti buoni questo precetto non sarebbe buono], but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them. [ibid., p. 62]

Now, if a prince knew that an ally was not evil, but good and faithful, it would certainly be foolish to break faith and estrange such a one, except in extraordinary circumstances. The assumption that most princes, and men, however, will simply act out of self-interest is not likely to lead one too far astray. Interestingly, a determination to break faith with those who break faith sounds very much like the "tit for tat" strategy in game theory, where good faith is rewarded with good faith, and bad faith with bad faith. That approach makes for a prince, or a leader, who is neither treacherous nor a sucker, who is faithful to the faithful but on guard and prepared against the unfaithful. It was one of the most painful aspects of Neville Chamberlain's naivety that he actually perceived Adolf Hitler as a man of good faith.
The Tomb of Machiavelli,
Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, 2019
His disillusionment came far too late to catch Hitler before he had acquired such advantages as made the war as desperate a business as it proved to be.

There is nothing easy or happy about the dilemmas of statecraft. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but it often demands uncommon wisdom to recognize a desperate situation and to know what actually is necessary. Caiaphas cannot be expected to have believed that Jesus was the Son of God. What he can be expected to appreciate is the overwhelming force of Roman power and the danger of the rebellion that was always simmering just below the surface in Judea, urged on by many Messianic figures much like Jesus. His reasons and actions in that respect are not open to serious reproach. Nor can the comparable actions of any political figure. Churchill was right that Bolshevism should have been "strangled in its cradle." That the means and will were not available for that is one thing, that the Soviet Union was accepted by Roosevelt as a progressive and democratic regime, which could be trusted to occupy Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, is another thing -- a foolish and idiotic thing, which condemned thousands to hopeless torture and death and many more to poverty and tyranny for decades. Only Truman awakened to the danger, to the continuing disgust of the Left. Similarly disillusioned, somewhat too late again, was Jimmy Carter.

The hardest thing to accept may be that there are moral dilemmas and that often choices must be made between good ends and what otherwise would be the dictates of justice and righteousness. A naive gullibility, like that of Wilson, Roosevelt, or Carter, is ultimately of no benefit to justice, when those who are treacherous by preference triumph over those who would rather lose than respond in kind. Machiavelli is still supreme as the sage and theorist of what is required in such real, unforgiving historical situations.

"The Question of Machiavelli," by Isaiah Berlin, The New York Review of Books, November 4, 1971, & March 7, 2013

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), who has already come in for favorable comment in these pages, wrote an essay about Machiavelli for The New York Review of Books in 1971. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Review printed an excerpt from the essay in its March 7, 2013, edition, with the whole essay posted on-line.

Berlin has a sympathetic reading of Machiavelli and sees him as a pivotal figure in the development of modernity, especially in the modern liberal tradition of pluralism and tolerance. However, I think that Berlin reads far too much of his own thought into Machiavelli, producing an interpretation that is false to the text. At the same time, I think that Berlin's own liberal political philosophy has weaknesses, which his reading of Machiavelli exposes. Both problems, of interpretation and of the truth, are the result of errors in Berlin's theory of value and his construction of the nature of ethics. Without the hermeneutic apparatus of the Polynomic Theory of Value, Berlin is bound to misunderstand what is going on in Machiavelli and what is needed for a proper liberal political philosophy.

What Berlin brings to the table is his view that in human life there are multiple and incommensurable systems of value and morality, each with "ends equally ultimate." These cannot be reconciled by rational means and are not part of any possible single universal system of value or morality. If there is to be peace and civil order between people who adhere to such conflicting systems of value, they must be prepared to practice compromise and be tolerant towards others, which becomes the basis of liberal society.

This has almost nothing to do with Machiavelli, as Berlin admits. Machiavelli certainly does not believe in multiple systems of value. Berlin affirms that belief in the unity of truth and the good has been part of the common intellectual, political, and religious heritage of European civilization -- as indeed it would be of any other civilization on Earth. The role that Berlin believes Machiavelli plays is to have demonstrated by his theory in a dramatic fashion a clash between two systems of value that were in fact incompatible, namely the values that, as a Renaissance Humanist, Machiavelli inherited from Classical Antiquity, which were of "civic virtue" and the communal political life of the human being, whom Aristotle called a "political animal," over and against the values of Christianity, which elevated the individual, meekness, humility, modesty, and renunciation of the world above political life.

I don't think this works either as political philosophy or as an interpretation of Machiavelli. Most importantly, I think that the interpretation is an insult to Classical pagan moralists. When Machiavelli recommends that the Prince be prepared to break his word, to lie, betray, murder, deceive, break treaties, and act "against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, [and] against religion," are these actions that merely offend Christian morality? Certainly not. They remind us of Plato's description of the actions and psychology of the Tyrant in the Republic. Where Berlin sees Machiavelli as endorsing ruthless behavior as right and proper in politics, this also contradicts Machiavelli himself, who says that Prince "must stick to the good so long as he can, but, being compelled by necessity, he must be ready to take the way of evil." Machiavelli never shrinks from describing the behavior as "evil," and does not use the argument that Berlin stands ready to provide for him, that this "evil" is really good in terms of the new (or old) morality with which Machiavelli is replacing that of Christianity.

Berlin says that Machiavelli's advice is "Beyond good and evil in some non-Aristotelian, religious, or liberal-Kantian sense; but not beyond the good and evil of those communities, ancient or modern, whose sacred values are social through and through." But no community I have ever heard of (or even Aristotle) countenances betrayal, murder, etc. as "sacred values," and the phrase "beyond good and evil" invokes a Nietzschean immoralism that is alien to any Classical moralist who rejects the arguments of Thrasymachus in the Republic, which means pretty much all of them. Indeed, Nietzsche sees "aristocratic values" as encompassing the rapine and looting of invading barbarians, but this has nothing to do with the values that still cling to the word "nobility" today or that are detailed in Mediaeval discussions or examples of chivalry. The gentleman protects the lady, rather than raping her -- where the latter to Nietzsche would be the "natural" thing, and more life affirming (she might get pregnant, after all). The only time I have ever seen the phrase "beyond good and evil" in traditional texts is in the Bhagavad Gita, where one goes beyond good and evil by detachment from the world and a loss of interest in worldly success. This would not be agreeable to Machiavelli or Berlin.

Berlin acknowledges that Machiavelli uses, following a long tradition, the justification of "necessity" (necessità -- necessitas non habet legem, "necessity knows no law"), but he seems to be saying that Machiavelli doesn't really need it and, apparently not worrying about it very much, he shouldn't. But necessity will only be no concern if we are using some sort of morality where what are ordinarily called "crimes" are actually normal, sensible, and unproblematic. But Machiavelli gives us no hint that he believes anything of the sort:  "He must stick to the good so long as he can." This is particularly awkward when Berlin argues that the incommensurable systems cannot be rationally reconciled, for "necessity" is indeed a rational principle that reconciles them.

Berlin confuses, or is confused about, the issue on several points. While he wants to contrast Christian humility, etc., with pagan civic virtue, the shocking thing about Machiavelli is that his advice goes well beyond anything like merely acting without humility. After the Prince, or even any leader of a Republic, is through betraying and murdering, lack of humility will be the least of the objections against him. This is where Berlin insults pagan moralists. But then he obscures his own distinction by often coupling Plato with Christianity. This works in terms of both believing that truth and the good are one, but it leaves us with the impression that Plato was some kind of Christian and that his moral objections to the Tyrant are those of Christian ethics. But little to nothing in the Republic or the Laws looks like Christian ethics. They are disturbingly collectivist and even totalitarian; and Plato is quite in line with the mainsteam of Classical political theory, in which Berlin sees Machiavelli as a member, that the purpose of the laws is to create virtuous citizens -- virtuous, that is, in the practical ethic that Berlin opposes to Christianity. This ruins Berlin's argument that Machiavelli's principal problem is with Christianity. His advice goes against common and apparently universal principles of morality, whether in Socrates, Christianity, Confucius, or Buddhism.

Thus, Machiavelli is not introducing "another moral universe," as Berlin puts it. He is operating in a moral universe that is recognizable at most times and places. And if his advice is shocking, it is going to shock Socrates as much as St. Thomas. Nor is Berlin's theory of multiple systems of morality going to provide much of a basis for modern liberal society. If competing systems of value, diverging even as much as Catholicism and Protestantism, fight themselves to a draw and are forced, by mutual exhaustion, into compromise (cuius regio, eius religio), this will not make for a durable foundation because it will have no moral force behind it. In practical terms, it is no more than a truce; and, far from standing as a predecessor of tolerance, the advice of Machiavelli in those circumstances, where some agreement is reached on coexistence, would be that it only be honored so long as it is expedient to do so. If peace is reached because of exhaustion, then if we find ourselves no longer exhausted, it may be time to strike again. The reasons for doing so in our moral universe will be the same as before. This is explicitly why the Jihād will always continue, despite periods of coexistence with unbelief.

Thus, tolerance must be recognized as a moral principle in its very own absolute and universal terms. This is why the liberal tradition, as we see in either Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill, formulates moral principles that involve respect for the religious conscience of others. This is not just a compromise; it is the righteousness of individual dignity and autonomy, something certainly not recognized by Nietzsche. But Isaiah Berlin is employing an insight of some importance. In goals and forms of life, there is aesthetic variety. Not everyone wants to live the same way or pursue the same ends, and this is in general a good thing for all. The virtuous society of most Classical philosophers, including Thomas Jefferson, is mostly that of peasants (Plato) or yeomen (Jefferson). The variety of urban life, where merchants and artisans manufacture, buy, and sell, was generally looked on with suspicion and disapproval. Liberal society creates a "nation of shopkeepers," which we all know is venal and vulgar, without the honor and amour propre of warriors and aristocrats. We see the same attitude today when the success of capitalism is dismissed and disparaged by the modern aristocrats of the academy as "consumerism," which is based on the unnecessary desires generated by advertising, with the result that the Third World and the Planet are looted and ravaged. What we need is a population living in the virtuous poverty of an "ecotopia," as in Cuba. Of course, this attitude, complete with the theory of "unnecessary desires," if not of advertising, is already found in Plato.

So what Berlin has stumbled into is the reality of non-moral, Ideal, or Euergetic ethics, which are all the hortative goods of human life. These may be relatively incommensurable systems of value, but they are unified by the moral component of ethics, whose rules, as customary morality or as legal precepts, allow them to coexist in peace and civil order. What Berlin calls incompatibly different systems of morality collapse together the rules of morality with the non-moral goods of the rest of ethics. The dilemmas that he sees arising from the clash of conflicting systems of morality in fact arise because of the distinction between moral and non-moral value within a single, universal system of ethics. In fact, any contradiction between hortative goods cannot be resolved except on the basis of a common morality. Thus, as liberal society developed in the United States, not everyone believed that the institution of slavery was inconsistent with this. Several States allowed slavery to exist; and slaveholders vigorously defended their "peculiar institution." The problem of slavery was then not resolved by compromise and toleration, but by War. This resulted in a single legal system in which humans could not be held as property and where the innocent, competent will of persons could not be abridged by private individuals or public authority.

There had been compromises about slavery already; yet in retrospect, far from looking like the enlightened adjustment of "incommensurable" systems of morality to each other, the compromises look like disgraceful moral weakness and capitulation. Anti-American ideologues will never let anyone forget the "3/5" rule of the Constitution, which is used as an indictment of the whole as racist and morally discredited. Of course, the compromises were in fact merely truces, and the forces opposed to slavery in particular had no intention of leaving the status quo in perpetuity. They immediately set to working to undermine it, and the correct judgment of history is that they were right.

It is one thing to resolve conflicts about the good in terms of the conditiones sine qua non of morality, but quite another when the conflict is between the right and the good. This is where the dilemmas of statecraft arise, and this is where the conflicts described by Berlin actually reside. There is no way of resolving them even by compromise and toleration, for they are intrinsic to the structure of value and of ethics. This is what Machiavelli actually demonstrates with his advice. To preserve the whole people (λαός), it may be necessary to wrong a few, or one man. A conscientious person will be troubled by this, but there is nothing much he can do about it. The complacency of Machiavelli in the face of it is not, as Berlin thinks, because he has adopted a system of value where there is nothing really wrong or bad about deception, betrayal, and murder; but because Machiavelli understands that resolve will be necessary and doubt may be fatal in the stateman who pauses to consider and to be undone by moral qualms when action and speed are essential (e.g. Barack Obama).

La Rouchefoucauld said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. There has never been a better example of this than the Hellenistic Diadochi. Never has there been such a naked demonstration of faithlessness, betrayal, treachery, and murder. Yet the successful Diodochi, especially the Ptolemies, did not celebrate the great virtues of evil that, beyond good and evil, they had achieved. On the contrary, the epithets used by the monarchs were all of conventional benevolence. Among the best and most popular were Σωτήρ, Sōtḗr, "Savior," and Εὐεργέτης, Euergétēs, "Benefactor." Was this merely hypocrisy and bad faith? There are certainly elements of that. But what it does for us is to definitively explode Berlin's thesis.

Their bad conscience was not in relation to Christian ethics, which didn't yet exist. They wanted to look good to the educated opinion of the time, and to the historians; and so they wanted to convey the impession that they meant well, and did in fact accomplish good, despite the regretable nastiness of the means they were compelled to use. The historians, especially, would understand how that worked. It remained for Machiavelli, however, to drag such things fully into the light of day. Isaiah Berlin, after a fashion, must belittle Machiavelli's achievement, as representing a conflict too much of its time and place. But he also misrepresents its lesson, which is about the structure of ethics, not about equal and incommensurable moral systems.

Debbe nondimanco el principe farsi temere in modo che, se non acquista lo amore, ch'e fugga l'odio: perché e' può molto bene stare insieme essere temuto e non odioato. Il che farà sempre, quando si astenga da la roba de' sua cittadini e de' sua sudditi e da le donne loro; e quando pure gli bisognassi procedere contro al sangue di alcuno, farlo quando vi sia iustificazione conveniente e causa manifesta; ma soprattutto astenersi da la roba di altri, perché li uomini sdimenticano piú presto la morte del padre che la perdita del patrimonio.

Still a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, though he does not gain love, he escapes hatred; for being feared but not hated go readily together. Such a condition he may always attain if he will not touch the property of his citizens and subjects, nor their women. And if he finds it necessary to take someone's life, he should do so when there is suitable justification and manfest cause; but above all, he should refrain from the property of others, for men are quicker to forget the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Daniel Donno translation, Bantam Books, 1981, p.60; Italian text, Il Principe, Nuova edizione a cura di Giorgio Inglese, Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino, 2013 e 2014, p.119.

All manner of gifts and the unending tributes of the earth flowed continually towards his throne, because he [King Umar al-Numān] was loved as well as feared.

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, rendered into English from the Literal and Complete French Translation of Dr. J.C. Mardrus, by Powys Mathers, Volume I, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964, 1972, 1986, p.346]

"A Poetics for Tyrants," by Philip Delves Broughton, reviewing Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, by Patrick Boucheron, translated by Willard Wood [Other Press, 2020], The Wall Street Journal, January 25-26, 2020, C12.

From the review of Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by Philip Broughton, it is clear that both Mr. Broughton and the author of the book, Patrick Boucheron, entirely miss the point of Machiavelli and The Prince. Both the title of the review and the subtitle of the book tell us much of what is wrong.

First, there is no "Poetics for Tyrants" in Machiavelli. He knows what tyrants are, and he is against them. The subtitle of the book, "The Art of Teaching People What to Fear," expresses Boucheron's thesis that Machiavelli is not advising "tyrants," but is actually warning us about them. No. Much of Machiavelli's advice to princes is how not to be a tyrant. You would not know this from the review, and I gather that you would not know it from the book. There is nothing to fear from a ruler who preseves the state and the people, who promotes culture, and who (normally) protects persons and property.

I might note something early in the review, that, according to Machiavelli, "Fear is more useful an instrument than love." We have seen already how this can be misused. With Machiavelli's question, whether it is better to be feared than loved, we know that what is added to this is that the prince does not want to be hated. A ruler harsh but just will be feared but probably not hated. And, of course, the importance of Machiavelli's advice is that, in a crisis, a feared ruler will be obeyed, promptly, while one who is merely loved may not be, leading to disaster. The context and purport of this is lost in a reference like that given by Mr. Broughton. The effect is distortion and misrepresentation. Tyrants will be feared also, but they will be hated -- leading to the assassination of people like Caligula and Caracalla. One of the greatest statements about the deficiency of fear alone is in the Tao Te Ching, which we may compare to the fate of the "First Emperor" of China, Shǐhuángdì, as feared and hated as any ruler in history -- successful in his lifetime, but followed by the total collapse of his regime.

Quickly enough Broughton gets to the thesis to "reframe our understanding of Machiavelli," where he asks:

Who was he writing for? If you believe his audience was tyrants, then his negative reputation is justified. But what if he was writing for the rest of us?

This creates a false dilemma, which nothing in the rest of the review corrects. The choice is not between "tyrants" and "the rest of us." The alternative is the obvious one, that Machiavelli is writing advice for princes, and for those holding a generalized and equivalent political power. Much of The Prince is senseless without understanding that.

And so the rest of the review and the book, we must infer, is senseless. One curious statement is that "Machiavelli, in Mr. Boucheron's analysis, never held that ends justify the means." Again, this statement is a very confused way to represent Machiavelli. As we have seen, the issue is necessity -- necessitato -- a word that Broughton never uses but, that, of course, Machiavelli does. Thus, the end does not justify the means unless, as it happens, the means are necessary to the good end:

...he must stick to the good so long as he can, but being compelled by necessity, he must be ready to take the way of evil

The sense that statecraft may involve moral dilemmas is missing from most historical treatments of Machiavelli, and I have no confidence that Broughton or Boucheron have any understanding of it either. Indeed, no philosophers that I know of have ever had a good understanding of dilemmas. So a deficiency in this treatment of Machiavelli will not be surprising in the least. And Broughton's obvious naive acceptence that "ends justify means" is self-evidently wrongful is a clue that he is a moral unsophisticate. That it is indeed wrongful, but is overruled by necessity, oddly enough, can be expressed in terms of law -- necessitas non habet legem -- but seems to never work its way into the consciousness of philosophers or political philosophers.

Broughton's statement, that Machiavelli "explains the behavior of tyrants not to excuse them, but to show the rest of us what to look out for, in the clearest terms possible," unfortunately, obviously presupposes that the content and purpose of The Prince "explains the behavior of tyrants." This is quite false, even grotesquely so. The Prince explains what the prince must do to preserve the state and protect the people, including circumstances where it becomes necessary "to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion."
Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), Christ before the High Priest, 1617, National Gallery, London
The blushing do-gooder does not want to face such circumstances and be forced to decide between harsh alternatives, such as "that one man should die for the people, that the whole nation should not perish." Certainly, Broughton and Boucheron, along with Bill O'Reilly, would regard Caiaphas as a tyrant, which he in no way was -- with the added irony that the actions of Caiaphas were absolutely essential to fulfill Christian prophecy and effect the salvation of humanity. Nor did he do that unintentionally. His job was to protect Israel, which he did, qualified only with the Christian twist that Israel could mean everyone, and not just Judaea.

Tyrants you want? Well, we can gather from The Prince what tyrants will be like. One will be a tyrant, and hated, if he will "touch the property of his citizens and subjects," or "their women." This seems to have been overlooked by Broughton, and probably Boucheron. With the principle of necessity, we can infer that the tyrant will "take the way of evil" right from the beginning, without any justification of necessity. Thus, Frederick the Great, after writing his condemnation of Machiavelli, began his reign with an unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Silesia -- just because he wanted it, and he thought that the Austrians would be at a disadvantage. Frederick was not otherwise a bad ruler, and indeed was regarded by many as one of the "Enlightened Despots," but the cynicism and opportunism of his invasion was evident to all. Nor did it simply expose the hypocrisy of his treatment of Machiavelli, for he cannot be said to have avoided one of Machiavelli's criteria of tyranny.

Broughton finishes his treatment with references to earlier promoters of Boucheron's thesis, quoting Rousseau that Machiavelli was "instructing the people on what they have to fear." Heaven help the people who have a ruler who protects them. But Rousseau, as it happens, was a theoriest of totalitarianism, and an inspiration of the Terror in the French Revolution. This is not someone whose opinions we should be invoking. Broughton also refers to John Adams on his using Machiavelli to understand "likely threats to a young American republic." Unfortunately, if Adams did not appreciate Machiavelli as an informed theorist of Republican Government, this may explain in part why Adams pursued tyrannical policies that had to be corrected by Thomas Jefferson.

Thus Philip Broughton does not understand Machiavelli at all, and I get no sense from the review here that Patrick Boucheron would prove any better.

"Whatever It Takes," by Tim Parks, reviewing Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear, by Patrick Boucheron, translated by Willard Wood [Other Press, 2020], and Machiavelli: His Life and Times, by Alexander Lee [London: Picador, 2020], The New York Review of Books, October 22, 2020, p.41.

Tim Parks is identified as "the author of many novels, translations, and works of nonfiction, most recently Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness and Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal. Whatever his qualifications or experience, the review by Parks of the books by Boucheron and Lee is of interest for its own sake.

Parks begins with a quote by Boucheron, "Is Machiavelli good, then, or is he evil?" Boucheron says that Machiavelli wrote, "a book whose 'program is to uncouple political action from conventional morality'." As I have indicated above, this is quite false. But Parks spends very little time on Boucheron's book, and he does not get into the issues examined in the review by Philip Delves Broughton above, not even the meaning of the subtitle "The Art of Teaching People What to Fear." Instead, what it looks like is that the entire review by Parks addresses the book by Alexander Lee:

Machiavelli has a way of prompting his commentators to assert their moral concerns. They do not want to be tarred with the villain's brush. The British historian Alexander Lee closes his biography on a resolutely pious note: on his deathbed Machiavelli

knew how greatly he had sinned. Over the past fifty-eight years, there had been no crime he had not committed, no vice he had no indulged.... At every turn, he had thought only of himself, his ambitions and desires...

One can hear him inwardly shrieking with terror at the pains of Hell.

It's a harsh conclusion after the mostly sympathetic picture painted over the 570 pages. [p.41]

This seems to be what interests Parks. The bulk of his review recounts the life of Machiavelli, which leaves very little to motivate the extreme and self-righteous judgment of Alexander Lee. Machiavelli devoted himself in service to Florence; and, as Parks quotes, wrote in 1513, "My poverty stands witness to my loyalty and goodness" [p.43]. As this seems to be true, it falsifies the whole of Lee's evaluation. It is also the same kind of witness, μάρτυς (genitive μάρτυρος), his poverty, πενία, cited by Socrates. In serving Florence, Machiavelli was not thinking "only of himself." And, for all we know, Machiavelli may have been thinking of Socrates.

Parks then relates the details of Machiavelli's life, whose career course stands in support of this. He only entered public life after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494 and the overthrow of the tyranny of Savonarola in 1498. In service to a Republican Florence, Machiavelli had his hands full, largely to preserve Florentine independence, and keeping out the Medici. This involved missions to France, the Borgias, Pope Julius II, the Emperor Maximilian, and all the other contemporary political actors. Away from home for years, Machiavelli visited prostitutes, which Lee apparently uses to condemn him personally. But Lee has difficulty maintaining his pious case more generally:

Overall, though, what emerges from Lee's careful chronicling of these missions is Machiavelli's diligence, his patience with his dithering superiors, his financial honesty, and his commitment to the Florentine cause. [p.42]

This is a Machiavelli who "thought only of himself"? Doesn't look like it. Meanwhile, Pisa had broken away from Florence, and the condottieri hired by Florence were alternatively ineffective to traitorous in recovering it. Back from his diplomacy, Machiavelli had different ideas:

Eventually, Machiavelli became convinced that mercenary armies were part of the problem, not the solution. Having persuaded the Florentines to experiment with a citizens' army, he raised it, trained it, and largely led it himself. Only a powerful sense of community, he thought, would steel soldiers to face death. In 1509 Pisa was retaken. [p.42]

However, Machiavelli's militia was not up to the standard of the national armies of France and Spain; and in 1512 the latter was able to restore the Medici to Florence. Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured and somehow gets condemned by Boucheron and Lee for offering his services to the Medici, for the sake of Florence. I have not noticed similar condemnations of Talleyrand, who served all regimes equally from Louis XVI to Louis XVIII. By 1520, even the Medici began to think that perhaps Machiavelli's advice would be valuable. But they rejected the constitution he drew up for Florence. Too much like the Roman Republic, perhaps.

Parks briefly dismisses accusations by both Boucheron and Lee, who mainly want to reduce the generality of Machiavelli's advice to venal specifics. His final judgement on Machiavelli seems to be the sympathetic one that Alexander Lee could have made, paying attention to his own biography, but for some reason doesn't.

In 1521 he was offered a lucrative job as chancellor of the city of Dubrovnik [in Croatia]. He refused. He wasn't a mercenary. [p.43]

This in itself refutes Lee's "only of himself." Thus, the bulk of the review by Parks exploits the incoherence of Lee's own account. Unlike the general historical response to Machiavelli, it sounds like Lee wants to condemn Machiavelli personally, "how greatly he had sinned," rather than for the evil implications of his political advice, presumably for unprincipled opportunism and ruthlessness -- which we might even think is reflected in Parks's subtitle, "Whatever It Takes." Parks does a more thorough job addressing that particular kind of personal condemnation, which, all things considered, seems idiosyncratic. Critics have rarely wanted Machiavelli in Hell just for visiting prostitutes.

Pretty much ignored by Parks is Bucheron's whole thesis, that Machiavelli presents a paradigm of tyranny and despotism just to warn us against it. That is an oversight of his treatment, even while Parks presents an opposing paradigm, that Machiavelli was devoted to the welfare of his native state, whose preservation is the purpose of all his political theory, whether rule is by princes or, as he would prefer, the people. That accomplishes the job, even if indirectly. Thus, I can only see the review as a positive and valuable contribution to our evaluation of Machiavelli, unlike the review by Philip Delves Broughton.

Machiavelli's View of Government

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Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft, Note 1

Issetsu Tashō; Kill One That Many May Live.

In Buddhist terms, the sacrifice of one so that the many may live is generally about self-sacrifice. In Japanese politics, however, it became a matter of justifying assassination, so that in the 1930's Japan had what has been called "government by assassination." The saying Issetsu Tashō (often with satsu used for setsu) seems to have been the motto of the "League of Blood," Ketsumeidan, which in 1932 assassinated the former Finance Minister Junnosuke Inoue (9 February) and the Director-General of Mitsui Holding Company, Dan Takuma (5 March). While this sort of thing involves the sacrifice of others rather than of one's self, such assassins generally did not attempt to hide themselves or escape apprehension. They were willing to accept punishment. The public often saw this favorably as evidence of the equivalent of self-sacrifice. Thus, the trial of the League of Blood conspirators became a political show trial in favor of the defendants. Although found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, they were later pardoned.

In the end, three Prime Ministers of Japan were assassinated -- Hara Takashi in 1921, Hamaguchi Osachi in 1931, and Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932. The latter, on May 15, apparently included some assassins involved with the League of Blood.

I posted the Issetsu Tashō saying on 2/26/2013, the anniversary of the "2/26 Incident" (Ni-niroku Jiken) in 1936. This was an actual coup attempt in Tokyo by some Army units. The plan involved seven assassination targets:   the Prime Minister, Admiral Keisuke Okada; former Prime Minister Saionji Kinmochi; former Foreign Minister Makino Nobuaki; Grand Chamberlain Admiral Suzuki Kantarō; Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and former Prime Minister Admiral Saitō Makoto; Finance Minister and former Prime Minister Takahashi Korekiyo; and Inspector General of Military Education General Jōtarō Watanabe. Of these, Saitō Makoto, Takahashi Korekiyo, and Jōtarō Watanabe were actually killed. Suzuki Kantarō was badly wounded. Suzuki would become Prime Minister in the last days of World War II.

As snow was falling early in the morning of February 26th, many participants were reminded of the revenge of the 47 Ronin, which also began on a snowy morning -- although their own goal seems to have been to direct Japanese politics towards war with Russia rather than China. The coup failed, and the Government took a very different attitude towards the insurectionists and the assassins than it had with previous assassination plots. The trials were secret and summary. High level participants were sentenced to death and executed. This tended to quiet the tradition of disobedience in the Army and of political assassination. However, it also led to more militarization of the Government. It is also no accident that the targets of many of the assassinations and attempts over the years were Naval officers. The Navy, which modeled its own traditions on the Royal Navy, tended to have a more cosmopolitan view of Japanese affairs than the Army and was often opposed to war with powers like the United States. On land, however, the Army had a political advantage, and the Army both modeled itself on Germany and possessed less knowledge of Japan's power relative to prospective enemies like Britain and the United States. A full invasion of China would begin at the Marco Polo Bridge on 7 July 1937.

Living as we do in an era of religious suicide attacks and terrorist bombings, we are again familiar with an ideology that exalts violence as purifying and selfless. Unlike Caiaphas, however, the sacrifice of one for the many is not a defensive act to preserve the Nation; it is part of a program of attack and conquest. And its "martyrs" kill themselves by killing others, unlike traditional martyrs who are killed for no more than their beliefs. Nor does the target in particular need to be guilty of anything. Terror works precisely by targeting the innocent.

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Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft, Note 2

Curiously, Caiaphas actually states a fundamental principle of Christian theology:  Jesus must die in order to save all of humanity -- the "people" (λαός) in the largest sense -- to redeem us from our sins. Now, Caiaphas would not have had such an end in view, but it is simply a generalized version of the terms he does consider. Caiaphas works to preserve Israel. Jesus accepts the necessity of this, but with the correction and enlargement that it will mean all humanity, and Israel will be simply all those who accept Christ. Now, it often happens that those who intend evil sometimes unintentionally do good, and traditionally Caiaphas might have been thought of in this way. But this need not be the case in this instance. Caiaphas is willing to sacrifice Jesus for the same reason that Jesus is willing to sacrifice himself, with the only difference being the size of the "whole nation."

As at happens, the text of the Gospel of John continues:

[John 11:51] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation [ἔθνος], [11:52] and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

This is an intriguing twist on the situation of Caiaphas. Just as Socrates says that those who prophecy do not know what they are saying (with a similar idea in the Harry Potter books, where those who deliver genuine prophecies do not even remember what they have said), we are now told that Caiaphas is making just such a prophecy -- that Jesus will die "not for the nation only," with the implication that Caiaphas has this prophetic power from being high priest.

In these terms, Caiaphas has become an unintentional instrument of God. This may not morally excuse him, any more than a Pharaoh whose heart is "hardened" is excused, and so the original question remains, whether Caiaphas is actually morally innocent because he is fulfilling the duties of his office to protect the nation. At the same time, if we wanted to maintain a traditional judgment that Caiaphas is wicked for wanting to kill Jesus, we now have the difficulty of whether we really can hold someone culpable, any more than Pharaoh, who "did not say this of his own accord." Caiaphas must plan the death of Jesus, for the mission of Jesus to be fulfilled, and so the matter is not left to chance. This leaves us asking whether, if we think he would have acted that way anyway, such an intentional action would have been wicked or in fact commensurate with his duty. The judgment here is for the latter.

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Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft, Note 3

1ArmyNavyAir Force
Navy ReserveAir Force
Coast GuardMarinesAir National
Coast Guard
Marine Corps
For perspective, the Armed Forces of the United States as of 30 September 2000 had the strengths given at left. The Marines are, though they don't like it, technically under the authority of the Secretary of the Navy -- the very meaning of the word "marine" is, of course "at sea." In wartime, the Coast Guard is also under the authority of the Navy.

It is noteworthy that there is no National Guard organization corresponding to the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard. That the Coast Guard is listed in the place of a Naval National Guard is in part for convenience and in part because the Coast Guard in fact functions as a kind of Naval National Guard -- as "Coastal Defense" in terms of old Naval war doctrine. Since the Coast Guard is a full-time, active service it does have its own Reserve. The Air Force National Guard shares some of the operational ambiguity of the Coast Guard. Many Air Force National Guard units are always on active duty. The fighters that were scrambled (too late) on 11 September 2001 to intercept the airliners hijacked by terrorists were from the Air National Guard. Also, the rescue helicopter, of The Perfect Storm book and movie fame, that had to ditch on 30 October 1991 was an Air National Guard rescue helicopter -- under the doctrine that the Air National Guard handles air rescues at sea beyond the range of Coast Guard helicopters. The Air Guardsmen were then rescued by Coast Guardsmen.

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