Machiavelli’s Bite

Stuart Hampshire

  • Machiavelli by Quentin Skinner
    Oxford, 102 pp, £4.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 19 287517 5
  • The Prince and Other Political Writings by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Bruce Penman
    Dent, 354 pp, £3.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 460 11280 5

This is a short book, scarcely more than a long essay, on a subject vastly investigated and written about. Professor Skinner’s powers of compression and command of the evidence provide as good an introduction to Machiavelli’s thought as could be asked for. As in his Foundations of Modern Political Thought, he is determined to place Machiavelli’s theorising in its historical context among the not unrelated thoughts of lesser Florentine humanists and of other contemporaries. This might be expected to have a levelling effect on the reputation of some original thinkers: their ideas might appear less innovative once they were seen to be not untypical of their time and place. Reading The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, however, one finds that the levelling effect is generally small. The salient thinkers remain salient, even when Professor Skinner’s scholarship has shown that others were saying rather similar things at much the same time. Posterity, not unreasonably, remembers only those who had a commanding tone or an individual style, or a gift of phrase-making, or a sharpness in argument, to raise them above their forgotten contemporaries. The giants remain giants, and among them conspicuously Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Mill, the prime sources of modern political thought; only Hegel and Marx have added substantially to the legacy of these five.

Nothing succeeds in philosophy like excess, and it is the calculated brutality of Machiavelli’s tone, and the sharpness of his argument, which startled immediate posterity and which will startle readers of The Prince in this acceptable new translation. In order to create the modern context for thinking about politics and about power, he first had to shatter with hammer-blows of scandal habits of thought that were as old as the Christian era. At issue was the scale along which human achievement was to be measured. Any Christian might reasonably see the rise and fall of city states and empires, the ebb and flow of power, as peripheral in relation to the main story of mankind, which contains both the story of the salvation or damnation of individual souls and the sacred history which proceeds from the Fall through the life of the Saviour, and the foundation of the Church, to the promised redemption at the last day. To borrow a metaphor from psychoanalysts, the rise and fall of empires is only the manifest content of history and does not show its true meaning and direction. Providence is at work at a deeper level, controlling the destiny of humanity as a whole.

Machiavelli’s intention was to reverse any Christian philosophy of history, and so to set political morality on a new foundation. Human virtue is achievement demonstrated by historical actuality, not a state of the soul, an inner blessedness. Therefore the study of history, of the record of victories and defeats, is the indispensable guide to moral improvement; and Machiavelli thought that he must become a historian, morally the second-best role, when he could no longer be a politician in power. The shock that he administered in his writings came from a changed perspective on human life: life is to be seen as lived down here in its entirety, mired in the ups and downs of Fortune, and the outcome which is exposed by the historian for all to see is the only true moral accounting. The founding or preservation of a state is uniquely glorious, and glory is, for a free man, the proper moral category.

The bite in Machiavellianism is the worldliness which at no point apologises for itself, or lends itself an otherworldly covering. At the same time, the style of his writing is strenuous, deeply concerned, urgent, and in no way cynical or relaxed. He is holding up before his readers a moral ideal, a picture of virtue and effectiveness, in which he passionately believes, and his aim is to mount a crusade among his Italian contemporaries, sunk in moral lethargy and a soft decadence. He is a Savonarola of the tangible, visible, changing political world where power and glory are won and lost, where mistakes are made, and where mistakes, unlike sins, can never be forgiven.

By skilfully balanced quotation, Professor Skinner brings out the coherence of Machiavelli’s position, which has always been found repellent when it has not been presented as a whole. Even when it is presented entirely, and skilfully, the stated and implied morality must disgust those who assess human lives, and guide their own, by reference to otherworldly criteria. Professor Skinner underemphasises the threat to all established values which is conveyed by Machiavelli’s worldliness: the tone is rather too calm, and the concluding paragraphs too judicious, to present vividly the shock and unease which still arise naturally around Machiavelli’s name. Skinner is a historian, and claims as such to be only recovering the past, and placing it before the present: he refuses to pass judgment from the standpoint of the present, to praise or to blame. As a philosopher, I shall not be neutral and will dare to praise, at least in part, from the standpoint of the present.

The concept of chance, Fortuna, had a proper but subordinate place in Aristotle’s ethics, but it moved to the centre of Machiavelli’s. He taught that radical contingency is always to be expected in human affairs, and that practical reason and clever calculation can never be sovereign in their effects. They have quite narrow limits, and in politics one always needs luck, in addition to sagacity and cunning. Virtue partly consists in the watchful mastery of Fortuna, in seizing her opportunely and turning her in the desired direction, and in being alert to her twists and turns, ready to withdraw at one moment and to advance at another. Suppleness and sudden violence are both necessary at the right moments. Practical reasoning in politics, and in great affairs generally, is to be compared with yachting, and not with captaincy of a steamboat, which may be set on a fixed course to its destination and does not need to tack and change course abruptly. The destination in politics is always the same: the enduring safety and strength of the domain which is one’s own, whether principate or republic. The historical record will finally throw up the balance of success and failure, and yield the last judgment on a statesman, as the fortunes of the state ebb and flow through a thousand contingencies.

It is probably difficult for many people in the 20th century to accept a view of history which gives a central place to mere contingency, to the ‘meaningless’ rise and fall of dominant powers, with no overall pattern or direction to be discerned, no general drift of events, with only the skills and virtues of the successful leader to give some permanent sense to the ups and downs of fortune, vindicating the glorious prowess of men in the brute fact of success. This is too bleak and unconsoling a doctrine for those who have absorbed, at first or second hand, the historical cosmologies of Hegel and of Marx, or of Comtean positivism, or the Christian doctrines of providence from which these later philosophies of history developed. Yet it may be necessary, or at least desirable, to look at our present predicament in Machiavellian terms, and not in the traditional 19th-century terms: that is, not within a framework of any kind of historical determinism; but rather within assumptions of radical contingency and unpredictability, requiring from us a cool calculation of the odds for and against survival. In the age of nuclear fission, unpredictable conjunctures of events, and the accident of particular personalities in power and of their pathology, are likely to determine the future of all nations. There is prudence and clarity in thinking in terms of seizing chances rather than in looking to historical trends and to the general direction in which modern societies are supposed to be moving – supposed, that is, by those who have accepted some prevailing social theory or theory of history. The relevance of Machiavelli to our present concerns is that he is a thoroughgoing naturalist in politics and is uncontaminated by theories of history and by the illusions of social science. He puts the virtues of a controlled gambler – the acceptance of qualified unpredictability and the experienced calculation of odds – at the centre of politics, where they belong; for him, rational control comes in part from studying the history of the successes of great men in defence of their realms, and in part from flair and good luck.

There can be no doubt about who is the supreme Machiavellian hero of our time: General de Gaulle. He realised in action most of Machiavelli’s moral requirements: he deliberately established in France a sense of national independence and pride in grandeur; he deftly extricated France from the useless Algerian War by swift turns of policy that left his former friends and allies with a feeling of sudden betrayal; he invented a new foreign policy which served purely French interests, and was unashamedly ungrateful to France’s former allies. He placed himself on a pedestal as the leader of the nation, but without being deceived by glory and with a realistic appreciation of the transience of power in republics. It is interesting that this most eminent of recent Machiavellians should also have been an authentic and intensely pious Christian. Perhaps the philosophical problem most acutely raised by Machiavelli – though not for Professor Skinner, in this useful book – is the relation between the morality of private life, requiring fairness, fidelity and some degree of altruism, and the morality of public affairs: can the discontinuity intelligibly be as abrupt as Machiavelli argues that it must be?