Politics can be Hell

Jeremy Waldron

  • Machiavelli’s Virtue by Harvey Mansfield
    Chicago, 371 pp, £23.95, April 1996, ISBN 0 226 50368 2

Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal; it is his nature to live in a state. Men and women may live in political communities, modern liberals have retorted, but there’s nothing particularly political in the nature or character of most people. In every society there are some who have a taste for politics, some who want to be rulers or representatives; but they are a tiny minority. As for the rest, they desire nothing much more than to live in peace, tending their farms or their businesses, making a life for themselves and their children, enjoying their property free from fear and insecurity. A good society will do what is necessary to provide this assurance, which means among other things allowing whatever political animals there are among them to compete for and succeed one another in office without undue disturbance, but certainly does not mean encouraging any more people than necessary to participate actively in politics.

This classic liberal outlook is unfashionable today. In legal and political theory, liberalism is out, and something called ‘civic republicanism’ is in. Civic republicans think that the liberal view of the good life – private joys for most people, with politics reserved for those few malcontents who cannot find happiness without it – is insulting and demeaning. Liberals look for islands of freedom insulated from social demands, but republicans insist that liberty is not the right to be left alone in one’s private affairs. It is the right to participate in the life of the community, and the right to conditions that will make civic participation possible and effective. On this philosophy, there is no higher destiny than citizenship, and no greater fulfilment than the active exercise of republican virtue.

One of the curious features of this debate is that Niccolò Machiavelli is almost always enlisted as a player on the civic republican side. Curious – because if the term ‘Machiavellian’ means anything to the popular mind, it means cynical, amoral and manipulative politics: scheming, lying, breaking faith, whatever is necessary to hang onto office and project national power. Or it means the politics of exclusion, secret deals of which the ordinary person has no knowledge – something about as far as it is possible to imagine from the republican ideal of thousands of virtuous citizens dropping everything to flock to town meetings and participate in open and respectful debates in a public assembly.

It is curious, too, because even if we look behind the popular image of Machiavelli – ‘Old Nick’, the devil incarnate – to what the Florentine thinker actually wrote, we find him expounding views that sound much more classically liberal than republican. Read the opening paragraph of this review again, and then consider the following passage from Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, supposedly the locus classicus of his civic republicanism. Machiavelli says that an aspiring ruler who looks clearheadedly at his situation will find that

a small section of the population desire to be free in order to obtain authority over others, but that the vast bulk of those who demand freedom, desire but to live in security. For in all states, whatever be the form of their government, the real rulers do not amount to more than forty or fifty citizens and, since this is a small number, it is an easy thing to make yourself secure in their regard either by doing away with them or by granting them such a share of honours, according to their standing, as will for the most part satisfy them. As for the rest, who demand but to live in security, they can easily be satisfied by introducing such institutions and laws as shall, in conjunction with the power of the prince, make for the security of the public as a whole. When a prince does this, and the people see that on no occasion does he break such laws, in a short time they will begin to live in security and contentment.

I don’t want to pretend that Machiavelli was actually a classic liberal, a precursor of John Locke, celebrating individual rights, the public/private distinction and the rule of law. The sanguine suggestion that a new ruler might make himself secure in regard to the political class by ‘doing away with them’ is enough to dispel any thought of that kind. That’s the Machiavelli we know. But neither was he a civic republican, in the modern sense of that term. He was not an advocate of participatory democracy. He did not believe that the preoccupations of a merchant or farmer were worse, ethically speaking, or less free, than those of a political agitator. And he did not think it deplorable if most people failed to cultivate the character that public life required.

That doesn’t mean Machiavelli was unconcerned with virtue and corruption. Quite the contrary: the problem of establishing stable and effective political institutions among a corrupt people is the central theme of the Discourses. But corruption here means laziness, querulousness and the sort of mindless avarice that we take more or less for granted in modern democracies. And its opposite is not more active participation, but rather a willingness among citizens to moderate their demands, pay their taxes, serve in the wars and acknowledge the need for compromise and sacrifice in the affairs of their society.

It is a virtue of Harvey Mansfield’s book that it makes most of this perfectly clear. For Mansfield, Machiavelli simply is what he has always been popularly regarded as: a theorist of statesmanship, not a theorist of citizenship, one whose writings are more relevant to understanding the activities and ethics of the professional politician than the joys (or tedium) of community participation. ‘The modern executive,’ Mansfield writes, ‘whether in politics or business, feels a vague but uneasy kinship with Machiavelli,’ for it is Machiavelli who elaborates on the importance of secrecy, decisiveness, ruthless single-mindedness and the ability to change tempo and resort quickly to ‘extraordinary means’ in an emergency, while denigrating any institutional arrangement and any system of political morality that does not leave room for the executive to act in this way, uno solo, on his own initiative. It is Mansfield’s Machiavelli, too, who understands the intensely personal risks that accompany the prince’s executive activity: he lives by his own wits and his own decisiveness; at any moment he may fall; and ultimately he is sustained on this high wire only by his own ambition and desire for glory. He must manipulate those around him: sometimes concealing his power, sometimes flamboyantly displaying it; on occasion singling out a few opponents (or friends) for execution, but mostly ensuring, as far as possible, that the harsh necessities he imposes on the people are regarded by them as self-inflicted. Above all, the executive, the prince and the statesman must manage the smoke and mirrors of public morality so that the two things the common people are most impressed by – results and appearances – are kept firmly and unscrupulously in view.

Those committed to a milder, house-trained, more participatory Machiavelli may complain: ‘What about Niccolò’s well-known preference for republics over monarchies? What about his view that contemporary Florence needed a governo largo rather than a governo stretto? What of the opinion expressed in the Discourses that the masses (la moltitudine), when entrusted with power, ‘are more knowing and more constant than is a prince’?

The replies that Mansfield offers seem exactly right. First, Machiavelli’s support for a governo largo is nothing much more than an instance of Lyndon Johnson’s observation that it is better to have an opponent inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. The long quotation I gave earlier indicated his belief that the executive has to come to terms, one way or another, with the aspirations of all those who are in fact hungry for a role in politics. And the trouble with the governo stretto of the Medicis was that it excluded a few dozen of these and turned them into troublemakers.

Secondly, even if popular republican institutions are better in many ways than self-proclaimed principalities, we must remember also Machiavelli’s conviction that the masses were nothing without leaders. Mansfield makes much of an oxymoron that recurs throughout Machiavelli – ‘the princes of a republic’ – citing it as an instance of the new political science expounded in both The Prince and the Discourses, a science organised by the assumption that the character of a political system is disclosed by how it operates in fact, not by the way in which its formal institutions advertise themselves. The primary advantage of republics over hereditary monarchies is not that the ordinary citizen can indulge his Aristotelian political nature, but instead that a republic can draw on a more diverse pool of potential leaders in responding to the vicissitudes of fortune. For Mansfield’s Machiavelli, the most striking thing about the Roman republic, for example, was not popular participation (of which there was very little by the standards of the ancient world), but constitutional dictatorship: the ability to vest power decisively, though temporarily, in a man of the moment – a Cincinnatus: something which is usually impossible in face of the familial vanity of a hereditary ruler.

There’s a third reply, too, which Mansfield does not make, but for which I sense a certain sympathy in his book. As students of politics, we are not particularly interested in what Niccolò Machiavelli, the man, preferred or even what he thought necessary for his own city in his own time. The question is: what can we learn, what insights about politics can wc come away with, from reading The Prince and the Discourses? Someone interested in civic participation will learn very little from Machiavelli. He will learn that discord and tumult are not necessarily bad things in a political system – another instance of Machiavelli’s insistence on looking behind appearances.

But this wisdom pales in comparison with the stunning power of Machiavelli’s complex and ironic insight into what one might call the ‘professional ethics’ of the statesman, the necessity to be willing to sell one’s soul for one’s city if one is to take political leadership seriously. This is the part of Machiavelli’s analysis which is at once the most (in)famous, the most distinctive and the most relevant to our concerns, as well as the furthest from the high-minded moralism of modern civic republicans.

It is also the most disconcerting, for what Machiavelli is toying with – what Mansfield thinks he is convinced of – is that ‘tyranny is necessary to good government’, or at the very least that the traditional distinction between tyranny and legitimate executive authority is, in effect, meaningless. I don’t quite agree with this interpretation, but the fact is that although this book is in many ways an old-fashioned piece of Machiavelli scholarship, it is governed most of all by Mansfield’s interest in what the Florentine has to say to us in our thinking about politics. Indeed, the chapter on ‘Machiavelli and the Modern Executive’ is taken from an earlier collection by Mansfield, entitled Taming the Prince (1989), which considers theories of executive power from Aristotle’s discussion of kingship, through the Federalist’s account of the Presidency, all the way to the modern dilemmas of Lincoln, Truman and Nixon.

I said at the beginning that – unlike Aristotle, unlike Rousseau, unlike Hannah Arendt – Machiavelli did not lament the fact that most people in most societies got by without developing the skills that full participation in public life would require. In fact, he probably wanted to go further than that – further, that is, from the civic republican ideal.

Machiavelli had no doubt that politics was a high and honourable calling; certainly he thought it was necessary in human affairs. But it was not a particularly pleasant, safe or morally attractive vocation. Unless a city or country was exceptionally fortunate, the successful conduct of its affairs would often require statesmen to abandon traditional virtues like honesty, justice and mercy. It would require them perhaps to abandon the traditional concept of virtue altogether, and mould their characters to something much more like moral virtuosity (which comes closer than ‘virtue’ to translating Machiavelli’s key term virtù) – that is, a flexible readiness to pursue any course no matter how unsavoury for the sake of the public good. It seems likely then that Machiavelli thought politics made such frightful demands on the character and ethics of those who practised it properly that, on the whole, it would be a good thing if only a few citizens were willing to sell their souls, so to speak, for the sake of public office.

The point is worth pursuing. Much of the Discourses, as well as The Prince, is taken up with an argument about the fatal consequences in politics of a statesman’s inability to act wickedly, when wickedness is required. What does Machiavelli mean by this? Is he asking us to embrace the contradiction that a politician ought to do what ought not to be done? Or is he using terms like ‘wickedness’ ironically, referring to traditional moral standards that he is in fact asking would-be politicians to reject?

The latter view is plausible enough. We know he was a critic of contemporary Christian ethics as ineffective and enervating: ‘Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action.’ And as Sebastian de Grazia has pointed out in Machiavelli in Hell (1989), the stuff about loving one’s city more than one’s soul was accompanied by a great deal of mischievous Machiavellian fun at the expense of traditional conceptions of Heaven and Hell – ‘Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company’ – with ‘Hell’ redefined in the comedy of Belfragor as a corner of paradise where men of the world could enjoy one another’s company undistracted by the priests, the pious and the poor who clutter up Heaven. It is not even clear that he took the notion of the soul seriously. As Mansfield notes, he preferred to concentrate on animo rather than anima – high-spirited commitment on earth as opposed to preoccupation with the hereafter.

But if we push this interpretation too far we lose our sense of the uneasiness that Machiavelli himself associated with the professional ethics of politics. If fraud and cruelty are only thought to be wicked, if Machiavelli is trying to argue that there is really nothing wrong with them, so long as they bring success, then it is hard to explain what he means when he worries in the Discourses that one can rarely find either a good man who is willing to use bad methods, or a man who is comfortable with violent and deceitful statecraft but willing nevertheless to direct it to good ends. The tension evaporates too quickly if we say that Machiavelli was nothing but a critic of traditional virtue.

I think Mansfield goes wrong in this regard by over-subscribing to Leo Strauss’s opinion that Machiavelli was a teacher of evil, an active proponent of tyranny. Machiavelli certainly believed that a good political leader would have to do on occasion what was commonly condemned as evil. But although he argued that some such condemnations were silly and outmoded, he was not always preaching a transvaluation of values, nor was he straightforwardly proclaiming a new moral sect or religion in which what had traditionally been described as vice could now be regarded as virtue.

Instead, his position seems to have been this. Most political leaders are sometimes going to have to act in ways that ordinary morality has good reason to regard as brutal and ignoble. Moreover, to succeed in politics, one will have to cultivate the sort of character that can act in this way whenever it is necessary, without hesitation or compunction. But anyone with such a character who is put in charge of the affairs of a city will find themselves walking an awfully fine line between statesmanship and tyranny. For it will not always be clear when violence, deceit and cruelty are necessary, and a miscalculation is likely to imperil either one’s life or one’s city, on the one hand, or one’s reputation (even one’s soul), on the other. In a paper entitled ‘Politics and Moral Character’, written some years ago, Bernard Williams remarked that ‘only those who are reluctant or disinclined to do the morally disagreeable when it is really necessary have much chance of not doing it when it is not necessary.’ The disturbing thing about Machiavelli’s argument is his suggestion, in effect, that Williams might be right, yet that the hesitation Williams refers to might be fatal.

Machiavelli’s readers have long been tantalised by a story he tells in The Prince of a genuine tyrant – Agathocles the Sicilian – who became King of Syracuse by ‘appallingly cruel and inhumane conduct, and countless wicked deeds’: he betrayed his friends and massacred his potential opponents. Now if Machiavelli were, as Mansfield suggests, a teacher of evil and an unqualified admirer of political success, his reluctance to praise Agathocles would be inexplicable. But if Agathocles is to be condemned as someone who has crossed the line into tyranny, how are we to distinguish him from other apparently equally unscrupulous princes, like Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli praises for their ruthlessness?

The answer, I think, is that it is hopeless to look for an analytic formula in these matters. Machiavelli’s message is that the line between successful leadership and odious tyranny is often so fine that it’s a matter of luck (not of truth, and not of political calculation) whether one is judged one way or the other by posterity. Certainly it has more to do with circumstances than with character. And this is ultimately why Machiavelli is not recommending politics as a natural, Aristotelian vocation for everyone.

Someone who enters politics strikes a bargain with unholy forces. He commits himself to power and deceit as ordinary means, and to a willingness always to deploy deadly force, when necessary as a last resort. He cannot offer himself or his gods any guarantee that he will not have to use methods which, as Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses, ‘are exceedingly cruel, and repugnant to any community, not only to a Christian one’. And so, he concluded, it behoves every man to shun these methods, ‘and to prefer to live as a private citizen than as a king with such ruination of men to his score’. That is what Machiavelli has to say, in general, to the civic republicans about man’s ‘political nature’. But for the princes of the republic, he adds something best summed up in the words of his great admirer, Max Weber: ‘Only he who in the face of all this can say “In spite of all!” has the true vocation for politics.’