Underappreciated Philosophers II: Machiavelli

Seriously? Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the most studied, influential, and reviled philosophers ever, underappreciated? Really? Really?

Yup, really. Or, perhaps, misunderstood. If you ask me, you should never take anything in The Prince at face value. It’s not a treatise on government; no, if you’ve read your Plato and your Boethius, you’ll see it for exactly what it is: a sarcastic warning to anyone who might want to become entangled in the affairs of courts and princes.

Now, I’m not arguing that there’s nothing in The Prince that might be useful for a would-be dictator to learn. As many actual dictators have shown, what Machiavelli says can be applied for…well, if not good use, at least use. What I am arguing, however, is that a wise reader will see the life of the tyrant depicted in The Prince for what it is—a miserable existence filled with lies, self-negation, and unhappiness, one unfit for a human being—and reject it.

This isn’t the usual interpretation at all, of course. What I think Machiavelli portrays in The Prince is that, to be a proper ruler, one has to seem to be good, rather than actually be good—and, if one is going to increase one’s power, a few enemies will have to be assassinated along the way. There are two problems with this, though: Fortune’s wheel keeps spinning, no matter what you try to do, and there’s only one way to go from the top (the problem of Boethius) and the person who only seems to be good, but, in reality, possesses the soul of a tyrant, can never be properly happy (the Platonic problem). Really, these two problems are related—the idea is to become happy and stay happy in such a way that nothing Fate throws at you can change that—but Machiavelli cleverly elides both in such a way that, if you’re expecting to see mention of both (as is standard in Medieval texts), seeing neither really stands out.

So, the usual solution to the problem, starting with Plato’s Republic, passing through the Epicureans, the Stoics (especially Marcus Aurelius, who knew a thing or two about being at the top), synthesis with Christianity with Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy, and finally becoming a commonplace in the Middle Ages.* The problem with humanity, as Pascal would later put it, is that we don’t know how to be content staying put in our rooms. Be a good person who minds his or her own business, stays out of political entanglements that might force you to compromise your ideals, enjoy what’s near at hand, don’t grasp and expect, tame your passions, and enjoy the highest good of contemplation of the Divine. This way of happiness, of a self-contained life independent from others and the forces of the world, is one that cannot be destroyed by any twist of fate. Trust to the things of the world, and the world with change, destroying your joy with it. Chase after temporal pleasures, and they will escape your grasp. Enjoy contemplation and keep out of trouble, and nobody will have any reason to trouble you—or even be able to.

Fate catches up with everyone in the end, and will take away your pleasures if it can. Boethius was a Roman consul before Theodoric had him imprisioned and beheaded. The many conditori of mercenary companies who were the scourge of Italy during the late Middle Ages,** who chased after whatever fortune they might gain by force of arms and plotting, were themselves betrayed by those who once served them, true men after their own hearts. Even Julius Caesar, so frequently lauded by Machiavelli himself, found himself murdered by his own friends on his day of triumph.

While being stabbed can’t be much fun, knowing that the men you trusted, your closest allies, are the ones doing you in, that those you loved hate you so much they think the Earth is better off without you…well, that’s not what I’d consider a good way to die.

And how does Machiavelli recommend you find happiness? He doesn’t. Now, gaining power, that’s easy enough to do: keep an eye out for enemies, assume they’re everywhere, be craftier than everyone else, don’t trust hired soldiers, look virtuous despite your bloodstained hands, do all the villainy you need right at the start, kill your soul so that your body may live…

The life of the tyrant-prince for Machiavelli seems to be nothing more than perpetually seeking for everyone who might kill him. As Hobbes points out, in a state of war—which is what The Prince seems to assume courts are—any advantages you gain over your enemies are only temporary. If raw strength won’t work, cleverness will; if cleverness fails, a charismatic firebrand can form a league against you; if charisma doesn’t work, there’s always force. Any advantages you have in this state are temporary, and the life of man is nasty, poor, miserable, brutish, and short.***

So why bother? Seriously, Machiavelli’s given you a short little treatise outlining how you’ll have to destroy your soul without finding happiness in the end. You may come into to tyrannical power for a time, but it’s only a matter of time before that one band of clever plotters you trusted stabs you on the Senate steps.

No, the way to read The Prince is like one of Plato’s strangest dialogues, the Menexenus. Socrates meets Menexenus on what’s implied is the day Pericles gives the Funeral Oration, and, after a bit of chatting, recites a speech ostensibly by Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress. At the end, Socrates asks his friend if he’d like to hear more speeches from her; Menexenus answers by thanking Socrates for the time, and that he’ll always be glad to talk to him, but the speeches he can do without.

Which is the right answer. The speech is clearly a parody of Athenian power-grabbing and ambition; by rejecting such petty things of the world in favor of the good life, Menexenus has chosen happiness over tyranny. Perhaps this is the answer we ought to give Machiavelli: thanks for the speech, Nick, but no more.

*Seriously, Chaucer is full of allusions to Boethius—and, in “Knights Tale” and Troilus, he even throws in ironically abbreviated versions of the Consolation.
**Speaking of Chaucer, there’s a fair bit of thought, especially by Terry Jones (yes, of Monty Python fame), that the Knight of Canterbury Tales fame was actually one of these mercenaries. Chaucer’s Knight has everything you ever wanted to know about these generally nasty types, as well as why Machiavelli might mention them throughout his works (and not just in the sections on why you should never hire, much less trust, mercs).
***One of these days, there will be an ethically challenged person of small stature that I’ll get to describe like that.

One thought on “Underappreciated Philosophers II: Machiavelli

  1. Consider my mind blown. This is what we get for our modern emphasis on political science as the key social science. A beautiful reading. And fyi, I’m probably going to steal your Hobbes joke to describe one of my vertically challenged high school students someday.

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