Sunday, March 10, 2013

Machiavelli's Prince at 500

This year 2013 is the 500th birthday of The Prince, written by Renaissance Italy's premier political theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). When I studied modern political theory, Machiavelli was routinely included at the beginning (along with more paradoxically early modern figures like Luther and Calvin). Yet it is not unheard of in survey courses on modern political theory to start right away with Hobbes, then to move predictably on to Lock and Rousseau, and maybe end with Marx (or Rawls). There are even surveys that cram the whole history of political thought into one course, starting with Plato and Aristotle, then leaping over the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to Hobbes, etc. Well surveys are, of course, surveys. And in today's environment even that much political philosophy is something to celebrate. But missing out on Machiavelli would certainly be a loss.
Those familiar with the TV series The Borgias (soon to start its 3rd season) have at least an image of what Machiavelli's world was like. (He himself actually appears in the series, reflecting his real-life interactions with Cesare Borgia.) Of course, Renaissance Italy was a world wildly different from our own. (But so was the US 50 years ago!) But there are points of contact between Renaissance Italy then and the post-modern now.
On the one hand, Machiavelli's Florentine republic exhibited an intensely vibrant political life - of the sort that is perhaps only possible in a city of such size and circumstances. But it was also a time when the quasi-classical style of city-state republican politics was in decline - a decline not unlike that of the original Roman model,which Machiavelli studied and elegized in his other memorable work, The Discourses. Because of its size and scale, the US could never have been a quasi-classical republic, but its founders did aspire to emulate what they saw as applicable from that model. Today, however, genuinely republican participatory politics on that quasi-classical model seems to be suffering a fate similar to its ancestors n Hellenistic Greece, imperial Rome, and Renaissance Italy.
Machiavelli's background as what we might call today a career civil servant in the diplomatic bureaucracy inevitably made foreign relations a main interest for him, and his analyses remain relevant. After all, his was an Italy of competing but modest powers - his own Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome (the Papal States), and the kingdom of Naples - which lived in constant conflict but of a modest and manageable scale in a kind of balance of power, until all that was disrupted by foreign French, then Spanish, and Imperial (German) interventions on the peninsula, interventions beyond the capacity of Italy's small states to manage effectively for Italy's advantage. (The last chapter of the Prince was, after all, an exhortation - to a rising prince - to liberate Italy "from the barbarians.) International relations operate on a larger, world-wide scale today, which considerably complicates things. But the basic realities of what's needed to maintain a secure balance of power and what happens when that balance is lost remain more or less similar.  And the morally problematic dimensions of governance seem most on display in international affairs. And it is his appreciation of the morally problematic parts of politics that have earned Machiavelli  moralistic condemnation, while making him remain so relevant.
In the famous chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli articulated the moral problematic he faced as a theorist of politics: "A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, for there is such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation" (tr. Robert M Adams, 1977). In thus breaking with the classic "Mirror of Princes" tradtion, Machiavelli put behind him not only the utopian traditon in political theory that began with Plato's Republic, but also much of the ethical underpinnings of political theory since Aristotle. It is this which traditonally has identified Machiavelli as the first serious theorist of modernity. As Ernst Cassirer wrote (The Myth of the State, 1973), Machiavelli "cut off all the threads by which in former generations the state was fastened to the organic whole of human existence." On the other hand, it is an oversimplificaiton, at best, to portray Machiavelli simply as some power-obsessed cycnic (as the historical Cesare Borgia most certainly seems to have been). Indeed, Machiavelli recognizes the rightness of observing convenional ethics in stable situations. The problem which he was more willing than some of his predecessors to face up to is simply that politics - and especially international relations - often presents the opposite of such a stable environment. One of the accomplishments of modern Western political institutions has been to minimize that dissonance in ordinary domestic democratic politics. Even then, as the movie Lincoln suggests, sometimes the exercise of public power seems to have to follow its own rules. In the real world, the current debate about what authority exists or might be claimed to exist to target US citizens in the US with drones further demonstrates that point. The case is even more relevant, of course, when it comes to international relations, in which stable supra-national institutions simply do not exist or are very limited in their effective scope, and the actual experience of states may at time more resemble Hobbes's "war of all against all." It is possible, for example, to define "war crimes" and even to create tribunals to prosecute them. It remains the case, however, that the only available cure for "war crimes" is war. Only when the alleged war criminals have been defeated militarily is it possible to bring them to "justice."
Two things follow from this in my opinion. The first is the perennial task of defining the moral parameters of our public life. As my one-time professor and mentor Sheldon Wolin once wrote, Machiavelli's theory "did not mean that politics was to be conducted without ethical criteria, but that the criteria could not be improted from the 'outside'." For Wolin, Machiavelli's point was rather "to urge that precisely because of hte unescapably autonomous nature of politics, it was all the more compelling that criteria for action be established and that appropriate means be fashioned for their implementation" (Politics and Vision, 1960). In short, the task of articulating and formulating a moral framework for our post-lapsarian political world remains an ongoing challenge - one not susceptible to glib ethical posturing.
The first is an ongoing but old challenge. It seems to me, however, that the problematic Machiavelli identified in the difference between the requirements of public life and the traditonal norms operative in private life has been radically broadened by the gneral politicization of all social life. As the recently deceased, esteemed political scientist James Q. Wilson (1931-2012) once observed:  “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.”
The fact is that, thanks in large part to that politicization of all things, contemporary social life is itself increasingly bereft of the sorts of stable anchors in which moral sentiments are cultivated and ethical reflection thrives. A society in which people must navigate their way thourgh life lacking widely acknowledged norms about human nature, human sexuality, family relations, and the world of work (just to name the most basic and also most obvious) becomes a society likewise lacking in the sort of moral stability which makes not just convnetional ethics but any sort of coherent ethical orientation culturally dissonant and problematic. Machiavellian relaism is helpful here in acknowledging the resulting social consequences of this collapse of moral consensus.

No comments:

Post a Comment