Thursday, July 12, 2007

Il Principe

I think I side with the Blackadder on this one.

The thing to remember most about Niccolo Machiavelli is that he is not a philosopher of ends. Oh, he has preferred ends certainly -- he's an Italian and Florentine patriot, e.g. But one of his greatest contributions to political thought is that the acquisition of power is essentially the same regardless of the ends.¹ On the very point of Italian patriotism, e.g., Chapter 3 of THE PRINCE² helpfully describes the errors made by a French king in entering Italy, and NM helpfully offers, as part of his advice to Lorenzo de Medici, "remedies" for an outside invader -- the prince living there or colonists, e.g.

As Torq notes, NM had no grand ideological goals or calls to transform man per se, and his view of human nature was rather more sober than Woody's. The reason for his (unjustified) bad reputation, in fact, is precisely that NM observes that men are bad and base and then bases his advice on how to conduct politics on that assumption that 'twill ever be thus (in other words, NM's "evil" is the very result of NOT seeking to transform man).

But that is why exactly trying to type someone ideologically as "Machiavellian" is at one and the same time a truism and a load of rubbish, and NM both is and isn't compatible with Wilsonianism or just about any other end-concerned ideology. Because NM had no interest in politics-as-telos toward fulfilling some conception of human nature, he can be read and applied profitably regardless of ends.

Plenty of examples exist in politics of the separation of ends and means, and the combination of things incompatible when viewed as intellectual constructs. For example, fascism is thoroughly modern in its methods and history, but appealed to the pre-1789 imagination on throne and altar. The same thing with Islamist terrorism as praxis, and Wahhabism as religion -- each is thoroughly modern particularly with respect to means (terrorism of any kind presupposes modern communications and democratization of government and of force) while acting in the name of pre-modernity.

In other words, it may be intellectually incoherent to call someone a Machiavellian and a Wilsonian, but political history is full of such incoherences. One can pursue Wilsonian ends by Machiavellian means, though one would wonder how good a Wilsonian one is, given the noted gap in the respective conceptions of human nature.³
¹ This is not at all the same thought as "the end justifies the means" mind you.
² In that very chapter is this passage ... "Thus the Romans, seeing inconveniences from afar, always found remedies for them and never allowed them to continue so as to escape a war, because they knew that war may not be avoided but is deferred to the advantage of others. So they decided to make war on Phillip and Antiochus in Greece, in order not to have to do so in Italy." This is what makes THE PRINCE such a great book. Every time, I pick it up, I see NM 500 years ahead of the headlines.

³ Not that any of this would in any way justify Shea's intellectual vulgarity in drunkenly stumbling over and grasping at political concepts he clearly has no clue about. He probably couldn't tell Machiavelli from Mostaccioli.


Shawn said...

Shea could not tell Niccolo Machiavelli from a Carmel Macchiato.

Anonymous said...

Boy, Machiavelli sure looked like Johnny Carson, didn't he?

The young Johnny Carson, that is.


diane, apropos of nothing