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The Question of Machiavelli


“To know the worst is not always to be liberated from its consequences; nevertheless it is preferable to ignorance.”

Isaiah Berlin with an excellent essay (1971) in the New York Review of Books on the divergence of interpretations of Machiavelli’s political opinions.

This phenomenon is easier to understand in the case of other thinkers whose opinions have continued to puzzle or agitate mankind—Plato, for example, or Rousseau or Hegel or Marx. But then it might be said that Plato wrote in a world and in a language that we cannot be sure we understand; that Rousseau, Hegel, Marx were prolific theorists and that their works are scarcely models of clarity or consistency. But The Prince is a short book: its style is usually described as being singularly lucid, succinct, and pungent—a model of clear Renaissance prose. The Discourses are not, as treatises on politics go, of undue length and they are equally clear and definite. Yet there is no consensus about the significance of either; they have not been absorbed into the texture of traditional political theory; they continue to arouse passionate feelings; The Prince has evidently excited the interest and admiration of some of the most formidable men of action of the last four centuries, especially our own, men not normally addicted to reading classical texts.

There is evidently something peculiarly disturbing about what Machiavelli said or implied, something that has caused profound and lasting uneasiness. Modern scholars have pointed out certain real or apparent inconsistencies between the (for the most part) republican sentiment of The Discourses (and The Histories) and the advice to absolute rulers in The Prince. Indeed there is a great difference of tone between the two treatises, as well as chronological puzzles: this raises problems about Machiavelli’s character, motives, and convictions which for three hundred years and more have formed a rich field of investigation and speculation for literary and linguistic scholars, psychologists, and historians.

But it is not this that has shocked Western feeling. Nor can it be only Machiavelli’s “realism” or his advocacy of brutal or unscrupulous or ruthless politics that has so deeply upset so many later thinkers and driven some of them to explain or explain away his advocacy of force and fraud. The fact that the wicked are seen to flourish or that wicked courses appear to pay has never been very remote from the consciousness of mankind. The Bible, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle—to take only some of the fundamental works of Western culture—the characters of Jacob or Joshua, Samuel’s advice to Saul, Thucydides’ Melian dialogue or his account of at least one ferocious but rescinded Athenian resolution, the philosophies of Thrasymachus and Callicles, Aristotle’s more cynical advice in The Politics, and, after these, Carneades’ speeches to the Roman Senate as described by Cicero, Augustine’s view of the secular state from one vantage point, and Marsilio’s from another—all these had cast enough light on political realities to shock the credulous and naïve out of uncritical idealism.

(h/t Jeff)