More than five hundred years after Machiavelli wrote The Prince, his landmark treatise on the pragmatic application of power remains a pivot point for debates on political thought. While scholars continue to investigate interpretations of The Prince in different contexts throughout history, from the Renaissance to the Risorgimento and Italian unification, other fruitful lines of research explore how Machiavelli’s ideas about power and leadership can further our understanding of contemporary political circumstances. With Machiavelli on Liberty and Conflict, David Johnston, Nadia Urbinati, and Camila Vergara have brought together the most recent research on The Prince, with contributions from many of the leading scholars of Machiavelli, including Quentin Skinner, Harvey Mansfield, Erica Benner, John McCormick, and Giovanni Giorgini. Organized into four sections, the book focuses first on Machiavelli’s place in the history of political thought: Is he the last of the ancients or the creator of a new, distinctly modern conception of politics? And what might the answer to this question reveal about the impact of these disparate traditions on the founding of modern political philosophy? The second section contrasts current understandings of Machiavelli’s view of virtues in The Prince. The relationship between political leaders, popular power, and liberty is another perennial problem in studies of Machiavelli, and the third section develops several claims about that relationship. Finally, the fourth section explores the legacy of Machiavelli within the republican tradition of political thought and his relevance to enduring political issues.
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About the Author
David Johnston teaches political philosophy at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of A Brief History of Justice. Nadia Urbinati is the Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University and the author of several books, including, most recently, The Tyranny of the Moderns.Camila Vergara is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.
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Machiavelli on Liberty and Conflict
By David Johnston, Nadia Urbinati, Camila Vergara
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Machiavelli on Necessity
Harvey C. Mansfield
"Hence it is necessary for a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity."
The Prince, chapter 15
The following brief study of Machiavelli's notion of necessity does not pretend to exhaust the subject and will discuss a few familiar passages from The Prince and the Discourses on Livy in order to set forth in outline the complexity of that notion. His appeal to necessity is designed overall to simplify not just our politics and morality but our thinking in general. Necessity will give us access to the truth without having to sort out dialectical disputes or to consult high-minded rationalizations. Our judgments and the policies of princes will have a clearer standard than ever before by which to see the world and act in it through the foggy confusion fostered by religion and philosophy. Yet in "fact" — a word not quite invented but prepared by Machiavelli — necessity is not so simple as it first appears.
I begin from the last sentence of Machiavelli's clarion call to modern morality and modern politics quoted above, taken from the paragraph in chapter 15 of The Prince in which he says how and why he departs from "the orders of others." In this sentence he identifies his departure as moving to a new standard of necessity, and he makes it emphatic by using "necessary" twice and in two different meanings, the first as what one is compelled to do, the second as the standard for choice, "according to" which one must act when one appears to have a choice. When not compelled by necessity, it appears, one must choose it. This double meaning is the first item of complexity in necessity: that necessity is not always compelling and does not in every case do away with choice.
Machiavelli gives a reason for adopting the focus of necessity in the exercise of one's choices: "A man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good" (P 15.61). A man, one notes, not only a prince; the scope of this statement is not confined to politics. Indeed, the focus may be beyond politics as well as, or more than, politics, for he says that his intent is "to write something useful to whoever understands it." This person could be a political scientist or philosopher like himself, and he immediately mentions the "many who have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth." These are the ones whose orders he departs from; one thinks of the "orders" in Plato's Republic (if a king could rule a republic) and St. Augustine's City of God (if God could be a prince). The advice he is about to give applies to philosophers and ordinary citizens as well as to princes. Machiavelli will divulge a universal rule of behavior, a new one.
"A profession of good" is the standard Machiavelli departs from. It represents a choice made regardless of necessity, even in defiance of necessity, as when one acts, and defends one's action, by professing that it is good regardless of the sacrifice of one's own well-being and the risk of coming to ruin. For let us not suppose that the reason Machiavelli gives for following necessity, that it will bring you to ruin if you don't, is brand new and has never occurred before to humans facing difficult choices. Making a sacrifice, taking a risk, is what is known as nobility, though Machiavelli does not mention it here. Plato and Aristotle seem clearly to be Machiavelli's adversaries, particularly Aristotle, who begins his Politics by declaring that political science must "speak nobly" in order to be true. Machiavelli, to put it mildly, is no friend of the "gentlemen" (kaloik'agathoi, "the noble and good") on which Aristotle's Politics rests and to whom it is addressed. Also included in the category of those nobly resisting necessity might be Christian martyrs. Though it may well be true that noble examples are rare, they are impressive and are able to set the standard by which the gentlemen and ordinary people too judge others and themselves. Despite its focus on the noble few, this standard has made itself universal, encompassing all humans, by taking advantage of human admiration for the best. Machiavelli departs from this standard and creates a new one to replace it.
Now in the old standard, what is the reason for making a profession of good, rather than merely doing good? A noble deed might seem to shine by itself, just as doing a good deed is doing it in order to be good, not for some cause or incentive outside its goodness. In speaking of a "profession of good," however, Machiavelli implies that the profession is needed. Goodness does not stand on its own unaided; it needs the support of a profession that makes it possible or reasonable to attempt. If you are good, what is the guarantee that others, particularly the "many who are not good," will make it reasonable to be good? Will the wicked not gladly proceed to take advantage of you? You must therefore presuppose a good society, one not in the hands of rascals and rogues, that will make it possible for you to be good without coming to ruin. And the good society must be compatible with human nature, which too must be good, and then the goodness of human nature must be compatible with, or comforted by, the goodness of nonhuman nature, the whole. For what can human goodness accomplish on its own, so to speak, without nature's cooperation? Nature must contribute an environment in which good men can thrive, powerful inclinations toward good in the human soul, and a regularity of motions and seasons permitting good men to live in confidence and understanding rather than fear for survival in blind ignorance.
So Machiavelli rightly extends the required reason behind doing good to a "profession," that is, an explanation of the contextual support, and that profession of good must be "in all regards." The reassurance that what morality needs is a profession of the whole, is clearly a philosophical task. If Machiavelli is going to dispute the profession of good that philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, the classic ones, have provided, he will have to cover the same ground in order to show that he is right and they are wrong. He will have to make a profession of necessity in all regards counter to the profession of good in all regards.
One may quickly compare Aristotle the professor of good with Machiavelli the professor of necessity. Whereas Aristotle starts his Nichomachean Ethics from the existence and practice of moral people, implying that morality exists, is viable, and is a going concern that one merely has to examine rather than create, Machiavelli begins this critical passage with a critique of morality, denying that it is viable and asserting that it will bring you to ruin. To ruin! Rather than begin from the assumption that moral people exist, he tells you that you will suffer for being "among so many who are not good." Machiavelli did not live in a secular age like ours in which it is assumed that ruin in this world will not be redeemed in the next world; in his circumstance, and with his ever-present awareness, his statement of sure ruin implies a flat denial of redemption rather than mere disregard of that possibility. Together with Christianity, he disagrees with Aristotle that morality exists and adopts the Christian view of the sinfulness of the world, but he seems to foreclose the redemption in the next world promised by Christianity. The redeemer he promises in The Prince is a worldly one for Italy (P 26.105). In The Prince and the Discourses on Livy Machiavelli speaks of "the world" rather than of "this world," which implies another world beyond this one.
Necessity, then, has the character of a presumption. Machiavelli, in making his departure, fears he may be "held presumptuous," and in fact he has a presumption, the presumption of necessity as opposed to the rival presumption of the good. As a presumption, necessity is not a determination that in each case, one who chooses the good will inevitably come to ruin. With luck a good man might be safe from the many who are not good and prosperous to boot, but one cannot count on such luck. For the good man it is in a strong sense fitting (conviene) that he come to ruin for holding the wrong presumption. He deserves it. Machiavelli does not expel fortune but he also does not suffer it. Prudence for him is not to take account of risk when necessary but rather to do so in principle, always avoiding evil by presuming that it will be encountered. Thus this passage anticipates his nearly explicit statement that one must do evil to the other fellow before he does it to you (D 1.52.1). You may not succeed, to be sure, because the contingency of things may go against you. Perhaps the good person will not be punished for his goodness. But with the correct presumption you have a better chance.
The presumption of necessity is supported by the impending presence of ruin, as the profession of good is not. Who wants to come to ruin? When confronting the stark face of necessity, almost everyone is easily persuaded, or, since persuasion may not be necessary, easily moved toward safety regardless of imaginative persuasions to do otherwise. If necessity is not apparent, it can be made so, and often with actions better than words. Its being apparent, or easy to make apparent, is part of the simplicity that gives it power and makes its truth "effectual." Necessity has the spontaneity of animal nature behind it, whereas the good needs to be thought about and deliberated. So the presumption of necessity is less presumptuous than the presumption of good. One could ask what the presumption of good would provide if it were not for necessity enlisted on the side of the good. One could also ask what the presumption of necessity would do without the presumption that necessity brings good. Machiavelli takes pains to show that those who presume on the power of good actually try to endow the good with necessity when they promise preservation with a profession of good. The higher presumption of good, he points out, depends on the lower presumption of necessity; the higher good depends on the lower good. It might seem that Machiavelli does not, and does not have to, deny the higher good, the good life beyond the necessity of preserving one's life. He merely shows that the good life depends on being alive. But this means that the good life, or a life devoted to nobility, is not possible — among so many who are not good. To stay alive one must learn how to be not good, and use this knowledge according to necessity. "Nobility" is a delusion that depends on a life beyond life that does not exist; it is an imaginary form of self-preservation. Machiavelli will teach those who desire nobility how truly to attain it and assure it.
Here, speaking so emphatically of necessity, Machiavelli takes a long step in the direction of scientific determinism, but he does not go the whole way. By retaining the need for good fortune, he holds to human freedom and virtue in the management of fortune. Machiavellian prudence will be rewarded, typically but not necessarily in every case. What will not be rewarded is the prudence that serves only the good and that cooperates with nobility and welcomes the help of prayer. This is the prudence of Aristotle, which he distinguishes from cunning (deinotes) in the service of evil. But for Machiavelli prudence seems to be the same as "shrewdness" (astuzia), not distinct from it as with Aristotle. Reason in practice, and so also in theory, is not on the side of goodness.
Machiavelli shows his awareness of the need to go beyond morality in order to question it by speaking of a new sort of truth that will settle the dispute over morality, the "effectual truth" (verità effettuale). The effectual truth is opposed to the imagined truth stated in professions of goodness, and it is shown in effects. For example, Machiavelli shows near the beginning of the Discourses on Livy that the disputes between the nobles and the plebs in the Roman republic should not be condemned, as did writers under the influence of classical political science, including Livy. This criticism was based on an imagined possible harmony between the two typical parties in every republic, but Machiavelli contends that in their effects the disputes were the cause of Rome's becoming strong and free (D 4–6). The "effects" were the outcome in practice, as we would now say, in effect or in fact, of conflicting opinions that might be resolved on the level of imagined theory but in the world as it is would be resolved only as they made men act. In this case the superiority or nobility of the nobles was not deferred to by the plebs but understood as oppressive and opposed, and the result was a contentious republic that had the power to expand and the prudence to satisfy or at least to appease the people.
In The Prince Machiavelli's discussion of morality after announcing the idea of "effectual truth" explains that the various virtues, called "qualities" in chapter 15, take effect in the ways in which they are "held" (tenuto) to be, not as they are. For example, liberality may be presumed to be the prudent action of a noble prince benefitting his people, but it ends up, in effect, as illustrating the maxim that a prince should be measly with his gifts and make them with other people's money, not his own. Liberality is what it will be held to be — its effectual truth — not what it is imagined to be (P 16.64). This sort of truth will later be known as empirical because it is based on "fact." To the ancients, a fact was a that (hoti) to which one could point, but that comes and goes, and is not truth, which is permanent. Facta (erga in Greek) were deeds as opposed to speeches, not truth as opposed to imagination, as for Machiavelli.
Machiavelli's profession of necessity develops a context in which necessity will be understood and appreciated rather than ignored, set aside, or suppressed, as happens with professions of good. This context is the "world," which he constantly invokes, together with the "worldly things" of which it is composed. The world, we have seen, rejects the invisible next world of Christian belief and theology, together with the intelligible world of classical rationalism. The world is visible, and it can be known regardless of any invisible world of Platonic ideas hovering above it or Aristotle's essences making it intelligible. The world consists of simple and mixed bodies, the simple bodies of nature and the mixed bodies of nature and human forming (D 2.5.2). There are no natural forms to be seen, only forms of human conception to be "introduced." The prudence of a prince can put his form on the material of his principality (P 26.102), in the political deed that Machiavelli offers to describe human knowing. A prince knows what he is doing when he is introducing his "form," which is making his presence, that is, his truth, effectual. Knowledge of the world is not distinct from acting upon it, for the world's necessities, when understood, open the way for the prince's intervention into it. The neutrality of "worldly things," which are permanent though not intelligible, permits and promotes the enterprises of princes and captains.
The world is a "whole" on its own, as the world of sense. It is not a whole with parts, as it is composed of unintelligible "things" that behave according to necessity. Necessity is divided into necessities, especially in regard to humans, where each human being has his own necessity for which he must exercise his own arms. We are all set against one another in a manner later to be formalized in Thomas Hobbes's state of nature. But there are also groupings of men very relevant to politics, particularly the division of "humor" between those who desire to command other men and those who desire not to be commanded. A humor is a medical term that refers to exhalations arising from the body, not the soul, hence indicating a typical necessity rather than a typical choice. Such are necessities apparent in behavior to be compared with rulers and ruled in Aristotle's political science, in which those qualities can be found within the soul and begin from it. One sees that for Machiavelli, rule is necessarily repressive and hence necessarily obnoxious to the ruled. The two necessities are contrary, and given the necessity of rule, or of commanding, they cannot be made harmonious in a whole, a regime, in which a common purpose or way of life can be fostered and pursued.
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Table of Contents
David C. Johnston, Nadia Urbinati, and Camila VergaraPart One: Between Antiquity and Modernity 1. Machiavelli on Necessity
Harvey C. Mansfield2. Machiavelli on Good and Evil: The Problem of Dirty Hands Revisited
Giovanni Giorgini 3. Machiavelli and the Critics of Rome: Rereading Discourses I.4
Gabriele Pedullà4. Machiavelli, “Ancient Theology,” and the Problem of Civil Religion
Miguel VatterPart Two: The Prince and the Politics of Necessity 5. Machiavelli and the Misunderstanding of Princely Virtù
Quentin Skinner6. The Necessity to Be Not-Good: Machiavelli’s Two Realisms
Erica Benner7. Loyalty in Adversity
Stephen Holmes8. Machiavelli and the Modern Tyrant
Paul A. RahePart Three: Class Struggle, Financial Power, and Extraordinary Authority in the Republic 9. Machiavelli and the Gracchi: Republican Liberty and Class Conflict
Benedetto Fontana10. Machiavelli, the Republic, and the Financial Crisis
Jérémie Barthas11. Extraordinary Accidents in the Life of Republics: Machiavelli and Dictatorial Authority
Marco GeunaPart Four: Machiavellian Politics beyond Machiavelli 12. The Reception of Machiavelli in Contemporary Republicanism: Some Ambiguities and Paradoxes
Jean-Fabien Spitz13. On the Myth of the Conservative Turn in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories
John P. McCormick14. Political Imagination, Conflict, and Democracy: Machiavelli’s Republican Realism
Luca Baccelli15. “Armi proprie e improprie” in the Work of Some Representative Italian Readers of the Twentieth Century
Michele Battini16. What Does a “Conjuncture-Embedded” Reflection Mean? The Legacy of Althusser’s Machiavelli to Contemporary Political Theory
Marie GailleContributors Index