Thoughts on Machiavelli

Thoughts on Machiavelli

by Leo Strauss


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Thoughts on Machiavelli by Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss argued that the most visible fact about Machiavelli's doctrine is also the most useful one: Machiavelli seems to be a teacher of wickedness. Strauss sought to incorporate this idea in his interpretation without permitting it to overwhelm or exhaust his exegesis of The Prince and the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. "We are in sympathy," he writes, "with the simple opinion about Machiavelli [namely, the wickedness of his teaching], not only because it is wholesome, but above all because a failure to take that opinion seriously prevents one from doing justice to what is truly admirable in Machiavelli: the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision, and the graceful subtlety of his speech." This critique of the founder of modern political philosophy by this prominent twentieth-century scholar is an essential text for students of both authors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226777047
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/28/1995
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 4.53(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born and educated in Germany, he emigrated to the United Sates in 1937. From 1949 to 1968 he was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.  He was the author of numerous books, many of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Thoughts on Machiavelli

By Leo Strauss

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1958 Leo Strauss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77702-3


The Twofold Character of Machiavelli's Teaching

MACHIAVELLI presented his political teaching in two books, the Prince and the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. Plato too presented his political teaching in two books, the Republic and the Laws, But Plato made it perfectly clear that the subject-matter of the Laws is of lower rank than that of the Republic or that the Laws is subordinate to the Republic. Hobbes went so far as to present his political teaching in three books. But it is easy to see that these three books are the result of three successive efforts to expound the same political teaching. The case of Machiavelli's two books is different. Their relation is obscure.

At the beginning of the Prince, Machiavelli divides all states into two classes, republics and principalities. It appears from the title, the Epistle Dedicatory, and the chapter headings of the Prince that that book is devoted to principalities. Above all, Machiavelli says explicitly that in the Prince he will deal solely with principalities and will not discuss republics there since he has done so elsewhere at length. The reference to a work on republics fits the Discourses, and fits no other work by Machiavelli which is extant or known to have been extant, completed or fragmentary. It therefore seems reasonable to describe the relation of the two books as follows: the Prince is devoted to principalities, the Discourses to republics.

Yet if the case is so simple, why did Machiavelli not call his treatise on republics simply De Republica? It might be suggested that when Machiavelli wrote, republics were not timely in Florence, in Italy, or anywhere else on earth; principalities were in the ascendancy; republics were rather a matter of the past. Machiavelli could find such models of princely rulers in his time as Cesare Borgia or Ferdinand of Aragon, but the model of republican rule was supplied by ancient Rome. In accordance with this suggestion we find what we may call a preponderance of modern examples in the Prince and a preponderance of ancient examples in the Discourses. From this we might understand why the Prince ends with, or culminates in a passionate call to action: Machiavelli exhorts an Italian prince of his time to liberate Italy from the barbarians who have subjugated her; but the end of the Discourses is strangely dispassionate. In brief, it makes sense at the outset to describe the relation of the two books in terms of a difference of subject-matter.

But we are compelled almost immediately to qualify this description. It is not true that Machiavelli regarded republics as a matter of the past. He wrote the Discourses in order to encourage imitation of ancient republics. He hoped for the rebirth, in the near or distant future, of the spirit of ancient republicanism. Hence his writing Discourses on Livy instead of a De Republica, cannot be explained by his despair of a republican future. Apart from this the Discourses certainly deal with both republics and principalities. The stated purpose of the book is to pave the way for the imitation not only of the ancient republics but of the ancient kingdoms as well. As for the Prince, it abounds with references to republics. Machiavelli urges princes to take the Roman republic as their model in regard to foreign policy and military matters. One obscures the difficulty by saying that thePrince deals chiefly with principalities and the Discourses deal chiefly with republics. It would be better to say that Machiavelli treats in the Prince all subjects from the point of view of the prince whereas in the Discourses he treats numerous subjects from both the princely and the republican point of view. One is therefore inclined to suggest that in the Discourses Machiavelli presents the whole of his political teaching whereas in the Prince he presents only a part of it or perhaps discusses only a special case; one is inclined to suggest that the Prince is subordinate to the Discourses. This suggestion seems to be generally favored today. While for the reason stated it is superior to the view that the relation of the two books corresponds literally to the relation of principalities and republics, it is inferior to that view because it is not based on Machiavelli's own statements. The relation of the two books is still obscure.

To gain some clarity, let us return once more to the surface, to the beginning of the beginning. Both books begin with Epistles Dedicatory. In the Epistle Dedicatory of the Prince, Machiavelli says that the book contains everything that he has found out for himself and learned from others, i.e., everything he knows. In the Epistle Dedicatory of the Discourses he says that the book contains as much as he knows and as much as he has learned of the things of the world. Hence the relation of the two books cannot possibly be understood in terms of a difference of subject-matter. The Prince is as comprehensive as the Discourses: each book contains everything that Machiavelli knows. We must add that Machiavelli raises this claim only on behalf of the Prince on the one hand and of the Discourses on the other, as can be seen from the Epistles Dedicatory of his other works.

In the ambiguous remark of the Epistle Dedicatory of the Discourses, Machiavelli might seem to present his knowledge as limited to "the things of the world." Knowledge of the things of the world is distinguished from book-learning on the one hand, and from knowledge of things natural and supernatural on the other. On one occasion Machiavelli seems explicitly to disclaim knowledge of things natural and supernatural. The things of the world are distinguished in particular from "chance and God" and from "Heaven." They are identical with the res humanae, the human things or human affairs. Instead of only "the things of the world" Machiavelli also uses the expression "the actions of the world." But the things of the world do not consist exclusively of actions; states and religions, or "mixed bodies" as distinguished from "simple bodies" (i.e., natural bodies), also are included among the things of the world. Someone said of the Florentines that they understood nothing of the things of the world. Savonarola's sermons were full of accusations and invectives against the worldly wise. Machiavelli on the other hand desires to make his readers "better knowers of the world." For the things of the world are of course also distinguished from the heavenly things, or rather they are distinguished as the things of "this world" from those of "the other world." In the Epistle Dedicatory of the Prince, Machiavelli speaks not of the things of the world, but of modern things and ancient things. The things of the world are variable; hence the modern things differ from the ancient things. But "the things of the world" is a more comprehensive expression than "things ancient and modern," for not all things of the world are affected by the difference between antiquity and modernity. As Machiavelli informs us in the Epistle Dedicatory of the Prince, there is a "nature of princes" and a "nature of the peoples," which natures are invariable. There is a "nature" which is the same in all men. There are natural characteristics of nations, natural inclinations, natural necessities with which the student of human affairs must be thoroughly familiar. With a view to the political significance of miracles, it is, to say the least, desirable that the statesman, and hence a fortiori the teacher of statesmen, should even be "a knower of the natural things," i.e., of such natural things as do not necessarily pertain to the nature of man in particular. Machiavelli knows then not only the variable "things of the world" but the invariable "world" itself. He knows that heaven, the sun, the elements and man always have the same movement, order and power. He knows that the things of the world follow a course which is ordained for them by heaven so much so that all things of the world have in every age a fundamental agreement with ancient times. In a way, then, Machiavelli possesses knowledge of "all natural things." He could not know that all things of the world depend for their order on heaven unless he had some knowledge of heaven. He could not know the mixed bodies as such unless he had some knowledge of the simple bodies. It is true that what he knows of simple bodies he has learned from the physicians, among others, whereas what he knows of mixed bodies he has learned by himself. But this does not do away with the fact that he possesses knowledge both of simple bodies and of mixed bodies. The things of the world are somehow governed by chance and by God. Machiavelli is therefore compelled to give thought to the character of that government and to reach a judgment on its character, just as he is compelled to give thought to the question of whether the world, i.e., the visible universe, was created or is eternal. In matters like these, his judgment does not rely on the teachings of other men, or on a science preceding his own in the order of the sciences, as it does in the case of simple bodies; in matters like these, he is compelled to judge for himself. To summarize, it is difficult to assign precise limits to Machiavelli's knowledge of "the things of the world." It is certainly imprudent to assume that his knowledge of the things of the world is limited to things political and military in the narrow sense. It is more prudent to assume that his knowledge, and hence his teaching in either the Prince or the Discourses, is all-comprehensive. In other words, it is prudent to assume that, in either book, he has excluded from consideration only such subjects that could possibly be relevant for the understanding of the nature of political things as he explicitly excludes. There is only one subject which he explicitly excludes from discussion: "How dangerous a thing it is to make oneself the head of a new thing which concerns many people, and how difficult it is to manage it and to bring it to its consummation and after it has been brought to its consummation to maintain it, would be too large and too exalted a matter to discuss; I reserve it therefore for a more convenient place." All other important themes therefore are not sufficiently large and exalted to preclude their being discussed. All other important themes must be presumed to have been dealt with, if only cursorily or allusively, in each of the two books. This conclusion is perfectly compatible with the fact that the bulk of the two books is obviously devoted to political subjects in the narrow sense: we have learned from Socrates that the political things, or the human things, are the key to the understanding of all things.

In order to see how Machiavelli can treat "everything" in each of the two books, we have only to remind ourselves of their obvious subject-matter. The guiding theme of the Prince is the new prince. But the most important species of new princes consists of the founders of societies. In discussing the new prince, Machiavelli discusses the foundation of every society regardless of whether it is merely political or political-religious. The theme of the Discourses is the possibility and desirability of reviving ancient virtue. Machiavelli cannot show the possibility and the necessity of reviving ancient virtue without opening the whole question regarding the ancients and the moderns which includes the question regarding paganism and the Bible.

If the two books are not clearly distinguished from each other by subject-matter, we have to consider whether they are not clearly distinguished from each other by their points of view. The Epistles Dedicatory inform us of the addressees of the two books, of the qualities of those men "to whom above all others [the books] are addressed." Epistles Dedicatory were a matter of common practice, but if not everyone, certainly an uncommon man is free to invest a common practice with an uncommon significance. The Prince is addressed to a prince; the Discourses are addressed to two young men who were private citizens. One might think for a moment that the Prince deals with everything Machiavelli knows from the point of view of a prince, whereas the Discourses deal with everything Machiavelli knows from a republican point of view. One might think, in other words, that Machiavelli is a supreme political technician who, without any predilection, without any conviction, advises princes how to preserve and increase their princely power, and advises republicans how to establish, maintain, and promote a republican way of life. By dedicating the Prince to a prince and the Discourses to private citizens he would thus foreshadow the political scientist of the imminent future who would dedicate his treatise on liberal democracy to a successor of President Eisenhower and his treatise on communism to a successor of Premier Bulganin. But Machiavelli is not a political scientist of this sort. He did not attempt to be neutral towards subjects the understanding of which is incompatible with neutrality. As a matter of principle he preferred, in his capacity as an analyst of society, republics to monarchies. Besides, it is not true that in the Discourses he considers his subjects solely from a republican point of view; in numerous passages of that book he considers the same subject from both the republican and the princely point of view. Above all, the private citizens to whom the Discourses are addressed are described in the Epistle Dedicatory as men who, while not princes, deserve to be princes, or as men who understand how to govern a kingdom. They stand in the same relation to actual princes as that in which Hiero of Syracuse, while he was still a private citizen, stood to Perseus of Macedon while the latter was a king: Hiero while a private citizen lacked nothing of being a prince or king except the power of a prince or king. The same Hiero is presented to the addressee of the Prince as the model of a prince comparable to Moses and to David. Just as the addressee of the Prince is exhorted to imitate not only the ancient princes but the ancient Roman republic as well, the addressees of the Discourses are exhorted to imitate not only the ancient Roman republicans but the ancient kings as well. Thus, the Prince and the Discourses agree not only in regard to their subject matter but in regard to their ultimate purpose as well. We shall then try to understand the relation of the two books on the assumption that the Prince is that presentation of Machiavelli's teaching which is addressed to actual princes, while the Discourses are that presentation of the same teaching which is addressed to potential princes.

The actual prince in a given state can be only one man: the Prince is addressed to one man. But there may be more than one potential prince in a given state: the Discourses are addressed to two men. An actual prince must be supposed to be very busy: the Prince is a short book, a manual which, while containing everything that Machiavelli knows, can be understood within a very short time. Machiavelli achieved this feat of condensation by forgoing every kind of adornment and by depriving the book of every grace except that inherent in the variety of its matter and the weight of its theme. Potential princes have leisure: the Discourses are more than four times as long as the Prince. In addition, it is not even obvious that the Discourses are complete: their end appears to be a cessation rather than a culmination; and, withal, there is the fact that Machiavelli almost promises a continuation. Accordingly, in the Prince, extensive discussion is limited to subjects which are most urgent for an actual prince, and Machiavelli promptly specifies the subject of the book in the Epistle Dedicatory. The Discourses on the other hand contain extensive discussions of many details, and the Epistle Dedicatory does not specify any subject, but does contain a reference to classical writers. Since the Prince is addressed to an actual prince, it reasonably issues in a call to action, i.e., to the most appropriate action then and there: an actual Italian prince can be imagined to be in a position to liberate Italy. But the Discourses, which are addressed to merely potential princes do not issue in a call to action: one cannot know whether and in what circumstances a potential prince may become an actual ruler. Hence the Discourses rather delineate a long range project whose realization would require leisurely preparations and a time-consuming recovery or rebirth of the spirit of antiquity. In this light we may better understand why there is a certain preponderance of modern examples in the Prince and a certain preponderance of ancient examples in the Discourses.


Excerpted from Thoughts on Machiavelli by Leo Strauss. Copyright © 1958 Leo Strauss. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

I: The Twofold Character of Machiavelli's Teaching
II: Machiavelli's Intention: The Prince
III: Machiavelli's Intention: The Discourses
IV: Machiavelli's Teaching

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