II Early Modern Approaches to Civil Society

Niccold Machiavelli: Civic Virtue and

Niccolò Machiavelli: Civic Virtue and Civil Society

I. Historical Setting and Introduction

Niccold Machiavelli (1469-1526) was a political realist, unlike others we discuss in this book, who approached politics from philosophical, moral, or religious perspectives. As such, his main concern was learning how to get and keep power. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that “Machiavellianism” is a doctrine radically divorced from morality and thus from a conception of civic virtue. Even though his arguments reflected the view that political authority could no longer be justified based on ecclesiastical or religious grounds, he still understood the importance of maintaining among the members of the society a commitment to the common good. Without the habits of civic virtue, which include respect for the rule of law and which exhort people to promote the common good, societies might be undermined by the natural selfishness found in humankind. As one writer said, for Machiavelli, “men are apt to behave toward one another worse than most savage beasts.”1

Prior to discussing Machiavelli’s doctrines, it is necessary to provide some historical background. Throughout the fifteenth century, a single family, the Medicis, had run Machiavelli’s Florence. They had governed Florence as a ruling elite while making it appear that they were maintaining a republic as opposed to a monarchy. A republic is different from a monarchy in the sense that the latter is governed by a king whose authority derives from family background. A republic, on the other hand, is a political regime united around promoting a conception of the common good, but it is also presumed that the authority of the government in a republic rests upon citizen participation in determining the common good and the laws that enshrine it.

In 1494, the Medici's dominance came to an end, and there followed a series of republican and Medicean regimes until the Medici family was fully restored in 1512. During this period, Machiavelli assumed various roles, including advisor, bureaucrat, and diplomat. But after 1512, Machiavelli, who had always been committed to republican rule and who had always been anti-Medici, lost all chances for political office, and he was accused of treason, arrested, and even tortured. Eventually, he was cleared of all wrongdoing, and he went to live on a Florentine suburban farm. During this time, he wrote The Prince and The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, both of which we discuss in this chapter.2 The former work was written to provide advice and to win back favor from the Medicis, and it is thus dedicated to one of the Medici sons.3

Central to Machiavelli’s analysis of politics was the revolution in circumstances taking place during his life. Machiavelli wrote during the fifteenth century, when Italy was divided into five large states - Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples, and the papal state.4 During this time, opportunities for economic and cultural growth were abundant. Owing to new trade opportunities, to the breakup of the feudal system, and to the establishment of new crafts, the Italian states became a part of the world economy, participating in international trade and business. But at the same time, the political structures of the Italian states could not accommodate themselves to the challenges that the new trading opportunities presented. These states were constantly involved in various conflicts, and they could not unite to form a single Italian state.5 Machiavelli believed that the states of the Italian peninsula needed to overcome these conflicts and to form unified states like Spain, France, and England. He also believed that the pope was both too weak to unite Italy and too strong to prevent others from doing so. Machiavelli, who lived during a time that was at the earliest stages of the present-day Western nationstate system, hoped for a form of Italian government that could provide a basis for economic expansion and for eliminating divisiveness.6

For Machiavelli, Italy was marked, then, to cite George Sabine, by “arrested political development.”7 To move the Italian states into the modern world, there needed to be a new kind of political ruler who could create political structures that met the challenges of the changing social and economic conditions. Machiavelli's prince would have the responsibility of recasting society and creating a government with sufficient power to achieve prosperity in the new-world setting. The new ruler would help create a republic, backed by the people and institutions that secure some form of citizen participation. And the shared goal of the republic would be to advance the material progress and power of Italy as a whole.

For our purposes, Machiavelli is especially important because, in discussing the agenda for the new ruler, Machiavelli helped to pave the way for a civil society that works to secure the rule of law on behalf of protecting basic individual freedoms. As our discussion of The Prince, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, and Mandragola in the rest of this chapter demonstrates, Machiavelli is a transitional figure in this book. For even as he accepted an old-world commitment to promote the traditions of civic virtue that secured respect for the common good, he, at the same time, realized that the civic virtue orientation had to be made compatible with the quest, found in the new world, for individual liberty. Now, Machiavelli did not engage in writing the political theory of civil society, demonstrating how to define constraints that at the same time secured liberty. That task awaited those who followed him, such as Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and John Locke. Still, Machiavelli set the stage for those whom we discuss in the next section.

One final point. Machiavelli approaches his subject from the standpoint of two types of regimes: monarchies and republics. In The Prince, he is concerned with discussing monarchies, especially new ones, and in The Discourses, he is concerned with republics.8 In discussing new monarchies, Machiavelli demonstrates how to use power to create a new political regime within a newly conquered territory. In The Discourses, republics are referred to as a form of mixed government, or a government based upon established traditions that include monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. His hope is that these three elements, when allowed to share power together, would help to sustain a commitment to the common good among citizens. Such a regime would permit citizen input on behalf of defining the common good and on behalf of making possible a society dedicated to the rule of law. Owing to the inherent corruptibility of humankind, however, Machiavelli worries that respect for the traditions of civic virtue, including respect for law, would be hard to maintain. This pessimism emanates from his view that human nature, as indicated earlier, is in large part characterized by selfishness and greed, and these tendencies are likely to be exacerbated in a world that more and more emphasizes individual freedom. The portrait he paints of human nature in the modern world can be found in his play Mandragola, which we discuss at the end of this chapter. [1]

really exist.” Securing a prince’s power in this situation is fraught with difficulty because partisans of the old regime who resent the new order are always still present in society.12 Machiavelli says:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry’ out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour [sic]; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.13

Every prince must face the uncertainties associated with fortune. No one can know in advance of a proposed action what the consequences of an intended action might be. For a prince who takes over a previously governed regime, this problem is exacerbated by the hostile environment he faces. There are those who want to restore the old order, as well as so many others who expect the new prince to deliver on all his promises. There are external enemies who will seize upon any weakness they see to invade and overthrow the new regime. For these reasons, it is foolish for a prince to think that he can ever master fortune completely. Still, a prince should be able to master fortune at least partially. Machiavelli says that “fortune is the ruler of half our actions.” But, nonetheless, fortune allows “the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us.”14

Thus, despite the obstacles it presents, Machiavelli thinks that fortune could be mastered, but only certain people are capable of doing so: in particular, those who are both bold and sagacious. Machiavelli says that “fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force; and it can be seen that she lets herself be overcome by the bold rather than by those who proceed coldly.”15 Indeed, for skilled political leaders, fortune merely represents an opportunity to show how capable they are at mastering events. Machiavelli says that great leaders “owed nothing to fortune but the opportunity which gave them matter to be shaped into what form they thought fit.”16

Leader virtue, or what Machiavelli calls “virtu,” refers to the ability of the prince to carve from the disorder and uncertainty of fortune a political order that incurs people’s continuing support for the prince’s regime. To this end, the prince manifests virtu when he satisfies the yearning of people for the security of their material interests, including such things as people’s property and families. Machiavelli holds up for high praise leaders who are successful in the effort to secure for people their possessions, in the face of those potential enemies who would take them away.17 Such leaders become heroes to their people, and they deserve to be accorded glory and fame. In this regard, Machiavelli approves of leaders such as Moses, who helped the people of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt.18

At the same time, Machiavelli attacks leaders who use their abilities to gain power at great cost to their fellow citizens. Leaders in this category are people such as Agathocles, who betrayed his friends and killed his fellow citizens, and these actions cannot be called virtuous. People such as Agathocles, to paraphrase Machiavelli, “gain power, they do not gain glory.”19

Still, to master circumstances in a manner that wins the people’s support, a prince who demonstrates virtu may show little regard for traditional moral ideas, such as keeping agreements. These conventional moral norms may be essential in conducting relationships within the family or among friends, but they often have no place in a public setting that calls for a prince to manifest the boldness and daring needed to control public events on behalf of creating lasting benefits for people.

The prince, then, must destroy, at times, to make available important goods for his people, and thus it is not always possible or likely that the prince can sustain moral values traditionally considered essential in normal day-to-day settings. Indeed, the science of politics for Machiavelli is derived neither from studies in moral philosophy, nor from theoretical inquiries into natural law, nor from an understanding of theology. Rather, the science of politics evolves from a study of people whose main objective is to acquire power and to use it to create orderly societies that serve people’s vital interests.

Moreover, Machiavellian approaches to the discussion of the science of politics always presume that there are only certain people who should become a prince. These people must face the uncertainty of fortune, never knowing in advance the consequences of their actions. To weather the storms associated with this reality, princes must be capable of doing whatever is necessary to survive, including committing violence against their enemies. Those who wish to lead more normal lives, in accordance with traditional moral categories, need not apply. On the other hand, those willing to use whatever means are needed to create regimes that serve people’s lasting needs are ideal candidates. What is a prince’s reward? Of course, there is the attainment of power that attracts would-be princes. But, in addition, people who succeed in creating regimes that protect people's vital interests are remembered favorably for generations to come. In effect, the prince’s greatest reward is to be remembered fondly by his nation for his willingness to be bold, daring, and ruthless in the face of great danger. Such people stand against a people’s archenemies and survive, and their victory is the nation’s triumph.

  • [1] The Prince Monarchy The Prince is a treatise on how to get and keep power, and, in this work, Machiavelli addresses how these objectives could be achieved in monarchies. In discussing monarchies in The Prince, Machiavelli does not dwell on hereditary ones because these states can be sustained merely by retaining allegiance to "ancestral usages.”9 For Machiavelli, “the difficulty of maintaining hereditary states accustomed to a reigning family is far less than in new monarchies.”10 The monarchies that require special attention, then, are those in which a prince is trying to establish sovereignty over a new territory or, in effect, to place himself in control of a regime previously ruled by another. “It is in the new monarchy that difficulties
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