Machiavelli and Modern Statism
A Speech to the Mises UK Conference
By Dr Matteo Salonia
at the Charing Cross Hotel
on 27th January 2018
The political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli does not appear to be a pressing problem. Yet, it is with a sense of urgency that I speak to you today. The reinterpretation, and actually, the misinterpretation of this sixteenth-century writer has reached such a level of absurdity in the academia and it starts to be so widespread in popular culture that it’s now influencing even conservative and libertarian circles.
Since at least the 1970s a group of historians has rebranded Machiavelli as a sort of bleeding-heart republican, whom has been tragically misunderstood. In part, this direction in the scholarship on Machiavelli is influenced by the timeless temptation to downplay The Prince, or to set The Prince against other writings of the Florentine secretary, especially the Discourses.
More recent interpretations want to convince us that Machiavelli was not that different from his contemporaries in terms of philosophy, even though virtually all his sixteenth-century readers thought otherwise. In sum, these historians claim that Machiavelli meant almost the opposite of what he wrote, or that some obscure quotations taken out of context shall be more important than endless pages where Machiavelli appears undeniably for what he was: a legal positivist, a moral relativist, and the first sophisticated defender of the modern state.
I believe that precisely the state is the heart of the matter here. And this is why libertarians have something interesting to say in this debate. Currently, the scholarship is focusing on the wrong issues: on whether Machiavelli supported princely rule or not, and if not, on whether he was a supporter of oligarchic republicanism or of popular democracy. But Machiavelli wasn’t especially fixated upon one constitutional arrangement – instead, he was interested in one specific kind of state. As we move through the pages of The Prince, the Discourses, and the Art of War, we see the same statist themes emerge regularly: Centralization, Territorialization, Militarization, and Disenfranchisement of private wealth. All these themes are juxtaposed with legal positivism and a rejection of classical and Christian morality.
Obviously, it is not easy to summarise in just a few minutes the different ways in which Machiavelli contributed to the emergence of modern statism. I will first get rid of a potential objection, and I will then focus on two key aspects of Machiavelli’s political philosophy: his subtle but open war on the application of Natural Law (both classical and Christian) to politics; and his modern idea of state.
The objection that I want to anticipate is that Machiavelli was not that important, or that he was not the first writer to elaborate ideas of “art of the state.” I am sure that some of my colleagues, looking at things from a decisively non-libertarian perspective, would say that Machiavelli was not nearly as important as complex socioeconomic processes for the emergence of the modern state. Why should we give such relevance to an exiled secretary writing letters and pamphlets from his house in the Tuscan countryside, when the forces of history and the unstoppable emergence of both capitalism and state bureaucracies were at work? Well, this objection is palatable not only for neo-Marxists and social historians: it is also, in my experience, frustratingly popular among those historians who always wish to find a precedent to belittle the novelty of individual political philosophers. I will answer to this objection with the words of Ludwig von Mises:
“The genuine history of mankind is the history of ideas. It is ideas that distinguish man from all other beings. Ideas engender social institutions and political changes.”
Thus, in the case of Machiavelli, I don’t care if some other writer in Northern Italy had criticised Christian morality or written long pages about the issue of governability some centuries earlier. Of course, we know about this. Fabrizio Ricciardelli has written a book that delineates precisely these late medieval discourses. But the point is that nobody expressed such ideas like Machiavelli, and, more importantly, nobody wrote texts that had the historical impact that Machiavelli’s text had on the shaping of the modern mind.
Now, on to my brief presentation of two key aspects of Machiavelli’s thought. First: his relentless attack against the traditional moral code of Western civilization, as embodied in the classical tradition and the Christian tradition, which had been harmonised already by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and even more splendidly by St. Thomas Aquinas.
In chapter 6 of The Prince something very curious and revealing takes place. Here Machiavelli wants to praise those men who are the best examples of founders of civilizations, men who had become princes, who had acquired rulership. Incidentally, they are all prophets, yet Machiavelli downplays the role of religion and of divine intervention. The list includes Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus. These men, explains Machiavelli, used their own arms and virtue to establish a new order. Yet, evidently, there is one fascinating and shocking absence: Jesus Christ. Machiavelli does not name him, but he does clarify why Christ cannot be there, by using the figure of Savonarola, the Dominican friar at the head of a short-lived regime in Florence. Savonarola, according to Machiavelli, is a negative example, because he attempted to become a ruler just by convincing the masses, and without bothering to arm his faction. As it turns out, Moses and the others are all praiseworthy precisely because they suspended the moral code and were ready to use violence. Because, in Machiavelli’s words, “once the masses no longer believe in you and your schemes, you must be able to force them to believe.” So: Christ is a defective political model because he does not teach nor prepares for violence, while Moses is among the best models of political conduct not thanks to his relationship with God, but rather because he continuously employed or threatened violence. Now what is the meaning of this episode in The Prince? Is Machiavelli here concealing what he really believes? Or is this a case of The Prince representing the opposite of Machiavelli’s views, as it is bizarrely claimed by many sophisticated modern commentators? Well surely the Discourses, this supposedly liberal and enlightened source of true Machiavellian ideals should clear things up. Very well then, let’s take a look.
In chapter 2 of book II of the Discourses, Machiavelli is frustrated. He poses the tricky question: why have the ancients demonstrated such great capabilities when it comes to warfare, to the defence of the commonwealth, and to the readiness with which citizens take up arms at the order of the republic, while on the other hand his contemporaries are so inept, so weak, and so effeminate? The answer begins by comparing the different contents of the education (allegedly) received by the ancients with the contemporary education received in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italy. Let me quote a passage from the text:
“Our religion teaches us to make little account of worldly glory; whereas, the Gentiles, greatly esteeming it, and placing therein their highest good, displayed a greater fierceness in their actions.” And a bit further in the same chapter he goes on to say: “while the highest good of the old religions consisted in magnanimity, bodily strength, and all those other qualities which make men brave, our religion places it in humility, lowliness, and contempt for the things of this world; or if it ever calls upon us to be brave, it is that we should be brave to suffer rather than to do.”
Therefore, Machiavelli believes that Christian morality is detrimental to the political sphere in several ways. He praises pagan education, which results in boldness, manliness and militarist values, while he condemns Christian morality, which has elevated spiritual models and peaceful men, thereby weakening contemporary citizenries and republics.
There are many other examples of Machiavelli’s contempt towards Christianity. But let’s move on. Because, one may get the impression that Machiavelli has a problem only with Christian morality, while he is OK with everything that is ancient and pagan. The truth is far from this. Machiavelli’s bottom line is that the traditional morality, whether Christian or classical, should be ostracised by the realm of politics, in order to strengthen the state. So we should not be misled by the use in this instance of a mythological “pagan education” as a tool to criticise Christianity. Machiavelli knows very well that Greece and Rome had their own, sophisticated and intellectually powerful notion of morality – that is, Natural Law – and that this notion was indeed applied to the realm of politics, by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. He also knew that this philosophical tradition spelling out the nature of virtue both for the individual and for the community had a profound impact on his contemporaries. Even the pamphlets supporting one of the signorie that had appeared across Northern Italy from the thirteenth century valued peace and made use of ideas of justice to frame their propaganda. Now, this assumption that the prince had to be just and virtuous in the traditional meanings of these words is precisely what Machiavelli could not tolerate.
The project of Machiavelli is not merely to secularise politics. He criticises and mocks ancient moral codes as well, insofar as they are applied to those who rule. He is especially bothered by the favourable reputation of Cicero’s De Officiis among his contemporaries, and by Cicero’s application of moral standards to politics. In particular, in the Discourses Machiavelli utterly rejects Cicero’s belief that it is possible to harmonise the honourable and good with what is advantageous and useful. So, in a nutshell, Machiavelli is not only getting rid of the theological virtues, but also of the cardinal virtues. Which is exactly why he talks so incessantly about virtu’: he gives a completely new, revolutionary meaning to the idea of virtue. The Prince is a manual of unvirtuous virtues.
What is the result of all this? The result is a dichotomy of moral codes, a new space of manoeuvre for politics – that is, for coercive action. “Reason of State” becomes the idea that what the state does cannot be judged according to the same moral standard that we apply to individual persons in their daily relationships and actions outside of politics. I don’t think that I need to give specific examples here: theft and expropriation (from the income tax to inflationary policies) have become the norm, and in fact, they are what is considered “mainstream” and “moderate.”
Finally, to conclude my observations on this first, key aspect of Machiavelli’s philosophy, that is – his rejection of traditional Western morality in politics – I want to note that there would be much to say also on Machiavelli’s contribution to the emergence of those democratic mythologies discussed and refuted so splendidly by Professor Hoppe. Machiavelli rejects the Platonic and Aristotelian view that natural aristocracy is more trustworthy and stable than the demos (the people). On the contrary, Machiavelli believes that whoever holds power in the new regime should exalt the people and use it as a powerful tool of legitimisation. There is no time to pursue this avenue of investigation, but I believe it is worth mentioning, just in case my words reach one of those paleo-conservatives and libertarians inexplicably infatuated with our Florentine rascal.
But let’s move on to the second key aspect of Machiavelli’s ideology, that is the state itself. Because one could say “alright, I am convinced that Machiavelli wanted to create a separate immoral code for the government, but what he saw as the government was surely far from the modern Leviathan that we’ve got today.”
Yet, as I shall endeavour to convince you in less than 10 minutes, the Machiavellian state is the modern state. It is sovereign, because it is centralised, territorialised, and monopolistic. It is militarised, because the boundaries between self-defence and aggression have become virtually non-existent. And it is wealthy.
Let’s look at the issue of sovereignty. It is true that at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the historical process of centralisation and the expansion of royal authority in Europe had already started from at least 3 centuries – at different moments in different regions. Yet, the medieval tradition of self-government and liberty, of private governance and free association, of jurisdictional diversity and cosmopolitanism was still alive and well. Machiavelli hated this. He envisioned a polity where the government, whether republican or princely, would not tolerate any competition from other taxfarmers or judiciary systems or associations exercising diplomatic or political functions within the same territory. Now what would be the perfect example of a polity where there still was everything that Machiavelli despised, that is multiple jurisdictions, private arbitrations, alternative tax-farmers, and spontaneous governance side by side with that of the republic? That’s easy: Genoa, the maritime city with an intentionally weak republic that since the fifteenth-century had to cohabit within the same territory with the spontaneous association of creditors called the Bank of St. George. And what did Machiavelli think of this situation? Let’s take a look at his book Istorie Fiorentine. Here Machiavelli describes the situation in Genoa, with citizens who are sceptical towards the communal government and have given their trust and loyalty to the bank of St. George. Machiavelli is intrigued by these events, and especially by the fact that St. George has its own laws and arms, hence being a sort of independent body within the republic. Since the republican state is hopeless, his conclusion is the following:
“If St. George was to govern the whole city, which in the future will surely happen, then this would be a republic more memorable than the Venetian one.”
In other words, if the Genoese republic cannot be or become a proper monopolist of loyalty, justice and violence over its territory, then Machiavelli says: you know what, let’s hope that this private bank turns into one! If this is the unimaginative solution that Machiavelli found for Genoa, it should not surprise us that he despised the situation in Germany, where he saw the various local freedoms and traditions of medieval overlapping jurisdictions as elements of weakness and obstacles on the road to centralisation and to power.
Now let’s look at the issue of militarization. Machiavelli’s state is a militarised machine, ready for war, feeding on war. In his pamphlet entitled Art of War, Machiavelli criticises private armies and the use of mercenaries, while he proposes national militias under the authority of the republican government. A fact that few people know and that few scholars are fond of mentioning is that Machiavelli himself was at the head of a programme of conscription of Florentine men, taken from the countryside and organised into a standing army. This happened between 1505 and 1510, when Machiavelli was Secretary of War in the Republic of Florence. However, when I say that the Machiavellian state is modern also because it is militarised I do not simply mean that the military is into the picture. Militarisation is an ideological issue as much as an institutional one: wars feed the polity not only materially, in terms of economic gains, but also educationally, because they contribute to educate the model citizen. That war is considered as a tool for the education of citizens is crystal clear in chapter 12 of the The Prince, where Machiavelli states that “the main foundations of all states are good laws and good arms” but then he promptly clarifies that “Since it is impossible to have good laws if good arms are lacking while if there are good arms there must also be good laws, I shall leave laws aside and concentrate on arms.”
Finally, the new state is wealthy. In fact, according to Machiavelli, not only the state should be more wealthy than individual citizens, but actually in book 3 chapter 25 of the Discourses he goes as far as praising Rome because it was a state where citizens were kept poor and therefore more humble and ready to fight in war. And at the beginning of his Art of War, Machiavelli includes in his list of suggestions for a healthy state that we should not have contempt for poverty, and that we should esteem less the private than the public good.
But before I conclude, let me ask this question: why does it matter? I mean, who cares if Machiavelli is misinterpreted, misrepresented, celebrated? Well, I will give you two important reasons.
First, the benevolent historiography on Machiavelli is the same that proposes a toxic idea. The idea that progress towards civic liberty and human freedom has been made thanks to the progressive establishment of a territorialized, centralized and militarized sovereign state. We cannot accept this view, so we as libertarians must develop a cohesive framework for the history of political philosophy that shows the rich and sophisticated traditions of law, jurisdictional competition, and liberty in pre-modern societies, in particular in medieval Europe, before Machiavelli. We can and should expose the fact that the territorialized state – not a political language or any specific constitutional arrangement – is at the heart of Machiavelli’s thought.
The second reason why we should care about Machiavelli is that his anti-Christian stance which I have briefly described seems relevant in current discussions within the libertarian world. Leftist-libertarians (if anything like a leftist libertarian can ever exist) are those keyboard lions who troll Tom Woods because he is too Catholic, or who viciously attack Jeff Deist because he dared to remind us of the importance of family and country, or who are scandalized by Hans-Hermann Hoppe simply because he endorses freedom of disassociation. Now, these same leftist-libertarians claim that the non-aggression principle is all that there is to say – ever. Their idea of the libertarian movement is utterly bizarre and shallow: they want to appear in a discussion on any topic simply to mention the non-aggression principle and then leave, for fear of formulating any other point on which other libertarians may disagree. This silly kind of libertarianism is so far from being a cohesive political philosophy that it actually looks more like dogmatic emptiness. Studying Machiavelli can remind us that liberty needs to be articulated in a number of ways, and men do not live of the non-aggression principle alone. It is not by chance that Machiavelli, the most successful proponent of early statism and monopolistic sovereignty over a territory, did much, much more than simply justify aggression. He attacked the very foundations of a shared moral standard by which political power could be judged and limited. That moral standard attacked and destroyed by Machiavelli and his followers throughout the past five centuries was both pagan and Christian, and it was based both on rational morality (that is, the Natural Law) and on Christianity (which is universal and not subject to the authority of any state). Rather than merely repeating the non-aggression principle, perhaps we should make an effort to rediscover the extraordinary heritage of political philosophy and law that the West has built before Machiavelli and his statist embellishers in the academia came along.
 Recent examples of this tendency include (the otherwise brilliant libertarian scholar) Prof. Jo Ann Cavallo’s appearance on the Tom Woods Show; and an article by Jerry Salyer on the Imaginative Conservative where he uses the strawman of people who supposedly believe that Machiavelli is a “monster” and then proceeds to completely misunderstand the meaning of Machiavelli’s criticisms against Agathocles of Sicily (a criticism that, as explained by Prof. William Parsons, had nothing to do with the condemnation of violence, but rather with the fact that Agathocles had failed to frame his violence within a religious narrative).