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Lecture 20

Pols 2900 Lecture 2013-3

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Political Science
POLS 2900
Stephen Newman

Lecture summary for Tuesday, November 19 Tuesday, November 19 was a religious holiday for some students in the class, so I am posting a summay of my lecture. I left off last time with Machiavelli’s advice to the prince concerning whether it is better to be loved or feared by his subjects. If one must choose, he recommends that the prince rely on fear. It is more reliable, since men will run away from a ruler they profess to love when danger is upon them; but fear of the ruler’s vengeance will keep them by his side even in the face of great adversity. When it comes to love and fear, the trick for the ruler is to make himself feared without making himself hated. Hatred is dangerous because it may overpower men’s fear of the prince, leading to disobedience. Happily, it turns out to be relatively easy for a ruler to avoid being hated. Machiavelli explains that he need only show respect for his subjects’ wives and possessions. Men being what they are, “they forget more quickly the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.” Politics and Fortune. Chapter 25 is titled “How much fortune can achieve in human affairs, and how it is to be resisted.” Here Machiavelli is concerned to reply to those who think our fate is not in our own hands, but rather is determined either by fortune or by God’s providence (which might be one and the same). The problem for politics posed by this worldview is fatalism, the belief that we can do nothing to affect the course of events. Machiavelli writes that in his day this view is widely held (because the course of recent events seems to confirm it). In opposition, he contends that fortune determines approximately half our actions, leaving us to control the other half. So if our fate is not entirely in our own hands, it is at least partly under our control. Machiavelli likens fortune to a raging river. When it floods, it can wash away everything in its path. But this does not mean that in times when the river is calm men cannot build dams and barriers to contain the next flood. Fortune is like the river, and men can take precautions to resist her. Italy, in Machiavelli’s view, is like a flood plain without dams and barriers, unprepared for the next flood. Had political precautions of the sort he discusses in his book been put in place, the country would not have fallen victim to foreign invasions or suffered weak governments in so many of its cities. Shifting the discussion to how fortune affects individuals, Machiavelli notes that men of different temperaments pursue glory and riches (their common goal) differently. One proceeds with caution, another is headstrong; one is violent (all lion), another crafty (all fox). And it cannot be predicted from their temperament which will succeed. Some cautious men triumph while others of equal caution fail, and the same for the others. What makes all the difference to the result is the character of the times. Under one set of circumstances, caution is appropriate. But other circumstances will call for bold action. Men fail because they do not know how to adapt themselves to changing circumstances. In The Discourses, Book III, chapter 9 he explains that we cannot change our natures –whether we are rash or cautious is to a large measure beyond our control. (At some point in our lives, our characters become “fixed.”) He also observes that men are inherently conservative and tend to stick with whatever course of action yielded a good result in the past. Both of these features leave the majority of persons disinclined or simply unable to change course when their circumstances change. This is unfortunate. In The Prince Machiavelli writes that “[I]f one knew how to change one’s character as times and circumstances change, one’s luck would never change.” There are many shades of character, but through the historical examples given in Chapter 25 Machiavelli focuses on just two: the cautious man and the impetuous man. As already stated, the most skillful ruler would know how to adjust his conduct to suit the times. But since it is difficult for most 1 men to alter their temperament, Machiavelli gives a qualified endorsement to the impetuous man. He writes that “fortune is a lady... if you want to master her, [it is necessary] to beat and strike her. ...And one sees she more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in a calculating fashion. Moreover, since she is a lady, she smiles on the young, for they are less cautious, more ruthless, and overcome her with their boldness.” The passage quoted speaks volumes about sexism in 16 century Italy. But let’s put that aside for the moment. Machiavelli’s point is that in politics boldness and audacity succeed more often than does a cautious approach. He reviles the middle path praised by Aristotle, who advises us always to seek a mean between excess (too much audacity) and deficiency (too much caution). For Aristotle, the correct way of proceeding always lay in the middle path. Not so for Machiavelli, who recommends excess, because he concludes from his study of politics that the bold, ruthless statesman overcomes ill fortune more often than one who is timid and cautious. I take Machiavelli’s final word on the role of Fortune in human affairs to be found in The Discourses, Book II, Chapter 29. There he writes that Fortune “blinds men’s minds when she does not want them to oppose her plans.” But he never adopts a pessimistic tone, telling his readers that they should “never give up, for not knowing her goals as she travels through crooked and unknown roads, men always have hope, and with hope they should never despair in whatever Fortune and whatever difficulty they find themselves.” Machiavelli’s nationalism. Chapter 26 is titled “An exhortation to seize Italy and free her from the barbarians.” Some people read The Prince as a nationalist tract, chiefly on the evidence of this chapter. I’m inclined to think that while Machiavelli was something of a nationalist, the maxims contained in The Prince were intended for any and every political ruler, including princes who ruled city-states. In Chapter 26 Machiavelli directly addresses the Medici prince to whom the book is dedicated. He tells him that the time is ripe for a leader with the necessary qualities of virtu to unify the country. Recalling the circumstances that confronted the exemplars of princely virtu identified in Chapter 6, Machiavelli observes (with some degree of hyperbole) that Italy was more enslaved than the Hebrews, more servile than the Persians, more scattered than the Athenians, lacking a leader, beaten, despoiled, overrun, and prey to every sort of catastrophe. Using the wisdom contained in The Prince, the new ruler of Florence might “redeem” Italy from the barbarians (foreign invaders) and unify the country. Was this Machiavelli’s real purpose in writing the book? Or was he merely flattering the Medici prince, perhaps in hope of gaining employment in his service? I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure that it matters. It seems to me that what The Prince has to teach us about politics has importance whether or not Machiavelli genuinely believed that Lorenzo could unify the country. It is not his (possible) nationalism that makes Machiavelli a significant figure in the history of western political thought. Rather, it is adamant insistence on the autonomy of the political –the notion that politics must be judged by standards internal to the practice of politics and not by the standards of morality or religion. By declaring the autonomy of the political Machiavelli marks a decisive break with classical and medieval political thought. His vision of the political remains controversial and is contested even today by thinkers who would have us hold state actors morally accountable for their actions. But it is an indication of Machiavelli’s influence on the western tradition that we are having that debate in the first place. 2 THE DISCOURSES The full title of this long work is Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, a history of the Roman republic. Like The Prince, this is a book of advice addressed to statesmen; but in contrast with The Prince, the Discourses is dedicated to friends of Machiavelli who were champions of the Florentine republic and the book is chiefly concerned with republican government. Like The Prince, the advice found in the Discourses is said by Machiavelli to reflect “all that [he has] learned from long experience and continuous study of worldly affairs.” The Discourses is divided into three books and covers a multitude of topics. In the preface to the first book Machiavelli announces that he is attempting something new –“I have resolved to set out on a road no one has traveled before me.” This untraveled road involves new ways of thinking about politics, something he considers a dangerous undertaking because “men are by nature envious” and “quicker to criticize than to praise what others have done.” What I find curious about Machiavelli’s declaration of intent is that his innovative approach to politics directs his reader’s attention to the classical past. He purports to find something new in ancient history. What are to make of this? In what sense can the imitation of Roman generals, legislators and statesmen be considered an innovation? Machiavelli himself offers us no explanation. At the very least, however, his declaration that the Discourses contains something new should war us against reading Machiavelli as someone interested in resurrecting the past, no matter how great his admiration for the achievements of Rome. We learned from our discussion of The Prince that Machiavelli considers the political world to be in a constant state of flux. The present situation may to some degree resemble the past, but history doesn’t repeat itself. Consequently, a contemporary Italian statesman who perfectly imitated his ancient Roman counterpart would not assure himself of success. When Machiavelli counsels his contemporaries to imitate the great leaders of antiquity he is recommending that they develop the same skill set and perhaps the same appreciation of politics as an autonomous realm of action. As I observed in discussing The Prince, Machiavelli’s insistence on the autonomy of the political did, in his day and age, represent a new way of thinking about politics. At the risk of oversimplifying his message, we might say that for Machiavelli politics is about the acquisition of power –not the acquisition of power for the sake of religion, nor the acquisition of power for the sake of human flourishing, but the acquisition of power for the sake of wielding power and through which political virtuosos can perform deeds worthy of a glorious reputation. This conception of politics owes a large debt to the ancients. You will recall that Aristotle thinks of the political as a space in which gentlemen have the opportunity to perform the virtuous actions (e.g., acts of bravery and justice) that allow them to actualize their capacity for excellence and hence achieve happiness. On Aristotle’s terms, political actions are choiceworthy for their own sake because they are virtuous actions, and virtue is always an end in itself. By extension, Aristotelian politics is an end in itself (because political actions and virtuous actions are one and the same). In this sense, Aristotle, too, endorses the autonomy of the political. Where Machiavelli departs from Aristotle and the classical conception of the political is when it comes to the relationship between politics and virtue. As we have seen, Machiavelli divorces the political from the pursuit of the human good as Aristotle conceives of it, just as he divorces politics from the pursuit of Christian salvation. For Machiavelli, all that’s left to provide the political with substantive content is power-seeking. In Machiavelli’s political theory, the art of statecraft (the subject of both The Prince and the Discourses) exists for the sake of ruling and not for some “higher” purpose. Approaching the Discourses The Discourses is a difficult book to summarize the book. Compare it to Plato’s Republic. Plato 3 is not always easy to follow. The dialogue format makes it difficult to determine who among the characters, if any of them, speaks for the author. Also, Plato’s argument is not linear. It doesn’t move forward in an orderly fashion, but repeatedly circles back on itself. And yet, it’s not difficult to grasp that the Republic is a book about justice. Anyone who rea
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