Debunking "Machiavellian" Myths

To transform a conference into a book is a heroic task that always deserves to be praised. The editors of Machiavelli on Liberty and Conflict, David Johnston, Nadia Urbinati and Camila Vergara, deserve a special commendation for their Introduction that reconstructs the main interpretive trends since the celebrations of 1869, the fifth centenary of Machiavelli’s birth (1469).

At that time, Italian scholars, inspired by the still vivid memories of the Risorgimento, acclaimed Niccolo Machiavelli as a fine citizen “imbued with a strong patriotism, albeit consciously inscribed within an ideal horizon that was European, not nationalist.” The editors stress that, for the promoters of the celebrations, the united and independent Italy “represented a full actualization of chapter 26” of The Prince—the “Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians.”

They also correctly remark that political leaders, not academics, found in Machiavelli inspiration for their projects. Among them, Antonio Gramsci, who wrote on Machiavelli in the early 1930s, in prison, deserves special mention for the intellectual finesse and the political value of his interpretation. For Gramsci, The Prince should be read as a text that frames a redemptive political myth based upon the idea that the new prince for contemporary times (which he identified in the Communist Party, whereas Machiavelli was imagining a single individual) must announce, and labor to carry out, a moral and intellectual reform that would transform subjects into active citizens.

Unfortunately, the long history of the scholarship is also replete with interpretations that distort the meaning of Machiavelli’s text. One of these is Antonio Negri’s view that for Machiavelli “the prince is democracy” (Negri, Il potere costituente. Saggio sulle alternative del moderno, 1992). Another is John P. McCormick’s persuasion that Machiavelli “championed a reconstructed and in significant ways democratized the Roman constitutional model” (McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy, 2011).

Negri’s and McCormick’s interpretations fail to consider the plain fact that Machiavelli never praised democracy. The only time he refers to democracy, it is to stress that Athens’ democratic constitution inspired by Solon had a brief life, and opened the way to the tyranny of Pisistratus, because it gave all the power to the people (“per ordinarvi solo lo stato popolare, lo fece di sì breve vita, che, avanti morisse, vi vide nata la tirannide di Pisistrato,” Discourses on Livy, I. 2). To describe Machiavelli as an advocate of democracy seems therefore to me a rather evident misreading of Machiavelli’s text.

McCormick falls into a similar mistake in the essay contained herein, “On the Myth of a Conservative Turn in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories.”

Against what he calls the “settled opinion” that “the more mature author of the Histories transformed his views in several fundamental ways; most prominently, that Machiavelli became substantively more critical of common people and more laudatory of elites than he was in his earlier writings,” McCormick also remarks that “sometimes Machiavelli directly contradicts himself in the Histories, as when he insists that the Florentine people refused to share political offices with the nobles (Florentine Histories 3.1), only a few paragraphs after he describes in explicit detail precisely how the people has tried, very much in good faith, to do just that (Florentine Histories 2.39).” Machiavelli at other times “engages in—to use an unlovely phrase—a descripto-normative incongruity: he often denounces popular behavior as inappropriate, excessive, or indecent when, in fact, indications in the Histories, and statements from previous works, suggest that Machiavelli not only tolerates but actually countenances such conduct.”

Machiavelli’s “evaluative judgments on the nobles and the people expressed in the Histories,” McCormick assures us, “are consistently belied by his actual descriptions of each group’s behavior.” Thus if we want to understand Machiavelli’s true message, we should disregard the proemi (introductory chapters), where Machiavelli summarizes his political evaluations, and concentrate our attention on his historical narrations.

If these views were true, they would amount to a gigantic interpretive innovation that would instantly render obsolete a large body of authoritative scholarship. I believe they are not and that the established scholarship remains unchallenged. Had McCormick used the text of the Istorie edited masterfully by Alessandro Montevecchi and Carlo Varotti, under the guidance of Gian Mario Anselmi,for the Edizione Nazionale, he would have learned, to begin with, that Machiavelli plies his sources to sustain the political judgments that he condenses in the introductory chapters.

At the end of book II, for instance, he distorts both Giovanni Villani’s and Leonardo Bruni’s histories to emphasize that the people of Florence reformed the institutions of the city to ruin the political power of the nobility (Florentine Histories, II. 42). This means that the political evaluations that he condenses in the introductory chapters are for him more important than the facts. To invite putting the narrations above the political considerations amounts to inviting us to miss the meaning of the text.

Does the text of the Florentine Histories support the above-quoted assertion about a direct contradiction between II. 39 and III. 1? The beginning of chapter 39 seems to validate McCormick’s thesis that the people wanted to share power with the nobility, not keep it all for themselves:

Having quieted things outside, the Florentines turned to those inside. And after some dispute between the nobility and the people, they decided that the nobility should have a third part in the Signoria, and half in the other offices. (Posate le cose di fuora, si volsono a quelle di dentro, e dopo alcuna disputa fatta intra e grandi e i popolani, conclusono che i grandi nella Signoria la terza parte, e negli ufici la metà avessero.)

But the promoter of this reasonable division of power agreement was not the people, as McCormick seems to believe. It was a committee of 14 citizens, “half nobles and half from the people” (“per metà grandi e popolani”) who, together with the bishop of Florence, had absolute powers to reorder the institutions of the Republic after the expulsion of the Duke of Athens (II. 37).

As soon as the new political order designed to represent both the nobles and the people was formed, says Machiavelli, the nobles began to display their typical arrogance and tried to seize all the power (“privati, non volevano compagni, e ne’ magistrati volevono essere signori”).

Enraged by the nobles’ arrogance, the people of Florence “ran armed to the Palace, shouting that they wanted the nobles to renounce the magistracy” (“corse armato al palagio, gridando che voleva che i grandi rinunziassero al magistrato”). “The eight Signori, Machiavelli concludes, who were left chose a Gonfalonier of Justice and sixteen gonfaloniers for the Companies of the People, and reorganized the councils in such a way that the entire government was in the control of the people”  (“riformorono i Consigli in modo che tutto il governo nello arbitrio del popolo rimane,” II. 39).

Passing to the introductory chapter to book III, we read: “the people of Florence fought to be alone in the government, without any participation in it by the nobles” (“quello di Firenze per essere solo nel governo, senza che i nobili ne partecipassero, combatteva”).

Where is the incongruity that McCormick denounces?

The perfect consistency between Machiavelli’s narration and Machiavelli’s political judgments is even more visible if we look to chapter 42, the last chapter of book II:

When the nobility were conquered, the people reorganized the government . . . All the Ordinances of Justice were enacted against the nobles and (further weakening them) many nobles were mingled with the general multitude. This ruin of the nobles was so great and so humbled their party that never afterwards did they have courage to take arms against the people; on the contrary they steadily became more courteous and abject. Thus Florence was stripped not merely of arms but of all magnanimity. (Vinti i grandi, riordinò il popolo lo stato . . . Tutti gli ordinamenti della giustizia contro i grandi si riassunsono, e per fargli più deboli, molti di loro intra la popolare moltitudine mescolorono. Questa rovina de’ nobili fu sì grande e in modo afflisse la parte loro, che mai poi a pigliare l’arme contra il popolo si ardirono, anzi continuamente più umani e abietti diventorono. Il che fu cagione che Firenze, non solamente di arme, ma di ogni generosità si spogliasse.)

Let’s turn the page and read once again the introductory chapter to book III:

But in Florence, since the people won, the nobles continued to be deprived of high offices, and if they wished to get them again, they were forced in their conduct, their spirit, and their way of living not merely to be like the men of the people, but to seem so. . . . Hence the ability in arms and the boldness of spirit possessed by the nobility were destroyed, and these qualities could not be rekindled in the people, where they did not exist, so that Florence grew always weaker and more despicable. (In Firenze, vincendo il popolo, i nobili privi de’magistrati rimanevano e volendo racquistargli, era loro necessario, con i governi, con lo animo e con il modo del vivere, simili ai popolani non solamente essere, ma parere. […] Tanto che quella virtù delle armi e generosità di animo che era nella nobilità si spegneva, e nel popolo dove la non era, non si poteva raccendere; tal che Firenze sempre più umile e più abietto divenne.)

It is surely a lack of imagination on my part, but I fail to see the incongruity that McCormick denounces.

The quality of scholarship fortunately gets better with Harvey C. Mansfield’s essay, “Machiavelli on Necessity.” The author accomplishes a remarkable intellectual masterpiece by putting to rest the time-honored idea that Machiavelli deserves immortal glory for having discovered and clearly expressed the principle of the “autonomy of politics” from ethics. According to this idea, we must use different standards to judge the actions of princes and the actions of ordinary persons: for the former we must consider whether or not they contribute to the safety, the liberty, and the greatness of the state; for the latter we can use the ordinary moral principles of honesty. The implication being that the very same action—say, a cruelty—must be condemned if perpetrated by an ordinary human being but must be praised, or excused, if perpetrated by a prince to save or aggrandize the state.

This theory was framed by Benedetto Croce in Elementi di politica (1925) and has “shaped the research of several generations of scholars,” as the editors of this volume finely observe. Against this view, Mansfield remarks that

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”. 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.” . . . 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.

To provide further textual support for his interpretation, Mansfield could have cited the title of chapter 15 of The Prince, where Machiavelli opens the discussion of the relationship between ethics and politics: “De his rebus quibus homines et praesertim principes laudantur aut vituperantur.” (“Of those things for which men and especially princes are praised or blamed.”)

He could have cited also Machiavelli’s famous or infamous statement that brings the whole discussion to a close: “e nelle azioni di tutti gli uomini, e massime de’ principi, dove non è iudizio a chi reclamare, si guarda al fine.” (“As to the actions of all men and especially those of princes, against whom charges cannot be brought in court, everybody looks at their result.”)

The actions “of all men,” Machiavelli writes, not only of princes. We find the same rule in Mandragola (III. 11), the comedy that Machiavelli composed around the same years he composed The Prince. “Besides this, the end result  must be considered in everything” (“oltra di questo, el fine si ha a riguardare in tutte le cose”), says the astute Fra’ Timoteo, and he is referring to the actions of Madonna Lucrezia, not to the actions of a prince.

Having so nobly contributed to emancipating Machiavelli from the wrong doctrine of the “autonomy of politics,” Mansfield could, with little extra effort, have emancipated himself, and the scholarly community, from the equally pernicious and equally untenable doctrine that Machiavelli deserves to “be known as Old Nick” and to “become notorious as Machiavellian.” These qualifications, Mansfield assures us, “would neither have deterred nor surprised him.”

To sustain his claim, he cites the speech of an anonymous leader of the Ciompi revolt that Machiavelli reports (in fact he invents it) in the Florentine Histories, book III chapter 13. “A special challenge for the credulous scholars is the Machiavellian speech of an unnamed leader of the plebeian Ciompi rebellion in Florence,” writes Mansfield. The unnamed orator

speaks, it is said, “to inspire the others”, but he says that he teaches what necessity requires. . . . He begins by saying that if he had to deliberate whether to take up arms, burn and rob homes, and despoil churches, he would agree “to put quiet poverty ahead of perilous gain.” No moral qualm at these deeds would occur to him! But speaking now in the midst of rebellion, he says that we have no choice but to multiply the evils already committed and add more companions in them so that more will suffer, because universal injuries are borne more patiently than particular ones. Thus can we gain pardon more easily as well as “live with more freedom and more satisfaction than we have in the past”.

Concludes Mansfield: “Here a gallon of whitewash is needed to save Machiavelli as the champion of republican freedom and virtue.”

I must confess to feeling reassured when I read that the unnamed plebeian’s oration is a special challenge to the credulous scholars like myself. The challenge can in fact easily be met and rebutted by a diligent reading of Machiavelli’s text.

In chapter 12, Machiavelli introduces the Ciompi revolt with the observation that that tumult offended the republic (“offese la republica”). Notice Machiavelli’s language: The tumult offended not the city, but Florence’s republican order (“la republica”). After his exposition of the unnamed leader’s speech, Machiavelli comments: “Queste persuasioni accesono forte i già per loro medesimi riscaldati animi al male.” (“These arguments so greatly inflamed their spirits, which were of themselves already hot for evil.”)

Notice again the words Machiavelli’s chooses: “animi risaldati al male”—that is, already hot to do evil, to perpetrate evil actions. Evil because the goal of the plebeians was, as it says in chapter 14,  to “occupare la republica”—that is, to become tyrants of the republic, the most abominable crime.

Should readers still entertain doubts as to Machiavelli’s judgement of the revolt, he writes that the demands of the plebeians were “alla republica disonorevoli e gravi” (“dishonorable and hard for the republic,” III. 15).

The only words of praise that we read in Machiavelli’s narration of the Ciompi revolt are those he has for Michele di Lando, the plebeian leader who bravely and intelligently succeeded in moderating (to a degree) his fellow plebeians’ demands and fury, even at the cost of using arms against them:

In courage, in prudence and in goodness he surpassed every citizen of his time. He deserves to be numbered among the few who have benefited their native city, because if his spirit had been either wicked or ambitious, the republic would have entirely lost her liberty and would have come under a tyranny more severe than that of the Duke of Athens, but Michele’s goodness never let come into his mind a thought opposed to the general good. His prudence enabled him to manage affairs in such a way that many of his party yielded to him; the others he overcame with arms. His actions made the lower class lose courage, and made the better gildsmen recognize their mistakes and think what a shame it was for those who had overcome the pride of the nobility to endure the stench of the lower class. (Il quale d’animo, di prudenza e di bontà superò in quel tempo qualunque cittadino, e merita di essere annoverato intra i pochi che abbino benificata la patria loro: perché, se in esso fusse stato animo o maligno o ambizioso, la republica al tutto perdeva la sua libertà, e in maggiore tirannide che quella del Duca di Atene perveniva; ma la bontà sua non gli lasciò mai venire pensiero nello animo che fusse al bene universale contrario, la prudenza sua gli fece condurre le cose in modo che molti della parte sua gli cederono e quelli altri potette con le armi domare. Le quali cose feciono la plebe sbigottire, e i migliori artefici ravvedere e pensare quanta ignominia era, a coloro che avevano doma la superbia de’ Grandi, il puzzo della plebe sopportare.” (III. 17)

If readers put together what Machiavelli writes about the actions of the plebeians and what he writes about the actions of Michele di Lando, they will no doubt notice that both judgments are inspired by his overarching concern for the liberty of the republic. He condemns both the domination of the grandi and the domination of the plebeians. The text that Mansfield has brandished to defeat us credulous scholars amply shows, it seems to me, that in fact we are right to maintain and to continue to maintain that Machiavelli was a champion of republican virtue and liberty.

The naive admirers of Machiavelli like myself can find even greater a consolation in Quentin Skinner’s essay, “Machiavelli and the Misunderstanding of Princely Virtù.” We learn from this chapter that

the conclusion at which Machiavelli arrives in his discussion of the princely virtues may thus be said to stand in strong contrast with his views about the other moral virtues. As he always makes clear, he considers such attributes as charity, humanity, and religiousness to be wholly good and virtuous qualities. But he makes it equally clear that, if a ruler wishes to mantenere lo stato, [preserve the state] he will often be obliged to set them aside. Machiavelli evidently wishes to reassure us, however, that in the case of the princely virtues this dilemma does not arise. Here it is not the observance of these virtues that may cause you to lose your state, but only the observance of what they are corruptly and mistakenly taken to prescribe. Properly understood, the princely virtues are among the qualities that go to make up the virtù of a truly virtuoso prince, thereby helping him to fulfill his primary duty of maintaining the state in a condition of security and peace.

By situating The Prince within its proper intellectual context—the context of Roman theory of moral virtues and of the literature on rhetoric, most notably the Rhetorica ad Herennium—Skinner has offered us the opportunity to put to rest the nonsense that Machiavelli was a teacher of evil that in one form or another has been circulating for now almost five centuries.

This volume is a fine achievement, indeed, of the celebrations of the fifth centenary of the composition of Machiavelli’s The Prince. In view of 2027, which will be the fifth centenary of Machiavelli’s death, I suggest opening the celebrations with a paper on “Machiavelli’s Goodness.” My hope is that the scholar who will deliver this paper will at last explain that when Machiavelli described himself as a good man who loved his fatherland more than his soul, he was asserting nothing but the plain truth.