Machiavelli's Common Good

Machiavelli’s Politics is aptly named. Catherine Zuckert’s new book concentrates intently on Niccolo Machiavelli’s judgment about how best to govern political communities in the ordinary sense—places such as Florence and Rome. Her views about what makes Machiavelli novel when compared with ancient and medieval thinkers primarily concern such governing. And, her most telling disputes with other scholars also concern political themes.

This focus might seem unsurprising or inevitable, for who would doubt Machiavelli’s political thrust? But Professor Zuckert’s argument differs from those that feature or co-emphasize a Machiavelli who is a spiritual warrior, one who means to reorient not only politics but human understanding generally. Instead she offers a thoughtful and detailed account of Machiavelli’s politics, enhanced by intelligent analyses of his comedies.

Zuckert, the Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, conducts her discussion by examining each of Machiavelli’s major works. She writes chapters on The Prince, the Discourses (including precise outlines of their often obscure organization), Mandragola, Art of War, Life of Castruccio Castracani, Clizia, and Florentine Histories, surrounded by an introduction and conclusion. The resulting 500 pages may seem daunting, but Professor Zuckert’s style is clear and compact, and although the book makes an argument as a whole, one can read its separate discussions profitably. One cannot help but admire the scope of her analyses, and the breadth of her scholarly and historical understanding.

Professor Zuckert’s argument is as follows. Machiavelli’s major concern is to connect nobles and plebeians, the few and the many, so that together they serve the common good. She sometimes says that since the common good primarily concerns security of property and person, it is democratic, or the additive good of the greatest number. But, given that the community cannot last if either the few or the many have their way completely, the common good must serve all. Its truest substance, she more fundamentally argues, is liberty under law. Political life does not arise by nature, moreover, but to secure us from others and from necessity. The political problem arises from the clash between nobles, who seek to dominate, and plebs, who seek not to be dominated. They are at odds, yet they need each other to maintain order and to fight danger.

The two types arise from two different humors, but the humors are not fully distinct naturally. They exist in different degrees, connected by the common measure of the desire to acquire. They express themselves or have their meaning primarily politically, but they do not divide perfectly between or among the members of the different classes in any actual republic or principality.

In fact, we are constituted more by experience and training than by nature, so Machiavelli believes that the human (and geographic) material from which one begins only minimally constrains the form into which one can shape it. Sensible political life, that is, a healthy republic, is achieved not by habituating aristocrats to Aristotelian excellence of character, but by the prudence and virtue that enable one not to be good, as necessity requires. Useful princely practices include appearing to be pious and respectable, because the people usually believe what they see. They also include a prince’s eliciting fear when needed, or engaging in cruelty well used, as long as he does not become hated.

If the proper institutional orders and laws are not present, individual characteristics are insufficient to secure a common good. Such orders include: competitive elections so that offices are rotated; mechanisms to judge leaders and generals and hold them to account publically; and the hope of all that they or their families could hold high positions.

Small changes in these orders can have unexpectedly large consequences. Prolonged internal peace is likely to lead to corruption, so war (although not unbounded imperial expansion) is always necessary. Machiavelli therefore makes several recommendations for ordering armies properly. He also promotes the value of confederations in helping communities stay free and not become corrupt and soft, or fall under the dominance of the hard. His wish to unite Italy against its foes is real, and is neither a stand-in for other goals nor mere flattery of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The glory that princes and captains seek in war and elsewhere is an uncertain goal because reputation depends on others, including writers. Indeed, Mandragola and Clizia show us prudent women who discover and institute a (private) common good without seeking glory. Private eminence or wealth can lead to public rule but is often suspect or dangerous. Although security in wealth and property concerns all, moreover, Machiavelli does not project a regime that is dedicated to economic growth. His goal when compared with the ancients is democratic, but it is his followers, and not he himself, who are commercial republicans. His chief concern is securing sufficient political attention to the common good—to the creation, that is, of a republic of liberty, or liberty enabled by law, forcefully executed.

Much of this is familiar to students of Machiavelli, and one would hardly expect a thoughtful political account to depart markedly from what is commonly known or believed. But more is novel here than may at first meet the eye, and it is brought out ably. Professor Zuckert thinks that Machiavelli does not make as much of glory as many scholars believe, and that he makes more of security and wealth than many scholars believe. She takes more seriously than others, especially those less focused on Machiavelli’s political teaching narrowly understood, Machiavelli’s wish to see Italy united. She thinks through much more carefully than most what Machiavelli means by the common good, and its connection to liberty and law. She fair-mindedly explores Machiavelli’s views about women. And, she clarifies errors in the influential view of Machiavelli’s politics propounded by Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock.

Machiavelli does not write “in a republican tradition stemming from Aristotle,” as they claim, because he does not think “that political communities arise naturally from the family”; because, as opposed to Aristotle, he “maintains that human nature is basically the same in all”; because, unlike Aristotle, he does not focus on the justice of claims to rule; because he divides all regimes into principalities and republics, not into Aristotle’s group of six; and because he claims that “political order has to be imposed and is always partly maintained by force”—that is, that “human beings are [not] drawn together by natural attraction or affection.” Moreover, unlike Aristotle, he welcomes or, indeed, discovers, the need for a unitary executive. Machiavelli’s goal is not aristocratic virtue or an aristocratic republic. Rather, he believes that princes (and authors) need to show how their works improve the lives of ordinary people.

Although Professor Zuckert’s political understanding differs in several respects from that of other scholars and historians, it is perhaps closer to that of Harvey Mansfield and Leo Strauss than to others. On the other hand, her overall understanding differs, or at least appears to differ, from Strauss’s. Although she mentions Machiavelli’s ironies (and her own), she does not claim that his presentation covers a comprehensively disguised intention: she does not discuss Machiavelli’s literary devices, or the spiritual or intellectual import of his modes of presentation. (One might argue, nonetheless, that her view of his politics clarifies the need for these devices.)

She also downplays the place of founding or of the radical founding of something altogether new, concentrating instead on important but less unusual political matters. She therefore does not elaborate on what Machiavelli means to suggest about the success of the monotheistic religions. More generally, she perhaps underestimates the motives of the most extreme princes, and the attractions of dominance or glory. Even the reasons for ordinary nobles to decide to be satisfied friends of popular liberty remain somewhat unclear. Topics that might have illuminated these issues—the meaning and range of Machiavelli’s understanding of the state, for example—are largely unaddressed.

The author does touch on ways that Machiavelli is or appears to be different theoretically from classical thinkers. She indicates the importance of Machiavelli’s view that “matter” can take any form, that everything human is always in motion, and that chance can be at least partially conquered. She mentions the importance for him of effects (and, hence, of effectual truth) and of his counsel to princes to “imitate.” But she does not probe, even when she points out, the difference between Machiavellian and Aristotelian (or Platonic) form and matter, truth and cause, or eros and imitation. Her deep acquaintance with Plato’s work would have enabled her to do this tellingly. These are not the topics she chose to examine, though; and given the paucity of evidence, it may well be unclear how fully Machiavelli himself explored them. In any event, Catherine Zuckert’s comprehensive and eminently thoughtful study is one of the very few that every student of Machiavelli should read, and from which they will learn.