Machiavelli, the Great Alternative to Plato: A Conversation with Catherine Zuckert

A portrait of Italian philosopher, writer and politician Niccolo Machiavelli (Florence, 1469-1527) by Antonio Maria Crespi.

A portrait of Italian philosopher, writer and politician Niccolo Machiavelli (Florence, 1469-1527) by Antonio Maria Crespi.

Professor Catherine Zuckert is one of America’s preeminent political theorists. The Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University has written award-winning books including Natural Right and the American Imagination (1990) and Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (2009). Zuckert has edited the Review of Politics for 13 years, and she has contributed scholarly articles to other journals like the Review of Metaphysics, History of Political Thought, and the Journal of the International Plato Symposium.

Zuckert’s new book, Machiavelli’s Politics, is just out from the University of Chicago Press. For this first installment of Conversations, a new feature at Law and Liberty, Associate Editor Lauren Weiner recently put questions to Professor Zuckert about it. Here is our Q and A.

Lauren Weiner: You’ve written books on the ancients and on 20th century philosophers. This project seems to be something of a departure for you. Can you say a bit about what occasioned it?

Catherine Zuckert: The study that became Machiavelli’s Politics began somewhat accidentally. I had just finished writing Plato’s Philosophers, and in an effort to help a student of mine, Rebecca McCumbers, transform her senior thesis on Machiavelli into a master’s paper, I proposed to teach a seminar on Machiavelli’s political thought. (Rebecca later wrote an excellent dissertation on “The Battle of the Unarmed Prophets: Savonarola and Machiavelli,” and is now a senior lecturer at Baylor University.)

The seminar led me back to a line of thought I had begun to develop while teaching The Prince in introductory courses at Carleton College, and later at Notre Dame. Many instructors emphasize the role of terror at the foundation of political life in The Prince. Contrary to the first impressions of most readers, I had come to believe that Machiavelli’s redefinition of the virtues and praise of the French parlement in the second half of his famous treatise pointed toward the desirability of institutions through which, as James Madison famously put it, ambition would be made to counteract ambition, and the interest of the man would be connected to the constitutional rights of the place.

Scholars have long argued about the relation between the Machiavelli who seems to be a teacher of tyrants in The Prince and the advocate of republican government in his Discourses on Livy. As I read, and taught, these books, I came to see that Machiavelli’s redefinition of the virtues in The Prince laid the foundation for the more democratic form of republican politics he advocated in the Discourses. His two major works were, in other words, coherent. Machiavelli had, moreover, continued writing after he produced them.  In Machiavelli’s Politics I thus try to show how he developed certain themes in later works: the way his principles could and should be applied to private life in his comedy Mandragola; the need for political leaders to master the art of war in a dialogue by that name; the necessity, but insufficiency of mastering that art for founding a lasting political order in his highly fictionalized account of “The Life of Castruccio Castracani”; the destructive consequences of the human desire for immortality in Clizia; and the rise of a new and distinctive modern form of tyranny in his Florentine Histories.

In the end I conclude that Machiavelli is the philosophical source of the two major competing forms of government we see in the world today: liberal democracies, on the one hand, and militaristic, authoritarian “people’s republics,” on the other.

What I did not see so clearly until I had completed the book was that in Machiavelli I had found the great alternative to Plato. Plato presents philosophy as the simply best form of human existence. Machiavelli challenges that conclusion by arguing that the most important aspects of human life are political. There is no great human achievement that does not presuppose the existence of a political order; yet political order is extremely difficult to establish, and even harder to maintain. As Xenophon indicated when he presented political leadership as the competitor to Socratic philosophy as the best way of life, great statesmen are characterized by extraordinary virtues—both practical and intellectual. Machiavelli goes beyond Xenophon, however, by showing how a political order can be founded and maintained that satisfies the desires of most human beings to secure their own lives, property, family, and liberty rather than serving the interests of a few.

LW: One of the few philosophers (perhaps the only one?) who could be considered a household name is Niccolo Machiavelli. Why is that, do you think?

CZ: Well, but Machiavelli isn’t the only philosopher whose name has become associated with a commonly observed phenomenon. People often describe the use of force and fraud in politics as “Machiavellian.” But they also often speak of “Platonic” love.  In both cases the use of the philosopher’s name is somewhat misleading.

Machiavelli’s name is associated with the use of force and fraud, because he argues that both are necessary, if one wants to act effectively in politics. He did not invent the phenomenon or the necessity, however. Examples of “cruelty well-used” that he cites—such as Cesare Borgia and Hannibal—had obviously occurred before he wrote. Nevertheless, his forthright advocacy of criminal acts is and continues to be shocking. Hence, I think, the association of his name with such nefarious means of acquiring and retaining political power. Plato, too, continues to shock readers by presenting Socrates as a philosopher who claims only to know “the erotic things” and who presents himself explicitly as a “lover” of young men like Alcibiades, even though he shows no interest in having physical relations with the handsome young man.

It may be that philosophers who choose to write in more literary forms—I’m thinking also of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche—present themselves in ways that capture the imagination of readers more than by straightforward arguments, even if the impressions these authors leave of themselves and their thoughts are not altogether positive. By startling if not shocking their readers, these authors seek to provoke their readers to reconsider some of their most deeply held convictions—to think the questions and issues out for themselves anew.  Someone who truly seeks wisdom has to look at the bad and ugly as well as the beautiful and good.

LW: You propose Machiavelli as the intellectual inspiration, or an inspiration, of the American advocates of a federal republic like James Madison. Usually Locke and Montesquieu are spoken of in that light, so your thesis is pretty controversial, no?

CZ: Yes, this aspect of my argument is apt to be controversial. It has two parts, one concerning the domestic institutions and the other the foreign policy of a new, more democratic form of republican government.

In Book I of his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli analyses the achievements and defects of the Roman republic to show that a people who want to retain their freedom should not place their trust in the virtue or promises of those who wish to lead them. People should, on the contrary, be suspicious of their leaders’ ambitions. The best way of keeping their leaders’ ambitions in check is to force them to compete for popular support in frequent elections to offices held for short terms. The ambitions of all citizens should be aroused by making them all eligible to hold the highest offices.

Those suspected of conspiring against the republic should be made subject to public trials in front of large popular juries. Machiavelli acknowledges that such trials will not always result in just treatment of the individuals accused. However, such trials would serve the common good by allowing people to vent their humors or resentment against those who claimed the right to rule on the basis of their superior virtue. By means of such trials, the rule of law would be preserved and the republic would not degenerate into a civil war. At the same time the people would be reminded of the heavy price to be paid by one who chooses not to obey the law.

In Book II of his Discourses, Machiavelli then extends the principle of “checks and balances” to the foreign policy of a republic. All cities—indeed, one might argue, all things—according to Machiavelli, must either grow or shrink. If a republic is to last, it must, therefore, expand. But how? Ancient republics like Sparta and Athens which treated their allies as subjects, did not last long. The subjects rebelled. The Roman Republic expanded successfully so long as it remained within the Italian peninsula and treated the cities it conquered (or that sought its protection voluntarily) as allies rather than subjects. Rome required them to contribute troops to its army, but allowed their governments to continue to rule according to their own laws.

Machiavelli recommends this Roman republican form of imperial expansion, but recognizes that it may be difficult to implement or sustain. The Romans themselves created the conditions under which they lost their own freedom by conquering peoples outside of Italy. As a result of their extensive conquests, the free cities of Italy found themselves surrounded by peoples who were accustomed to being ruled as subjects and did not object, therefore, to the imposition of more direct imperial rule.

If the Roman model seems too difficult to emulate, Machiavelli thus recommends a “second best” form of federation he attributes to the ancient Tuscans. In this case, 12 to 14 cities form a league to defend themselves from foreign aggressors. Such a league would constitute a large enough body to defend itself successfully—if its peoples were trained in the use of arms. But such a federation would not grow large enough to threaten the liberty of its neighbors the way the Romans eventually did, because it would take a long time for representatives of the member states to agree on any policy. Moreover, because the member states would have to divide the spoils of war evenly among them, there would not be much incentive to expand beyond the requirements of defense.

To be sure, of America’s Founding Fathers, John Adams is the only one who explicitly refers to Machiavelli. (As your question indicates, Machiavelli had a bad name. References to him would not have served as recommendations of the Founders’ work.) The principles that Adams and the others adopted and embedded in the U.S. Constitution came more directly from Locke and Montesquieu. And there are two important differences between these later modern political philosophers and Machiavelli.

First, unlike Locke and Montesquieu, Machiavelli is not a rights theorist. Although he urges “princes” (that is to say, political leaders) to show how their government protects the lives, families, property, and liberty of their subjects or fellow citizens from aggression—domestic as well as foreign—as the best and most reliable means of maintaining their state, he does not contend that human beings are free by nature or have “rights.” On the contrary, Machiavelli explicitly argues that human beings can achieve liberty, which consists in the rule of law rather than license, only by designing and maintaining a government that enables each of the two “humors” that arise in every city—the desire of the people not to be commanded and oppressed and the desire of the “great” to command and oppress—to check the excesses of the other.

Second, observing that all human beings harbor desires, that in seeking to fulfill our desires, we come into conflict, and that we thus constantly attempt to acquire more property in order to protect what we already have, he sees that human beings generally resist the rule of others and can be made reliably to obey only from fear. As a result, he emphasizes the importance of the use of organized force in politics more than the commercial exchange to which Locke and Montesquieu give priority. But unlike Locke, he does not leave the question of the best form of government to be decided by the people; and unlike Montesquieu, he does not recommend a mixed regime like the English with powers reserved for a hereditary monarch and landed aristocracy. Like the American Founders, he declares openly and unequivocally that a republican form of government must ultimately be based on popular consent.

LW: How would you differentiate your argument from that of scholars like J.G.A. Pocock? He lines up Machiavelli, as you say, “in a republican tradition stemming from Aristotle,” as do many writers on the American Founding like Gordon Wood. How is your Machiavelli different from theirs?

CZ: In the conclusion to Machiavelli’s Politics, I list five ways in which Machiavelli’s view of politics differs from Aristotle’s.

Whereas Aristotle suggests in Book 1 of his Politics that political communities arise naturally out of the family, Machiavelli maintains that they are formed to defend vulnerable individuals and communities from the aggression of others. According to Machiavelli, political organization thus arises out of a natural necessity, self-preservation, but it is artificially constructed by human beings. It is not natural nor does it arise spontaneously.

Another difference is that whereas Aristotle suggests that the division of labor characteristic of the household as well as the city is and ought to be based on natural differences of inclination and talent, Machiavelli maintains that human nature is basically the same in all. Although he observes that human beings have different inclinations by nature, he sees that those inclinations are either strengthened or changed by individuals’ experience, and that education and training are stronger as well as more reliable than nature in determining the characteristics of individuals as well as peoples.

Machiavelli has been criticized by feminist commentators for not paying sufficient attention to women and treating them negatively when he does. However, although Machiavelli does purport to discuss “how a state is ruined because of women” in the Discourses [D 3.26], he also observes that, when moved by political ambition, women such as Caterina Sforza and Servius Tarquin’s daughter can be as cruel and free from family attachments as their male counterparts. If anything, Machiavelli shows in his comedies, women are even more concerned about their reputation than men. He does not depict them as particularly nurturing or gentle. Nor does he try to distinguish political rule from mastery, the way Aristotle does, partly because he does not recognize any such being as a natural slave.

A third difference: Like Aristotle in Book 3 of the Politics, Machiavelli sees that political associations are characterized by conflict. But, according to Aristotle, that conflict concerns the determination of which part of the city has a just claim to rule, and it is a matter of deliberation more than force. Offices or “honors” should be apportioned not only on the basis of the individual or group’s ability to perform the task in question, but also on the basis of the importance and quantity of their contribution to the common good. In making some decisions, Aristotle suggests, a large number of users or those affected are better able to determine the quality of a service or building better than those able to provide it. One has to examine the particular characteristics and circumstances of the people in question. According to Machiavelli, however, cities are divided into two humors, one of which wishes to rule and the other not to be ruled; and the outcome is determined by relative strength and institutional design, not justice.

Fourth, Aristotle famously categorizes political regimes not only according to the number of people who rule—one, few, or many—but also according to whether they rule for the sake of the common good or merely for their own benefit. Machiavelli reduces the kinds of government or types of “dominions” to two—principalities and republics—ruled by one or more than one. He blurs even this distinction, moreover, by showing that all governments at times need expeditious unitary leadership in cases of emergency but require the support of most of their citizens or subjects most of the time, if they are to last.

Finally and most fundamentally, according to Aristotle, political order is and ought to be based on nature. According to Machiavelli, political orders emerge as a result of the natural necessity human beings who are weak when isolated and from one another feel to come together to defend themselves from others. Human beings do not gather together because they are naturally sociable or attracted to the company of one another, much less to fulfill some natural inclination to govern themselves on the basis of deliberation. On the contrary, political order has to be imposed and is always partly maintained by force, because human beings do not naturally want to be ruled or governed. There is, therefore, always opposition to the government, which will be more or less open or covert, depending upon the circumstances and the ability of those in office to quash it.

Scholars belonging to the “Cambridge school” blur some important distinctions when they write of a civic republican “tradition” stemming from Aristotle, according to Pocock, or from Cicero, according to Quentin Skinner. In looking to Hannah Arendt for support, Pocock looks particularly to her contention in The Human Condition that Machiavelli is the last major political theorist in the West to recognize the primacy of politics in human life, the way Aristotle seems to recognize it at the beginning of his Politics, and in contrast to Plato, who prioritized contemplative philosophy.

I agree that Machiavelli prioritizes politics, but I argue that he does so in opposition to Aristotle as much as to Plato. Aristotle himself declares at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics that the contemplative life is the best life.  As Arendt sees, in opposing ancient contemplative philosophy, Machiavelli is also opposing its adoption and incorporation by Christian scholastics. By incorporating Machiavelli into a “tradition” of political theorists who emphasize the importance of “civic virtue,” Skinner and Sheldon Wolin ignore that fact that Machiavelli attributes virtù almost exclusively to individual leaders, not to citizens acting together.

The exception is his description of the Roman army, which lost its virtue, according to Machiavelli, when ordered to fight by the decemvirs who had denied the plebs any part in the government. Notwithstanding Pocock’s claim that Machiavelli thinks that people become good citizens as a result of military training, Machiavelli clearly distinguishes between the training necessary to make good soldiers and the institutions and expectations needed to make individuals loyal and active citizens. He addresses all his prose works to individuals who are or wish to become political leaders. The emphasis on “civic virtue” makes Machiavelli sound too moralistic and softens the hard edges of his thought too much.

LW: By no means do you neglect the dark arts of the political operative as Machiavelli presents them in his various writings, political and literary. As you note, Machiavelli teaches that “a prince has to deceive both his allies and his people.” That could include manipulating public opinion and thereby manipulating elections. Couldn’t Machiavelli’s Politics, in stressing the republican theme, and republican features like elections, be said to file the sharper edges off Machiavelli?

CZ: Where does “persuasion” end and “manipulation” begin? In The Prince, Machiavelli explicitly maintains that the use of force is necessary in establishing and maintaining political order, but that it is not sufficient. It is also necessary to use fraud, or, in his words, to fight like a fox as well as like a lion, although the partisans of the lion do not understand this necessity. Less noticed, but equally important, I think, Machiavelli specifies two ways of fighting: those of human beings, which is to say by means of laws, and  those of  beasts. The “human” way of “fighting” (NB) is through the institution of the constitutional checks and balances he recommends to make ambition counteract ambition.

However, although he recommends elections and popular jury trials as means of keeping the ambitions of political leaders in check, in the Discourses he recognizes that both of these institutional mechanisms can fail. Peoples make characteristic mistakes in electing leaders and setting policies; they prefer the “spirited” to the cautious and seek immediate results rather than wait for more reliable, but slow and deliberate incremental change. They also tend to glorify extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice (for example, by Manlius Torquatus and Scipio) more than less extraordinary, but clearly more politically useful, achievements like military victories and prudent legislation.

As Machiavelli emphasizes at the end of Chapter 18 of The Prince, people ultimately judge politicians by the results of their policies—whether their government preserves their lives, families, property, and liberty. Smart politicians, then and now, —claim to be acting for the common good—and so strive to appear to be merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious. Few of the rest of us can see their inner motives. But, Machiavelli assures his readers, like all other human beings, political leaders act first and foremost according to their own understanding of their own good. That good, Machiavelli argues, consists in most cases of maintaining the political position or state they have achieved. The best way to do that (the “means”) is to show the people that the leader is acting in a way that will secure his people’s lives, families, property, and liberty (the “end”). In the long run, the people are the best judge of the results of “effectual” truth of the leader’s rule.

Peoples can become corrupt, however; and when they become corrupt, they cease to elect their most virtuous citizens. This happened in Rome after the Punic Wars, when the people no longer feared foreign conquest. They then began to elect individuals who entertained them or, ultimately, whom they feared. Machiavelli suggests that drastic measures may be necessary in order to reawaken the fear that initially convinced people to establish and obey a government led by their most virtuous citizens.

But he claims, with some reason, that the need to take such drastic measures was understood and covertly taught by the ancients. For example, although Machiavelli explicitly recognizes that the Romans used the harsh measures that Plato recommends in all three of his emphatically political dialogues—Republic, Statesman, and Laws—to purge the population of individuals who cannot be convinced to obey the laws, he does not finally recommend such purges himself. He advocates institutional reforms of a different kind.

In sum, Machiavelli did not invent or even discover the harsh requirements of establishing and maintaining political order. He emphasizes these harsh truths because he thinks that many of his readers have been able—or led—to forget them, and have suffered greatly as a result. Only by recognizing the strength of the passions that lead human beings to compete with one another, and by trying to guide rather than simply to repress these passions, is it possible to design and maintain political orders that secure the freedom of all—or almost all—from oppression.