Machiavelli’s Morals

By Hillay Zmora

The “Prince of Darkness” on human virtue.

In all of Niccolò Machiavelli’s works, there is no passage more “Machiavellian” than the speech in the third book of his Florentine Histories by an anonymous leader of the popular revolt of 1378. The leader attempts to persuade his followers that after all the violence they have already committed—arson, looting, and the pillaging of churches—it would be a grave error to stop now. If they want their old evils to be forgiven, he tells them, they ought to commit new ones. “When many err,” he explains, “no one is punished, and though small faults are punished, great and grave ones are rewarded.” This is followed by a passage worth quoting at length:
It pains me much when I hear that out of conscience many of you repent the deeds that have been done and that you wish to abstain from new deeds; and certainly, if this is true, you are not the men I believed you to be, for neither conscience nor infamy should dismay you, because those who win, in whatever mode they win, never receive shame from it…. But if you will take note of the mode of proceeding of men, you will see that all those who come to great riches and great power have obtained them either by fraud or by force; and afterwards, to hide the ugliness of acquisition, they make it decent by applying the false title of earnings to things they have usurped by deceit or by violence. And those who, out of either little prudence or too much foolishness, shun these modes always suffocate in servitude or poverty. For faithful servants are always servants, and good men are always poor; nor do they ever rise out of servitude unless they are unfaithful and bold, nor out of poverty unless they are rapacious and fraudulent. For God and nature have put all the fortunes of men in their midst, where they are exposed more to rapine than to industry and more to wicked than to good arts, from which it arises that men devour one another and that those who can do less are always the worst off. Therefore, one should use force whenever the occasion for it is given to us… I confess this course is bold and dangerous, but when necessity presses, boldness is judged prudence; and spirited men never take account of the danger in great things, for those enterprises that are begun with danger always end with reward, and one never escapes a danger without danger.1
This speech may not encapsulate the entirety of Machiavelli’s political thought, but it is vintage Machiavelli. In its tone and content, it is especially reminiscent of The Prince.2 Here, as in The Prince, Machiavelli argues that life presents instances in which an overriding danger and urgency dictate resolute, extreme, and even savage actions necessary for defense, survival, and the improvement of our lot. When such conditions arise, pangs of conscience or concessions to morality are self-defeating.
The view expressed in this speech claims the dignity of a general theory. The clearest example of this is the assertion that appears throughout Machiavelli’s writings to the effect that power and wealth can be achieved only by force or fraud, or both. This is presented in the speech as an axiom of political life: “God and nature” arranged it thus. One may, of course, decline to take part in the struggle for power and wealth, but one cannot escape the consequences of such a choice. The good and the meek may be assured that the strong will prey upon them, and the world will remain the same as before: Power-driven, restless, and remorseless.
Such convictions seem to lend weight to the popular belief according to which Machiavelli held a dualistic conception of politics and morality. To the Italian philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce, for example, Machiavelli’s originality lay in his discovery that politics is an autonomous enterprise divorced from ethics.3 Other scholars have disagreed with this. Isaiah Berlin, for instance, held that Machiavelli did not differentiate between politics and ethics, but rather between two different kinds of ethics.4 Nevertheless, his popular image as a cynical thinker is due to Machiavelli’s pronouncements concerning the relationship between politics and morality.5 Indeed, as early as 1532, the year it appeared in print, The Prince was referred to sarcastically as “the golden book of morality.”6
Time would only confirm Machiavelli’s status as the enemy of decent people. In Elizabethan drama he is regularly invoked to play the part of evil personified; Shakespeare refers to him as “the murderous Machiavel”;7 and in the nineteenth century, he appears as a protagonist in Maurice Joly’s The Dialogue in Hell Between Montesquieu and Machiavelli (which later gave inspiration to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), where he is made to maintain that politics and morality are poles apart.8
In contrast to this portrayal of Machiavelli, it is my intention here to show that he in fact believed morality to be a central component in political life. Machiavelli, it will be argued, understood morality and politics to be closely linked—but in a very subtle way that challenges, or even contravenes, common assumptions about their relationship. In Machiavelli’s view of the nature of man, it is a grave error to attempt to force politics to conform to the dictates of ethical theory; when politics strives to be moral, it achieves the destruction of the very conditions necessary for moral existence. In all that we do to regulate public life and provide for security and welfare in human society, it is immoral to be moral. Such is the irony of politics. The tragedy of politics, however, is that the alternative is no less dangerous. Little good can result when the art of politics forsakes morality entirely.
It is a terrible paradox, then, that the moral existence of a society can be secured only by political foundations whose creation requires the very means that undermine common morality: Force, cruelty, and deceit.
But this paradox is not the familiar claim about the need to employ evil means for good ends. For one thing, there is hardly any good as such in Machiavelli’s world, and his ends, certainly from a modern liberal perspective, are often as dirty as the means.9 For another, the business of laying solid political foundations on which moral existence can repose is not a one-time task. Given human nature, it involves unending maintenance, from which it follows that the threat to morality is as continuous as the threat to survival. In this predicament, man has no universal, foolproof rules of conduct to guide either his political deliberations or his moral choices. In this view, not only politics, but morality too is in a perpetual crisis, engulfed in uncertainty and constrained by necessity. And yet, although ours is not a good world, temporary islands of stability can be created in it, and reasonable levels of security and prosperity can be achieved—and these are the circumstances in which morality can thrive. In light of the nature of man and his world, even a partial success is a resounding one. And the fact that such success might contain within it the seeds of ultimate failure is no reason to despair.

Machiavelli’s approach to the relationship between politics and morality comes into sharp relief in his critique of Christianity. For more than a thousand years before he wrote, Christianity had largely defined the domain and content of Western morality. It is not surprising, therefore, that a significant departure from the prevailing attitudes about politics and morality contained within it also a bold attack on Christianity.
But Machiavelli was not a typical anti-cleric. He did not indulge in the polemics fashionable in the Middle Ages, which usually centered on the materialism of the institution and its clergy, or the gulf between theory and practice, ideals and reality. His argument was more radical and fundamental.10 In comparing it to paganism, for instance, he discovered that Christianity leads us to ascribe less esteem to worldly honor. Hence the Gentiles, who held it in high esteem and looked upon it as their highest good, displayed in their actions more ferocity than we do…. Besides, the old religion did not beatify men unless they were replete with worldly glory, army commanders, for instance, and rulers of republics. Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It has assigned as man’s highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things, whereas the other identifies it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything else that tends to make men very bold. No, if our religion demands that in you there be strength, what it asks for is strength to suffer rather than strength to do bold things.11
This is Machiavelli’s most direct attack on the religion in which he was baptized. Significantly, it is not an attack on the Church’s attempt to subjugate politics to ethics, but on the distinction the Church made between the two. The Church’s withdrawal from, and contempt towards, this world in the name of a pure spirituality is seen by Machiavelli as a prescription for defeat—and a central cause for the world’s relative decline since antiquity. A morality that averts our gaze from the city of man and directs it upwards to the city of God, which denigrates the meaning of earthly travail, has only itself to blame when reality falls short of ideals. Morality of this sort is the problem, not the solution. To Machiavelli, the Church’s distinction between politics and morality may be itself immoral—immoral because it is politically deleterious.

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