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The Originality of Machiavelli
Original Article By: Isaiah Berlin
The Proper Study of Mankind An Anthology of Essays
Major Topic: Philosophy
Minor Topic: Politics

Précis:

         Machiavelli's political opinions have generated a huge amount of exegesis. So much has been written and so many interpretations have been presented that one can feel a certain agitation in both the number of commentaries and in the opinions expressed. These interpretations run a gauntlet of accusations from asserting that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil to a teacher of truth, that his works are satire to serious political science.

         What is it about Machiavelli's works that is so intriguing and provocative?

         Perhaps it is in what he ignores. Machiavelli passed over the main ideas of his time and could therefore be considered revolutionary. He ignored popular philosophical categories, Christian psychology and theology and their categories. He let slide what the Catholic religion thought was important and relegated religion's value to its social utility. He does not pay any attention to God. He does not mention rights and fate is fifty percent in human hands.

         These ideas are not so original. Today they are common, yet Machiavelli is still upsetting. Perhaps it is because of what he believes.

         The Author claims that Machiavelli believed that men want to create and sustain a good society. To do this, great men must accept themselves and the world as they really are. Men have need of rulers and social society to be satisfied. Men, the author claims Machiavelli believes, do not care for liberty [but chapter 5 of “The Prince” suggests otherwise] rather they want security. Force and persuasion are both useful to a good society. Often people have not looked at man as he really is. The good society is like the best of the ancients, like the Roman republic with reliability, concord, safety, justice, vigor and grandeur.

         Nevertheless what if, to create and maintain this good society, men need to be immoral? How does Machiavelli justify immorality?

         For Machiavelli the good society is an ultimate good, the highest value, therefore a good society is a moral objective for moral people. Machiavelli does not separate the moral and the political in anything. He distinguishes two irreconcilable ideals of life: that is two moralities: pagan and Christian morality.

         Christian morality, for Machiavelli, is impossible for man. The ideals of Christianity will not bring about a good or natural society. Therefore it is necessary to think in terms of what is actually possible, that is pagan values.

         Men must choose between a Christian life which is helpless in governing and will condemn the Christian to perpetual victimhood or a man can choose a pagan morality and a glorious society like the ancients. Man must choose, for trying to live by both will lead to half-hearted actions and results that will be worse than either one on its own.

         The author repeatedly stresses that the battle is not between the independent fields of ends and means (that is politics and morals) rather it is between two opposite (ends or) moralities: Christian and pagan. Machiavelli prefers the pagan world for everyone, not just the rulers. It is, the author claims that Machiavelli believes, the best for all men to have pagan morality. For it is a morality of this world. If one wants to retreat from this world then one should not expect greatness or success in this world. Machiavelli's advice was aimed at actualizing, revitalizing or preserving a political system for man's best ends.

         What is it about all this that men have found so disconcerting? Is it that he tries to resurrect paganism after Christianity supplanted it? Not likely, this is not a new trend anymore. Is it that it appears that if the ends are just and good all means are alright? Again, there is nothing new in that idea it has been around far longer than Machiavelli. Is it that he may be the originator of “raison d'йtat” that is that states and sometimes institutions may commit immoral acts in emergencies? It seems that this is not true because he would not have had a need for such a concept. For Machiavelli the “immorality” of the state is not exceptional it is normal. He does not show any agony of conscience because he does not even think it is immoral. The purported “immorality” of the state is in fact moral for such a state will (if properly run) be the best for men and they will be happy just like the best of times during the Roman republic.

         The unnerving and perplexing problem begins to take shape with the realization that Machiavelli makes us choose one morality and abandon the other. If Machiavelli is correct and we have to choose; if to have the good life and a good society we cannot follow Christian morality, then, the author claims, the one correct answer to the question: “How should men live?” cannot be found. The belief that there is a single unique solution to this question is fundamental to the Western philosophical, theological and political tradition. It dates back to Plato's Republic and the biblical notion of God giving purpose to all things. The whole edifice of natural law hinges on there being a unique solution to “How should men live?” All of Western civilization is permeated with the assumption that there is an objective answer that is true for all times and in all places and it will just be a matter of time before it is found. The author claims that if Machiavelli is correct then all of Western civilization has been pursuing a false path.

         This is the source of Machiavelli remarkable achievement in galvanizing vehemence and animosity.

         The author's thesis is “...the uncomfortable truth which Machiavelli had, unintentionally, almost casually, uncovered; namely, that not all ultimate values are necessarily compatible with one another – that there might be a conceptual ... and not merely a material obstacle to the notion of the single ultimate solution which, if it were only realised, would establish the perfect society.” (page 316)

         Or again the author's thesis in different words: “Machiavelli's cardinal achievement is, let me repeat, his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that this happens not merely in exceptional circumstances as a result of abnormality or accident or error ... but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.”

         In essence Machiavelli is original because he wreaked enduring harm on a foundational supposition of a whole civilization. This is an amazing accomplishment. With serious implications. A new doubt on the possibility of certainty was introduced. This led to the possibility of a better way of doing things which further opened the door to the pluralism and toleration of modern day Western society.

Added on: 2009-04-25 22:58:12
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren