Introduction: This is a work-in-progress transcription of James Burnham’s essay on Machiavelli from his out-of-publication book, “The Machiavellians”. I have found it to be the most common-sensical and accessible interpretation of Machiavelli, which is no small feat, considering the ambiguity that has surrounded Machiavelli’s work for over 5 centuries.
For readers more interested in Machiavelli’s method of writing than in his politics, skip to section 2, “Machiavelli’s Method”.
Machiavelli: The Science of Power
Dante’s De Monarchia is in no respect a scientific study of politics. It is not, however, as is sometimes supposed, the mere fact that Dante has ethical aims or goals that makes his treatise or any treatise making use of similar methods, unscientific. All human activities have goals, usually several of them, open or hidden, whether or not admitted by the actor. The activity of scientific investigation is no exception. Machiavelli, like Dante, has goals and practical aims that he pursues in his work. But they are very different from those that we have discovered in Dante.
There are certain goals which are peculiar and proper to science, without which science does not exist. These are: the accurate and systematic description of public facts; the attempt to correlate sets of these facts in laws; and, through these correlations, the attempt to predict, with some degree of probability, future facts. Many scientific investigations do not try to go beyond these special goals; nor is there any need for them to do so. In the field of historical, social, and political science, as in other sciences, these goals might be, and sometimes are, alone relevant. But without these goals, whether or not there are also others, an inquiry is not scientific.
These special goals of science are not present in De Monarchia . They could not be served by Dante’s methods. In Machiavelli’s writings, in contrast, they are always present, and they control the logic of his investigations.
If any inquiry is to remain scientific, but nevertheless pursue other goals than those that are peculiar to science, there are certain requirements which the additional goals must meet. In the first place, they must be non-transcendental – that is, they must be something formulated in terms of the actual world of space and time and history. Second, they must have at least a minimum probability of realization. For example, a scientist might have as his goal the development of a drug to cure tuberculosis or some other disease; or a new defensive weapon to counteract the offensive threat of missiles; or a new fertilizer that would also help plants resist blights and insects; or a new method of transmitting electric power without wires. All of these goals are located in the actual world, they are all sufficiently specific to permit us to know what we are talking about (and, what is not unimportant, to tell whether or not they are reached), and all would have at least a certain minimum chance of being achieved.
We noticed, however, that Dante’s formal goals were either transcendental, as in the case of his religious and metaphysical ideals, or, as in the case of his plan for an eternally unified and peaceful world empire (in the 14th century), too wildly improbably to be worth debating. We noticed also that his real goals, hidden beneath the formal goals, were, though specific enough, vengeful and reactionary.
There is a further strict requirement by which science limits the function of goals or aims. They goals themselves are not evidence; they cannot be allowed to distort facts or the correlations among facts. The goals express our wishes, hopes, or fears. They therefore prove nothing about the facts of the world. No matter how much we may wish to cure a patient, the wish has nothing to do with the objective analysis of his symptoms, or a correct prediction of the probable course of the disease, or an estimate of the probably effects of a medicine. If our aim is peace, this does not entitle us, from the point of view of science, to falsify human nature and the facts of social life in order to pretend to prove that “all men naturally desire peace,” which, history so clearly tells us, they plainly do not. If we are interested in an equalitarian democracy, this cannot be a scientific excuse for ignoring the uninterrupted record of natural social inequality and oppression.
Machiavelli’s chief immediate practical goal is the national unification of Italy. There are other practical aims in his writings, some of them more general, and I shall discuss them later on. To make Italy a nation, a unified state, is, however, central and constant.
Compared to Dante’s glittering ideals, this goal is doubtless humble, almost sordid. In any case, it is specific and meaningful. We all know what a national state, in the modern sense, means. Machiavelli, writing in the first quarter of the 16th century, and his contemporaries, with the example of France and England and Spain fresh before them, knew what the goal meant. Moreover, the goal was neither wild nor fantastic; it was accomplished elsewhere in Europe during those times, and there are no reason to think it too improbable of accomplishment in Italy.
In the case of Dante we had to distinguish carefully between formal, presumed goals, and the hidden real goals. In Machiavelli, as in all scientific writing, there is no such distinction. Formal and real are one, open and explicit. The last chapter of The Prince is plainly entitled, “An Exhortation to Deliver Italy from the Barbarians [that is, foreigners].” In it Machiavelli calls for a champion to rally Italy for the task of unification:
“Having weighed, therefore, all that is said before, and considered seriously with myself whether in this juncture of affairs in Italy, the times were disposed for the advancement of a new Prince, whether there are competent matter that could give occasion to a virtuous and wise person to introduce such a form as would bring reputation to him, and benefit to all his subjects; it seems to me that at this present so many things concur to the exaltation of a new Prince, that I do not know any time that has been more proper than this…. ‘Tis manifest how prone and ready she is to follow the Banner that any many will take up; nor is it at present to be discerned where she can repose her hopes with more probability, than in your illustrious Family [of the Medici], which by its own courage and interest, and the favor of God and the Church, of which it is now chief [Leo X of the Medici family was Pope when Machiavelli was writing this passage], may be induced to make itself Head in her redemption: which will be no hard matter to be effected, if you lay before you the lives and actions of the persons above named; who though they were rare, and wonderful, were yet but men, and not accommodated with so fair circumstances as you. You have Justice on your side; for that War is just which is necessary, and ‘tis piety to fight, where no hope is left in anything else. The people are universally disposed, and where the disposition is so great, the opposition can be but small, especially you taking your rules from those persons which I have proposed to you for a Model…” (The Prince, Chap. 26]
Machiavelli’s careful treatise on The Art of War and the lengthy discussions of war in his Discourses on Livy have an ever-present aim of showing Italians how they can learn to fight in such a way as to beat back the forces of France and the Empire and Spain, and thereby control their own destiny as an Italian nation. The History of Florence finds in the stories of the past a traditional spirit that can be linked with arms in the struggle. The examples of ancients and moderns, joined in the Discourses on Livy, show the direction along the political road.
Again unlike Dante’s ideals, this goal of Machiavelli’s is appropriate to the context of his times; and is, moreover, unquestionably progressive.
Italy, in his day, as it had been since the break-up of the Roman Empire, was divided into a number of turbulent, varying states, provinces, and half-states. Most of the South was included in the Kingdom of Naples. There, in the backward, unorganized, undeveloped countryside, feudal relations prevailed, with anarchic barongs lording it over their fiefs of the moment. In the center were the changing Papal States, related through the Pope and his designs to the intrigues of all Europe. In the North, part of the country districts were still under feudal domination, but for the most part the territory was subordinated to the small city-states: Venice, Milan, and Florence the most powerful, and lesser cities like Genoa, Ferrara, and Bologna.
This fragmentation of Italy had left is open to an uninterrupted series of invasions, by adventurers, junior members of royal families, knights returning from the Crusades, kings, and emperors. Control over cities and territories shifted every decade, from Normans to Spaniards to Frenchmen to local bosses to Germans to Popes and back again. Nevertheless, the amazing city-stastes of the North had made Italy, during the 14th and 15th centuries, the center of Europe. It is hard for us today, thinking in terms of modern nations or of the great regional super-states now being built through the present war, to understand how important these cities were in those times.
We must remember that the cities had their period of chief influence and power against the background of a predominantly feudal, agricultural Europe. The feudal organization of society was centrifugal in tendency, each feudal lord was claiming jurisdiction over his particular fiefs, vassals, and serfs, and acknowledging the authority only of his particular suzerain. Under feudalism there was no developed central state power. The sovereignty of the medieval kings, therefore, was largely fictional except as it held over their immediate feudal domain, or as it might suit the interests of their feudal peers to collaborate with them. Until the 15th century, the attempts of the kings to consolidate a firm government authority always met a strong and on the whole successful resistance from the lords.
Moreover, the primitive economy, the lack of manufacture for the market, of money-exchange, of extensive foreign trade, of easy transportation and communication, meant the absence of a socio-economic basis of lasting large-scale political units. In the first stages of the breakup of feudalism, those who were aiming toward the national political system, which was later to win out, were working at a disadvantage. They were ahead of their times, trying to erect too weighty a structure on an unfinished foundation.
It was in these stages that the city-states, such as those of northern Italy – as well as those, somewhat different in character, of the Lowlands and parts of Germany – had their great opportunity. They were not trying to do too much; they were small enough to be viable, and yet large enough, for those times, to hold their own politically. They established control over the surrounding countryside, in order to assure their food supplies. They could put armies in the field, either of their own citizens or of hired mercenaries, able to meet the forces of feudal lords and princes, even if the princes called themselves King of France, or Emperor. And these cities were concentrating on industry, trade, commerce, banking. They did not manufacture only for use, or wait for an annual or quarterly market-day for exchange. They manufactured for the general market, and they traded, in money as well as goods, every day. They had their ships and their land convoys everywhere; they established trading posts or “factors” all over Europe and the Mediterranean basin. They were first-class powers, as powers then went. Their ambassadors and ministers were respected at any Court. Along with their economic and political prosperity went also their unequaled cultural expansion.
The cities, thus, had a head start. But the very factors that had brought their early advantage were, by the 16yth century, when Machiavelli was writing, turning them toward ruin. As the new world began to take more definite form, these first children of the world were already old and socially decadent. They were rich, easy, luxurious, “Have” powers, for all their small number of acres. They were ready to let others do their fighting for them, to rely, as Machiavelli a thousand times upbraids them, on money and treaties, not on the strength and virtue of their own citizens.
Trade, which had so aided them in their climb to glory and which they had so notably furthered, was now pushing beyond their power to control. By the end of the 15ht century, the ships were sailing around the Cape to the Easy and across the Atlantic. The market was becoming worldwide. The volume of goods was multiplying; gold and silver were pouring in; serfs were leaving the land to make commodities; manufacturing plants were becoming larger. The city-states, which had once nursed the new economy, were now beginning to strangle it. The guild restrictions which had kept up the quality of Florentine woolens or Venetian glass or Genoese weapons were now, in order to maintain the traditional privileges of their members, preventing an influx of new workers and new capital. The state power of the cities, and their armed forces, were not now strong enough to police transportation routes, guard the sea lanes, put down brigandage and vagaries of barons who did not realize that their world was ending. Uniform systems of taxation and stable, standardized money for large areas were now required. For all such tasks only the modern nation-state could adequately provide.
Italy, then, in Machiavelli’s day, faced a sharp imperative choice, a choice that had already been pointed by the examples of Spain and especially of France and England. Italy could remain under the existing political structure. If so, if it continued in the old ways, it was sure to retrogress, to decline economically and culturally, to sink into the backyard of Europe. Or Italy could follow the example of France and England, unify itself, organize as a nation; and thereby continue in the front rank – be, perhaps, the chief state of the modern world.
This was the problem, and this problem, Machiavelli, in its political aspects above all, fully understood. Machiavelli made his decision, explained it, advocated it. Unfortunately for Italy, his advice was not to be accepted. Italy paid her historical penalty. More than three centuries later she tried to catch up with Machiavelli; but by then, as we know today well enough, it was too late. A new style of barbarian, with new techniques, has once again swept over her from the North.
Machiavelli concluded that Italy could be unified only through a Prince, who would take the initiative in consolidating the country into a nation. Those who think sentimentally rather than scientifically about politics are sure to misunderstand this conclusion. Machiavelli did not reach it because he preferred a monarchy or absolutist government — we shall see later what his own preferences were. He reached it because he found that it was dictated by the evidence.
Moreover, in this conclusion Machiavelli was undoubtedly correct. All of the European nations were consolidated through a Prince – or, rather , a success of Princes – and it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. So it was in France, so in England, so in Spain. The feudal lords did not want nation-states, which in the end were sure to bring the destruction of their power and privileges. The masses were too inarticulate, too ignorant, too weak, to function as a leading political force. The Church knew that its international overlordship was gravely threatened if the national system were successful.
The one great social group that required the national system was the new and spreading class of the burghers, the businessmen, the merchants, the early capitalists. This class, however, was too young, too untried, too unused to rule, to take on the job by itself. But the monarchy also – the King and those immediately associated with the King—was ready for the nation, through which the full political sovereignty of the monarch could be centralized and brought to bear against the centrifugal pull of feudalism. Therefore, a de facto alliance was made, and around the monarchy the nation was pulled together. It was Machiavelli’s own contemporary, Sir Thomas More, most successful lawyer in London, leading spokesman for the London merchants, who was the first commoner to become Chancellor of England. A younger contemporary and fellow-Florentine, Catherine, of the same Medici family to one of whose members The Prince is dedicated, daughter of a banker, became Queen and ruler of France.
If the path of the national led through the monarch in these other countries, Machiavelli indicated why this was even more necessarily so in Italy, where the political divisionalism was even more extreme. Only a Prince could rally around him the force and enthusiasm needed to smash and re-fuse the disparate units. In such a way only could Italy become a nation.
* * *
Almost all commentators on Machiavelli say that his principal innovation, and the essence of his method, was to “divorce politics from ethics.” Thereby he broke sharply with the Aristotelian tradition which had dominated medieval political thought. His method, they grant, freed politics to become more scientific and objective in its study of human behavior; but it was most dangerous because, through it, politics was released from “control” by ethical conceptions of what is right and good.
We have already seen enough to realize that this opinion in confused. Machiavelli divorced politics from ethics only in the same sense that every science must divorce itself from ethics. Scientific descriptions and theories must be based upon the facts, the evidence, not upon the supposed demands of some ethical system. If this is what is meant by the statement that Machiavelli divorced politics from ethics, if the statement sums upon his refusal to pervert and distort political science by doctoring its results in order to bring them into line with “moral principles” – his own or any others – then the charge is certainly true.
This very refusal, however, this allegiance to objective truth, is itself a moral ideal. Moreover, in another sense, Machiavelli undertook his studies of politics for the sake of very definite goals, on of which I have analyzed in this section. These goals, like all goals, have an ethical content: indeed, ethics is simply the consideration of human behavior from the point of view of goals, standards, norms, and ideals. Machiavelli divorced politics from a certain kind of ethics—namely, from a transcendental, other-worldly, and it may be added, very rotten ethics. But he did so in order to bring politics and ethics more closely into line, and to locate both of them firmly in the real world of space and time and history, which is the only world about which we can know anything. Machiavelli is as ethical a political writer as Dante. The difference is that Machiavelli’s ethics are much better.
* * *
2. Machiavelli’s Method
Machiavelli’s method is the method of science applied to politics. Naturally, Machiavelli’s conceptions often seem to us somewhat immature – we know so much more than Machiavelli knew. We must make our judgment in a proper historical perspective, remembering that he wrote more than four centuries ago. In those days, scientific method in our sense, deliberate, systematic, self-conscious, was only beginning. Leonardo da Vinci, the romantically brilliant prophet of science, was a contemporary of Machiavelli, and also a Florentine. Copernicus’ great works on astronomy, the turning point for modern science, were only first published a short while after Machiavelli’s death. In Machiavelli, as in Leonardo and Copernicus, the nature of scientific method is not fuilly understood; many pre-scientific notions, held over from medieval and ancient meta-physics and theology, are retained. Copernicus himself, after all, still thought that the planets must move in circular orbits around the sun, because a perfect God would have created none but perfect motion in a circle for the heavenly bodies.
In connection with Machiavelli’s own subject-matter there were special difficulties. The critical study of historical texts and source-materials had only just begun, and was confined chiefly to Biblical and Church texts that were at issue in the religious controversies. (Luther, too, was a contemporary for Machiavelli’s in that age when the world was at a crisis in another of its slow, great social revolutions.) Almost all writers on historical subjects, Machiavelli among them, tended to accept Greek and Roman authors much more literally than we would, nowadays. There was a readier trust of picturesque dramatic episodes than our colder sense of fact permits us.
Such qualifications as these to Machiavelli’s use of the scientific method may, however, be taken for granted by those who do not expect the 16th century to be identical with the 20 th.
Positively, then, in the first place, we find that Machiavelli uses language in a cognitive, scientific manner. That is, except where is frankly urging his readers to action, he uses words not in order to express his emotions or attitudes, but in such a way that their meaning can be tested, can be understood in terms of the real world. We always know what he is talking about. This, a requirement for all scientific discourse, is in political and social discussion an achievement of the very first rank.
Third, Machiavelli assembles, and with some measure of a system, a large number of facts: facts drawn from his reading in the historical works available to him, from what others, prominent in the politics of his own day, have told him, and from what he has himself observed during his own active political career. In any field except politics, such a procedure might seem too obvious to deserve comment. But in writing about politics, the usual approach is that of Dante, starting not with observed facts, but with supposed general principles governing the nature of man, society, and the universe. Conclusions are reached by deductions from the principles; if facts disagree, so much the worse for the facts. For Machiavelli, the facts come first; questions are answered by appeal to them as final court. If they disclose that successful rulers lie frequently and break treaties, then such a generalization takes precedence over an opposite law drawn from some metaphysical dogma which states that all men have an innate love of the truth, or from an optimistic, unexamined hope that in the long run truth triumphs over lies. If the facts show that a government is more securely based on the confidence and support of the people than on the building of fortresses, then that must answer the argument over the merits of fortresses, widely debates in Machiavelli’s time, even though many rulers doubtless preferred to believe otherwise. Florence, with plenty of money and little stomach for fighting, wanted to believe that it could maintain itself by hiring mercenary troops, but the facts, again, proved that only the citizenry in arms could really be trusted. For Machiavelli, when the facts decide, it is the principles that must be scrapped.
Fourth, Machiavelli is always attempting to correlate sets of facts into generalizations or laws. He is interested not alone or primarily in the individual, unique political event, but in the laws relating events. He does not suppose that it will be possible for him to formulate, at that primitive stage of political science, universal laws covering the whole ream of politics. But he evidently thinks it possible to state approximate generalizations about many kinds of political event. He is always wondering whether something recorded in Livy or Thucydides, or observed in his own time, is an exception, a unique, peculiar action; or whether it may not be understood as an instance of a general pattern of political behavior. In the vigorous days of the Republic, the Romans elected consuls for a year only. Even if the consuls were leading armies in the field, they were recalled and replaced at the end of their year. This was often a military inconvenience, threatening, at times, military defeat or at least the prolongation of a campaign. But was it wise from the point of view of the preservation of the liberty of the Republic? Machiavelli finds that not only in that connection, but as a general rule, it was not only wise but essential; that the liberty of a Republic is secure only when its officials are elected for short, definite terms, which are never prolonged; and that the twilight of the Roman Republic, as of so many other republican states, was first plainly indicated by the practice of extending the terms of officials.
How should states proceed, if they are to prosper, in the treatment of enemies, internal or external, once the enemies have been defeated? Machiavelli is not interested in the single instance. By examples from Roman and Greek and Carthaginian and Italian and French history, he shows that the “middle way” in such cases almost invariably works out badly; that the enemy should be either completely crushed or completely conciliated, that a mixture of the two simply guarantees both the continuation of a cause for resentment and revenge and the possibility for later translating these into action.
“And because the sentence and judgment of the Senate at that time upon the Latins is more than ordinarily remarkable; that it may be readier for the imitation of Princes when occasion is offered, I shall set down the words which Livy makes Camillus speak, which confirm what we have said about the ways which the Romans observed in the enlargement of their Empire; and shows, that in their determinations in matters of State, they left the middle ways, and followed only the extremes. For Government is nothing but keeping subjects in such a posture as that they may have no will, or power to offend you. And this is done either by taking away all means from them of doing you any hurt; or by obliging and indulging them so, as they may not in reason hope to better their fortune; all which will appear, first by Camillus his Speech to the Senate, and then by their resolution upon it. His words were these: ‘The Gods have put into the power of this Reverend Counsel, to determine whether the Latins shall be a people, or not. As to them, your peace will be perpetual, which way soever you take. Are you disposed to severity, and will destroy those poor people that are conquered, and your prisoners? They are at your mercy, and you may extinguish their very name. Are you disposed according to the example of your ancestors to propagate your interest by receiving them into your City? You have an opportunity of doing it with the highest advantage and glory. Certainly no Empire is so firm, as where subjects exult in their obedience. It will be expedient, therefore, whilst they are in amazement and suspense, to settle their minds one way, either by punishment or pardon.’ According to the Consul’s proposal, the Senate came to an issue, and gave sentence Town by Town, according to the nature of their deserts; but all in extremes, without any mediocrity; for some they not only pardoned, but loaded them with benefits, made them free of their own City, and gave them many other privileges, and exemptions, and thereby secured them not only from rebelling, but from ever conspiring again. The rest whom they thought fit to make examples, were brought prisoners to Rome, punished with all kinds of severity, their houses destroyed, their lands confiscated, their persons dispersed, so as it was not possible for them any way to do any mischief for the future.
“This was the way the Romans too in the settlement of Latium, which ought to be observed and imitated by all wise Princes and States; and if the Florentines had followed it in the year 1502, when Arezzo and the whole valley of Chiana rebelled, they had continued their authority, augmented their State, and supplied themselves with those fields which they wanted for their subsistence. But they took the middle way (betwixt the extremes of rigor and remission) which is always the most dangerous; they kept the City, removed the Magistrates, degraded the great men, banished some, and executed others….” (Discourses, Book II, Chap. 23.)
It may be further remarked that Machiavelli ordinarily tests his generalizations by examples drawn from several different periods of history. The reason for this is to guard against mistaking a type of behavior as characteristic of some particular period for a more general historical law. This striving toward a more embracing political science is most evident in the Discourses on Livy , where he customarily links references to Roman and Greek history with references to Italian or European history comparatively close to his own times… (to be continued)