Machiavelli and the totalitarian state

Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Machiavelli in Against the Current is penetrating and detailed, valuable both for the specialist and the general philosophical reader. Berlin demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of the range of interpretations and criticisms that have been offered for the ideas presented in The Prince and the many wildly contradictory interpretations that have arisen. Was Machiavelli an amoral political realist? Is The Prince intended to be a value-free “science of politics”? Did he write The Prince simply as a user’s manual for the rulers of states in his own time and the future? Was he indifferent to the appeal to bloody violence and deception by the ruler for the sake of maintaining power? What was his attitude towards Christian morality? Was Machiavelli’s position “humanist”? Berlin dissects the competing answers that have been given to these questions for several hundred years, and his account makes for fascinating reading. More impressive, though, is Berlin’s effort to provide a coherent interpretation of the “originality of Machiavelli” that makes sense of the texts and also shows the weaknesses of historic claims about Machiavelli’s intentions. Berlin provides an intellectual-moral location for Machiavelli’s short essay that provides answers to these questions. And his answers are profoundly disturbing. Berlin believes that Machiavelli’s text contains the makings of a fundamental “impossibility” theorem for political philosophy, as radical as the wave-particle dichotomy in fundamental physics.

Key to Berlin’s interpretation is his view that Machiavelli has a particular political ideal in mind in writing The Prince. It is the ideal of a republic or polis, well regulated by a strong government, and consisting of citizens embodying courage, virtue, and intelligence. Periclean Athens, the Roman Republic, and certain periods of the Roman Empire provide the key exemplars. “The only freedom [Machiavelli] recognises is political freedom, freedom from arbitrary despotic rule, that is, republicanism, and the freedom of one State from control by other States, or rather of the city or patria … The need for absolute centralised power (if not for sovereignty) is taken for granted” (47).

And the need for ruthless exercise of power follows from the need to maintain the effective centralized state:

In order to cure degenerate populations of their diseases, these founders of new States or Churches may be compelled to have recourse to ruthless measures, force and fraud, guile, cruelty, treachery, the slaughter of the innocent, surgical measures that are needed to restore a decayed body to a condition of health. (55)

But according to Berlin, this does not mean that Machiavelli dismisses moral values when he analyzes political necessity. Instead, his reasoning is justified by a conception of the kind of politics the ruler is seeking to create for the citizens of the state. According to Berlin, Machiavelli’s central discovery was that “pagan” (Roman) values and “Christian” values were fundamentally incompatible, and this incompatibility is irresolvable.

One is the morality of the pagan world: its values are courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity, public achievement, order, discipline, happiness, strength, justice, above all assertion of one’s proper claims and the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction; that which for a Renaissance reader Pericles had seen embodied in his ideal Athens, Livy had found in the old Roman Republic, that of which Tacitus and Juvenal lamented the decay and death in their own time. These seem to Machiavelli the best hours of mankind and, Renaissance humanist that he is, he wishes to restore them. (56)

The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value – higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration. (57)

And, Berlin argues, the second set of values makes the republic constituted by the first set of values impossible to achieve:

But if history, and the insights of wise statesmen, especially in the ancient world, verified as they have been in practice (verità effettuale), are to guide us, it will be seen that it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose. (58)

The general effect of Christian teaching has been to crush men’s civic spirit, and make them endure humiliations uncomplainingly, so that destroyers and despots encounter too little resistance. Hence Christianity is in this respect compared unfavourably with Roman religion, which made men stronger and more ‘ferocious’. (59)

Christians as he knew them in history and his own experience, that is, men who in their practice actually follow Christian precepts, are good men, but if they govern States in the light of such principles they lead them to destruction. Like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, like the well-meaning Gonfalonieri of the Florentine Republic, like Savonarola, they are bound to be defeated by the realists (the Medici or the Pope or King Ferdinand of Spain), who understand how to create lasting institutions; build them, if need be, on the bones of innocent victims. (62)

But now let us draw out the implications of the view. What does this line of thought lead to? It leads to totalitarianism; it provides a justification for Stalinism.

But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during the pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall. Whoever has chosen to make an omelette cannot do so without breaking eggs…. Once you embark on a plan for the transformation of a society you must carry it through no matter at what cost: to fumble, to retreat, to be overcome by scruples – this is to betray your chosen cause. (74)

Anything is permitted for the eventual achievement of socialism in one country.

From the vantage-point of the great social objectives in the name of which these (prima facie wicked) acts are to be performed, they will be seen (so the argument goes) as no longer wicked, but as rational – demanded by the very nature of things – by the common good, or man’s true ends, or the dialectic of history – condemned only by those who cannot or will not see a large enough segment of the logical, or theological, or metaphysical, or historical pattern; misjudged, denounced only by the spiritually blind or short-sighted. At worst, these ‘crimes’ are discords demanded by the larger harmony, and therefore, to those who hear this harmony, no longer discordant. (79-80)

And Berlin explicitly draws this conclusion on Machiavelli’s behalf:

To Dostoevsky’s famous question ‘Is everything permitted?’1 Machiavelli (who for Dostoevsky would surely have been an atheist) answers ‘Yes, if the end – that is, the pursuit of a society’s basic interests in a specific situation – cannot be realised in any other way.’ (81)

What is surprising to me is that Berlin fails to comment directly on the seeds of totalitarianism and fascism in the Machiavelli he decodes — even though his own life spanned the rise and fall of both Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, the Soviet Terror and the purges, and the Gulag. If the fundamental line of thought in The Prince is that the state can use whatever means it chooses to pursue its goals and the transformation of society, then it is a founding document of totalitarianism, not of republican humanism. Even the metaphor of “breaking eggs” mentioned in the quote above from p. 74 is specific to the vile defenses that were offered of Soviet violence against its own citizens in the 1930s. 

It is also worth noting that the dichotomy between pagan boldness and Christian passivity — the central value-system dichotomy that Berlin attributes to Machiavelli — does not capture the full normative space for political morality. Is a binding constitutional protection against arbitrary arrest and execution a “Christian” requirement, reflecting timidity and passivity? It is not, because there is a third option: civic constitutionalism, a robust commitment by both rulers and citizens to the rule of law and the protection of rights and liberties, and a commitment to social progress through constitutional means only. Both John Stuart Mill and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provide examples of activists for liberty and equality that reject passivity while also rejecting the violent and illegal actions of the state.

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