JUNE 15, 2017
IN SPRING 1300 AD, an ambitious young civil servant watched as his native Florence, a free republic, was wracked by internecine strife. Blacks and Whites (two factions of the reigning Guelph party) fought in the streets, throwing the city into chaos. Within two years, his side had fallen from power and he was exiled from the city. Soon after, Dante Alighieri began work on a poem he simply called Comedy. He regarded it not merely as we see it — an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise — but as a contemplative record of what he had learned about man and the universe.
Two centuries later, Niccolò Machiavelli held office in the fragile constitutional government instituted in Florence after the 1494 expulsion of the wealthy Medici family, which had long ruled over a city that had become a republic in name only. When the Medici family returned to power in 1512, Machiavelli was dismissed from office, imprisoned, and tortured on suspicion of conspiracy. He spent the following years in his own exile, attempting to prove his loyalty and regain the Medici’s favor — most famously, by writing The Prince.
With the publication of Machiavelli’s Politics, political scientist Catherine H. Zuckert offers a magnificent contribution not just to the field studies surrounding Machiavelli, especially the history of political thought, but also, more broadly, to the reader’s understanding of modern political life. Her central thesis is that Machiavelli introduces an entirely new way of understanding politics whose influence extends to political thought and practice today. Free of partisanship or polemic, her book is the fruit of a disinterested scholarly quest for the real Machiavelli conducted through a synoptic, historically contextualized, and literarily sensitive exegesis of his major writings.
However tempting it may be, Zuckert makes no or little attempt to force her subject to speak to our present preoccupations. Nor does she attempt to press Machiavelli into the service of a normative political theory that would prescribe a particular mode of thought or action to contemporary readers. And yet this book’s appearance could not be timelier. Most American political scientists, like other consumers of mainstream political journalism, failed miserably to anticipate the ascendency of Donald Trump on a wave of populist sentiment by tactics some observers have plausibly called “Machiavellian.”
Niccolò Machiavelli was keenly aware of the unpredictability of inexorable fortune, but also of the ability of ambitious and innovative men to bend fortune to their will. One wonders whether the results of the 2016 election would have caught so many of us by surprise were knowledge of his writings more widespread. In any event, many today are dismayed or disillusioned by the naked power politics that seems to threaten our democratic ideals; yet they also suspect that it may be necessary to play the same game of politics themselves in order to counter that threat.
Machiavelli’s novel understanding of the ends and means of politics is presented most thoroughly and clearly in The Prince and the lamentably less frequently read Discourses on Livy. These books, in which Machiavelli claimed he had “written down everything he knew about worldly affairs,” are complementary and interdependent treatises on what Machiavelli identified as the two basic forms of political organization: principality and republic or, as we might say, authoritarian and popular government. Together, they are something more — if not a theoretical system, then at least a comprehensive view of politics rooted in Machiavelli’s study of history, ancient and modern, and his principled rejection of classical political philosophy, both in its original forms and in its appropriation by later Christian thinkers.
Paired with Machiavelli’s biography, these texts show us a twofold practical motivation for Machiavelli’s work as an author. He sought, first, to advance his own career by endearing himself to the plutocratic Medici family. Second, and more ambitiously, he lamented the infighting and polarization that had ultimately brought the ruin of the Florentine republic, as well as the shortsightedness that kept the major Italian city-states in conflict with one another — to the advantage of foreign powers like the national kingdoms of Spain and France. In response, he appealed to his contemporaries’ ambitions, urging them (creatively, not by rote imitation) to emulate the greatness of ancient Rome and establish an enduring political order that would keep the peninsula united against external aggression.
The Prince is a little book addressed to an actual prince, which presents itself as a pragmatic manual on the acquisition and, more importantly, the maintenance of political power. Of paramount importance, in Zuckert’s reading, is Machiavelli’s counsel that a prince must rely on his own “arms,” meaning primarily trained soldiers loyal to him and his state as opposed to mercenaries or foreign allies, but also, not entirely metaphorically, his own ability — and here the reader begins to see how radically Machiavelli departs from previous tradition. Since so many people are not good, Machiavelli writes, “it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.” A prince must be capable of “cruelty well used,” offending others just enough to inspire fear without arousing hatred. He must break his promises when it isn’t in his interest to keep them, yet seem honest enough for his promises to be credible, so he must be able to “be a great pretender and dissembler.”
Above all, he must be able to appear religious, even while acting in direct contravention of his religion’s moral teachings. The Prince culminates with an exhortation for Lorenzo de’ Medici to become Italy’s savior by uniting its great cities against the “barbarians,” (i.e., the French and Spanish).
Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, by contrast, appears to be a sprawling and wide-ranging commentary on an ancient author, and is dedicated to two young Florentine citizens with the leisure to read it, friends of Machiavelli who “deserve to be” princes but are not.
Contrary to what one might expect from the author of The Prince, Machiavelli here offers advice to those who wish to establish or defend a republic in which all citizens are subject to the rule of law, and in which ambitious elites must compete against each other for power in popular elections, as well as answer for their misdeeds in public trials adjudicated by large, popular juries. What unifies these two books, Zuckert argues, is Machiavelli’s belief that all cities — be they principalities or republics — harbor inner conflicts and divisions rooted most fundamentally in what Machiavelli calls two mutually antagonistic “humors” or “appetites,” manifested characteristically by two groups, “the people” and “the great.”
Zuckert summarizes this tension: the people “desire neither to be commanded nor oppressed” by the great, who “desire to command and oppress the people.”
The Prince is a shocking work because it openly recommends beastly means — force and fraud — for acquiring and maintaining power; it redefines “virtue” to mean not moral goodness but political efficacy. Once this shock fades, the book remains surprising because, more subtly, it shows that a prince’s own interests are best served when he is seen to protect the interests of the people; it suggests the ultimate glory a human ruler can seek redounds not to the founder of a princely dynasty but to one who can use human means — laws — to order a free state that can outlast even his descendants.
On Zuckert’s reading, Machiavelli’s prince begins to look remarkably similar to the founder or restorer of a republic. But by the same token, Machiavelli’s republicanism, manifested most clearly in the Discourses, contains “princely” elements and countenances “Machiavellian” strategies offensive to both the democratic sensibilities of our age and the aristocratic attitudes cultivated by the pre-modern Western political philosophers.
What distinguishes “the great” from “the people” is not the nobility of their character but the scope of their ambition. In The Prince, a virtuous ruler maintains power by earning the respect of the people (who wish only the security of their lives, families, and property) rather than by currying favor with the great (whose desire to dominate others inevitably drives them into rivalry with the prince). In the Discourses, Machiavelli examines laws and institutions that force the elite into competition with one another for power, so that the ambition to dominate others is channeled in a direction that is salutary for the city as a whole precisely because it is salutary for the people. The difference between principalities and republics is not that republics lack “princes,” Zuckert contends, but that their would-be “princes” must compete with one another by seeking to advance the good of the city as a whole. While the people do not always understand what is in their best interest, they are more reliable judges of it than those with a vested interest in oppressing them; thus popular elections are used to fill powerful offices, and public trials are conducted to punish those who abuse their powers or weaken the republic. Moreover, because these procedures are imperfect and susceptible to manipulation, republics stand in perpetual need of returning to their “principles” by reforming, from time to time, the rules under which the great compete with one another for power.
A number of political theorists have gone so far as to paint Machiavelli as a champion of democracy as we understand it — such a stance goes too far, Zuckert contends, because the conflict between “the great” and “the people” is perpetual. Machiavelli’s republicanism is an attempt to manage, not to overcome, the fundamental antagonism between would-be rulers and those they would rule.
Machiavelli’s Politics must be read as a response not only to recent and 21st-century political theorists like Mary Dietz, Quentin Skinner, Sheldon Wolin, John McCormick, Miguel Vatter, John Najemy, et cetera, but also and primarily to Leo Strauss, whose Thoughts on Machiavelli (cited by Zuckert as often as some of Machiavelli’s own writings) appeared in 1958. Strauss identifies Machiavelli as “the founder of modernity” by virtue of his rejection of classical and Christian understandings of morality. Even though Strauss’s work, Zuckert suggests, is perhaps not so much an exegesis or commentary as a literary creation, in which Strauss uses Machiavelli “as a character to deliver his own critique of biblical morality,” it nevertheless forms the horizon of her own project.
Strauss correctly notes that Machiavelli is no mere “teacher of evil,” Zuckert argues, but rather a proponent of a historically novel, democratic form of republicanism. Yet he underestimates the ability of the people, in Machiavelli’s view, to select and judge their rulers, and therefore pays little attention to “the new form of republic Machiavelli introduces.”
Against Strauss, Zuckert contends that Machiavelli was not a critic of Christianity as such, but of the form it had taken in Italy in his own day. While Strauss faults Machiavelli for denigrating the ancient view that philosophy as a way of life involved contemplative withdrawal from politics, Zuckert frames Machiavelli’s departure in neutral, if not positive terms: “The major challenge Machiavelli poses to ancient political philosophy consists in his claim that writers need to show how their works improve the lives of ordinary people.” And, though she does not say so explicitly, Zuckert implicitly questions Strauss’s view that Machiavelli is better called a philosopher than a political scientist; by emphasizing Machiavelli’s contribution to our knowledge of politics (the literal meaning of “science”), she claims that he is both.
Scholars will no doubt find fault with Zuckert’s ambitious project on the grounds that it overstates the unity of Machiavelli’s thought as it found expression, over his lifetime, in a wide variety of authorial projects, or that it paints its subject in an insufficiently democratic, or insufficiently authoritarian, light. And although it is impossible to deny Machiavelli’s status as a watershed figure in the history of Western political thought, Zuckert seems at points overly credulous of Machiavelli’s own assertions about the innovative character of his work, and fails to show some factors that may have shaped Machiavelli’s intellectual development. For instance, while the subtleties of Machiavelli’s use of classical texts and the nuances of the Italian political situation in his day are painstakingly documented, the reader is left to wonder how, or even whether, his political thought was influenced by the discovery, when he was in his early 20s, of the new world and with it entire civilizations with laws and customs quite different from those known by earlier generations of Western thinkers. Likewise, Zuckert fails to consider the extent to which Machiavelli’s hope for a new configuration of princely power in the West was colored by his view of power politics in civilizations farther east.
In 1951, Eric Voegelin, one of Strauss’s interlocutors as he was working on Thoughts on Machiavelli, published a study of in The Review of Politics, arguing that the image of the conquering savior-monarch evoked at the conclusion of Machiavelli’s Prince mirrors the view earlier Italian humanists held of the Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur (1336–1405), whose vast empire emerged seemingly (to Westerners) out of nowhere. It is an argument Strauss dismissed, and Zuckert does not mention — but it is relevant today, perhaps, as many readers wonder about the extent to which the elected leaders of the Western democracies are influenced by, or seek to emulate, the leader of what seems increasingly to be a Eurasian empire.
We are tempted, of course, to wonder about Zuckert’s own politics. Does an author so attentive to the subtleties of Machiavelli’s work, approaching him through the reading of Strauss, write with her own agenda, making the object of her study a mouthpiece for her own views — as she contends Machiavelli did in his own writings, and as she suggests Strauss did as well? Zuckert is clearly in sympathy with Machiavelli’s republicanism as she understands it, although at a rather abstract level: those ambitious to dominate others should be forced by law and custom to compete with each other by seeking to benefit the people, who know their own interests well enough to be generally competent judges of their rulers. However, as Zuckert emphasizes, Machiavelli understood every historical situation to be unique, and so denied that one set of principles could possibly guide human action in all cases; Zuckert’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s oeuvre therefore cannot, on her terms, constitute a defense of Machiavelli’s politics.
Possible contemporary applications of Machiavelli’s thought are suggested only in a brief conclusion. Much more importantly, however, Zuckert appreciates the irony with which Machiavelli wrote, realizing that his immediate audience was unlikely to understand or implement his teachings. Her accomplishment, in the second half of her book, is to trace the consistency of Machiavelli’s political thought from his explicitly political treatises, The Prince and the Discourses, to subsequent writings of other genres (including stage comedies, a philosophical dialogue, a biography, and, finally, the Florentine Histories), while observing at the same time that these works cast Machiavelli’s political ambitions in an ironic and self-deprecating light.
Though much has been made of the political involvement of Straussians, who were charged with providing the intellectual justifications for the second invasion of Iraq, and who are now accused of playing a similar role in the construction of the Trump administration, readers who look for a smoking gun in Zuckert’s tome will be disappointed. On her reading, Strauss valued private philosophical inquiry over, or even at the expense of, political activism. Machiavelli the Renaissance man sought to advise princes and train armies; Zuckert, the bourgeois scholar, seems to harbor no such ambition. Ultimately, she judges that Machiavelli wrote not so much to get a job, or to influence the thinking and actions of “the great,” as he wrote for himself, “because,” in his words, “Dante says that what has been learned does not become knowledge unless it is retained.”
Machiavelli’s Politics is a political scientist’s contribution to knowledge — how or whether it will influence those in power is anybody’s guess. But if you suspect it is on your political opponents’ summer reading lists, I would advise putting it on yours as well.
Brickey LeQuire holds a PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is a former Visiting Scholar of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and has taught philosophy and political science at Roosevelt University and Samford University.