Friday, January 10, 2014


Machiavelli has been called the first modern and the last ancient.  I hold with the former view, which was advanced most forcefully by Leo Strauss.  Like Hobbes and Locke, Machiavelli’s thought is embedded in the politics of his time.  At first glance it would appear to be simply political.  After all, The Prince is presented as a job application.  Nonetheless, its structure is that of a general meditation on the nature of politics and it implies a comprehensive view of man on earth. 
This is evident in the very beginning of The Prince, where Niccolò offers a cladogram of regimes.  This is, again at first glance, a very classical thing to do.  Nothing is more classical than to begin with a very broad category and then break it down into a cascade of subcategories.  Another strategy is to organize something according to two variables (or two questions, as it were). 
Take for example Aristotle’s classification of regimes.  He asks two questions: who rules and is the rule exercised for the sake of the whole or for the sake of rulers alone?  We get the following structure:
            Private interest        Public interest
One     tyranny                      kingship
Few     oligarchy                   aristocracy
Many  democracy                 republic
In this scheme, regimes are divided into two sets (good and bad) and distributed according to how wide the franchise is.  It allows Aristotle to draw a very interesting conclusion.  The worst regime is tyranny and the best is kingship, assuming the best ruler.  Aristotle more or less agrees with Plato in this regard.  However of the good regimes, aristocracies are more stable than kingships and the republic is most stable of all, if stability increases as the base widens.  This reminds one of the saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good. 
Aristotle’s classification is a natural order that emerges from the facts of human society (what kinds of authority are possible) and the human need for government.  It implies, as all ancient philosophy did, that the natural order is authoritative.  What is good may be recognized and adopted, but not created, by human beings. 
Now consider what Machiavelli does. 
All states, all dominions that have had and have empire over men, are either republics or principalities.  Principalities are either hereditary, in which the blood of the lord has been prince for a long time or they are new.  The new are either altogether new, as was Milan for Francesco Sforza, or they are as members attached to the hereditary state of the prince who acquires them, as was Naples to the King of Spain.  Dominions thus acquired are either accustomed to living under a prince or are used to being free.  They are acquired either with arms of others or one’s own, either with fortune or with virtue. 
It cannot be overemphasized how shattering this is.  Machiavelli’s first division seems to preserve the classical approach.  In a republic, the state is public property.  The dominion belongs to the thing created by the dominion.  In a principality, the state is private property.  Is the one good and the other bad?  Machiavelli clear prefers republics, but he does so because they are more robust in preserving their power and exercising dominion over others. 
Machiavelli proceeds to divide principalities, the object of his inquiry, not according to who rules or how, but according to how they are acquired.  His chief interest is in the origins of human order and the human powers that make it possible.  He does not believe in any order that emerges from nature.  He supposes that all order is imposed by human will.  That, ultimately, is what he means by virtue.  Whereas the ancients had supposed that virtue lay in the perfection of natural human propensities, Machiavelli supposes that it lies in certain human characters that enable their possessors to impose their will on their surroundings. 
There is then a state of nature theory implied here.  The state of nature is all disorder and chaos.  Order and hence justice and the common good can be achieved by conquering fortune. 


  1. In other words: wish in one hand and spit in the other? Too many apex predators generate trophic cascades where entire food chains break down. Is that what you would like to have happen, Professor?

  2. But is Machiavelli really proposing something different from the state of nature, then? As I understand it (and perhaps my understanding is wrong) in the state of nature, "might makes right". If that is what naturally happens, what is Machiavelli proposing that is different?

  3. Miranda: great to hear from you again. Your provocative question is worth a second post on Mr. M.