Machiavelli’s Idealism

“...Machiavelli exaggerates his praise of [Cesare] Borgia, whose actions, by those very same standards, ought to condemn him as a rather foolhardy failure”(1) – John McCormick

While serving in the Arizona legislature for the last ten years, I also taught Humane Letters at a classical school for several years where we read and held seminar discussions on The Prince. Reading and discussing this with seniors while seeing it unfold before me at the state capitol led to my abhorrence of Machiavelli and Machiavellianism. During my tenure I saw enough of Machiavellianism to last a lifetime. I was promised campaign cash and support if I “voted the right way.”(2) I regularly witnessed legislators berate members of the other party on the House Floor, yet joking and laughing with them immediately afterward  in the Member’s Lounge. On one occasion, I asked a Representative why he was so harsh towards the other legislator on the House Floor he said, “The camera was on.”

I rejected Machiavelli for many reasons. I despise his τελος – the acquiring and maintenance of power as the sine qua non concerning things of the public. Further, his view of human nature leads to misanthropy. I’m also offended by the idea that one cannot succeed in politics without perpetrating evil, since many have successfully passed good laws without resorting to the tactics he advised in his infamous work, myself included.

Yet modern man continues to idealize Niccolo Machiavelli and his ideal prince, Cesare Borgia, in spite of the fact that both were failures. The historical record along with the written work of The Prince paints a markedly different picture in reality than what’s commonly accepted about these two men. Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th century Florentine secretary who has made no small impact on the divorce between morality and politics was himself a failure – in this life and the next. As was his ideal prince, Cesare Borgia. Thus, either Machiavelli has written ineffectual truth, or The Prince is a work of the same idealism that he notoriously criticizes.

One ought to approach Niccolo Machiavelli realistically – his life, his teaching, and his intellectual impact. Or so it seems. That is, unless one wishes to perceive reality as one wishes it to be rather than as it is. Looking past what is imagined about Niccolo’s life, his work, and his ideal prince, one notices a variance with what modern man considers him to be. Given Niccolo’s emphasis on history – real republics and principalities, one should examine the historical record to ensure one does not give unmerited justification where little is warranted.

On December 10, 1513 Niccolo wrote a well-known letter to papal ambassador Francesco Vettori. In it, he describes his exile, his failure to find a job suitable to his literary talent, and his imaginary dinners with the ancients. After lamenting his job as a day laborer and the vulgarity of the commoners, Machiavelli does what most men do not do. The author most known for realpolitik changed his clothes from a laborer into “regal and courtly garments.” It is here where he imagined ancient men – men who died thousands of years ago, who entertain him as their dinner guest. He writes that these long since dead men “receive him in affection,” where he imagines discussions with them for hours concerning the substance of what ultimately goes into The Prince – “what a princedom is, the kinds of princedoms, how one gains them, how they are kept, and why they are lost.”(3)  Niccolo writes,

I enter the courts of ancient men, where received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.(4)

Of course, within today’s classical tradition, seminar participants read the ancients and have a qualitatively different kind of dialogue with them through the annotation of texts and discussion with other presently existing seminar participants. However, no one who lives in reality imagines one is actually present at dinner with no longer sentient men where one dresses up in the wardrobes found in the courts of the ancients and converses with dead men for hours. The former occurs frequently in seminar discussion, the latter more often at state-run hospitals. Niccolo himself is lucid enough to recognize he has written something fanciful in The Prince near the conclusion of this letter where he says to Vettori, “And if you ever can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you...”(5) While scholars continue to speculate on Machiavelli’s motivation for writing The Prince, he himself described his text as a flight of imagination, not reality.

Further, Niccolo never lived to see the reaction to The Prince nor its intellectual and immoral impact since he wrote it in 1513 but it was published posthumously in 1532, five years after his death.(6) Machiavelli was a frustrated literary genius whom fate had dealt a harsh hand. He thus needed an outlet to not only direct his talent towards, but more basically, he desired meaningful employment that didn’t consist of laboring on the family farm. In another letter to Vettori, Niccolo writes “There is my wish that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone...”(7) That is, Niccolo wanted something more than subsistence living and conversation with the plebians whose thoughts didn’t rise to the lofty heights of the ideal world he formerly immersed himself into. While in forced exile, Niccolo writes of his poverty and such interactions as following:

I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing moldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.(8)

One can nearly hear lamentations from this literary talent who once rubbed shoulders with heads of state and other diplomats but has now fallen upon hard times. Yet such criticism goes well beyond Machiavelli and extends to the one historical character the author devotes more time to than any other – Cesare Borgia.(9) Like Machiavelli, he too was a failure in his life.

Cesare was born into a very promising name - Caesar in Italian, yet his life and early demise was of little importance. Niccolo gives Cesare the highest of accolades by calling him “prudent and virtuous” in addition to illustrating Cesare as the best example a prince who uses evil as necessary, conquers others through fear or fraud – the man who knew in practice how to maintain his grip on the levers of power (The Prince, VII). This is puzzling given Cesare’s continued reliance upon fortune, his dependence upon his father, and his untimely demise. Instead of having taken Machiavelli’s advice and beating Lady Fortune like a woman (The Prince, XXV), Pope Julius II forced Cesare to continue to depend upon the arms of others. At no time after his father’s death was Cesare self-sufficient as any successes he achieved solely depended upon his own father-patron. Renzo Sereno notes, “Caesar’s attempts at kingdom-building in Romagna fell very short of the most pessimistic expectations. His realm collapsed almost at once with the death of Alexander VI [Cesare’s father].”(10) Indeed, without his father to supply him with arms, he quickly fell out of power and lost everything. In contrasting Cesare with Agathocles, John McCormack notes that “Agathocles retained his principality much more successfully and with greater longevity than did the duke [Cesare], whose kingdom evaporated with his father’s death.”(11) When Alexander VI died of syphilis or poisoning, Pope Julius had Cesare arrested and deprived him of his arms and territories.(12) Thus, Cesare’s dependence upon his father became glaringly evident and one wonders why Niccolo continues to praise him in such a manner. Instead of depending upon his own military prowess as Machiavelli advises, Cesare died at the young age of thirty-two in poverty, with scurvy, and a significant case of syphilis that forced him to wear a mask due to the disfigurement it caused. Indeed, the men who killed him had no idea whom they had just killed. They stripped him of his clothes and left his naked body to lie in the dirt.(13) In summary, Machiavelli’s ideal prince was jailed, tortured, and died in poverty with a disease riddled body in a foreign country while in forced exile having been rejected by the Pope, Florence, and France. One would be hard pressed to find a better illustration of such a massive failure.

Neither Machiavelli himself, Cesare Borgia, nor any other mortal were able to live up to the embodiment of Machiavellian virtu. Yet the classical tradition does have a real life example of a successful and moral politician in reality, someone whom the American Founders held dear – Marcus Tullius Cicero. So it is of no small surprise that Machiavelli seeks to tear down Ciceronian ideas of just war, keeping faith, and natural law. So why is the classical tradition so willing to privilege such a man and replace Cicero for an idealized fantasy from the fanciful imagination of a failed secretary and his failure of a prince?

(1) The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue, John McCormick (2014)
(2)  For this to be proven illegal in a court of law, the Arizona Statute governing bribery means the legislator must be promised a specific dollar amount for a specific vote – A.R.S. 13-2602
(3) Letter to Franceso Vettori, Dec. 10, 1513
(4) Ibid
(5) Ibid
(7)  Machiavelli’s “Prince”, Political Science or Political Satire? Garrett Mattingly Revisited
(8)  Letter to Franceso Vettori, Dec. 10, 1513
(9)  In case there was any doubt as to Machiavelli’s illustration of Cesare Borgia as the ideal prince of The Prince, he writes: "Thus if I summed up all the actions of the duke [Cesare Borgia], I would not know how to reproach him; on the contrary, it seems to me he should be put forward, as I have done, to be imitated by all those who have risen to empire through fortune and by the arms of others. For with his great spirit and high intention, he could not have conducted himself otherwise and the only things in the way of his plans were the brevity of Alexander's life and his own sickness. So whoever judges it in his new principality to secure himself against enemies, to gain friends to himself, to conquer either by force or by fraud, to make himself loved and feared by the people, and followed and revered by the soldiers, to eliminate those who can or might offend you, to renew old orders through new modes, to be severe and pleasant, magnanimous and liberal, to eliminate an unfaithful military, to create a new one, to maintain friendships with kings and princes so that they must either benefit you with favor or be hesitant to offend you - can find no fresher examples than the examples of that man" (The Prince, VII).
(10)  A falsification by Machiavelli, Renaissance News (1959), Renzo Sereno
(11)  The Enduring Ambiguity of Machiavellian Virtue, John McCormick (2014), Social Research journal, p 141
(12)  Niccolo’s Smile, a biography of Machiavelli, Maurizio, Viroli (2001), p 75
(13)  The Life of Cesare Borgia, Rafael Sabatini, p 449