The Machiavelli We Deserve

Statue of Niccolo Machiavelli outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Statue of Niccolo Machiavelli outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

The Quotable Machiavelli is a wry title for Maurizio Viroli’s new collection. Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) immediately became one of the most widely quoted handbooks on political prudence in Western history. The Prince’s twenty-six chapters organize pithy sayings and short lessons under titles such as “What a Prince Should Do Regarding the Military” and “Of Avoiding Contempt and Hatred.” The busy prince faces no more than one hundred pages of text in the typical edition of The Prince. Every reader of Machiavelli’s signal volume keeps memorable verses in mind, or can find them after a brief perusal of the volume.

Viroli’s new volume, by contrast, presents the reader with 285 pages of carefully culled quotations from The Prince, Discourses on Livy (1531), as well as Machiavelli’s plays, histories and personal correspondences—including the observations of others. The quotations are classified under seven general headers: “Machiavelli on Himself, His Family, and Friends,” “Machiavelli Described by His Relatives, Friends, and Lovers,” “Man and Cosmos,” “The Human Condition,” “Political Life,” “Machiavelli on His Contemporaries” and “Past and Present.” Within the seven general headers Viroli introduces 155 subsections, with headers ranging from the seemingly un-Machiavellian “God’s Mercy,” the unusually modern “The Death Penalty,” and typically Machiavellian topics such as “Accusations and Calumnies.” Readers seeking Machiavelli’s opinion on “Turks and the Turkish Empire” will find it in its appropriate place.

The mix-and-match approach has one distinct advantage, however, over the commonplace scholarly approach that divides The Prince from Discourses on Livy and Machiavelli’s other works. By joining what the separate texts divide, it points readers to the consistency in Machiavelli’s reflection beyond the putative separation of reflections on principalities from those on republics. Viroli’s section on “The Founders and Reformers of States,” for example, interposes quotations from The Prince and the Discourses, as well as Machiavelli’s lesser known Discourse on Remodeling the Government of Florence (1520). While the contexts are necessarily missing in collections of quotations, readers will still find enough material to begin considering whether Machiavelli’s quotable advice is consistent, contains modifications, or hides its consistency behind necessary modifications. Readers’ eyes naturally gravitate toward shorter quotations in books such as this one, as they seem punchier and presumably carry more weight. Viroli’s selections on foundings thus highlight Machiavelli’s short remark in the Discourses that, “In proportion as the founders of a republic or monarchy are entitled to praise, so do the founders of a tyranny deserve execration.” From The Prince he draws the comment that “Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as the undertaking of great enterprises and the setting of a noble example in his own person.” The surrounding quotations gather important additional statements that form a beginning point for Machiavelli’s complex teaching on foundings.

The Quotable Machiavelli’s method of organization does offer something to the contemporary reader. If The Prince at the time of its publication, with its Latin headings and Italian-language chapter contents, met its princely readership where they were, some of its chapters offer less immediate interest today. The Quotable Machiavelli thus directs readers to sections of Machiavelli’s texts using today’s political categories. Although Viroli’s central category “The Human Condition” is Arendtian (her The Human Condition was published in 1958), it meets the likely common expectation of readers to find courage, flattery, fraud, love and the like discussed in proximity.

Since a book of quotations is sampled rather than read, the best way to get a sense of The Quotable Machiavelli is to see what sampling it might lead to. Here, then, are twelve short selections from Viroli’s chapters on “The Human Condition” and “Political Life”—with a short excursus on each one, of the sort that might occur to a political reader encountering Machiavelli in this way. My comments are not intended to be an exposition of Machiavelli but rather an experiment in the impressionistic reading that The Quotable Machiavelli forces on you, however inadequate that may be.

The Human Condition

Avarice. “For a people suffers more from the avarice of its magistrates than from the rapacity of an enemy, for of the latter you may sooner or later hope for an end, but of the former never.” History of Florence, V. 8 (Viroli, p. 42)

Those with rule-making authority who can implement their decisions are magistrates. Their avarice can appear in several forms, from judicial usurpation to the general tendency toward excessive regulation on the part of empowered bureaucrats. Domestic “avarice” of this sort may even stem from a source other than the corruption of officials’ virtue. Structural and personal sources of corruption can confirm one another, causing the exchange of personnel to be irrelevant in the cause of resisting the overall trend.

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Conscience. “I have already told you, and I’ll say it again: if Friar Timoteo tells you there will be no burden on your conscience, then you can do it without any qualms.” Mandragola, Act 3, Scene 10 (Viroli, p. 47)

The scholastic philosophers distinguished between well- and poorly-formed consciences. When we speak of the inviolability of conscience today, we have in mind something much closer to what Machiavelli described here, in Mandragola (1524). But how often does speech about what our consciences tell us conceal an effort to form those consciences, as here, for a specific intent?

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Cowardice. “A prince who disarms his subjects will at once offend them, by thus showing that he has no confidence in them, that he suspects them either of cowardice or want of loyalty, and this will cause them to hate him.” The Prince, XX (Viroli, p. 50)

While Machiavelli’s comment initially makes disarmament the main topic of this remark, the danger of giving offense to one’s subjects encompasses more phenomena than disarmament alone. A prince’s subjects, he says, will bristle when they sense that the prince lacks confidence in them. That lack of confidence or suspicion may be shown in many ways, particularly in democratic societies. With popular disapproval of American political institutions frequently reaching high levels, prudent statesmen might consider whether their words or actions give offense not directly, but through the sense of popular disarmament.

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Cruelty. “Cesare Borgia was reputed cruel, yet by his cruelty he reunited the Romagna to his states, and restored that province to order, peace, and loyalty; and if we carefully examine his course, we shall find it to have been really much more merciful than the course of the people of Florence, who, to escape the reputation of cruelty, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed. A prince, therefore, should not mind the ill repute of cruelty, when he can thereby keep his subjects united and loyal; for a few displays of severity will really be more merciful than to allow, by an excess of clemency, disorders to occur, which are apt to result in rapine and murder; for these injure a whole community, whilst the executions ordered by the prince fall only upon a few individuals.” The Prince, XVII (Viroli, p. 53)

Though Cesare Borgia was a cruel man, the reputation for cruelty can stretch well beyond actions of the murderous sort Cesare often contracted. In that wider context, the point holds well today. No successful politician shows an image of mercy constantly, while those who speak of it most often practice it least. Injuries always fall on someone in matters of defense. Machiavelli confronts the prince with a simple question, still applicable today: would you rather avoid disorders through a few acts of “cruelty,” or suffer the greater cruelty resulting from the continuance of those disorders?

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Fraud. “When the citizens had become corrupt, this system became the worst possible, for then only the powerful proposed laws, not for the common good and the liberty of all, but for the increase of their own power, and fear restrained all the others from speaking against such laws; and thus the people by force and fraud made to resolve upon their own ruin.” Discourses on Livy, I. 18 (Viroli, p. 69–70)

The possibility that republican government can become corrupt is not one that we like to fancy. American exceptionalism and our confidence in American resiliency have driven successful improvements in the past. But they can easily disable our ability to spot the corruption when our confidence becomes blithe. Here Machiavelli images something quite different from the usurpation of one politician—instead, the advance of laws in the interests of the powerful. Presumably the implementation of powerful interests through “avaricious” magistrates is another aspect of their power.

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The Good and Goodness. “However strong a new prince may be in troops, yet will he always have need of the good will of the inhabitants, if he wishes to enter into firm possession of the country.” The Prince, III (Viroli, p. 72)

Thematic classification of Machiavelli’s aphoristic statements leads to ironies like this one. Here the “good will of the inhabitants” is presented in the context of Machiavelli’s description of mixed principalities in which some territory is added to an existing principality. In spite of the quotation’s classification under a heading on “The Good and Goodness,” good will is something akin to matter for the prince to use or shape. Even so, the requirement of maintaining popular good will is a reminder that “Machiavellian” strategy is not at home with elite disdain of common opinion.

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Ingratitude. “A prince, to avoid the necessity of living in constant mistrust or of being ungrateful, should command all his expeditions in person, as the Roman Emperors did in the beginning, and as the Sultan does at the present time, and as in fact all valiant princes ever have done and will do. . . .” Discourses on Livy, I. 30 (Viroli, p. 87)

The fear of “strongman” politics is a salutary one, but Machiavelli’s emphasis on “commanding . . . in person” shows the need for a prince to exercise visible control over his “expeditions.” The ingratitude Machiavelli describes is the prince’s: if others always do the prince’s work for him, then he becomes ungrateful when they claim the glory. America’s civilian presidency changes this calculus with respect to military ventures (though a president frequently visits his troops). But the need to prevent a prince’s mistrust of his ministers is always timely.

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Patriotism. “Love of country should make a good citizen forget private wrongs.” Discourses on Livy, III. 47 (Viroli, p. 98)

Every few years seems to bring a new cycle of stories about the “politicization of friendship” in America. Particularly in heated political moments, people will cut the ties of friendship (or forestall their formation). This quotation indicates one element of what strong civic friendship should be, extending patriotism to the leavening of private relationships. When friendships are cut for political reasons, however, love of country suffers, as well.

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Rebirth (Renaissance). “Such a return to first principles in a republic is sometimes caused by the simple virtues of one man, without depending upon any law that incites him to the infliction of extreme punishments; and yet his good example has such an influence that good men strive to imitate him, and the wicked are ashamed to lead a life so contrary to his example.” Discourses on Livy, III. 1 (Viroli, p. 101)

Complaints about the return of authoritarian tendencies in Western democracies are not to be taken lightly even though they are repeated with numbing regularity. Machiavelli’s observation, however, should chasten those who expect the mere restatement of first principles to bring about a return to them. To be sure, the would-be statesmen who propose a return to first principles are inadequate. But when the principles have already proven insufficient to hold a republic in its ways, what other than a “good example” can prompt rebirth?

Political Life

Disorders. “The city of Pistoia furnishes a most striking [proof that in order to hold a city it is not necessary to keep it divided]. . . . they removed the chiefs of the factions by imprisoning some and exiling others to various places; and thus they succeeded in restoring order in a manner that could and does endure to this day.” Discourses on Livy, III. 27 (Viroli, p. 152)

The example of Pistoia offers a counterweight to Machiavelli’s customary teaching that the vigor of partisanship can be turned to a city’s preservation. When parties express fundamentally divergent views on political matters, replacing their leaders might have no effect on the character of partisan activity. But what if the “chiefs of the factions” are pursuing something other than the articulation of a political view (for example, on the distribution of property)? The case of Pistoia before its reconfiguration appears not so distant from our own. Even if partisanship is fundamental and cannot be overcome, political discord can still be alleviated by the removal of self-interested party elites.

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Equality. “[T]hose republics which have . . . preserved their political existence uncorrupted do not permit any of their citizens to be or to live in the manner of gentlemen, but rather maintain among them a perfect equality, and are the most decided enemies of the lords and gentlemen that exist in the country; so that, if by chance any of them fall into their hands, they kill them, as being the chief promoters of all corruption and troubles.” Discourses on Livy, I. 55 (Viroli, p. 156)

By the standard of Machiavelli’s remarks here, today’s advanced republics long since passed into the realm of corruption. But the modern political science to which Machiavelli’s considerations led allowed some violations of the traditional political thinking about republics. The United States started off large and grew larger, and it succeeded in creating a prosperous middle class, whose prosperity was sufficient to make the riches of the rentiers at least tolerable. The initial lesson, though, is not that the American republic should despoil the rentiers, but that our present inequalities inhibit us from being the republic we are supposed to be.

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Ministers. “Whenever he sees that the minister thinks more of himself than of the prince, that in all his doings he seeks his own advantage more than that of the state, then the prince may be sure that that man will never be a good minister and is not to be trusted. . . .” The Prince, XXII (Viroli, p. 181)

The new U.S. administration is confident in its stated opposition to the “administrative state.” But as several observers have commented, the administration may rather lack the administrative state it needs in order to carry out its agenda. Machiavelli’s comments here are instructive in not identifying ministers as the problem but rather their loyalties. Many causes may now have conspired to tilt the loyalty of modern ministers (“administrators”) toward their own class. That fault lies not simply with the administrative state itself, but with the prince’s inability or unwillingness to bring it to heel.

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The Quotable Machiavelli makes the experience of reading Machiavelli more immediate and pragmatic. My comments above are intended only to exhibit how far that sort of encounter with Machiavellian maxims can go. As Maurizio Viroli points out, he is hardly the first to gather excerpts of Machiavelli. A 1578 Italian collection of Machiavellian maxims appeared in English in 1590, and another 1771 collection in Italian appeared in English in 1797 and 1891. In contrast to the uneven efforts of earlier excerpters, Maurizio Viroli brings his life of Machiavelli scholarship to bear in the careful selection and categorization of Machiavelli’s maxims. But busy readers today will likely gravitate to shorter and more relevant excerpts of the sort discussed above. The Quotable Machiavelli delivers short impressions of Machiavelli’s teachings—observations outside their context and conclusions without their accompanying reasons. Yet in this it stays strangely true to the way that busy men of affairs have approached Machiavelli, as a font of political maxims to follow in turbulent times. To borrow a maxim from the scholastic tradition, whatever is received is received in the mode of the recipient. Or, put another way, every age gets the Machiavelli it deserves.