Stewart Patrick on Machiavelli

A fine summation of the merits of Machiavelli:

Wicked stuff. And yet Machiavelli is no sadist. Unscrupulous means are justified only if they serve one specific end, in the words of Kenneth Waltz, preserving “your power in the state and your state among others.” He does not advocate mindless violence or gratuitous cruelty—not because he is squeamish, but because they are counterproductive. Machiavelli thus counsels prudence as a core element of princely leadership.

What is most scandalous about The Prince—no less so now than when it was written—is Machiavelli’s apparent endorsement of the principle that “the ends justify the means”, however cruel and harsh these means be. As the author himself explains, “In all men’s acts, and in those of princes especially, it is the result that renders the verdict when there is no court of appeal”.

And then this advice:

Machiavelli’s contributions to the tradition of political realism are enduring. They include his admonition to take the world as it is, rather than it should be; his recognition that power and self-interest play a paramount role in political affairs; his insight that statecraft is an art, requiring political leaders to adapt both to enduring structures and changing times; and his insistence that the dictates of raison d’état may conflict with those of conventional morality. It is this last contention—that the public and private spheres possess their own distinct moralities—that remains so jarring today.

via Commentary: Machiavelli: Still Shocking after Five Centuries | The National Interest.

8 thoughts on “Stewart Patrick on Machiavelli”

  1. While describing someone as “Machiavellian” has almost always had a negative connotation, I do not believe Machiavelli’s philosophy to be particularly bad. Of course, it is difficult (probably impossible) to defend Machiavelli’s apparent lack of virtue (in the Christian sense) and morals. However, it is true that, sometimes, to advance the state or country as a whole, leaders may have to act unscrupulously or amorally.
    In context of the recent scandal involving the NSA and this blog’s recent post on the Banality of Evil, there are many in leadership positions who are not acting to purposefully encroach on human rights or the privacy of the people. Instead, these are people who, believing certain measures to be in the interest of the American people, decided to run these programs. There is a very real debate among the American people and around the world on the merits of security versus freedom, a value debate. There is no real, objective way to debate these types of issues without mentioning personal values.
    Machiavelli, in essence, is introducing the other side of the “Is/ought problem.” Whereas classical philosophers, such as Plato, tried to theorize on the ideal government and what it would look like, Machiavelli tries to find the most realistic and efficient method of creating a strong, organized state.

  2. I have always admired Machiavelli for his stark and honest view of political nature. Ironically, my mother, who was involved in local politics for many years, does not support his view of government. She dismisses all his views as untrue and harsh because of his support of a virtue-less system of morals. I, on the other hand, completely support his views. I think the only thing his argument lacks is that it advocates too much violence and subterfuge, going against the idea that the leader must do anything to preserve his state. Enforcing strict punishment on one’s subjects, while efficient, does not usually yield lasting results and actually subverts the state’s power. For example, while policing the internet and locking up “dissidents” keeps the Chinese government in control, it is not a very popular form of keeping state power and people constantly try to subvert it. The NSA’s monitoring, on the other hand, is an example of well-applied state control, because while people were (are) angry and uncomfortable about it, there is no way to subvert or avoid the monitoring, and it did not lead to any lasting civil unrest. It’s not what experiences you take away, its how you do it. Which I suppose is what Machiavelli ultimately wanted; a state with supreme control. I only argue that he was slightly wrong in his ideas of force.

  3. I found this article particularly compelling. Having read the Prince, as most people have, I was always troubled with the whole “ends justfiiy the means” argument. Looking at previous events in the United States’ past, like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I do not believe that the ends justify the means. Maybe it is my ‘hippy’ mentality, but I believe that there is always a more civil approach that the ones the United States seem to use. (I am probably just too naive!)

  4. I think that often times people are too quick to judge Machiavelli’s concept of “the ends justify the means” and yet it is something we often use in our everyday lives. It’s a concept that often works and has been applied, even in our government today. I have never had too harsh of an issue with this, though as stated previously, there needs to be some sort of boundaries when it comes to the application of this. I’m sure there are extreme actions that Machiavelli would have no problem pursuing for the greater, that I would conflict with. Mainly in the terms of violence. But, I think in order to lead and in order to lead well, there are always going to be things you do that you don’t necessarily agree with, but find that for the greater end it is worth it. That’s how politics go. No one is going to have a perfectly smooth term, and therefore there needs to be a willingness to do what’s necessary, even if it might be unpopular at the time. We elect our officials to not only encourage our agendas, but to have a foresight that we cannot have due to our position. Most of the time, the ends will justify the means because that is just how politics works.

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