by Harvey C. Mansfield
Chicago. 388 pp. $29.95
What hath Wicked Nick wrought? That is the question posed by Harvey Mansfield in Machiavelli’s Virtue, his latest consideration of the still-controversial and still-misunderstood thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, has studied Machiavelli for decades, along the way producing three translations of his works, an exhaustive commentary on his Discourses on Livy, and many learned essays on his political philosophy.
Machiavelli, of course, is the great Renaissance figure famous for being, as Mansfield puts it,
the first philosopher not merely to lack respect for the just, the noble, and the sacred or even to show his lack of respect—but actually to advise all others to act without respect. [Emphasis in the original]
Maxims from Machiavelli’s two most shocking and radical books, The Prince (1513) and the Discourses (1513-19), are gems of clear-headed ruthlessness: enemies and potential enemies should be summarily executed, because only those still alive can plot revenge; it is absolutely necessary for a prince to appear religious, and utterly disastrous for him actually to be religious; one should not hesitate to break one’s word when interest requires it. And this is but a small sampling of what has led to centuries of attacks on the Florentine for his immorality and earned him a reputation, in Shakespeare’s words, as “the murderous machiavel.”
These days, however, at least in some academic quarters, Machiavelli’s wickedness tends to get explained away. There are those who assert that the philosopher was merely describing evil, not embracing it. And there are others who say his terrible counsels are somehow justified or compensated for by the republican sentiments to which he occasionally gave voice. For Mansfield, it is a relatively simple task to confront and refute these views. Against the former, he shows that the question of whether or not Machiavelli advocates “a compromise with evil” is debatable only if one does not really believe such a thing as evil exists. And against the latter, he proves that the real Machiavelli is, if anything, even more “Machiavellian” than older critics assumed.
A more difficult task before Mansfield is to say what exactly Machiavelli was intending to accomplish in proffering his evil advice. Though Machiavelli’s Virtue is a collection of discrete essays written over many years, at its core is a coherent account of Machiavelli’s central project. According to Mansfield, what Machiavelli sought was the complete overthrow of the lofty and—to him—unattainable goals set for man by biblical religion and classical philosophy, in favor of ends that were actually achievable on this earth.
At bottom, in Machiavelli’s view, Christianity and classical philosophy were doctrines that kept man weak. If man were to rise to the greatness of which he was capable, they would have to be replaced with wholly new modes of thought. These, Machiavelli saw it as his calling to provide.
The essence of Machiavelli’s new teaching is encapsulated in some of the most famous words from The Prince:
[I]t is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.
In other words, and notwithstanding what the prelates say, God’s laws were written by men yet bear virtually no correspondence to the way men actually behave; therefore, it is both foolish and “ruinous” to try to live up to them. Moreover, contrary to what the classical philosophers teach, man has no duty to fulfill any end or purpose in his nature, for the simple reason that none exists; he is free to do pretty much what he wants.
In fact, as Mansfield points out, Machiavelli proves neither of these claims, which would be tantamount to refuting both biblical religion and classical philosophy. Rather, he assumes both biblical religion and classical philosophy to be false, and then proceeds to mount a frontal assault on what has followed from them. But so devastating was this attack that it accomplished, as Mansfield writes, a “great revolution in thought,” a revolution that would later be continued and extended by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, Bacon, and Descartes.
Things we today take for granted—among them the distinction between state and society, and the bounties that result from the conquest of nature—all either originate with Machiavelli or are built on groundwork that he laid. And we moderns, unconscious Machiavellians that we are, do not even realize it. Mansfield’s intent in this book is to wake us up, both to the fact of Machiavelli’s revolution and to its character.
But how precisely are we to assess its character—good, bad, or indifferent? Readers who hope to learn Harvey Mansfield’s answer to this question will find themselves disappointed. As in his previous book, the dense and difficult Taming the Prince (1989), Mansfield appears to have taken to heart at least one piece of Machiavelli’s advice—to proceed with a “mixture of boldness and caution.” He writes elliptically, often making pregnant suggestions that leave the reader laboring to deliver their meaning. In this, as in much else, he follows his mentor, Leo Strauss, to whose groundbreaking Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958) Mansfield’s book may be described as a kind of sequel.
Mansfield is candid about his debt to Strauss—he devotes an entire chapter to an examination of how Strauss’s book has been received and cites him repeatedly in every other chapter. But one thing Strauss made clear was his disfavor of the great change in thought that Machiavelli had brought about. Strauss’s entire intellectual career can be viewed as an attempt to recover the classical-biblical understanding that Machiavelli destroyed.
By declining to render judgment on Machiavelli’s revolution even as he presents an account that papers over none of its wickedness, Mansfield invites speculation that he may in fact welcome it. Or perhaps he believes that Machiavelli’s revolution is, as Machiavelli hoped it would be, “permanent and irreversible,” and that we simply must make the best of it. Or he may simply feel that Strauss has said everything to be said about the moral character of Machiavelli’s legacy, and has chosen simply to dwell on those aspects of his thought that stand in greater need of amplification.
Whatever the case, judgment on Machiavelli’s revolution can only be passed with a full understanding of what it entailed in the mind of its progenitor. On that score, Mansfield has made a distinctive, and distinguished, contribution, one that leaves us in a far better position to say for ourselves whether Machiavelli does indeed deserve the appellation, wicked.