A few quick thoughts on Machiavelli

by b socha

Imagine there are two choices regarding Machiavelli and the tension between the Prince and the Discourses: a. Machiavelli is setting up a teleological narrative of rulership and ruled. The purpose of the principality creates the necessary historical and social conditions for a republican government. or b, the principality is a response to human nature, that men are swine and they must be controlled by any means necessary.

I answered today that both are correct, and here is why: there is no such thing as human nature. At least not for Machiavelli. And this is a point that I agree with. The formulation for the argument of Machiavelli being a proto materialist as well as a realist is the following:

Human beings have no original nature, but rather, their behavior is determined from social relations that define their political reality. In order for the conditions of social reality to change, Italy must undergo unification. The ruler must necessarily be on the side of the populace, or at the very least he must not let the populace hate him. From this point, Italy may reach the social preconditions for a republican government, based on the consciousness or the necessity against (all) leaders and for the general will. The tension between centralization and democratic republicanism is a clear one. Machiavelli is the first thinker to show that the conditions of man’s inner reality and theorizations for what social organization in Italy might be, stem from the real material and social constraints of his time.

Machiavelli, too, articulates a tract for the unification of Italy at the very moment it is least realistic–as Althusser would say, at the furthest limit of the imaginary, Machiavelli imagines the actual.

Let me explain how Machiavelli is a pragmatist and a theorist: It is the case, in Machiavelli’s Italy, that all areas surrounding it had undergone or were undergoing unification. The exception is Germany. The preface and the final chapter of the Prince make it clear that the unification of Italy into a unified state is necessary if Italy and its diminutive cities were to avoid destruction. Let alone military humiliation, factionalization of national interests subordinated to the Roman Catholic Church.

Nationalization, Machiavelli supposes is a historical necessity, not a nicety for convenience’s sake. The pages of the Prince outline how a prince might acquire a new principality without making mention of his “master plea” until the very end. The emotive outcry for an Italian unifier comes from a complex voice. It is Machiavelli the citizen, not the theorist, who projects his own voice into and maybe over the people of Italy. From where is he speaking? How do we know that this prince and this unified state will be successful or even habitable?

Now, this is where I get to the second part of my argument. There is a teleological role of history and government at play within and between the Prince and the Discourses that is fully realized in the second work on republics. Machiavelli says it plainly enough in the beginning of the discourses in his discussion of Rome and of cities, generally. Where factions and the masses might not be able to come to a consensus on the rules and policies in a city, a single founder is certainly capable of doing that. Machiavelli states that after the ruler dies (or, can I suggest, is killed) the population is in a position to maintain and expand the state.

On the topic of “expansion” one of my colleagues had an interesting thought: he said that the expansion of ever more categories is progress, intellectually. It is the expansion of the imagined possible. And I thought that this was a tremendously interesting way to articulate what is happening between the dynamics of two different moments in Machiavelli’s thought.

Therefore, it is not enough to claim that “in one situation, Machiavelli outlines what will happen in X state as a republic where in Y state he will outline how a prince may come to acquire a new territory. No, one must make sense of the changing circumstances in “human nature” as well as in government as a response to changing social relations.

I would also like to point out how very much I thought about Lenin while reading the Prince. In further support for my nascent thesis, here is a quick line from Michael Hardt on Lenin and state power: “the state, Lenin counters, is always an instrument of oppression, and it stands in the way of the revolutionary goal to create a new, fuller democracy,” (x). (From Michael Hardt Presents).  Thomas Jefferson).