Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Machiavelli's Prince, Article in The Nation 1891

Machiavelli's Prince, Article in The Nation 1891

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Mr. Burd's edition of ‘The Prince’ is not only remarkable as being the work of an Englishman, but as being the edition for which the world has been looking for three hundred and fifty years. He has at last made it possible for any reader to form an unprejudiced opinion of the meaning of Machiavelli’s famous treatise. With all the patience, industry, and research of a German, he has collected his materials, and he has set them forth with a clearness and terseness to which but few Germans attain. The service which he has thus rendered must be as permanent as is the interest of ‘The Prince’ itself, for he has at last moored to the solid rock of fact that work which has, during ten generations, been drifting to and fro on the conflicting tides of opinion. How important this achievement is hardly needs to be explained here, because every one who knows anything about Machiavelli knows that, as the ablest exponent of one of the great theories of political authority and ethics, he has not been and cannot be superseded. Machiavellianism is an element which human society has not eliminated, a force whose working can be as clearly traced to-day as in the days of the Borgias.

Regarded as an artistic creation, Machiavelli's Prince has had no peer in modern literature except Goethe’s Mephistopheles; the former is the personification of the selfishness of a State, as the latter is of the selfishness of the individual who denies all obligations to God or man, and seeks only to gratify his passions, whatever may be the injury he inflicts on his fellows. But Machiavelli had no poet’s creation in view when he drew his portrait of the Prince; his aim was intensely practical, and he trusted to observation, to facts, not to sentiment or imagination, for the substance of his work. Seeing Italy harassed by a multitude of petty tyrants, and constantly overrun by foreign invaders, he believed that her only hope lay in the expulsion of the "barbarians,” and in the gradual consolidation of her distracted provinces under the sway of one ruler. But what sort of a man must such a ruler be? What are the means by which princes acquire and hold States’? These are the questions Machiavelli asks himself, and to find answers to them he examines the actual methods and characteristics of the princes of his own and former ages. He discovers that not devotion to the common weal, but to self-interest, not justice but success, not right but might, are the great forces and considerations which determine the actions of monarchs. Therefore, a prince who would succeed must excel his rivals in the employment of craft or cruelty; morals no more concern him than they concern a general in battle; his one duty is to conquer, and, if he conquer, victory excuses all his crimes. Indeed, the Prince (or State) cannot truly be said to commit crimes, being a law unto himself. “I do not describe what ought to be, but what I,” Machiavelli would retort to his critics. “You may prefer a world which you would call more moral, but this is the world in which we are placed, these are the tricks and forces which dominate it. It is as idle to complain that a monster like Alexander VI. occupies the chair of St. Peter, or that ruffians like the Sforza lord it over Lombardy, as that water runs down hill. The facts are as I have stated them: strength prevails over weakness though the strong man be wicked and the weak be virtuous; shrewdness and guile impose upon simplicity; it is not a question as to which is ideally worthier, but as to which succeeds.”

The best proof of the accuracy of Machiavelli's portrait is the storm of abuse that it provoked. He had blabbed an open secret, and from both princes and peoples came an indignant denial. The former protested that they were not the villains, the latter that they were not the fools, he painted them. They branded him as a blasphemer of human nature, as a cynic and reprobate who imputed to mankind the basest motives. His enemies, not content with assailing his maxims, loaded his memory with evil insinuations that he was personally a depraved man—as if to imply that his horrid
opinions were the natural outcome of his life. Even his apologists dared not defend the literal interpretation of his treatise, but they insisted that it had a hidden meaning which justified it and exonerated its author. Cardinal Pole, one of the earliest and most virulent of Machiavelli's critics, states that when he attacked ‘The Prince’ before Machiavelli's fellow-citizens, they always replied,

“as they said M. himself did, that in the book he had regard not only to his own feeling, but also to that of the man to whom he was writing. Now this man [Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici] he knew for a tyrant by nature, and so he put in things which could not fail to please such a nature exceedingly. Still he, like every other writer on the education of a king or prince, was of opinion, and experience verifies it, that these very things would, if carried out in practice, make the tyrant’s reign a short one. Now this was exactly what he desired, for his heart was all afire with hatred of the Prince to whom he wrote, and he had no other object in the book except this —by writing to a tyrant things which a tyrant loves, to hurl him, if possible, headlong to self-destruction.”

Another school of defenders maintained that Machiavelli did not so much aim at hastening the downfall of princes by instigating them by his disingenuous counsel, to commit fatal blunders, as to put in the minds of the people a knowledge of the cunning by which they had been duped, in order that they might thenceforth be duped no more. This latter, which we may call the “antidote theory," since, according to its advocates, Machiavelli, in describing the effects of political poisons, suggested their remedy, has been, on the whole, the most popular of all the various apologies; and it is worth recording that the Italians, during their long struggle to oust the Austrian “barbarian" and to shake off their native despots during the present century, quoted, after Dante, none of their bygone great men more often than Machiavelli. But, on the other hand, the army of his enemies, large from the first, have kept up a persistent fire down to the present time, varying their points of attack and adopting different weapons, but holding fast to their detestation of “Old Nick." To abominate him and his doctrines has long been an easy way to win reputation for superior virtue; but might it not be cited as evidence of the skill with which Machiavelli dissected human nature? It is significant that the Company of Jesus, which has persistently followed the teachings of ‘The Prince,‘ and that Frederick the Great, a Machiavellian monarch if ever there was one, have been among the loudest to denounce and deny their master. The attitude of the world towards Machiavelli reminds me of that of a camp meeting at which the revivalist preacher requests those of his hearers who hate the devil to stand up—and all rise.

But this is not the place in which to record and examine the great mass of prejudices and opinions which have, for three centuries and a half, prevented ‘The Prince’ from being dispassionately viewed; merely to indicate them will suffice for our present purpose, which is to express deep satisfaction that, with the publication of Mr. Burd's book, any excuse for misconceptions in the future is removed. He indulges in no empty or Pharisaical abuse, he does not hold up his hands in holy horror, nor believe that by declaring that he detests lying and killing he has "answered" Machiavelli. Wisely leaving the Ten Commandments to defend themselves, be aims simply at giving the reader every possible help to understand exactly what Machiavelli meant, and he does this by furnishing ample historical information about the period in which the Florentine Secretary lived, and by elucidating ‘The Prince’ with quotations from Machiavelli's other works. Thus we are able to see how much of Machiavelli's doctrine was common to his time, and how much was peculiar to himself, and to estimate his work as a whole, instead of in fragments. Hitherto, it has been too much the habit of critics to pick out a few obnoxious sentences and to direct their whole attention to them; Mr. Burd makes it possible for any one to know which opinions Machiavelli elsewhere qualified, which he abandoned, and which he held to the end of his life.

Instead of writing a formal biographical and critical introduction, Mr. Burd limits himself to a brief statement of the purpose of ‘The Prince,’ of the conditions under which it was produced, and of the attitude of early critics towards it; then, in a copious Historical Abstract, he sets down year by year the principal events in Italian politics and in Machiavelli’s personal fortunes, between 1469 and 1527. By this last plan the reader can turn quickly from any passage in ‘The Prince,’ in which contemporary affairs are alluded to, and find a succinct narrative of them, this is all the more important because Machiavelli draws from the current affairs of his day most of the illustrations for his doctrines. Mr. Burd’s knowledge of the history of Medicean ltaly will best be appreciated by those who have themselves studied the Renaissance most thoroughly. It is rare indeed to come upon so comprehensive a summary of any epoch as that on pp. 23-26, in which the condition of decaying Italy is described with great force and compactness; and many of the notes, as, for instance, the short preface to chaps. 8 and 18, and the note on Caesar Borgia (pp. 214-217), are models of what the best editorial work should be.

The key to Mr. Burd’s own attitude towards 'The Prince,’ and, as we firmly believe, the true one, is contained in the following passage (p. 16):

"In modern times hardly any science of which the subject-matter is man, viewed under one aspect singled out from many others, has been brave enough to neglect the other points of view from which man may be regarded. Political Economy is the classical exception; and it is characteristic of modern feeling that there should be so much opposition to those who choose to regard men solely as creatures under the laws of supply and demand; and the belief that to disregard moral causes which influence even commercial action vitiates the conclusions of political economists, is in a measure justified. The same holds good of political science: any attempt to reckon without the sentiments and permanent moral convictions of men is doomed beforehand to failure. But there may he a moral interest in eliminating one side of human nature, the most capricious and the least subject to law, in order to trace the operations of cause and effect. assuming that no disturbing agencies will be present.

"Machiavelli, in ‘The Prince,’ has eliminated sentiment and morality, though the interest to him was not merely scientific. but practical also; he did so partly deliberately and partly without any distinct consciousness that he was mutilating human nature. But whatever considerations determined the method he employed, he followed it without swerving, consistently and logically. . . Whether by thus considering only one aspect of human nature at a time he has vitiated his own conclusions, or whether this is rather the condition upon which alone he could solve the problem which he set himself, may be doubled; but it would be unfair in any case to argue from his silence and his omissions that he had lost the consciousness that man might be regarded as a moral being; he merely declined to allow moral considerations to interfere, as he believed they did, with the logical discussion of the subject in hand."

Readers who are acquainted with Lord Acton's great erudition and ability, and who have cause to regret that he so seldom displays them in print, will turn at once to his Introduction, and will probably be disappointed by it, at least at first. For instead of its being a criticism by Lord Acton upon so remarkable a personage as Machiavelli, it is rather a collection, gathered from the most various and recondite sources, of the opinions which philosophers, politicians, and theologians have expressed on Machiavelli and Machiavellianism during the past three hundred years. Only the cement in which these mosaic-bits are embedded in Lord Acton'a own, but from the design he has wrought, and from his brief comments, we can infer what his own views are. He would maintain that Machiavelli’s account of the practice of rulers and states is in the main correct; that, whatever may be the talk about moral considerations, self-interest really determines international policy, and that the cases in which an unselfish motive has prevailed are few compared with the habitual employment of Machiavellian principle.

On the surface we are easy-going optimists, whatever may be our inmost genuine convictions, and either we strive not to see the evil forces by which we are hemmed in, or we call them by pleasant names. We assume that many of the enormities which shock as as we look back upon the past, perished with the past. But it is better to know the truth than to dream in a Fool’s Paradise, for, until we have measured an abuse, we cannot successfully combat it. And Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ is one of the books which should be read and pondered by every man who would see some of the aims and methods that have characterized the dealings of states and rulers since the beginning of history. The form which Machiavellianism assumes may vary, but its essence remains fixed. Europe to day is as much under the sway of selfish principles as Italy was at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The belief that might makes right, that there is no appeal from brute force, that the State can do no wrong, that success justifies all measures, and that weakness is the only failure, the only unpardonable sin — these are so easily deducible from the current practice of European nations that we need do no more than mention them; and these are true Machiavellian doctrines. We are shocked at the name, but not at the thing. Metternich, Louis Napoleon, Bismarck, Beaconsfleld  — be the result of their policy, good or bad—were all practical disciples of the Florentine master of statecraft; and as evidence that under a republican form of government human nature does not change, we need only cite the success of such vulgar and clumsy Machiavellians as Butler, Blaine, and Quay. Their success is the best evidence that our public would be benefited by reading ‘The Prince,‘ in which are set down, as in a scientific treatise, the signs by which the political charlatan can be detected and so guarded against. Of course, Machiavelli no more invented the traits which are called by his name than Goethe invented those traits in human nature which he personified in Mephistopheles; to have analyzed and described them as he has done assures for him and his book the permanent attention of students of politics and ethics. “Religion, progressive enlightenment, the perpetual vigilance of public opinion, have not,” says Lord Acton, "reduced his empire, or disproved the justice of his conception of mankind. He obtains a new lease of authority from causes that are still prevailing, and from doctrines that are apparent in politics, philosophy, and science. Without sparing censure or employing for comparison the grosser symptoms of the age, we find him near our common level, and perceive that he is not a vanishing type, but a constant and contemporary influence.”

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