Was Machiavelli's philosophy realistically correct

Great thinkers:

Niccolò Machiavelli

Philosopher of power

Werner Horvath: "Niccolo Machiavelli". Colored pencils on paper, 32 x 24 cm, 1999.

We know little about the youth and the exact educational path of the Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli, born in 1469, whose insights into the nature of political power found great admirers as well as bitter opponents. At the age of 29, however, he meets us as secretary (i.e. head) of the “Second Foreign Office” and of the “Council of Ten” (a foreign policy authority in his home town). Machiavelli was a kind of foreign and war minister of Florence; In this context, one must know that in the 16th century Italy was divided into numerous small states and characterized by the interventions of major foreign powers - above all the German empire on the one hand and the French kingdom on the other. The Republic of Florence was one of many actors in a confused and often brutal political situation that can be understood as a permanent crisis. Machiavelli was able to experience this policy up close and on his numerous diplomatic missions got to know the most important rulers of his time, e.g. the German Emperor Maximilian or the notorious Borgia family, who brought down many of their opponents with daggers, poison and insidious intrigues. The rise and fall of Cesare Borgias, son of Pope Alexander VI, made a particularly strong impression on Machiavelli.

The philosopher of power himself was able to record a decisive political success for the Republic of Florence, namely the organization of the campaign to recapture Pisa. In the eternal ups and downs of politics, which he later saw dominated by the arbitrariness of fate, personified in “Fortuna”, he lost his post and fell out of favor with the powerful in his homeland - the Medici family. As a private citizen, he presented his political views in two books: he wrote the “Prince” about the monarchy and the “Discorsi” about the republic, as well as numerous historical works, the most important of which is the “History of Florence”, in which For the first time since the ancient Greeks, the struggle for power (and not, for example, divine intervention etc.) was presented as central to the historical process. With his writings he founded the political-philosophical thinking of the modern age; and his influence on intellectual history has proven to be more lasting than his political successes or his brief “comeback” in public office shortly before his death.

Machiavelli's thinking represents a radical break with the political philosophy of the Middle Ages. Under the impression of the severe crisis in Italy at the time, Machiavelli's political theory no longer asks about the conditions for a good and virtuous life, as was the case in the Middle Ages. For the medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas, for example, human community was oriented towards a higher goal, namely virtue understood as a Christian and thus ultimately towards salvation. What interests Machiavelli, on the other hand, is only “the durability, the internal stability and the external expansion capacity of the state community”. According to Herfried Münkler, Machiavelli's thinking shows a new, fundamental political category of the modern age: the Self-preservation - especially the state. With this, Machiavelli reverses the priorities of the Middle Ages: While Thomas Aquinas, for example, would subordinate self-preservation to the salvation of the soul, the latter practically no longer plays a role in Machiavelli. Rather, it could almost seem that Machiavelli, with the famous sentence from his Florentine story, in which he pays tribute to those who value the fatherland more than his salvation, turns what was previously essential into a mere appendage. Machiavelli leaves the normative approach of the politics of earlier times and paves the way to the realistic paradigm.

Machiavelli transforms religion from the norm of politics to its means. For him, religion is just an instrument that can be used to achieve political goals. This also means, among other things, an emancipation of politics from religion. The independence and autonomy of politics are brought to bear against the previously overpowering theology. This secularization of political thought, especially promoted by Machiavelli - a basic prerequisite for all subsequent significant developments in this area - was to become his epoch-making, historical achievement. His work is therefore to be placed alongside that of a Copernicus who brought natural science to the fore over theology. It is fair to say that the modern age begins - at least in the field of political thought - with Machiavelli. His work is to be seen in the context of the general secularization tendency of the Renaissance. With Machiavelli, people who have lost their medieval security are left to their own devices. “Nobody should be so foolish as to believe that when his house collapses that he can forsake God to save him,” Machiavelli proclaimed to his contemporaries. Machiavelli is a thinker of the crisis. The crisis in Italy, the crisis in his hometown Florence, the crisis in the crumbling medieval world, which has already lost much of its credibility. Machiavelli tries to replace trust in God with self-confidence - not only the state, but also people who work in politics must ensure their self-preservation. For this he needs the ability of “virtù”, which for Machiavelli means roughly as much as political proficiency. Machiavelli's writings also show another renaissance tendency: the individual's reflection on himself and his abilities. Machiavelli is also a writer shaped by the dawning bourgeois age. Like the emerging middle class in his early capitalist hometown of Florence, Machiavelli brings out the individual. And he calls for a bourgeois form of government in the “Discorsi”: the republic. Machiavelli is thus one of the first representatives of a new era.

Like other thinkers of the Renaissance, Machiavelli goes back to antiquity. He needed the ancient authors as a kind of quarry; they provide him with the building material for a world opposite to the Middle Ages, which Machiavelli wants to build. Machiavelli needs the ancient historians, and he was particularly impressed by Titus Livius: on the one hand, to draw from them the models for his political writings, on the other hand, to extract from them a conception of history that is not oriented towards the transcendent. Machiavelli's view of history does without divine intervention. People shape their own story. From this point of view, secularization and people's new self-confidence are intertwined. Machiavelli is like a bulldozer tearing down the old worldview of a dying epoch. He is building a new, worldly thought structure in place of the old one. But it should be left to other modern thinkers (such as Hobbes) to systematically complete much of what Machiavelli said.

Machiavelli's contemporary Thomas More wrote a work called “Utopia”, in which an ideal state is described. Machiavelli, however, thoroughly and completely rejects this paradigm.

“But since it is my intention to write something useful for those who understand it, it seemed to me more appropriate to pursue the reality of things than the mere ideas about them. Many have imagined republics or principalities that no one has ever seen or actually known; for there is so great a distance between life as it is and life as it should be that whoever neglects what is happening in favor of what should happen is thereby doing its downfall rather than its preservation ; for a person who wants to profess what is good in every respect must perish in the midst of so many others who are not good. Therefore, if a prince is to assert himself, he must learn the ability to be no good and apply it or not apply it according to the imperative. ” (see The Prince, Chapter XV)

This quote, although it was placed by Machiavelli in a rather inconspicuous place in his treatise “The Prince”, published in 1513, can be considered his central argument. There are several important thoughts in this passage.

1.) Machiavelli wants to describe politics as it is is, don't be like them should. He considers works that describe any never-existing states to be worthless castles in the air.

2.) He also refuses to moralize when considering politics. In his opinion, it is not at all possible for a politician to always behave in a morally correct manner. For in the dirty field of politics there is generally immoral action; the statesman is surrounded by many competitors who do not necessarily feel bound by moral imperatives. But if he is the only honest in the midst of all liars, the only faithful in the midst of all those who are in breach of contract, the only pacifist in the midst of all violent people, he will not be able to hold his own in the long run - just as the only innocent lamb in the midst of a wolf pack could not survive long. Machiavelli therefore allows his prince to act immorally in certain situations - I would like to call this passage quoted above, which seems to me to be so central to his work, the “Machiavellian empowerment”.

3.) However, that does not mean that Machiavelli - and that is a common misunderstanding! - granted a general absolution to the blind and senseless rage of the tyrant. Machiavelli does not mean that a prince must or should always lie. He expressly writes - see above - that a prince does not have to learn the ability to act well and “to use it or not to use it, depending on the commandment of necessity”. He cannot use it either - and if he does, he is only allowed to do so according to the commandment of necessity (“necessità”).

So there are situations in which, in Machiavelli's opinion, Prince Machiavelli's must act immorally if he does not want to perish; his immoral behavior is only justified in these situations. “Necessity” in this situation means - in my opinion this is evident from the context of the text - above all “necessity of self-assertion”. The “Machiavellian empowerment” therefore only applies under the basic condition that use is made of it when it is necessary for self-preservation. The actions of a Caligula who killed the people around him at will, without this benefiting his self-assertion in any way, are therefore by no means covered by Machiavelli's writings.

Machiavelli regards the fact that Achilles was taught by the centaur Chiron as a profound symbol. By giving the great political leader of the Greeks a being who is half human and half animal as their teacher, the ancients had given them to understand “that a prince must be able to assume both natures and that one without the other is not of Duration is. " Above all, this is to be understood in such a way that, in Machiavelli's opinion, a prince must - on a case-by-case basis - also be able to use the animal's weapon, namely violence.

Machiavelli, this is typical of his thinking in analogies and images, also mentions in his “Fürst” which animals, in his opinion, the politician should take as models: lion and fox; “For the lion is defenseless against snares and the fox against wolves. So you have to be a fox to see the snares and a lion to frighten the wolves. Those who simply commit themselves to the nature of the lion understand nothing of this. " The lion and the fox are strong and cunning; or in negative terms: violent and cunning. According to Machiavelli, both characteristics are essential for success in politics. Incidentally, Machiavelli's lion and fox took over the performing arts of the following centuries and turned them into attributes of the fascinating and dangerous power politician. Machiavelli's prince is a kind of animal man, a predator gifted with intelligence, a highly intelligent beast. And it has to be in order to be able to assert oneself efficiently in the power struggle of politics. Machiavelli's contemporary, the moralistic politician Savonarola, who fails because of the rigors of reality due to the persecution of upright and out-of-date moral ideas and who is ultimately burned by his own followers, finds his biting mockery.

At this point, of course, critical remarks are also necessary. Do politics and morals really have nothing to do with each other? In a radicalized form, this view is more than unbelievable. In the past there are examples of important politicians who were very much convinced of certain values ​​of humanity - one thinks in this context, for example, of Martin Luther King, the civil rights activist in the USA, or of Vaclav Havel, the poet persecuted by the communists and first president of the free, democratic Czech Republic. And these politicians weren't always the least successful in history (not everyone who advocates a certain moral automatically ends up like Savonarola)!

On closer reading, Machiavelli's work is - in spite of all its polemics against the moralization of politics - not at all as immoral as it initially appears; And there are some indications that in the end he does not polemicize against morality in general, but against the traditional, completely unrealistic morality of the Christian Middle Ages that disdains political practice and was imposed on it as being alien.

Machiavelli's work is generally more moral than his reputation: The Florentine, for example, in the “Discorsi” makes a passionate plea for a republic, which in his opinion is superior to dictatorships. Thus the republic can better meet the changes of the circumstances through the periodic change at the top and is therefore more viable; dictators also tend to have exaggerated ideas that can endanger the welfare of the state.

But Machiavelli's books also contain passages in the text which, for example, condemn genocide from a human perspective (cf. Discorsi I, 26) or point out that it cannot serve the political and economic stability of a country if the right to property is exercised by a ruler and his favorites are arbitrarily touched (cf. Der Fürst, Chapter XVII). He also advocates the integration of immigrants, whose strong influx makes it possible to increase the population - a source of political power - more sustainably and more strongly than through normal births (cf. Discorsi II, 3). A country is successful when it brings people into the country, not when it excludes them; and today we know that the rise of the USA, which did not yet exist in Machiavelli's time, to become a world power is closely related to its status as a country of immigration; So Machiavelli was anything but xenophobic. In such opinions, moral dimensions flash up in the writings of the alleged apostle of immorality. Strategic thinking - in the long term - and morals may ultimately even merge into one.

One of Machiavelli's central demands is to pay more attention to political reality and to take it into account more in one's own deliberations about politics. Yes, this is supposed to be another critical remark, what is it, the “reality”? Machiavelli's work, this is one of his greatest weaknesses, does not contain a comprehensive epistemological foundation. But especially in politics you can see that people are moved not by the facts, but by their opinion about them. A Palestinian undoubtedly sees the “reality” of the Middle East conflict differently from an Israeli. Although Machiavelli seems a little naive in this regard, one can agree with his central demand for consideration of reality insofar as one can see it as unhelpful if one “spins” oneself into ideological systems that do not fit into politics because they do Carrying unfulfillable moral demands into them and also ignoring the “unpleasant” sides of politics - above all everything that has to do with the much maligned concept of power.

In one relationship, Machiavelli's work itself leaves the soil of strict realism, which it initially vehemently demands - apparently in the intuitive realization that the visionary who shapes the future is often the greater realist than one who comes to terms with everything that already exists. In the last chapter of his “Prince”, the Florentine calls for the unification of Italy. He saw the political situation in his homeland - briefly described above - as very bleak; he wanted an Italy that returned to its ancient greatness and would not be devastated by rival small states and intervening great powers.How “unrealistic” the demand for Italian unity was in his time can be measured, among other things, from the fact that around three hundred years later Metternich, in a thoroughly “realistic” assessment, was able to describe Italy as a geographical, not a political term. Today a united Italy with one currency, one government, one army is practically a matter of course. It is hardly surprising that Italian nationalists always saw Machiavelli as one of their forerunners and still see them today.

Today the question arises whether we can share this “nationalist” appropriation of Machiavelli. After all, it was not “ethnic” concepts that prompted him to plead for Italian unification, but rather very pragmatic arguments that could be applied by analogy to the European integration process. In many respects, Europe seems to be in the same situation as the Italy that Machiavelli found: as a part of the world with a significant past, it has found itself repeatedly involved in bloody fratricidal wars in the course of its history, only to be largely relegated to the plaything of foreign powers during the East-West conflict become. Political entities, that was Machiavelli's point, can increase their power and thus their ability to assert themselves through union or amalgamation in order to overcome such situations - accordingly Machiavelli also advises republics to conclude close, permanent confederations (cf. Discorsi II, 4). Machiavelli's political philosophy contains demands that far exceeded the horizon of his contemporaries, but which await meaningful implementation in the future.

© of this text: Patrick Horvath, Vienna, 2002.

Werner Horvath: "Niccolo Machiavelli - The Prince". Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm, 2002.

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