What Machiavelli Can Teach Us Today

By Robert Kaplan

What is modernity? Is it skyscrapers, smart phones, wonder drugs, atomic bombs? You're not even close. Modernity, at least in the West, is the journey away from religious virtue toward secular self-interest. Religious virtue is fine for one's family and the world of private morality. But the state -- that defining political structure of modern times -- requires something colder, more chilling. For the state must organize the lives of millions of strangers and protect their need to selfishly acquire material possessions. If everyone stole from everyone else there would be anarchy. So the state monopolizes the use of force, taking it away from criminals. The state appeals not to God, but to individual selfishness. Thus, it clears the path for progress.

Thomas Hobbes conceived of the modern state in his Leviathan, published in 1651. Hobbes is known wrongly as a gloomy philosopher because of his emphasis on anarchy. Hobbes was actually a liberal optimist, who saw the state as the solution to anarchy, allowing people to procure possessions and build a community. Hobbes knew that in the path toward a better world, order first has to be established. Only later can humankind set about making such order non-tyrannical.

But what did Hobbes' philosophy ultimately build on? It built on the first of the moderns, the early 16th century Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli, whose masterpiece, The Prince, was written 500 years ago in 1513. Here is an anniversary as important as the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, celebrated in 1992.

By taking politics away from the narrowing fatalism of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, Machiavelli created the very secular politics from which Hobbes could conceive of the idea of the state.The Prince may be less a work of cynicism than an instructional guide to overcome fate -- the fatalism of the Roman Catholic Church at that time. Thus, Machiavelli, more than Michelangelo perhaps, was the true inventor of the Renaissance. The founders of the American Republic, who conceived of a polity in which church and state were separate and in which government existed to lay the rules for individuals to compete freely in the struggle to acquire wealth, owed much to Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Receive email alerts

But it is with Machiavelli, more than with Hobbes, where the principles of Western modernity truly begin. Indeed, we are fortunate to have still among us one of the great interpreters of Machiavelli, Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. Mansfield knows that it is more important to tell hard truths than it is to be liked and to get good reviews. That is why I have always had such deep respect for him, even though I have never met him. I know Mansfield the way one should know a great scholar: only through his writings.

Mansfield's book, Machiavelli's Virtue (1996), though drawing on the ideas of an earlier interpreter of Machiavelli, University of Chicago political scientist Leo Strauss, is an academic classic in its own right. Mansfield himself may not necessarily agree with Machiavelli, but he fearlessly shows why this towering figure of the Renaissance is still so relevant. For by setting the terms for political reality, Machiavelli helps lay the foundation for geopolitics.

Mansfield, interpreting Machiavelli's original Italian, explains to us that necessity frees people from religious faith. People may pray to God and go to church or synagogue or the mosque, but they must also acquire food and possessions for the sake of their loved ones, and thus they must enter into competition with their fellow human beings; just as nations must enter into competition with other nations. This is not something to lament, however. For in the last analysis, self-interest can lead to peace while rigid moral principles can lead to war. Self-interest informs compromise with other human beings, and thus a state governed by self-interest is likely to compromise with other states: whereas a person or state governed solely by religious or moral virtue will tend to delegitimize as immoral those with whom he or it disagrees -- and therein lies conflict. Virtue, in other words, is fine. But outstanding virtue -- because it tempts sanctimoniousness -- is dangerous. It is ultimately with this maxim that we find philosophical justification for moderation in contemporary politics and statecraft.

Those who find such thinking dark or cynical may be under the illusion that politics can bring respite from primitive necessity. Machiavelli, as Mansfield explains, is doubtful of this. Yes, politicians may announce their intention to strive for truth and justice, but their unspoken concerns and desires, even in a democracy -- especially in a democracy -- are really about satisfying the selfish needs of their constituents. Face it, primitive necessity is a fixture of the human condition. And, therefore, the only way to reduce conflict and suffering is through anxious foresight: the ability to foresee danger and necessities ahead. Thus are intelligence agencies more likely to prevent atrocities than humanitarians.

In politics, explains Machiavelli (through Mansfield), one who does good often cannot be good. One must even learn how to be bad, or at least devious, for the sake of the common good. This is not necessarily the end justifies the means, for Machiavelli is careful to stipulate that only the minimum amount of cruelty should be applied for the sake of the greatest amount of good.

Machiavelli is all about results. He believes that you define something in politics not by its inherent excellence, but by its outcome. For political virtue is separate from individual perfection. A leader may be honest, unselfish and moral, but if he starts a war that later proved unnecessary and killed many people, he lacks virtue -- despite being on a personal level very sympathetic. Conversely, a leader may be cynical, selfish and excessively ambitious, but if he keeps his countrymen away from danger he can still be said to have virtue -- despite being personally unappealing. Likeability has nothing to do with virtue, it turns out. For politics -- and especially geopolitics -- is concerned, according to Machiavelli, with knowing about the world rather than knowing about heaven. Indeed, precisely because Machiavelli was concerned with men and not with God, he was a humanist.

Machiavelli has his limits. For example, he could not have foreseen 20th century totalitarianism that mirrored the self-righteousness of the medieval Church with which he was in conflict, but on a much larger scale. He imagined the never-ending struggle between Italian city-states; not the titanic conflicts between gargantuan nuclear powers. Because the stakes are arguably higher now because of weapons of mass destruction, there is a danger of taking Machiavelli too far and using his philosophy to justify all sorts of risky subterfuges.

But there is a greater danger in simply dismissing his philosophy as unworthy of our so-called enlightened age. For our age is determined less by globalization than by the battle of space and power, both between states and between groups within states themselves -- as witnessed most recently by the ethnic and sectarian turmoil throughout the Greater Middle East. An American leader who is forced to grapple with such anarchy, even as he must take care to adopt the right tone with a militarily ascendant China and with an economically rising Latin America, could do worse than act "Machiavellian." And thanks to Professor Mansfield, we now know the true meaning of that adjective.

Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling new book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

Sponsored Links

Robert Kaplan
Author Archive