The First Political Scientist

Santa Croce, where the tombs of Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli are located

Santa Croce, where the tombs of Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli are located

Today we started at the Science museum, disappointed that major rennovations have caused the closing of the two main floors.   It was still interesting, and afterwards we discussed Machiavelli and wet to Santa Croce, pictured above.   Unfortunately Machiavelli’s tomb is behnd scaffolding and I couldn’t snap a picture of it as I had planned.  In many ways Machiavelli is to my field what Galileo was to physics — and early proponent of a new way of thinking about politics.  Unlike Galileo, however, Machiavelli isn’t recalled with respect and reverance.  Calling someone Machiavellian is considered in fact an insult.  However, in the context of his era, one cannot deny Machiavelli’s insights, or the fact that he touches themes and issues that are with us to this day.   The context is the late 15th and early 16th centuries (Machiavelli lived from 1469 to 1527).

By the late 15th century Florence’s renaissance was not all a smooth sailing quest for  rediscovering lost knowledge and promoting humanism.   The dark side of this change — avarice, materialism, wants perceived as needs, and loss of a spiritual center — were noticed very early on.  This helped a Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, gain support and power, railing aganist the growing immorality of the city.   He took over in 1494, turning Florence into something of a democratic republic.   But he ruled with strict morality, making sodomy a capital offense (homosexuality had been tolerated in Florence) and in 1497 ignited the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities.”   Young boys went door to door, collected all objects that suggested moral laxity, and burned them at Piazza della Signora.

The Pope had enough of this upstart and ex-communicated him, ordering his arrest.  The Florentine people had suffered economically during his rule and turned on him.   He was eventually tortured and killed, and for a while Florence had a Republic.  One of the leaders in this Republic was Niccolo Machiavelli, who served as Chancellor (a rather minor role).  The Medicis would come back to power, however, Machivelli would be tortured and removed from his position, and in reflecting on his fate and that of Italy’s, he discovered political science, writing the famous short book,  The Prince.  

Machiavelli was remarkably insightful and a pragmatist.   In his book he notes that others have dreamed of Republics that only exist in the imagination (he was thinking Plato), he was going to deal with the world as it really is.  And the world he saw around him was not doing well.  Italy was divided and weakly governed, suffering countless attacks from Spain, France and the Germans.  Traveling between cities was dangerous, and rule of law was virtually non-existent.   He also thought of an experience he had once while working in Florence, when he was sent to settle a dispute amongst two rival clans in nearby Pistoia.

He quickly realized that the Pistoians were too full of anger and hatred to make peace, and came back and suggested that Florence conquer Pistoia for its own good.  Yet the Florentines balked at such naked aggression, and rejected Machiavelli’s advice.  The result was a blood bath, as people were butchered in the streets as the gangs fought it out for control of Pistoia.   Machiavelli condemned the Florentines, saying that their desire not to be cruel (to attack Pistoia) actually was more cruel than conquest would have been, given the human cost.  He thus concluded that Italy needed leadership that was more in touch with how the world really works.    You can not have a Republic without order and security first, he argued, and until Italy was united under strong leadership it would be subject to attacks and internal conflict.  The Italian people would suffer from this lack of authority.  Therefore he called for a Prince to come, bring order and security, and lay the framework for building a true Republic.

Seen in this light, Machiavelli’s work is brilliant.  He categorizes different kinds of regimes and their strengths and weaknesses, as well as how difficult they might be to conquer and hold.   His analysis rings true today; he would have correctly predicted the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conflicts like those in Bosnia and Rwanda would not have surprised him.   He also seems to have been right about Italy.  Lacking stable governance they fell behind the rest of Europe, and remained divided and weak well into the 19th century.    His work seems very cold.  For instance, Machiavelli argues that it is better to be feared than loved, since people will turn on someone they love in an instant, while fear will keep them in line.   People should aspire for the reputation of honesty, but not be afraid to lie and betray friends if it is necessary for the good of the Prince’s rule.   A Prince should be an effective liar, able to fool the people and not be afraid to use violent repression.

But don’t confuse his ideas with the crimes of Hitler and Stalin.  For Machiavelli the killing of innocents and the repression was to be used only in so much as it needed to be to assure order and stability, and no more.   A Prince simply has to recognize that in the real world morality is a path to ruin, despite what the philosophers say.  Instead a leader needs a cold pragmatic sense of how the real world works, and a willingness to do what is necessary to give the people the security and stability they need — he called this virtu, a kind of ‘strong virtue’.   The ends justify the means, and he believes that his approach would help the Italian people far more than trying to rule through moral principles.

His ability to analyze politics and regime types, and think theoretically about the nature of governance makes him one of the most important, and in many ways most troubling, political thinkers.    Do the ends justify the means?   Should we torture or hold dangerous people, some perhaps innocent, in order to, say, protect the US from a terrorist attack?    Machiavelli’s introduction of the “is” vs. “ought” dilemma in political thought touches major political debates to this day.  Machiavelli’s distrust of human nature (he says that if you kill a man’s father don’t take his property, because people will forgive the murder of a father before they’ll forgive taking their wealth) causes numerous debates.  Are humans really greedy and willing to do what they want for gain, or are we primarily good and able to order our own affairs without the aid of a strong authority?

Machiavelli’s pragmatic cynicism is as relevant now and then, as is Savonarola’s condemnation of material decadence.  The dilemmas of the modern world were already evident in late 15th century and early 16th century Florence.   Machiavelli’s thought also shows the rise of humanism and realism in opposition to spiritualism and idealism in renaissance thought.    Politics is less about philosophy, more about science — not about ideals and principles, but what works in the world.

Nonetheless I think Machiavelli describes the culture of renaissance Europe more than any kind of timeless sense of human nature.    Clearly Machiavelli is only calling for leaders to act this way, not for ‘ordinary folk.’   I end up disagreeing with Machiavelli, while respecting his insight and the fact he raises dilemmas troubling to this day.   I believe he neglects what Rousseau would call ‘natural human compassion,’ and a sense of how human nature is mediated by culture and context.  Still, for political science he’s our Galileo, for better or worse.

  1. #1 by henitsirk on February 24, 2009 - 21:08

    The impression I get from your description (I have not read any Machiavelli) is that of the leader being quite separate from the common people. Certainly that must reflect the class system of the day? And what a contrast with more “modern” leadership concepts like servant leadership! Of course, virtue has the same Latin root as virile — vir, or “man”. So there is definitely a feeling of masculine strenth, possibly even domination or aggression,there.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on February 24, 2009 - 21:27

    Very perceptive — there is a whole literature out there about the masculine form of Machiavelli’s virtue, and the way it’s connected to virility, domination and strength! So I think you’re definitely on the right track in that read of Machiavelli.

  3. #3 by akinagunbiade on February 9, 2015 - 22:53

    Just the kind of leader Nigeria needs

  1. Machiavelli and Savonarola « World in Motion

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