A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is, for revealing himself without any reservation in favor of one side against another. This policy is always more advantageous than neutrality.”Niccolo Machiavelli
Machiavelli has been credited with wisdom, after a modern fashion. In the passage quoted above, the Florentine sage claimed that being a true friend or a true enemy is always more advantageous. But there is a problem with this advice: How would Machiavelli explain the success of Swiss neutrality through two world wars? Of course, he cannot. The fact is, Machiavelli’s writings are full of maxims that do not prove to be true. So why is he celebrated as an important figure? My own answer is that Machiavelli became important because his cynicism was so incredibly naïve, and he dared to immortalize it in prose. It is not that he wrote the truth; rather, he told us how “cynical people think.” And this is a valuable corrective to naive idealism.
To underscore my point: Machiavelli’s maxims are not to be studied because they are true, but because a certain class of persons think they are true. This may seem a bit confusing, but political generalizations are not generally true at all. Yet they are a true measure of the man who formulates and follows them. Let us take, for example, two simple English maxims: “He who hesitates is lost” and “Look before you leap.” These maxims cancel each other out. Why, then, do they exist? Because they reflect two opposing temperaments: the quick and the slow.
In my own analysis, Machiavelli’s works are not philosophical or scientific. They are temperamental. Therefore, the Machiavellian outlook is the function of a political type. In other words, Machiavelli is teaching us about Machiavelli and all those who think like Machiavelli. Having noted all this, we are now blessed with a little book about Machiavelli by the Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho. The book has been beautifully translated by Anthony Doyle and is available on Amazon. Its title is Machiavelli or the Demonic Confusion.
The English-speaking world has yet to discover Olavo de Carvalho. In Brazil he is an “event,” and his influence will inevitably be felt beyond Brazil; for Olavo is one who has cut through the “obscurity of modern philosophy” with the clarity of the ancients. He is one who sees, who thinks, and who writes; that is to say, he is a rarity. How unexpected that such a person has arrived to us from Brazil, out of the Portuguese language – a language in which he is a master.
Olavo recognizes that Machiavelli – as the acclaimed father of modern political science – is not really a political scientist. He is not really a philosopher, or a liberal, or a patriot, or even an artist. Machiavelli is none of the things alleged by the various students of Machiavelli down through the last five centuries. Olavo finds Machiavelli to be “a riddle.” Olavo wrote, “I certainly do not hope to enjoy any more success in my endeavor than these illustrious thinkers.” Socratic irony peeks out at us; for Machiavelli did not have a consistent theme or message. His generalizations do not form a system. He was unclear, contradictory, and sometimes sloppy. Did all these “illustrious writers” bother to notice that Machiavelli was unintelligible?
They did not.
Machiavelli was groping and struggling through the labyrinth of history and politics. If he had been philosophically oriented, or theologically oriented, he would have had a moral compass and the strategic sense that comes with a proper point of departure; for morality and strategy are interrelated even as statesmanship and moral law are interrelated. Had Machiavelli’s advice been based on a creditable world view, he would have had solid ground to stand on. But he had no such view, and there was never any solid ground beneath him. In fact, Olavo tells us that Machiavelli was a pagan; and that is clearly evident for those who have read Machiavelli’s works. But here, paganism is mere “temperament” and not a real religion or worldview; for Machiavelli was not a believer in Jupiter Optimus Maximus, neither could he read the future in the entrails of animals or the flight of birds. Therefore, Machiavelli’s paganism was mere nostalgia for something long dead.
This takes us to one of Olavo’s most interesting arguments. It is widely accepted that Machiavelli was a realist. If we turn to James Burnham’s book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, we find Machiavelli praised as someone who swept away political fantasy and delusion in favor of “political truth.” Burnham credited Machiavelli as an enemy of “wishful thinking.” The idea here is that politics should be scientific instead of idealistic. Burnham insisted that, to be “scientific,” a work “must be non-transcendental,” by which he meant “something formulated in terms of the actual world of space and time and history.” Burnham added that Machiavelli’s “chief immediate practical goal” was the unification of Italy. What good are “glittering ideals” if they cannot be realized?
But many of us, on reading Burnham, neglected to ask whether Machiavelli’s “immediate goal” was actually practicable? Any student of Italian history must admit that the unification of Italy in the sixteenth century was highly unlikely. As Machiavelli explained in his own writings, the Papacy effectively prevented unification from occurring in Italy. And, as Olavo pointed out, Machiavelli’s suggestion that a Prince might “rise to power on the strength of his allies and then dispatch them,” is worse than unrealistic as a unification strategy. Anticipating Stalin by four centuries, a national consolidation by murdering one’s allies and colleagues could not lead to anything remotely desirable, especially for Machiavelli who would have been among the tyrant’s victims. What kind of fool advocates a bloody national tyranny as a “realistic” measure? According to Olavo, Machiavelli is unable “to examine his brainchild from the perspective of his own real position in existence.”[i]
Machiavelli, said Olavo, is not merely confused about reality. He is demonically confused. Here we find an important concept which applies to modernity as a whole. Machiavelli and his epigones – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler – were not mere adventurers or theorists. They exemplified modernity’s demonic tendency. As Olavo pointed out, “Machiavelli’s ideas do not stay on the page, nor are they content simply to father other ideas: they transmogrify into ambitions and acts, inspire coups d’etat and revolutions, found nations and political regimes, but still we don’t comprehend them.”[ii] Indeed! Nothing in these Machiavellians is coherent except the drive for power, or as Burnham calls it, “the science of power.”
Olavo shows us that Machiavelli’s scientific “suggestions,” unconcerned as they are with moral values, inevitably backfire on the practitioner. There is a blindness, a want of discernment, which belongs to Machiavelli’s “scientific” orientation. Machiavelli might point to tyrants who enjoyed a ripe old age. On the other hand, a tyrant is a very special kind of moral idiot who produces idiotic results in a deeper, more damaging sense than a drooling idiot. What good thing can be built on a wicked foundation? In point of fact, Burnham has Machiavelli erecting his shining city – not on a hill, but on a slippery slope to Hell.
This is the same misunderstanding that led to Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation.”[iii] Weber affirmed, as Burnham did, that science must be non-transcendental. He admitted, in this context, that science was about “progress” and therefore would be superseded in 25 years. In laying this out, Weber undermined his own argument inasmuch as science is a thing ultimately untrue, transient, and ever-changing. The late Professor Harry Eckstein of Princeton and UC Irvine, a great champion of Weber, once told a group of graduate students, “Weber was a groper.” This is exactly what Machiavelli was, too. This admission was honest, but not entirely edifying. Groping in the darkness of a contingent world holds little promise. Of course, Weber freely admitted much more than this when he mocked the idea that science, as a technique of mastering life, was a path to happiness. “Who believes in this?” he asked – “aside from a few big children in university chairs or editorial offices.” Science, he suggested, is without ultimate meaning. So where is science going if it has no meaning? Weber, with Machiavelli, offered up a value-neutral recipe for “progress.” But what would we then be progressing toward? The hydrogen bomb? COVID-19? A vaccine that is not a vaccine?
How could this approach ever be justified? Weber wrote, “’Scientific’ pleading is meaningless in principle because the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other.”[iv] Weber was suggesting that science must not take sides in a conflict over values. The scientists must be, in the world of thought, the equivalent of Switzerland. The implication is that values are not objectively real. The consequences of adopting certain values, therefore, are not objective consequences. But then, Weber knew better than that. After all, he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Actually, science cannot be neutral when it comes to transcendental values; for isn’t truth such a value? And isn’t science about truth? – which is humorous, because Machiavelli (as previously noted) argued against neutrality.
Why should Machiavelli’s truth-seeking succumb to a demonic confusion? Because truth, for Machiavelli as well as for Weber and Burnham, is ever anchored to matter and nothing more. These thinkers are living in Plato’s Cave, denying the relevance of everything outside that cave. With this inverted orientation – which is neither Christian nor pagan – the Machiavellians present us with efficient means to even more efficient means; and all this, to no end except that of blind acceleration. If these men had been truly wise, their trajectory would have been toward a transcendental bullseye. Yet they refused to even look for one. And so, the modernity they helped fashion is doomed to self-destruction through an out-of-control acceleration. Olavo calls this cognitive parallax, which is elsewhere defined as “the dislocation of the axis of the theoretical construction of a thinker and the axis of his lived experience….”[v]
I bring Weber into this discussion of Machiavelli to demonstrate that even our best modern thinkers are, in fact, subsumed under Machiavelli; so that when Olavo criticizes Machiavelli, he is actually offering us an insight that has a much wider application. Machiavelli the immoralist, Machiavelli the democrat, Machiavelli the scientist. All of these Machiavellis are entirely or partly akin to Weber and Burnham and all those other “great” political thinkers who shaped our latter-day misconceptions. Therefore, we should not be surprised to find that none are patriots; none are building up their respective nations. In fact, they are pulling everything down whether anyone has realized it or not.
Olavo shows us that the modern world has, to a great degree, followed in Machiavelli’s tracks. Olavo’s characterization of Machiavelli reminds me of how Hanna Arendt famously characterized Adolf Eichmann: “Machiavelli neither believed nor disbelieved what he said. The distinction simply does not apply in his case.” Eichmann, said Arendt, had exactly this same characteristic. He neither believed nor disbelieved, but bluffed his way as circumstances required. He had lost the capacity for moral judgment. He was a mass of contradictions, stupidities, disconnected notions, utterly devoid of interest. He was banal, she famously suggested. Machiavelli merely presents this same banality, with sophistication and style. Yet it is banality. As Olavo noted, “He wandered perfectly at ease among truths and falsehoods, with the freedom of the artist who delights in his creations without the least concern for the effects they may have on the real world, or even needing to understand them in any intellectually relevant way.”[vi]
I know that some readers will ask what I mean by all this. In case it is not clear, I will end this little book review with a philosophical riddle: There are many counterfeits out there, and Machiavelli’s “science” is one such. The “real world” itself, as we falsely homogenize it with erroneous “science,” has been counterfeited many times and in many ways. As a cynic Machiavelli and Adolf Eichmann might say that there is no real world and no authentic science. Everything is counterfeit. The modern mind, it seems, tends to embrace counterfeits and nothing else. Yet doesn’t a counterfeit imply, by its very existence, that something somewhere is real?
For those interested in the intersection of political philosophy and morality, Olavo’s book on Machiavelli is a great read.
Links and Notes
[i] Machiavelli or the Demonic Confusion, p. 43.
[ii] Ibid, p. 15.
[iv] Weber, p. 15.
[vi] Ibid, p. 75.
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