What is Modern in Machiavelli?

“It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.”


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

In a way that was strikingly different from his predecessors, Machiavelli studied what there is in politics rather than what ought to be the ideal order. Writing during the height of renaissance, his political ideas and teachings also went into direct opposition to the political thoughts and beliefs of the preceding centuries. And, of course, it was his stark realism that made him the first modern thinker.

In Machiavelli’s context, “modern” signifies the denial, contradiction of what has been traditionally or otherwise believed, practiced or held as sacred.

machiavelli
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli. Source: Wikipedia

Modern Elements in Machiavelli

Human Nature

Machiavelli is remarkably the first thinker who said “man is wicked”. According to Machiavelli, human nature is essentially egoistic, selfish, acquisitive, profoundly aggressive and bad. They only act righteously under compulsion. The most universal desires in human nature are the security of property and life. He famously said that a man more readily forgives the murder of his father than the confiscation of his patrimony.

While Aristotle regarded man as “social animal”, Machiavelli considered man to be anti-social, with an innate desire to control and dominate others.

Concept of State

Machiavelli gave the concept of modern state- State with an organised force, supreme in its own territory and pursuing a policy of aggrandisement in its relations with other States.

Drawing the concept of an Omnipotent Legislator, State was sanctioned the legitimate use of violence. Machiavelli gave the concept of an all powerful and centralised State, with a citizen army, or in modern times, nationalised forces.

Moral Indifference

Machiavelli separated morality/ethics from politics, and openly sanctioned the use of immoral means for political purposes. For him, end justifies the means.

Machiavelli propounded the concept of “virtu” which was contradictory to the Christian or classical sense of being virtuous. It was to be a changeling: the ability to tell the truth as well as to be devious simultaneously. He compared this to the cruelty and violence of the lion, and the cunning of the fox.

Here, Machiavelli offers an extreme example of double standard of morality: one of the ruler and another for the private citizen. The first is judged by success in keeping and increasing his power; the second, by the strength which his conduct imparts to the social group. Interestingly, the ruler is above the morality to be enforced within the group.

Politics as an End in Itself

Machiavelli divorces politics from religious, moral and social considerations except as the latter affect political expedients. The purpose of politics is to preserve and increase political power itself, and success is its only yardstick. The use of any means to achieve this end is justified. Politics is an end in itself.

Power View of Politics

According to Machiavelli, power belongs to those who have the skill to seize it in a free competition. He rejected the divine rights theory of kings. He asserted that to think States came into existence by the will of God was absurd.

Separation of Religion from Politics

Machiavelli secularised politics by separating religion from it. However, though he was anti-Church and anti-Christianity, he was not anti-religion. He wanted religion to be subordinated to the State and serve political ends, for he thought that religion compelled people to obey laws.

Republicanism and Notion of Liberty

Machiavelli defined liberty as the liberty of one’s possessions and family life. Individual liberties can best be preserved in a republic. And, a republic can best be preserved when citizens display “civic virtu”.

Critical Assessment

Strictly speaking, Machiavelli was not a political thinker. He was more of a political commentator. He merely observed what was happening around him and commented on it. Sometimes he even concluded without any reference to history.

niccolo-macchiavelli
The statue of Niccolo Machiavelli.

Machiavelli’s analysis of politics as an end in itself was mere superficial. For many deep lying questions, economic or religious, he had no interest except when they bore upon politics.

His philosophy is said to be narrowly local and narrowly dated. He was almost blind to the part that religion was to play in the politics of the next two centuries.

Though Machiavelli talked of human nature, he never developed a psychological basis of human behaviour. Hobbes developed this later.

However, despite criticisms, Machiavelli succeeded in anticipating a centralised and sovereign modern State, and establishment of nationalised armies.

Machiavelli made a breakthrough from tradition in his understanding of politics, religion, morality, ethics, statecraft, and even individual nature. Every aspect of his teaching, whether secularisation and amoralisation of politics or expounding wickedness of man, his ideas were remarkably modern. He was an accomplished realist and even this alone made him a modern thinker.


NOTE: I wrote this as an assignment for the subject, Western Political Thought (WPT), taught during my undergraduate in Ramjas College, University of Delhi.
The question for the assignment was “What is modern in Machiavelli?”

Reference:

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Routledge, 2016).

Shefali Jha, Western Political Thought: From Plato to Marx (Pearson, 2009).

George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory (Oxford University Press, 1973).

Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswami, A History of Political Thought: Plato to Marx (Prentice Hall India Learning Private Limited, 2011)

Class lectures and notes.


The Original Assignment

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