Not So Sweet Prince

REVIEW: 'Machiavelli's Effectual Truth: Creating a Modern World' by Harvey C. Mansfield

Machiavelli (JoJan/Wikimedia Commons)
November 26, 2023

It is almost redundant to say that Harvey C. Mansfield is the world's preeminent scholar on the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, certainly in his field of political theory, but recognized as well by such leading historians as James Hankins. In Machiavelli's Effectual Truth: Creating a Modern World, he brings together a number of his essays on Machiavelli. They can be read independently, but their impact is even greater when one reads them in succession.

Mansfield's interpretation of Machiavelli differs from that of most in two important respects. First, he stresses Machiavelli's profound antipathy toward Christianity. This made him different from Erasmus and the other thinkers we call civic humanists. While they share a wish to widen the scope for pragmatic statesmanship beyond the restrictions placed upon it by earlier Christian theology, particularly that of St. Augustine, and restore elements of Roman civic virtue exemplified by Cicero, they regarded this partial embrace of ancient political thought as being in no way incompatible with their fundamental belief in Christian revelation, as is evident, for example, in Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince. Machiavelli sharply disagreed, believing that Christianity had "effeminated" modern citizenship and made men set aside patriotic love of the fatherland in favor of pacifism and an exclusive loyalty to the hereafter. There could be no happy synthesis of the secular art of rule and any aspect of revealed religion.

The second way in which Mansfield approaches Machiavelli differently from most scholars is in his insistence that we must not defang him and turn him into a proponent of enlightenment and peaceful prosperous individualism. Precisely in order to understand why Machiavelli's thought required defanging so that it might take its place as a respectable precursor to the benign liberalism of Spinoza and Locke, Mansfield argues, we have to first encounter him in his original teaching, including a latitude for ferocious violence and deceit. In other words, we have to begin by understanding how Machiavelli's contemporaries could have regarded him as a "teacher of evil," the starting point of Mansfield's teacher Leo Strauss. Whereas James Harrington interpreted Machiavelli as endorsing a commercial republic, Machiavelli was more interested in honor than prosperity, though he did not sneeze at the latter. In that respect, he still had one foot in the classical outlook.

What is new in this collection is that Mansfield poses the question: Is Machiavelli a philosopher? He circles carefully around this question and pays more attention to it than in his earlier writings. Strauss certainly regarded Machiavelli as a philosopher, indeed as nothing less than the founder of modernity with his thorough rejection and repudiation of classical philosophy. But this view is not widely held in contemporary philosophy departments. As Mansfield stresses, moreover, Machiavelli did not present himself as a philosopher, but rather as a historian. Mansfield inclines to Strauss's view and demonstrates that Machiavelli was indeed a philosopher by detailing his influence on Bacon (who praised Machiavelli in numerous places) and Spinoza, who (although he shared Machiavelli's view of religion, including Judaism, as a mere tool of political control) certainly would be regarded as philosophers in the academy. He also devotes a long chapter to Machiavelli's influence on Montesquieu, a figure many philosophy departments would at least regard as a political theorist like Hobbes with a philosophical dimension. In other words, although Machiavelli was not a technical philosopher like, say, Kant, he inspired Bacon, who most certainly was. Bacon's new anti-Aristotelian physics were grounded in Machiavelli's project for the mastery of Fortuna.

The title of Mansfield's book refers to Chapter 15 of Machiavelli's The Prince, where he famously argues that in this world we need to orient ourselves by how men are, not by how they ought to be—this is the "effectual truth" that princes must follow if they are to succeed in generating security and well-being for themselves and their peoples, instead of being influenced by the "imagined republics" of Plato, St. Augustine, and the tradition: "For it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation." It follows from this, as Machiavelli continues, that virtue was no longer to be understood as something to be practiced for its own sake in order to aim for the perfection of the soul, but understood instead as a means to the end of gaining real-world power, and furthermore that what were traditionally regarded as vices may very well have to be practiced as a route to this goal. Although Machiavelli adds that it is useful for the prince to have an outward reputation for virtue, especially piety, this is no more than "propaganda," as Mansfield puts it, to enhance his prestige.

To put it another way, Machiavelli recasts the traditional classical and Christian distinction between virtue and vice so as to define "virtù" as a prince's capacity to assert his will over Fortuna and bend nature to serve his purposes. Although what Machiavelli means by virtù cannot come to light without understanding what it takes for the prince to master Fortuna, Mansfield has comparatively little to say about Fortuna. He largely particularizes it as Machiavelli's ability to control his own fortune. He seems not to regard it as an overwhelming singularity that makes up the entire external world against which a prince must struggle. Strauss, by contrast, wrote that Fortuna as evoked by Machiavelli "reminds one in some respects of the Biblical God."

A successful prince, as Machiavelli depicts him, will perform a kind of inner dance with Fortuna so as to empower himself by channeling "her" power of random impulse. For example, he can encourage conspiracies so as to crush them preemptively, understanding that Fortuna would have stirred these up in any event. He also declares that a prince must avoid reliance on advisers lest they "chance" to conspire against him. Rather than learn prudence from allegedly wise advisers, as the classical tradition taught, he must be the source of his own virtue—an implicit rejection of Plato's argument that the best ruler could only come about through the "chance" coinciding of philosophy and kingship. In general, a virtuous prince must be self-reliant and never rely on Fortuna, including other people. The most successful princes like Romulus, Moses, Cyrus, and Theseus were given nothing by their circumstances, Machiavelli says, and so had to fight to survive and triumph.

This is the place to address the ongoing debate over whether Machiavelli preferred princely rule—the subject of The Prince—or republican rule—the subject of the Discourses. In my view, he preferred republics to principalities, the most successful of which had been all-conquering Rome, which, Machiavelli writes, contained "more virtues than any other republic," including of course the republics of Plato and St. Augustine. But there is no conflict between the two works, for republics need recurrent refounding by princely figures to purge them of corruption. Accordingly, figures such as Moses who are treated as princes in The Prince are treated as the founders of cities in the Discourses.

By pitting the ancients (especially the Romans) against Christianity, Machiavelli ostensibly tried to revive ancient virtue. But he distorted the way in which Christianity itself arose from classical transcendentalism and therefore distorted the ancients as well. His real aim is to shape a world of entirely "new modes and orders," as he makes clear at the beginning of the Discourses when he implicitly compares himself to a Columbus of thought ("that greater Columbus," as Strauss puts it): a millenarian overtone. His message is about the future, not about reviving ancient valor, and his distinction between the is and the ought offers a new way of conceiving of what is. Whereas for the ancients, philosophy seeks what by nature truly is—eternal wisdom and virtue—Machiavelli instead asserts a dichotomy between that unattainable ideal and "the natural desire to acquire" what will gratify our material impulses. People do not grasp this spontaneously; they are likelier to believe spontaneously in the imagined republics—we therefore need Machiavelli's instruction in "learning how not to be good."

Machiavelli makes only fleeting references to ancient philosophy, including the endorsement of Lucretius' view of the cosmos in contrast with that of Aristotle. Whereas many of the humanists admired Cicero's statesmanship, Machiavelli considers him a fool for letting himself be duped by the young Octavian Caesar and for in general not grasping what successful ambition really entails. Machiavelli's main engagement with the classics comes not by way of Plato or Aristotle, but by way of Xenophon, the ancient with whom he shares the most in common, and therefore makes plain where he disagrees with even this most realistic of the ancients. For Machiavelli, Xenophon's Cyrus depends too much on Fortuna—his birth, upbringing, and legitimacy. The real Cyrus can be found in Herodotus' account of a usurper who rose from base origins—more like Hannibal, whom Machiavelli praises for his "inhuman cruelty and infinite virtues," than Scipio, who tried to imitate Xenophon's gentler Cyrus rather than the real one and was castigated by the Senate for spoiling the soldiers. Mansfield devotes comparatively little attention to Machiavelli's engagement with Xenophon.

A final thought as regards The Prince, about which Mansfield is fond of saying, "There's a laugh on every page." I cannot resist posing a test for readers that will enable them to uncover one of the relatively more well-buried of these laughs. Look at the Epistle Dedicatory, where Machiavelli says that in order to acquire favor with a prince, one must present him with gifts of the things that please him most. Then go to Chapter Eight and read how Cesare Borgia lured his enemies the Orsini to Sinigaglia, where he did them in. Sometimes Machiavelli's humor can be very Machiavellian.

Machiavelli's Effectual Truth: Creating a Modern World
by Harvey C. Mansfield
Cambridge University Press, 298 pp., $34.99

Waller R. Newell is a visiting professor at the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida and the author, most recently, of Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger (Cambridge).