Niccolò Machiavelli: Part II – The Prince Chapter VI

The opening line of Machiavelli’s Chapter VI of The Prince “Concerning New Principalities which are Acquired by one’s own Arms and Ability,” asks us not to be surprised at speaking about “new principalities.” The best way to learn is to follow the example of great men, and the greatest of political leaders create new polities rather than simply manage given ones. Hence Romulus who founded Rome. Hence Theseus who founded Athens. Hence Cyrus who founded the greatest empire, the Persian Empire of the ancient world. Hence Moses. Unlike Romulus and Theseus, Moses was not a mythological figure but a real historical leader. Unlike Cyrus who was an imperialist and ruled over states with a combination of tolerance and skill, coercion and diplomacy, Moses forged a nation and founded a new state.

Machiavelli then advised that the best way to follow is to aim even higher, for only then can an arrow hit its target. Don’t be direct is one lesson. But is there a second? After all, who is higher than Moses? Is God the real role model of his example of an ideal political leader from whom one should learn? If you believe that creating the natural world was a challenge, what about creating a polity for your chosen people? Like Moses, God had no mentor.

In the second paragraph, Machiavelli suggests two routes to acquiring power, luck or ability echoing the theme I introduced in the last blog. The one who relies least on fortune will be the stronger and better ruler. Further, one’s successful rule is facilitated if one lives in the polis that one rules and does not try to be an imperial ruler exercising power from elsewhere. How then can Rome be his ideal model if Machiavelli envisions a new principality and a new ruler that is a resident of that community? Medici was a Florentine, but he was a resident autocrat who did not live among the people.

In the third paragraph of Chapter VI of The Prince, in addition to Romulus as the founder of Rome, the first real leader in his list as an excellent example of a successful ruler is Moses. Moses provides the measure. He states that the others “will not be found inferior to Moses.” In Machiavelli’s often indirect style of writing, that means that none of those other rulers will be found to be superior to Moses. Further, hiding Moses amongst a larger group provided a protective cover against the anti-Judaizers who remained a powerful political force at the time.

What is most interesting is that Moses stands out, not so much for the quality of his rule, as for the fact that he did not have a model. He did not have a preceptor in establishing a covenantal community rather than a community of fate or fortune. To repeat a theme introduced in the previous blog, fortune only brings chances; it does not deliver results.

But why a tale of delivering a people from bondage to freedom, from oppression to self-determination? Machiavelli’s apparent answer – they would be disposed to follow Moses given their circumstances. But the Torah makes clear that, as they were stuck against the shore of the Sea of Reeds, they turned on Moses, rebuked him for selling them a false bill of goods, considered returning to slavery better than being destroyed by the multitude of chariots bearing down on them and even engaged in black humour and cracked Jewish jokes – “What’s the matter, don’t the Egyptians have enough graves?”

The reality was that they followed Moses because of their discontent and they blamed Moses because of their discontent. Desperation and critique were twins, both rooted in discontent. The Israelites were not only a stiff-necked people, they were a complaining bunch. But the discontent meant a rejection of slavish obedience. The latter was the bête noir, not disobedience. Further, if you can rule such a discontented lot, presumably you can rule anyone.

The first generalization about government in this chapter states: “Those who by valorous ways become princes, like these men, acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease.” Their difficulties emerge because they have to invent the forms of government as they go along. Moses had to learn to delegate the priestly ritualistic functions to his older brother. From his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro, he had to learn to delegate the judicial functions of government to a different branch. He had to create a legal system from scratch. And, most important of all, he had both to learn how to secure his nation in a hostile environment, but also to rely on generals like Joshua to carry out the task while this source for coercive force never was used to undermine the task of good governance.

Further, every innovative ruler encounters another common problem, nostalgic sore losers who are very vocal in their criticisms and extreme in their partisanship versus tepid supporters who are content because the new system serves them well, thereby endangering the very system that has served them. The danger not only comes from militant dissidents but from complacent followers. This is a constant for all political systems, but especially democratic and republican ones.

Novice leaders initially start by failing. They learn through experience. Initially, they not only never accomplish anything, but seem to make matters worse. And they cannot rely on God to keep them out of trouble.

Religion, Machiavelli declares, is used only as an instrument of control and inspiration and “to gain long-continued observance for his constitution.” Religion is not a precondition of rule, but an instrument for continuity. Does religion only have a heuristic function? What about Moses’ reliance on God? Was it not God who delivered the slaves out of the hands of the Egyptians? Machiavelli asks, “to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force?” Do they have to rely on a powerful “outsider” or can they, must they be self-reliant?

When they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Self-reliance is the key to a secure state. What then happened in 1492 in Florence and later in 1512? Following the death of the powerful Lorenzo Medici in 1492, his son, Piero, became his heir. But he was weak. External bad misfortune not within one’s control took place for which Florence was unprepared. The Peace of Étaples was signed in northern France between King Charles VIII Valois of France and King Henry VII Tudor of England on 3 November 1492. Henry had landed at Calais, laid siege to Boulogne and emerged victorious. However, in spite of the tribute France had to pay to England, France was now free to reassert its control over its Italian satraps. This was fostered by the death of Lorenzo in 1492 and the succession of his inexperienced son, Piero.

By 1494, under the urging of Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery populist preacher, in the name of making Florence great again, clearing out the swamp of corruption and ending despotic rule, the Florentines rose up and expelled the Medicis and replaced their rule with a “popular” republic. This was made possible because Florence was overwhelmed when France, in 1494, entered Tuscany to retake the throne of the Kingdom of Naples.

The new populist government, virtually brought into existence by the intervention of a foreign power, effectively by “fortune,” lasted until 1497 until the conflict between the puritanical reformer, Savonarola, and the Vatican led to Savonarola’s excommunication, especially for his “bonfire of the vanities.” He was eventually executed and a more orderly republican government came into being. Machiavelli in Chapter VI wrote, “If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

What was wrong with a Savonarola-inspired populist government? It lacked a home-grown militia. Further, unlike Moses who also ruled through persuasion and influence, the Florentines very quickly saw through the fiery preacher as a charlatan. Without coercive power or influence to ensure he kept the faith of his base, Savonarola lacked any real moral authority and was ripe for a takeout by the Vatican.

Some city-states relied on help from abroad and alliances, such as Prato. Florence then built up its citizen army in part based on Machiavelli’s advice to be self-reliant instead of depending on mercenaries.

The answer is straightforward. Machiavelli did not suggest self-reliance was sufficient. A city-state or a country, even a powerful one, needs allies. But a home-grown militia and powerful allies also were insufficient. A polity needs a capable ruler. Although those who struggle to acquire land and power are least likely to lose it, they can lose it if their successors blow it. The implication – do not let a weak heir govern in place of a self-made conqueror. Rule by inheritance is dangerous. Rule by those who rely primarily on strength is also a recipe for disaster.

What then is the recipe for an intelligent and prudential rule?




To be continued

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