Anniversaries come thick and fast. But 500-year marks are still rare, reminders of a simpler time, a different world. We look back to Columbus and forward to the Reformation without understanding the epochal revolution in between that made our time, our world.
On December 10, 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a letter—called the most celebrated in all Italian literature—to his friend Francesco Vettori announcing that he has just completed “a little work, On Principalities.” It later acquired the title The Prince, under which it became the most famous, and infamous, book on politics ever written.
Everyone knows that the book teaches how to win without scruple, how to get away with murder, how—and why—to squelch any feelings of remorse. Readers of Leo Strauss’s magisterial 1959 interpretation of Machiavelli’s work also know that The Prince, and its longer companion The Discourses on Livy, is about much more.
Strauss showed that Machiavelli is the cause of our time, our world, our context. He attempted a break with all prior thought and he succeeded, through these two books that recruited an army of writer-captains who, in wave after wave of intellectual change, remade the West. Everything characteristically modern—from civil rights to iPhones—is the direct or indirect result of Machiavelli’s revolution in thought.
It’s easier for modern ears to accept that a political philosopher decisively altered political practice than it is even to consider the notion that one man—a writer no less—is responsible for the incredible bounty and intricacy of the modern world. iPhones? Really?
Yes. Technology derives from engineering, which is applied natural science, which achieved its current rigor thanks to a foundation built by Descartes and Bacon, who in turn learned the core argument from Machiavelli. It’s an unlikely claim on behalf of a writer whose most substantial book seems to call for a revival of ancient Roman republican politics and who seems to have nothing at all to say about science.
Except, in fact, he does. Harvey Mansfield, arguably Strauss’s greatest student and inarguably the greatest living interpreter of Machiavelli, showed where and how at a conference Saturday at Columbia University (and in this longer treatment published earlier this year). At the heart of Machiavelli’s project is an epistemological revolution to liberate philosophy from the classical prudence that prevented it from taking a direct role in guiding human affairs.
The phrase “effectual truth” appears in Machiavelli’s writings only once—“to concentrate its power,” Mansfield says—and nowhere else in prior or contemporaneous Italian or Renaissance literature. It seems to be merely one of Machiavelli’s excuses for his immoral teaching: a prince must have recourse to the effectual truth of how men do live, as distinct from how they ought to live, so that he may learn how not to be good, lest he come to ruin among so many who are not good.
Difficulties in the text reveal a deeper meaning. Those who wish “to make a profession of good in all regards” are above all the ancient writers who “imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth.” The effectual truth is not merely the truth that has an effect. It is the visible truth, the truth of sense perception, of concrete reality—the truth that displays itself. Here is the creation of the concept of “fact,” which is meaningless unless understood in opposition to what purports or aspires to be but is not fact: that which is merely supposed or hoped for or believed. Here also is the beginning of the break with ancient metaphysics and teleology that has, after centuries of working through the implications, left the West morally bereft. If what cannot be felt or seen cannot be real, how can it guide our actions? Attempts to find the answers through “science”—the latest being brain chemistry—only further radicalize the Machiavellian premise.