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.
The distinction between science and philosophy—the former dealing with hard fact, the latter allegedly only with airy speculation—is new to modernity and rooted in Machiavelli’s thought. “Science” appears in his writings twice—in a discussion that also has no parallel in any of his or his contemporaries’ works. “All the sciences,” he tells us, “demand practice if one wishes to possess them perfectly”—a decisive break from the classical idea of knowledge as primarily observational and theoretical. Plutarch tells us that Archimedes of Syracuse, the famous mathematician, slightly vexed his king, who “had eagerly desired and at last persuaded him to turn his art somewhat from abstract notions to material things, and by applying his philosophy somehow to the needs which make themselves felt, to render it more evident to the common mind.” But Archimedes had only been following the injunction of Plato, who “inveighed against [mechanical applications] as corrupters and destroyers of the pure excellence of geometry, which thus turned her back upon the incorporeal things of abstract thought and descended to the things of sense.”
This taboo—in place since ancient times and only violated in the extreme necessity of survival in war—Machiavelli shatters. “Firm science” is the method. Through “firm science” men may come to know particulars and extrapolate to the general. Through long practice of firm science, Publius Decius learned to understand individual sites, which enabled him to recognize and occupy a summit and save a Roman army. Firm science is, then, not contemplation of the whole, which is mysterious and partly invisible, but the practical knowledge of knowable, visible parts, which help one understand one’s immediate environment and act on the basis of that understanding. Here is the root of the scientific method, of the replicability of experiments. Plato would insist that each part is a whole in and of itself, which must be thought through on its own terms. Machiavelli retorts that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all—now go out there and use that knowledge to secure your earthly salvation.
Machiavelli had no principled objection to breaking taboos (to say the least), but perhaps he would deny having done so in this instance. Archimedes, after all, designed spectacular contrivances to help Syracuse resist a Roman siege. Machiavelli judged that in his time, philosophy was under siege in a spiritual war and that fire must be fought with fire—just as Archimedes opposed his engines to those of Marcellus. Another paper presented by Paul Rahe, the great historian and theorist of republican government, expounded the theme. Machiavelli directly compares the Sultans of the Turks and Mamelukes to the “Christian pontificate” (since both are elective monarchies), thereby inviting the reader to look for other, silent parallels. Rahe finds one in “the soldiers,” who are analogous to the prelates of the Church—the pope’s divisions. In Machiavelli’s time, this priestly army occupied the high places—indeed, the highest place, the mind of man. Machiavelli’s writer-captains—the scientists who succeed and follow him—are intended to be a liberating army, freeing science and philosophy from religious supervision and not only allowing man to choose his own destiny but providing him with the tools to make it work.
“The soldiers are you,” Rahe concluded to his almost entirely academic audience. The secular intelligentsia has replaced the priests but governs much as they governed, telling us what to think and punishing apostasy. In the detailed writ of charges Machiavelli levels against Christianity, the criminalization of thought stands perhaps as the most grave in his judgment. It’s ironic, then—and not in the Socratic sense—that as a consequence of his revolution, the mind of man may be less free than ever.
What’s needed is not another class of “soldiers” but genuine philosophers, to lead us out of the cave that Machiavelli unwittingly dug beneath Plato’s natural cave. Mansfield and Rahe are two fine such guides. We will need more of them.