Transcript: 351. Quentin Skinner on Machiavelli

Leading Machiavelli scholar Quentin Skinner joins Peter to discuss morality, history, and religion in the Prince and the Discourses.


Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been

corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for

his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners

who corrected the texts.

We are going to be talking about Machiavelli. Maybe you can just quickly remind the listeners who it is we're speaking about here. 

Oh, yes, certainly. Well, Niccolo Machiavelli, born in 1469, a Florentine, son of a lawyer. We know nothing about him really until 1498, when without apparent previous administrative experience, he's made second secretary of the Republic, head of the Second Chancellery. He serves in that role for 14 years until the Republic collapses in 1512. And that's the great caesura in his life. From 1512 until 1527, when he dies, he is converted from a diplomat and an administrator into the man of letters that we know. And all the great works were written between 1513 and 1526. 

You just called him a man of letters. And one of the things that's very striking, if you read Machiavelli, is that although I guess most people think about him as a political philosopher, and that's why I'm covering him, he was very interested in history, particularly in Roman history. What were the most important lessons that he took from his study of history for his political thought? 

Well, here we want to distinguish two great texts on politics, The Prince, which he completed in 1513, and the Discorsi on Livy, which he completed in 1519. In The Prince, the great lesson you learn is from the history of the Roman Empire. A long chapter, chapter 19, tells us that everything he wants to say about the morality of politics could be encapsulated by thinking about the emperors of the second to the third century. And the lesson is: never do anything that will make you either despised or hated. So that's the great lesson in The Prince. In the Discorsi, of course it's discourses on Livy, and so the whole structure is given by a text - the text - on the history of the Roman experience. The greatest lesson that he wants you to take depends on a fundamental assumption, which is Livy's and it's a standard classical assumption, that what you want in republics, which he's mainly writing about, is for them to rise as Rome did from the condition of being a small city state to govern the world. What brings such grandezza, as he says, what brings such greatness? Well, that's what you should be aiming for, greatness and glory, very standard Renaissance way of thought. And the fundamental lesson that Rome teaches you here is, you could put it in a slogan “No greatness without liberty. So monarchy is out the window because there's no possibility of greatness in one of two sets of conditions. One is that you're subject to a monarch or an oligarch, and the other is that you're subject to a conqueror. In either case, you're not ruling yourself. If you're a colony, you're ruled by the mother state. If you're subject to a monarchy or oligarchy, you're dependent upon their goodwill. So he takes the view that what freedom is not being dependent on somebody else's will because that's the definition of a slave. So you can only be free in a self-governing republic. And there is the great, as you might say, takeaway from the history of republican Rome. But there are also great lessons from antiquity in the last and most leisured of his works, the Istorie Fiorentine, which he wrote, ironically, on a commission from the Medici and completed just before his death. And there he wants you to know that the history of Florence shows you that it is almost impossible in a republic to stop the rich from corrupting the republic by bribing the citizens. And that is the history of Florence. You can stop them, as the people did, by rising up against the elite and throwing it out, in which case you get a kind of democracy, but Machiavelli says it's licentious, it's anarchistic, and so you're always liable to go back to an oligarchy. And the final history of Florence is the defeat of the republic by the Medici, who turned themselves into princes. 

It seems like there's a kind of tension in what you just said, because on the one hand, you emphasize the role of freedom, which to me sounds like it's really about the freedom of the individual within a state. But you've also been talking about greatness and the achievement of, let's say, Rome or Florence. So does Machiavelli have his eye here primarily on the flourishing and the good of the individual within the state, or does he primarily have his eye on the flourishing of the whole community?

Well, that's such a good question. In fact, that's an absolutely central question. And he changes his mind. He's really not interested in the idea of a community in The Prince. In The Prince, the ruler owns the state, and all he has to make sure of is that the people remain contented. And he does that by making sure that they don't hate him, or her. By the way, remember that the Principe could be a woman. And the very first Principe whom Machiavelli met as a diplomat was Caterina Sforza, who worsted him. He mentions her with great respect in The Prince. But mostly they're men, and that's what they mostly do. But of course, fundamentally, there is no constitution and any sense of the community in The Prince because the ruler owns the state. But in the Discorsi, the people own the state, in a republic. And so the question is, as you say,  What's good for the community?”. Now, what's good for the community is greatness; and what is required for greatness is freedom; what's required for freedom is not being subject to the will of anybody else. We've gone through all that, but now it has a positive side that comes out throughout Book One of the Discorsi, which is that the way not to be subject to somebody else's will can only be through the laws which govern the republic reflecting your will. Because if they don't reflect your will, they reflect somebody else's will, so that means you're subject to that other person, and that's the definition of living in servitude. So, the distinction that we are likely to draw between individual liberty and good, and the common freedom, the free state, and its good, would not strike Machiavelli as a distinction. He would want to say that you can only be free in a free state, but that if you live in a republic, then you are free under the laws because the laws express your will;they don't constrain you; they are an expression of your will because your consent, potentially your actual physical presence, has been there in the making of the laws. And so your good and the common good are the same thing. 

It's interesting that that sounds, in a way, so Aristotelian because of course Aristotle as well would say that the good of the individual and the good of the state are kind of interlocking results, right? 

Yes, that is right. Now, I don't think that Machiavelli is at all closely read in Aristotle. Where I'm sure he is getting this from is from Livy, and of course Livy would have known his Aristotle. But it's Livy's insistence on what he calls the civitas libera, which really catches Machiavelli's attention and the pivot of the early part of Livy's history is the move from the kings to what he calls liberty. Now that means liberty from the kings. So that is liberty of the state, which now governs itself. It's a res publica and the res, the state is in the hands of the publica, but it's also freedom for the people because instead of being subject to the will of the king, which is slavery, they govern themselves. The will of the people is expressed in the law, and so they remain free, although they are subjects. Now of course they're not called subjects, they're called citizens, and that's the crucial distinction from being subjecti, they become cives. 

Does he ground all of this the way Aristotle would in some kind of conception of human nature. Is the idea that we want freedom because without freedom we can't realize what it is to live

No! That's such a good point, but he absolutely lacks what would anachronistically be called any positive notion of freedom. That's to say the Aristotelian notion that eudaimonia consists in self-realization, and unless I realize my highest talents, I can't be said to be fully free. He's absolutely, I shan't say ignorant, but he's not interested in thinking about that at all. That's not to say he's not deeply interested in questions about human nature. 

So what does he think human nature is characterized by then

Well again, he is not really a philosopher. It wouldn't occur to him to give a programmatic statement of the nature of human nature in the way that you would find in Aristotle, or in Hobbes, or in any really architectonic political philosopher. But it is true that in The Prince there's a very strange moment in chapter 17 where he suddenly, I can only say he suddenly bursts out and he says: This can be said in general about men: They are fickle, they're ungrateful, they're liars, they're dissemblers, they're avaricious, they're cowardly, they're totally self-interested. That's what you have to know. That's true in general of men. 

That's pretty unsparing. 

Yes. (Laughter) And of course that unsparing view does of course affect his politics. So he does ground his politics very importantly in The Prince on that understanding of human nature. And he does so most conspicuously in the two most celebrated chapters in the book. Chapter 17 raises the question, Cicero's question in the De Officiis, is it better to be feared than loved? And of course Cicero's answer is obviously it's better to be loved because love is the great bond of association. Machiavelli says (laughter) that this is complete rubbish: love is not a bond at all because the people I'm talking about will serve you as long as you benefit them, the moment you stop benefiting them, there will be no bond of love because they are avaricious, because they're fickle. What will really bind them to you is fear. Fear coerces and it's coercion that the state has to employ. So there's one immediate consequence of the view of human nature in his politics. The other is in chapter 18, the most notorious chapter in the Principe, where Machiavelli raises another Ciceronian question. Cicero in the De Officiis asks, not merely asks, but answers the question about the keeping of good faith, fides, by saying, fides sit servanda: good faith must always be kept. Machiavelli, I think it must be the most shocking moment in the Prince for his contemporaries, puts as his chapter heading (and all the chapter headings are in Latin): Quo moda fides sit servanda - how far should promises be kept? And he says, they should be kept if they benefit you, but not if they don't, because don't forget who you're dealing with; these people are not going to keep their promises to you; why should you keep your promises to them? 

So this all goes together with a kind of popular conception about Machiavelli, which is that he's very cynical. He maybe even recommends cruelty in some cases but he does also make a place for virtue, or, well, he makes a place for Virtù. I'm not sure whether virtue is the right translation. So maybe you should just say what he means by that, and then we can talk about to what extent that is a kind of weight against accusations of cynicism. 

Yes, very good. That's very neat. This might be a quite long answer, because the concept of Virtù is the absolute pivot of both The Principe and the Discorsi, and Virtù, I think we can say heuristically, names that set of qualities that enable a prince to do what Machiavelli thinks any ruler must fundamentally aim to do, and the Italian is very resonant here, it is mantenere lo stato. You've got to be able to maintain lo stato that’s to say your state, meaning your status, your standing as a prince, but also The State; lo stato would still be the modern Italian way of referring to the state, meaning the apparatus of government. So if you want mantenere lo stato, the quality that you have to bring to bear on everything you do is Virtù. So the great question is what are those qualities of Virtù? And here I go back to the fact that Machiavelli is a classical moralist who is also deeply critical of classical moralism. And the people he's always got in his mind in the Principe are Cicero, especially in the De Officiis, which was the textbook for learning moral philosophy in the Renaissance - Machiavelli would have known it by heart - and also Seneca, because Seneca had written about princes, writing, of course, under the Principate rather than the Republic. And they give an account of a range of virtues which in the Renaissance came to be called the Princely Virtues. I think in English we would still talk about princely in that way, you know, you gave me a princely gift, something like that.But anyway, here are the princely virtues, and Machiavelli itemizes them. Chapter 16 is on liberality, so there's a princely virtue. Chapter 17 is on being clement, clemency, subject of one of Seneca's treatises, is obviously a special virtue of princes. And of course, Chapter 18, we've already talked about being fede, keeping your word, keeping your promises, which, of course, in classical philosophy would have been held to be, as Cicero says, the fundamentum justitia, the basis of all justice. To which Machiavelli adds in Chapter 15 and again in Chapter 18, the prince needs to be, or needs to seem to be, religioso. Classically, what is said is that these qualities, liberality, clemency, keeping good faith, doing justice, that's what enables you to maintain your state; that's what keeps people happy; that's what enables you to tread the paths of glory and posthumously, of course, to attain fame. But now, I think that this is the moment that brings us absolutely to the heart of what's distinctive about Machiavelli and political morality in The Prince, and it's very simple I think, Machiavelli says at the beginning of each of these chapters, look, of course, these are virtues and of course, you must cultivate and practice them as far as possible,but (paraphrasing but going back to what we've said) don't forget what men are like. 

In a world in which most men are not good, non sono buoni, if you are always good, it will not enable you to mantenere lo stato, on the contrary, you will be ruined because you will keep your promise and they won't, or you will be clement and they will think you're an idiot and they will despise you and you’ll lose your state. He uses this word, which we use in a much more specialized way nowadays, the virtuoso. The virtuoso is, of course, the prince who could do something amazing; nowadays, the amazing thing has to be playing the violin in public but of course in the Renaissance, this is an absolutely fundamental notion, the virtuoso leader. Machiavelli, you might say, applies the term Virtù in a new way - the virtuoso is the person who is virtuous so far as is possible but is ready, as Machiavelli says, to enter upon the pathway of evil if it is necessary. So the fundamental term turns out to be necessity. It will sometimes be necessary for the maintenance of your state that you should abandon the virtues, or as he says, be non buono, be not good. The virtuoso is the person who calibrates exactly when to be good and when not to be good. 

Is the decision not to be good in a given instance an application and manifestation of virtue rather than “Oh, today I can't be virtuous

Yes, it's a manifestation of your powers as a virtuoso. It is part of princely Virtù. In fact, it's the essence of princely Virtù, in Machiavelli's account, to know when to be good and to know when to be bad. But notice that the touchstone here is necessity. It has to be necessary for the maintenance of the state. He has a special chapter, chapter eight in the Principe, where he discusses the figure of Agatocles, a tyrant of ancient Sicily, and he says, Agatocles always maintained his state, he had no one who ever challenged him for it, it was a very successful community, it fought off the Carthaginians and so on, and then he suddenly says, he cannot be called a man of VirtùWhy is that? And he says, because he only ever lived a life of crime. It was simply tyranny. He terrorized everyone, having come to power by having massacred the entire Senate and he ruled by terror. Machiavelli says in a wonderful phrase, this will gain you imperio, ma non gloria. So Agatocles is inglorious, why? He's just a thug; he's not guided by necessity; he's just a very evil person. That's not Virtù

That's really interesting because it suggests that the concept of Virtù has a kind of partial overlap with the way we usually use the word virtue. 

It certainly does. Yes. 

It sort of includes virtue, but it also includes this ability to, and willingness to, and knowledge of, how to depart from virtue. 

Absolutely. I think if we're doing etymology for a moment, the etymology of the Latin word virtus is of course the quality of the vir, and in Latin, there are two words for man, there's homo, which means man or woman, what we would say would be person, and then there's the vir, which is the man by contrast with the woman, source of the English word virile. So really Machiavelli's Virtù is more the Virtù of the vir, and the vir is the person who knows how to conquer fortune, how to rise above fortune, how to deal with misfortune. This is someone who watches events all the time. Machiavelli has a very fine single word summary of the virtuoso, which is a reflexive verb that he likes to use which is: this is someone who knows volgersi, how to turn about. So the winds of fortune, you turn with the winds, you turn back. And it's sort of artistry as to how exactly you behave. You do good so far as you possibly can. You do evil when necessary. But the further thought is when you do evil, you must do your best to seem to be doing good. And so when he denounces mankind for being feigners and dissemblers and deceivers, he says, well, but you've got to do that. 

One thing that might puzzle people and I think maybe now puzzles me is that given the stress that you've just put on the virtuosity of the single ruler and also just reading The Prince, it's all about what the ruler should do. So how is it that he also puts so much emphasis on this notion of the mixed constitution, which sounds like exactly not a vision of a single ruler who's making sure that everything goes well, but much more like a combination of different political structures that will give you the right results? 

That's absolutely right and underlines something that we've been saying, which is that there is a big change of mind between The Prince, which is a handbook for princes and the Discorsi, which is a discussion of classical republics. Various new questions arise. I would say that there's no change of mind about how to talk about Virtù. What he says at the very end of book three of the Discorsi, almost in the last chapter of the book is that the concept of Virtù in a republic must be cultivated by every citizen, and he says that if the life or liberty of the republic is at stake, there must be no question of justice, there must be no question of what is virtuous or not,you must do whatever will save the life of the republic because without it, you're nothing. So that has to be the fundamental, as he would think, moral claim. But of course, you're right, if we were to point to the biggest of all the distinctions between these two works of political theory, The Prince and the Discorsi, we would have to say that in The Prince, there is no constitution, the Prince has the law as his will, but the Discorsi is passionate about getting the constitution right, and as you say, it's a mixed constitution, and there he takes up the terminology that Roman writers would have inherited from Aristotle, to go back to what we were saying earlier, there are fundamentally three constitutions, there's monarchy, there's aristocracy, and there's democracy. But to that, Machiavelli adds, and I'm now talking about the very beginning of the Discorsi, the opening chapters, take us through the theory of anacyclosis, which he would have learned from Polybius, the great statement of this idea in antiquity, that these three pure forms of constitution are destined to move through an endless cycle of corruption and collapse. And in Polybius' account in book six of The Histories, human history begins with monarchy, but that becomes tyranny; the elite revolts, they set up an aristocracy, that degenerates into oligarchy; the people revolt, they set up a democracy, that converts into anarchy, and then the whole thing starts all over again. So there's the endless corso e ricorso, that they learned from Polybius. So the answer is obvious: none of the three pure forms are right, you have to have a mixture. And what Machiavelli takes from Livy is the idea that Rome's great secret was that Rome got the mixture right. There was a monarchical element, even after the removal of the kings, because there were consorts, they were elected and they only served for one year, but they were a kingly element. Then there was the Senate, which was an aristocratic element, and then the assemblies and the tribunes of the people, and that's the popular element. And there is the mixed constitution. But I should say one other thing, which is the most important thing to say about Machiavelli's theory of the mixed constitution, which is that he completely departs from how that would have been understood by his contemporaries. At the time when Machiavelli was writing, the model of the Renaissance republican constitution was Venice. And just as the question was “How did Rome become so great? the question now was “Why is Venice the richest city in the known world?”. And it's very striking that the two richest cities in Europe at the time are Venice and Amsterdam, and they're both republics, so the question looks well worth asking. And the Venetians are very happy to explain that it's because it's a very aristocratic republic. It disenfranchises people. It's closed the lists of citizens in the 13th century. It's not open to anyone. Anyone can come, but they're not enfranchised. And that makes Venice, in the famous word: serenissima, the most serene as well as the richest republic. And peace, of course, is a condition of successful commerce. And there you have the Venetian story. Machiavelli says, I reject that completely. Venice is the wrong model. The right model is Rome. Rome enfranchised everyone. Everyone was made a citizen, from Rome to nearly Scotland on the one hand and nearly Asia on the other hand. They're all citizens.

Except for slaves. 

Of course. Slaves are not citizens. But all citizens are citizens - they're not disenfranchised. And he says you must do that for two reasons. One is you need the manpower if you're going to run an empire. And he is fascinating on this. He says, you must encourage as much immigration as possible. Get as many people in as you can. That will make the whole economy grow. Second thing is you're going to need huge armies. We're trying to rule the world. So enfranchise everyone, make them citizens, and then make them fight.

Because the goal is glory? 

Because the goal is greatness and glory. Absolutely. But then he says: all right, what about the Venetians saying, well, that will lead to endless tumults and that what you have to have is the peace that brings success in commerce and so forth? And he says, well, of course, it will make completely tumultuous politics. Completely tumultuous. And that's the great secret, that Rome knew that that's a good thing. 

And this is the winds of fortune where the prince can then blow with the changes?

Yes, that is right. But it's more than that. It's something quite ingenious. He says, remember what I told you about human nature, which is everyone is fundamentally out for themselves and they're not to be trusted. All right. So what you do is you have two assemblies. One is the Senate and that's the elite and they will operate entirely in their own interests and try to do down the people. But the people will stop any of those proposals from becoming law. So now, consider the people, they can propose legislation and they will propose legislation in their interest and they will try to do down the nobility. But all of those will fail as well because the nobility won't have them. 

The Senate will vote it down. 

The Senate will vote it down. So the outcome of the whole discussion is to say that the tumults, which are nowadays so much despised and set aside in constitutional theory, were what made Rome great because it was what made Rome remain free: free of submission by the people to the elite, free of anarchy by the people against the elite, because the only laws that could pass were those that benefited everyone. So that's his analysis of mixed constitution. And people were horrified by it. Guicciardini writes a whole tract saying this is like praising someone for being sick. This is not health of the body politic. So Machiavelli is saying, well, actually, that is what made Rome great.

Another thing that I find puzzling here is given the veneration of Rome that you've just been describing, together with the pretty evident cynicism, not so much about what people are like because I think actually that goes very well with the idea of original sin. But the idea that you might sometimes have to depart from what would normally be considered virtue. These things sound very incompatible with Christianity or at least in some tension with Christianity. Is that just because he doesn't care? 

Well, that's very interesting. They are in tremendous tension with Christianity. And that goes back to what I was saying about the fact that we're talking here about a classical moralist. His categories are not Christian. I think there are perhaps two things to be said. One is that he is a sworn foe of the Roman Catholic Church. It's completely corrupt. And at a wonderful moment in The Prince, he says, writing only about two years before Luther, he says, it is so corrupt that I cannot believe that it is not about to be swallowed up completely, which, of course, it was. So there's a hatred of the church and its corruption and the fact that the church just serves as one of the powers in Italy, he says, strong enough to stop anyone else uniting it and not strong enough to unite it itself. And of course, in a way, that is the history of Italy until the 20th century, because the church even rejected unification, as you know. But he says there's something much worse about Christianity, which is that the religion should be a civil religion. That's to say, we want religion to help us to lead good civic lives. We want it to help us to be good citizens. And this is what the Roman religion achieved. Now he says in a fascinating passage at the beginning of Book Two of the Discorsi, there's no reason why Christianity should not have been interpreted in his words, seconda la virtu. That's to say, Christianity could have praised the qualities that make for civic greatness. But he says it didn't. It got taken over by the monks, and they praised the qualities of the humble and the contemplative. Furthermore, they told us to despise this whole life and fix our eyes upon life in heaven after death. And he says in a passage which is impossible not to read as sarcastic, he says, well, the price of having been shown the true way is that the world has been turned over to criminals. 

Sounds like Nietzsche. 

Well, of course, this is where Nietzsche gets it from. Nietzsche in his first year at Basel goes to Burkhardt's lectures. Burkhardt is lecturing about Machiavelli. I think that's a really important fact about Nietzsche. So he's saying, look, there could be no possible reconciliation between Christianity as it has been interpreted and the political teaching which is trying to revive the world. 

I just have one last question, which the mention of Nietzsche takes us to. And this is an impossible question, so I apologize in advance for posing it. Can you in just a couple of minutes sketch out what Machiavelli's legacy has been as a political thinker? 

Well, Machiavelli has a rare accolade amongst philosophers, which is that he's an adjective: we say Platonist, we say Aristotelian, but we also say Machiavellian. And the Machiavelli who has been labeled Machiavellian and denounced for centuries is only part of the Machiavelli whom we've discussed. We've discussed someone who has a certain idealism about the political and how people can be made to live free lives when they're self-interested. How can they be turned into good citizens? That's a big question for him. But the Machiavelli, where the adjective simply denotes, I don't know what, Machiavellian means just duplicitous, doesn't it? Or something like that. Cutthroat. Completely cynical or only concerned with power. That led to a huge literature, which was the literature of the anti-Machiavell from the Chantier's 1572 attack onwards. And of course, the Catholic Church hit back. He was one of the first ever writers whose opera omnia were placed on the prohibited list of books in 1559. And I don't think they came off until 1947.

It's a dubious honor. 

Yes. So that's part of the influence. But there is a serious influence of Machiavelli, which is in the Republican tradition. And there, this image of the free state as requiring a mixed constitution, and sovereignty lying with the people, and the fundamental value being freedom, is there to animate two of the great revolutions of early modernity, the English Revolution of 1649, where the Commonwealth, in explaining what kind of a constitution it is going to set up, sets up a constitution for freedom. It cannot be a monarchy. It has to be a rule by popular sovereignty. And in the legitimization of the English Commonwealth, Machiavelli's discussion in Discorsi is very frequently cited. One of the people writing propaganda for the English Republic was, of course, John Milton and you can determine from his commonplace book that the book he was reading when his sight finally gave up was the Discorsi. And of course, the other great revolution in which there's a clear Machiavellian element, the mixed constitution and the passion for freedom is the American Revolution. So in those cases, there's a positive and rather idealistic story to be told about his influence. 


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