Niccolo Machiavelli

History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Rand McNally, 1963.  Second Edition: Rand McNally, 1972.  Third Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1987.


Men often speak of virtue without using the word but saying instead “the quality of life” or “the great society” or “ethical” or even “square.” But do we know what virtue is? Socrates arrived at the conclusion that it is the greatest good for a human being to make everyday speeches about virtue-apparently without ever finding a completely satisfactory definition of it. However, if we seek the most elaborate and least ambiguous answer to this truly vital question, we shall turn to Aristotle’s Ethics. There we read among other things that there is a virtue of the first order called magnanimity the habit of claiming high honors for oneself with the understanding that one is worthy of them. We also read there that sense of shame is not a virtue: sense of shame is becoming for the young who, due to their immaturity, cannot help making mistakes, but not for mature and well-bred men who simply always do the right and proper thing. Wonderful as all this is-we have received a very different message from a very different quarter. When the prophet Isaiah received his vocation, he was overpowered by the sense of his unworthiness : “I am a man of unclean lips amidst a people of unclean lips.” This amounts to an implicit condemnation of magnanimity and an implicit vindication of the sense of shame. The reason is given in the context: “holy, holy, holy is the lord of hosts.” There is no holy god for Aristotle and the Greeks generally. Who is right, the Greeks or the Jews? Athens or Jerusalem? And how to proceed in order to find out who is right? Must we not admit that human wisdom is unable to settle this question and that every answer is based on an act of faith? But does this not constitute the complete and final de-philosophy. Perhaps it was this unresolved conflict which has prevented Western thought from ever coming to rest. Perhaps it is this conflict which is at the bottom of a kind of thought which is philosophic indeed but no longer Greek: modern philosophy. It is in trying to understand modern philosophy that we come across Machiavelli.

Machiavelli is the only political thinker whose name has come into common use for designating a kind of politics, which exists and will continue to exist independently of his influence, a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends-its end being the aggrandizement of one’s country or fatherland-but also using the fatherland in the service of the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s party. But if this phenomenon is as old as political society itself, why is it called after Machiavelli who thought or wrote only a short while ago, about 500 years ago? Machiavelli as the first publicly to defend it in books with his name on the title pages. Machiavelli made it publicly  defensible. This means that his achievement, detestable or admirable, cannot be understood in terms of politics itself, or of the history of politics-say, in terms of the Italian Renaissance but only in terms of political thought, of political philosophy, of the history of political philosophy.

Machiavelli appears to have broken with all preceding political philosophers. There is weighty evidence in support of this view. Yet his largest political work ostensibly seeks to bring about the rebirth of the ancient Roman Republic; far from being a radical innovator, Machiavelli is a restorer of something old and forgotten.

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