From The Cave and the Light, by Arthur Herman. Chapter 16: Aristotle, Machiavelli, and the Paradoxes of Liberty
History teaches us what human beings are like in reality rather than what we would like them to be. And when we deal with the sum total of history’s record, high-minded ideals like those of Plato’s Philosopher Rulers have to be pushed off over the side. Reality teaches a very different set of lessons about politics – and Machiavelli’s ambition was to present them to posterity.
That at least was Machiavelli’s goal. What he did in reality was to plug Aristotle’s formula for understanding civic liberty into Polybius’s time machine, the inevitable cycle of historical rise and decline. The result was the Discourses, a much longer work than The Prince but crucial for understanding that more celebrated book. For in writing the Discourses, Machiavelli discovered a basic paradox: When it comes to liberty, nothing fails like success.
The freer a society becomes, the more prosperous and arrogant it becomes as well. Like Ancient Rome or Renaissance Florence, it sows the seeds of its own servitude. Although self-government and liberty are the highest forms of political life, Machiavelli revealed that human nature also makes them the most unstable.
Machiavelli’s fusion of Polybius and Aristotle yielded a future of gloom. The Romans had read Polybius to discover how a great empire would be doomed if it failed to keep Aristotle’s balance of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – the One, the Few, and the Many. Machiavelli’s reading was far more pessimistic. Not just Rome, but every free society is doomed from the start. Real republics exist in real time, not on some eternal plane like Plato’s literary version. “All human affairs are ever in a state of flux and cannot stand still,” the Discourses explains, meaning that every society will experience either constant improvement or decline.
When a republic organized around Aristotle’s principle of balance expands its power and place in the world, it becomes rich and powerful. But in the process, the balance is lost: a free society’s “basic principles will be subverted,” Machiavelli declared, “and soon it will be faced with ruin.”
To Machiavelli, the very things that gave a free republic like ancient Rome or Athens or pre-Medici Florence verve and energy – prowess in war, a vigorous politics, the accumulation of riches from trade and empire – ultimately turn back on themselves. Prosperity and success turn men’s passions toward self-enrichment rather than service to the State. The battle of conflicting interests between rich and poor, which Machiavelli shrewdly points to as the real source of the Roman republic’s dynamism, degenerates into bitter factionalism.
Under these circumstances, the very things that are supposed to preserve liberty become a trap. Each group in the mix of One, Few, and Many is determined to gain power at the expense of the other. Politics becomes a cycle of vendetta and payback. Meanwhile, the habits of wealth and luxury undermine the important virtues necessary to sustain free institutions, including honor and service in arms – even the passion for freedom itself. Men become soft and effeminate, like the bakers and tinkers of Machiavelli’s failed militia. People prefer the comfortable life to the stern sacrifices of their forefathers.
New legislation on Plato’s model won’t help either: “The modification of the laws did not suffice to keep men good.” On the contrary, Machiavelli declared, the new laws are ineffectual, because [the society’s] institutions which remain constant, are corrupt.
Once a free people have reached this point, Machiavelli concluded, there is no hope left. Their empire may expand, as Rome’s did under the emperors. The wealth can continue to pour in. The arts may flourish; the political factionalism makes for dramatic entertainment, while people ignore the underlying rot. But such a society is doomed, unless a major crisis forces a change in its thinking.
“Hence it is necessary to resort to extraordinary methods, such as the use of force and the appeal to arms, to become a prince in the state so that one can dispose of it as one thinks fit” and thus save it from extinction. This is where The Prince comes in. He is the instrument of last resort, the man who pulls a corrupt society out of its self-destructive rut and puts it back on the road to political health. However, he is no Platonic soul doctor; no high-minded Philosopher Ruler. As Machiavelli noted in the Discourses, such a man will not be greeted as a messiah.
The Prince explains that such a man must not let success go to his head, as it does to citizens in a free society. He has to constantly watch his back; he must not allow his followers to become too powerful on the one side or too resentful on the other. He must above all train his mind and body to stay focused on the state of his military: “the first way to lose your State is to neglect the art of war”. He must learn from the example of both the lion and the fox, Machiavelli wrote, since at times he will be forced to act like a beast as well as a human being.
Machiavelli understood “that such a ruler, especially a new ruler, will be forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly, or inhumanely, and disregard the precepts of religion” in order to maintain his power and thus save the State. He shouldn’t worry about a reputation for cruelty since that will discourage others from resisting his will: “It is better to be feared than to be loved if one cannot be both.” Yet such a man can still save the State, and preserve its liberty.
Now, it’s a rare event in history when a figure like this appears. But when he does, Machiavelli argues, it’s a sign a society can protect itself from both its enemies and and its own vices.
From: The Cave and the Light: Plato vs Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman ( pp272-3)