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by Hadley Arkes
Review of Machiavelli's Virtue by Harvey C. Mansfield
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The sobering recognition, now finally settling in, is that Bill Clinton was not an accidenta solecism cast up by the electoral system when Mr. Ross Perot managed to split the Republican vote. It becomes more and more apparent that Bill Clinton is a reflection of something in the American character, and the public reaction to Clinton offers a precise reflection, at this moment, of the national soul. According to some recent surveys, about 54 percent of the public do not think that Bill Clinton could be considered honest and trustworthy. But the same surveys also report that about 62 percent of the public think that he has honesty and integrity enough to serve as President. Mr. Clinton may haveshall we say?an infirm sense of truth, but nothing in this vice is thought to disqualify him for his public office. The discrepancy can be explained only if the public has now absorbed, deeply, this kind of distinction: the fact that Clinton has serious moral deficits, or a want of virtue, does not mean that he is wanting in the virtues of a political man, in the exercise of power.
What has taken place is a recasting of virtue in its application to politics, or a radical change in the understanding of morality in public life. Plato had Socrates say in the Gorgias that before we give an architect a commission to build a public building, we look at his portfolio to see what private buildings he has done: before we entrust a man with public authority, or power over the rest of us, we look seriously into his private life, to see if he has shown any notable aptitude for justice in his dealings with those people who come within his reach. When did we learn to make a distinction between private and public morality, or between morality and politics? The answer is that we learned at the hand of the same man who taught us to take a posture of detachment, or moral indifference, in the presence of vice. Or the one who taught us that the artful ruler in politics must learn how not to be virtuous. This understanding would have shocked the ancients, and this break from the classic tradition has been taken as the distinct achievement of Machiavelli.
Professor Harvey C. Mansfield notes in his new book, Machiavellis Virtue, that Machiavelli began a project, later picked up and developed by other modern philosophers, for a permanent, irreversible improvement in human affairs establishing a new political regime. The project is often called modernity. The late Leo Strauss once observed that we would expose ourselves to good-natured or any rate harmless ridicule, if we profess ourselves inclined to the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil. What Machiavelli offered, said Strauss, was a primer containing the maxims of public and private gangsterism:
What other description would fit a man who teaches lessons like these: princes ought to exterminate the families of rulers whose territory they wish to possess securely; princes ought to murder their opponents rather than to confiscate their property since those who have been robbed, but not those who are dead, can think of revenge; men forget the murder of their fathers sooner than the loss of their patrimony; true liberality consists in being stingy with ones own property and in being generous with what belongs to others; not virtue but the prudent use of virtue and vice leads to happiness.
These maxims would no longer startle, because they have been incorporated in our sense of political realism, or the way the world works. Machiavelli no longer shocks, because his premises have become ours. Professor Mansfield, the Kenan Professor of Government at Harvard, has taken, as the title of his book, the meaning of virtue in Machiavelli, and yet he does not offer to the reader a single, crisp definition of the term. Nor does he spend his pages in drawing out, systematically, its implications. He understands, rather, that the notion of virtue will illuminate the whole of Machiavellis teaching: Machiavelli could not recast the meaning of virtue without recasting the meaning of morality itself and the understanding of the ends, or purposes, of political life. Mansfield treats the idea of virtue then as a thread, which he is prepared to follow through all of the intricate turns offered by an intricate and subtle writer, who also takes it, as a part of his art, to be as deft in what he conceals as in what he teaches openly. Mansfield observes at different moments that virtue in [Machiavellis] new meaning seems to be a prudent or well-taught combination of vice and virtue in the old meaning, or that virtue means, not moral norms lasting through the ages, but flexibility according to the times or situations. In short, the virtue of a political man is the capacity to produce an effect, to achieve his ends in an arresting way, without being inhibited by moral restraints.
In a style reminiscent of Leo Strauss, Mansfield is prepared to follow the threads of his problem through the works of Machiavelli line by line, and even between the lineshe is prepared, that is, to be as patient and refined as the mind he is seeking to track and understand. In this project, he has also persevered; the book brings together essays that have mapped his paths of reflection over the past thirty years. At times, he becomes so refined that he may be speaking mainly to himself, and yet his observations remain, for all of that, good talk. By the end, he emerges from this writing, exquisitely patient and refined, with lessons for our current politics that are both apt and unsettling. The ground, one would think, is ancient and familiar, but Mansfield manages to draw out some understandings, or recognitions, jarringly new.
In recasting the problem of politics, Machiavelli began by collapsing the differences that were regarded as the most decisive in political life, the differences among political regimes. His special achievement here was to collapse the difference between republics and principalitiesbetween the rule of the many and the rule of one. As Mansfield put it, The ruling part is always the same, and only the relation of princes to each other and of princes to the people discloses the nature of the regime. A regime of consent would satisfy the multitude by meeting their deepest concern, the concern for security and their fear of being governed. A government ruling in the name of the people will induce the people to accept more readily the yoke of being governed. But regardless of the forms, government will always be in the hands of a few, who will always be, in effect, princes, no matter how they are styled. And even a government republican in form may gratify the humors of those who rulenamely, their passion for glory, fame, or as we say in tamer times, recognition.
Machiavelli understood that even a republic would need to be renewed, to be shaken occasionally from its settled conventions, and the instrument of rejuvenation he would find in sensational executions (esecuzioni). In fact, the fascination and utility of esecuzioni provides a pervading theme in his work. To rule was to execute with effectnot only to produce the desired result, but to make an impression on the public mind. It also meant to execute in the sense of punish, and punishment, too, had its utility. For it could at once plant fear and assuage anger. The premier example in Machiavelli, the example that told all, was that of Cesare Borgia in the province of Romagna. Cesare had installed Remirro de Orco, a cruel, efficient man, to rule as his agent. When the severities of this rule had stirred hatred, Cesare decided to purge the anger in a stroke by purging his minister. One morning, as Machiavelli recounted, Remirros body was found in the piazza, cut in two, with a block of wood and a bloody knife. The brutality of this spectacle, he said, kept the people for a time appeased and stupefied.
The dark secret, which may not speak its name, is that this capacity to carry out hard executions is the very stuff of the executive power, and the executive power is the heart of modern government. To preserve the Union, Lincoln had to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus, and though he acted with moderationand with ample readiness to forgive his enemieshe had to prosecute the war, in the end, with deadly force. That we refer to such power as the Executive power is itself part of the fiction cast up by politics in its modern form: we pretend that this power of the ruler is not exerted in his own name, for his own ends. We assume rather that he is executing a policy springing from the will of the people, or that he is carrying out the mandates of the Constitution. But the insight of Machiavellithe insight that Mansfied appears to confirmis that the law cannot attain what it attempts. The law speaks in universal terms, but the law needs assistance from outside to specify what is reasonable in each case. Before there was a declaration of war, President Roosevelt authorized the American navy to shoot at German submarines in the Atlantic. And before there was a statute providing for the seizure of property, FDR ordered the seizure of an aircraft plant, halted in its production by a strike. When the Constitution gets in the way of the necessity of defense, the Constitution becomes exposed as but a paper parchment. What is revealed as real, as inescapably of this world, is the power of the Executive, or the hand of the ruler.
One of the memorable pictures of my childhood was the photo of Mr. Sewell Avery, in his chalk-stripe, double-breasted suit, still sitting in his chair as the head of the corporation at Montgomery Ward, as two soldiers carried him out and placed him in an army truck. The federal government had just laid hands on the corporationand Mr. Averyrather than see the company close down its operations as a result of a strike, in the middle of the war. What everyone could see in the scene was the long arm of Franklin Roosevelt. And that reach ever more impressed and stupefied because it did not have to be seen in the photo in order to be sensed or apprehended.
That is what Machiavelli understood about the reality of modern government: that it is the hand of the ruler, working under the fictions of the law. That the point still comes as news, that it still may surprise even our savviest public men, is the measure of what Machiavelli still may teach. It is also the measure of what still may jolt us in the news that Mansfield brings. And so, at the end of a rather mean term of the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia could speak with exasperation of his colleagues: The court must be living in another world. Day by day, case by case, it is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize. Scalia is moved to outrage because, in his earnestness, he is still attached to the precious notion that we have a government of laws, an impersonal regime of rules, described in the Constitution. And that regime, he persists in thinking, may be used, with a spirit of tolerance, to accommodate a wide variety of political ends, so long as they gain the consent of the people. Scalia professes to be offended then when his colleagues seem determined simply to get their way. They will adapt the formulas or the slogans of the Constitution, they will draw upon the words as they need them, to supply at least a plausible cover for the results they wish to produce. Mansfield would no doubt share Scalias outrage, but not his astonishment. As Machiavelli taught, the political class, the people who form the regime, will get their way, and they will bend the law to their ends. What stirs the incredulity of Scalia would merely confirm the deep truth that Machiavelli sought to teach to his most attentive readers about a new order of things, about the kind of government that would be formed around his new political science.
But it was also part of his teaching that this state of things, in order to have its effect, would have to be concealed. The assent of the multitude could not be gained so readily for a regime that made so brutally clear that it rested on the splendor of uno solo, of one man or a gifted few, acting out their passion to rule.
This truth about modern government would hold even more firmly as the problem of foreign policy and defense gained the ascendance over domestic policy. The perils of foreign policy, or the dangers arising from abroad, would make even more urgent the unconstrained hand of the Executive. In Mansfields reading, that state of affairs would also move us further from the conditions of the polis in classical thought. Even the ancients had to admit, he says, that the good city might have to subordinate its goodness and its concern for the soul to the requirements of self-defense.
Mansfield finds it telling in this vein that, throughout Machiavellis work, there is almost no mention of the soul (animo). Following Machiavellis own rules of interpretation, we must suspect that the silence of a wise man is instructive: when a wise man is silent on a matter that most other people regard as important, he leads us to suspect that he regards that matter as unimportant. Machiavellis silence on the question of the soul could hardly have been inadvertent. A politics that takes seriously matters of the soul is directed to a moral understanding outside of politics. Mansfield touches the point precisely, and he offers an echo of John Paul II, when he observes that conscience is the receptivity of the human soul to a higher law, a divine law. In a politics concerned with the soul, men in office would acknowledge a moral law outside themselves, a law that constrains their exercise of power. But that is exactly what Machiavelli meant to supersede as he swept past the classic polis, past the tradition of natural law, past Christianity and Judaism. As Leo Strauss noted, Machiavelli mentions in The Prince the Old Testament but not the New; he mentions Xenophon but not Plato or Aristotle. In short, the peaks are missing in the tradition of revelation and philosophy. Strauss drew the inference that Machiavelli meant to supply those peaks himself. He would put, in place of Christianity and ancient philosophy, a new understanding; he would become the founder of a new political order that would surpass both the classical polis and Christianity.
What he would produce then is a form of governance utterly emancipated from the restraints of law and morality. In the most guarded way, Mansfield brings us to the threshold of acknowledging that Machiavelli might have had it, inescapably, right: the restraints of law, the fictions of the Constitution, will have to give way to the Executive power. Mansfield decorously muffles the point for us by expressing the hope that even Machiavelli might have drawn back if he could have seen what his teaching would beget when it was allied with modern technology. After our experience of totalitarian tyranny, says Mansfield, [Machiavelli] might have shivered himself. But to shiver is not exactly the same as objecting on moral grounds. As Mansfield himself has made clear, there is nothing in the record of Stalin or Hitler that Machiavelli had not anticipated in principle; and in principle he had dissolved every ground of moral objection.
But that returns us then to Mansfields own teaching. If the law is but a fiction, what is it that finally constrains the power of the Executive or the hand of the ruler? The old answer used to be the character of the ruler, or his respect for a law outside himself. Religion used to supply an anchor for the character of men in politics, for it led back, as Mansfield says, to a higher law, outside oneself. But as Mansfield understands, the silence of a wise man is always instructive, and in this serious work of political theory, Mansfield has almost nothing to say about religion. One might gather that he does not look to it seriously himself, or that he does not expect it to be taken seriously, in our own time, as a source of moral constraint. Then, what of a moral understanding not dependent on religion say, the tradition of moral reasoning and classic natural right? Mansfield remarks in passing that Machiavelli had prepared the ground for modernity not only by rejecting, but by refuting classical natural right. If these passages can be taken as clues, Mansfield has given us a teaching that is quite dark indeed. The Constitution and the forms of law will be but fictions, and behind them all will simply be the Executive power. But that power is now wielded in an age when our rulers no longer take seriously the notion of moral truths or natural law, and when they may pay only a lip service to Christianity. In a world so arranged, Machiavelli would be proven right to a degree that even Mansfield would suffer tremors in acknowledging.
But on the other hand, Mansfields reticence may simply be a silent, prudent concession to the world that Machiavelli has made. It may not be that Mansfield is no longer persuaded himself of natural right, or of the truth borne by Christianity. It may be rather that, in the politics shaped by Machiavelli, in the world we inhabit now, a realistic doctrine of virtue may have to be conveyed as a covert teaching. It is not something that the urbane, in our day, will proclaim openly, and teach in public.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 September 1996, on page 123
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