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Machiavelli: Saint or Sinner?

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Terms such as “Machiavellian” and “Machiavellism” have entered not only the vocabulary of philosophers, but also that of the layman. Such adjectives as “Machiavellian” and “Machiavellism” are used to indicate a character that is diabolical, immoral, deceiving, and similar treacherous connotations. But was Machiavelli indeed a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him? That is, was Machiavelli espousing a kind of nihilistic message by his advice to the prince? The foregoing is one of the questions I want to discuss in this paper. And to give a preliminary and short answer, I think that to say that Machiavelli sanctioned immoral behavior and or deception—in other words, that he was a Machiavellian—is an uncharitable reading of his work, the Prince. Machiavelli’s prose may often appear unsystematic and sometimes self-contradictory, if it is considered from the point of view of rigorous philosophical standards. He tends to appeal to experience and historical examples rather than rigorous logical analysis. Arguably, the uncharitable interpretation of Machiavelli’s thought to which I am referring stems, among other things, from the very prose that Machiavelli chose to convey his thought.

 
Another question I want to discuss is the reasons that made the Prince—quite a brief output, and one among many books of its kind—such a unique and influential source of a large number of important discourses in Western thought—most notably, political theory, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. Machiavelli’s thought made the world of ethics, politics, and philosophy pause ever since it was first presented in writing. Perhaps this pause was due to the radically novel discourse introduced by Machiavelli’s Prince. This question, as I shall illustrate in the course of my discussion, is intimately related to the previous question. In fact, the content of Machiavelli’s Prince represents radical philosophical innovations or, as Lefort puts it, a new ontology. Machiavelli made a radical departure from classical political theory rather than following it or improving upon it. Another way to put it is to say that in hindsight, Machiavelli was a modern man and his message was way ahead of its time; as a result, it provoked a great deal of shock to its readers, but also a fundamentally new source of ideas regarding politics. Consequently, many took Machiavelli’s thought as warped and diabolical, when in reality, in my opinion, Machiavelli understood that a prince who wishes to succeed and cement his success must take a more pragmatic attitude and jettison certain moral values.

 
Lastly, I would like to end my discussion with a consideration of Lefort’s view on the possibility of precisely interpreting Machiavelli’s Oeuvre. To be sure, Lefort believes that it is not possible, and perhaps not even desirable, to try to render a philosophically accurate interpretation of the Prince. While I generally agree with Lefort’s contention, I will try to do the following: first I will suggest exactly Lefort’s position and the element of it with which I agree; and then, I will point out certain difficulties with Lefort’s contention that it is impossible to render a precise, objective interpretation of Machiavelli’s message presented in the Prince.

 
Let me start where it all began, Plato’s Republic. Political philosophy’s very first inception is perhaps the Republic. Plato’s theories of justice and of ideas represented a paradigm of political thought for centuries to come. In his masterwork, Plato shows that there is an important relationship between political life and an invisible realm of ideal forms. The polis for Plato is a physical expression of an unchanging form of justice existing in that invisible realm. In other words, for Plato there is a metaphysical paradigm by virtue of which political systems exist. Similarly, there is a metaphysical paradigm of justice, which is the locus of justice and the form that determines the shape of a just city and a just individual. The function and purpose of the philosopher-king, the ideal ruler according to Plato, is to shape and rule the city according to the form of justice. Not anybody can become a philosopher-king; this requires years of education that leads one to the ascension of dialectic and true knowledge of the forms.

 
The individual and the city are for Plato organic entities divided into parts or classes. The individual and the city are two analogous creatures. The just individual, therefore, is but a miniature version of the just city. The city’s parts are the three classes, the producers, the guardians, and the philosopher-kings. The just city is the receptacle of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Justice is produced as a by-product, as it were, of the three classes’ sharp separation and at the same time by their harmonious cooperation. A city is thereby just when the class of individuals that subsume wisdom, the rulers, rule over the appetites of the citizens with the help of courageous soldiers. Yet another way to put it is that a city is just when everybody minds his or her own business and performs the task for which he or she possesses a natural aptitude. A mirror image of this model is, according to Plato, what gives rise to justice at the individual level. Namely, a just individual is one whose soul’s parts function in an orderly manner. The order intended is that the rational part of the individual’s soul must be the ruling part. This part rules over the individual’s appetites with the help of the spirited part of the soul. Thus, according to Plato the just individual and the just, beautiful city arise according to nature. Plato talks about a relation of mastering and being mastered, i.e., the rational element in the soul and in the city must rule alone and the other parts (or classes) must be mastered and accept to be mastered.

 
Platonic philosophical ideas regarding justice and ruling had been passed down the centuries and modified by neo-Platonists (e.g., Plotinus) and, during the early medieval period, incorporated by Christian thinkers. The Sun of Plato became the One of Plotinus and the God of Augustine. In the City of God, Augustine never focuses primarily on politics like Machiavelli. However, Augustine clearly influenced the political thought of the time. He supports the Christian Church’s domination of politics. The state, Augustine writes, “Is a disposition rooted in sin.” The ruler is not to be considered as privileged, but as carrying a heavy responsibility to encourage virtue and to punish vice. Augustine thus divides people into two classes, those elected for salvation and those elected for damnation. He refers to these classes by using the metaphor of cities—the City of God and the earthly city. Citizens of the earthly city are the descendants of Adam and Eve, who deserve to be damned because of Adam’s Fall. These people are aliens to God’s love because they refuse to love God. These citizens of the earthly city have an incontrollable lust for material goods. On the other hand, citizens of the City of God are “pilgrims and foreigners” whose object of their love is God and God’s law. Augustine definition of justice is therefore grounded in his Christian philosophical commitments: “justice,” says Augustine, “is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else.” Justice is the distinction between ideal political states—which does not exist on earth—and non-ideal political states—that is, every political state on earth. For example, the Roman Empire could not be a City of God because it lacked true justice in the sense that Roman justice was not about serving God. “Remove justice,” Augustine points out, “and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” Therefore, no earthly state can have true justice, but only relative justice in various degrees, i.e., one state is more just than another.
Nevertheless, political states, imperfect as they are, serve a divine purpose. That is, they serve as divine instruments for maintaining order and for preventing war among people. In that respect, the state is a divine gift and an expression of divine mercy—especially if the state is righteously ruled. The state maintains order by keeping evil men in check through the fear of punishment, though God will eventually punish them and along with those elected for damnation. So, God uses the state to impose immediate punishments against the damned. The rulers of earthly states have the right to establish any law that does not conflict with the law of God. Citizens have the duty to obey their political leaders regardless of whether leaders are bad or righteous. However, citizens are always bound to obey God; and when obedience to God and obedience to the ruler conflict, citizens must choose to obey God and willingly accept the punishment of disobedience. In short, the state is an institution imposed by God upon fallen man for his temporal benefit, and the ruler is an agent of God. A ruler may create his laws, but a just ruler is one who patterns his laws off God’s eternal law.

 
The foregoing constitutes the backbone of Western political philosophy. Specifically, Plato’s and Aristotle’s thoughts were influential enough to bequeath a common view among political philosophers that there is a definite relationship between moral goodness and legitimate authority. Many philosophers after Plato believed that political power was objective and that it was rightfully sanctioned by rulers whose moral character was virtuous. Plato’s ideas even evolved into a religious form during the Middle Ages; this era is characterized by the belief in a higher authority, the Christian God, as the enforcer and paradigm of morality, and political authority. Thus rulers in the history of Western civilization were promptly counseled that in the first place, there exists a metaphysical ground of morality, whose locus is God; and furthermore, if they wanted to succeed and maintain a long and peaceful reign they ought to act in accordance with conventional standards of ethical goodness. In fact, it was believed that rulers were most successful and earned the right to be obeyed and respected when they acted and showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.

 
Now, to return to one of the questions I posed, was Machiavelli indeed a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him? And why has the Prince become (and continues being) such an important paradigm of political philosophy? I think that Machiavelli earned the reputation of being a Machiavellian due to an uncharitable reading of his work. Moreover, as I mentioned in my introduction, I believe that the very radical and new nature of Machiavelli’s message contributed to his (undeserved) infamous reputation. It is true that if we take the teaching of Plato, for instance, we see that although Plato considers war as a part of his ontology, he never ascribe to war metaphysical origin, nor particular importance. War is for Plato a social consequence. By and large, Plato does not seem to embrace war or make it part of his political system. And to speak about classical political theory, Aristotle in his ethics regards moderation and striving to achieve goodness as fundamental precepts. Arguably, Aristotle was not pro-war. Machiavelli changed all this. Machiavelli’s departure from Aristotle’s and Plato’s ethical and political views—and his departure from Christian morality—is, to say the least, shocking.

 
Let me illustrate what Machiavelli says about ruling. Machiavelli is very clear on what a prince should be concerned about as he begins chapter XIV with the following statement: “A prince, therefore, should have no other object, no other thought, no other subject of study, than war…” (40) He further adds that neglecting the art of war is the easiest way to lose a state. Thus, a prince should study this art very attentively, but so should he study history and read about other great leaders. Machiavelli also argues that in order for a prince to remain in power, it is necessary that he become feared; he should be ready to be cruel but only insofar as it does not affect his relationship with the people. In fact, if a prince becomes hated, he will eventually lose his power. A prince should not hesitate to use deceit and cruelty so long as his ultimate goal is to benefit the state; yet, cruelty should not be perpetrated upon others just for the sake of it. The point here is that Machiavelli, unlike any other classical political theory or moral standard, promotes war. In fact, war, he believes, is a fundamental aspect of political life. A ruler who does not think about war or who tries to avoid it will not be successful.

 
While Plato and Aristotle talked about the importance of virtue, moderation and a harmonious order of the soul as fundamental aspects of just ruling, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of conflict. And with regard to the fundamental characteristics that a successful ruler should possess, Machiavelli points out that there are two important elements that may lead a prince to acquire a state and rule successfully: virtù and fortuna. Virtù, Machiavelli says, encompasses a variety of concepts such as perspicaciousness, intellect, strength, honesty, astuteness and many others. Specifically, when he says that a prince should be a virtùoso, he refers to the fact that a successful prince is often a citizen who comes up through the ranks by using his natural ability and strength. Machiavelli points out that between virtù and fortuna, the hardest and most difficult way to acquire a state and rule successfully is virtù. However, he argues that those who rely on virtù are most likely to maintain their power and with little effort too. To that extent, he mentions some examples of men who triumphed because of their virtùosismo, Cyrus, Romolus, and Theseus. Also, he compares two princes, one virtùoso and the other fortunate: Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia. The virtùoso, Sforza, started as a private citizen and become Duke of Milan, “and maintained it with little effort.” (19) On the other hand, the lucky one, Borgia, acquired authority through his father, but he immediately lost it. Therefore, Machiavelli would choose virtù because it guarantees long-lasting success. Machiavelli says that if a prince needs to choose between being loved and being feared, the wisest and safest choice is being feared. This conclusion derives from his argument on human nature. That is, Machiavelli believes that people tend to be selfish, however, in times of peace they may be good and trustworthy, but they may quickly go back to being selfish in times of hardship. Therefore, a prince should always be prudent and distrustful of people.

 
As I said earlier, a prince should pay attention not to become hated but rather feared. Also, he should avoid idealistic principles such as being compassionate, generous, a giver, faithful etc. Idealistically, these are good qualities that a prince should have, and these are generally referred to as good qualities. However, according to Machiavelli, these are bad qualities for a prince. For example, between being generous (virtù) and being miser (vice) the latter is recommended by Machiavelli; that is, first of all if a prince intends to be generous, he will soon use up his entire revenue, and to continue being generous he will eventually need to increase taxes in order to have enough money to give to the people. This will inevitably lead the prince to being hated. Therefore, Machiavelli says that “[that prince] should not mind in the least if people consider him a miser.”(44) Between cruelty and clemency, a prince should choose cruelty. That is, Machiavelli argues that often we try to be good and act in good faith, and yet we obtain the opposite result of that which we expected. For example, Cesare Borgia was cruel, but he used cruelty wisely and the result was the unification of the Romagna, “establish it in peace and loyalty.” (45) Conversely, the people of Florence wanted to avoid cruelty, but “allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.” (45)

 
Furthermore, between being loved and being feared, a prince should choose to be feared. The reason is that if a prince is loved, he may ultimately be hated and therefore, to use Machiavelli’s expression, “down he goes.” On the other hand, being feared will guarantee a prince respect. A prince must avoid being hated and despised. A prince should therefore avoid “confiscating the property of his subjects or taking their women.” (49) Rather, he should be courageous, honest, and moreover he should be feared. Consequently the ruler’s greater strength is the skill of deception.

 
From the foregoing exposition of Machiavelli’s teachings (by no means complete) one can easily realize the reason Machiavelli’s thought have generated considerable controversy not only among his readers back in the sixteenth century, when he was denounced as an apostle of the Devil, but also by various modern readers. The main source of controversy is clearly due to Machiavelli’s attitude toward conventional moral and religious standards of human conduct. For many, his teaching prescribes immoralism, though I think it is more correct to say that Machiavelli stance is amoralism. One of the most notable versions of this reading that finds Machiavelli to be an apostle of the Devil is expressed by Leo Strauss (1958, 9-10). Strauss condemns Machiavelli on the grounds that he (Machiavelli) counsels the prince to avoid the common values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people in preference to the use of cruelty, violence, fear, and deception. As I have enunciated earlier, I am of the opinion that this bad reputation was earned by Machiavelli due to uncharitable reading. It is true that Machiavelli counsels future princes to adopt deception, cruelty, and other forms of apparent immoral behavior; but a more charitable reading thereof would consider the circumstances surrounding Italy and Machiavelli at that time. Machiavelli’s message can be read as the implementation of pragmatism in political theory. This reading, taking into consideration of the circumstances at hand, would see Machiavelli as promoting the doctrine of “reason of state” (Viroli 1992).

 
So the questions we must ask are “What is Machiavelli’s ostensible aim in writing The Prince?” and “What are these circumstances?” Italy at that time was constantly invaded by the French and also Milan, Venice, Florence, and Naples. Everyone wanted control over Italy. This constant turmoil somehow led Machiavelli to envision unity and peace for Italy. But that peace could not have been brought about by simply applying the teaching of Aristotle or Plato, or all the less those of Christianity, which, perhaps, was one of the very causes that led Italy to the present situation. Therefore, Machiavelli thought that a more pragmatic attitude would work toward unifying the state. It also has to be said that Machiavelli at the time was seeking to obtain an office, possibly a position as an advisor for the governor of Florence Lorenzo il Magnifico, A.K.A. de’Medici. Granted, if we consider Machiavelli’s disposition from our 21St century point of view, it may seem more than obvious that a leader should sometimes implement Machiavellism. But for the time in which Machiavelli was writing, his message must have been like that of 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

 
Another, more charitable, school of thought, for example is that of Benedetto Croce (1925), who views Machiavelli as a “realist” or a “pragmatist” advocating the suspension of traditional ethics in matters of politics. Croce seems to suggest that Moral values have no place in the sorts of decisions that political leaders must make, or at least that when it comes to ruling, traditional standards of ethics should not and cannot be expected. Yet another view, e.g., Ernst Cassirer (1946), is that Machiavelli adopts the attitude of a scientist in proposing a mechanistic view of the world and transposing it to politics. Just like a scientist explains the facts of the world and the laws of nature, Machiavelli treats ruling in the same fashion. This view seems correct considering that Machiavelli constantly refers to history when he justifies his principles. That is to say, Machiavelli notes that human behavior is mechanistic and never changes its course. When rulers in the past acted in certain ways, those events caused expected results. Thus, by studying past ruler’s actions, a prince can be successful by employing certain behaviors that promote success. For Machiavelli, the only factor that can change events is fortuna. Pure accident can change the mechanics of human behavior. And pure luck can aid human behavior. This concept is also totally new in his time when people believed in divine providence. This is an example of what Lefort refers to as a “new ontology”. He was an absolute pioneer in regard to modern political thought. His message came as a shock to all educated men who still regarded as sacred the political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato and Christian morality, which proposed a political science of virtue.
Earlier I used the term pragmatic referring to Machiavelli’s attitude toward political theory. I believe that virtually all defenders of Machiavelli’s philosophy use this term to justify Machiavelli’s message to the prince. I think that an even more appropriate term to describe Machiavelli’s thought is the term (though anachronistically used) utilitarian. Machiavelli seems to suggest that a prince should suspend traditional moral judgment and behave in ways that may be considered immoral; but he stresses that this behavior is not implemented by a prince for the sake of the prince himself, but rather for the ultimate goal, which is the happiness and stability of the people. Machiavelli applies something that will be known much later on as the principle of utility. When he tells the ruler how to act, he does not want to jettison traditional morality. Rather, Machiavelli’s message is supposed to give the prince the knowledge to rule successfully, and that can be done only by the implementation of various amoral practices and actions that ultimately aim at the benefit and happiness of the greater number of individuals, i.e., the people. In other words, Machiavelli is interested in promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He does not view political justice as Thrasymachus, for example. Thrasymachus is in fact what some have in mind when they consider Machiavelli. But Thrasymachus said that justice is advantageous for the stronger. That is, he does not consider the well being of the people. So, the ruler according to Thrasymachus perpetrates a sophisticated scheme whereby the rulers constantly scams the people to the point that the people think the ruler as a benefactor when in reality he is ruling and acting only in his interest.

 
What Machiavelli talks about in book VIII of the Prince clearly shows that the allegedly amoral aspect of his philosophy is due to uncharitable reading. He notes that there are individuals who come to power by crime, killing fellow citizens and betraying friends. He calls these individuals “treacherous, pitiless, and irreligious.” (p. 48) King Agathocles of Syracuse is an example of such a man. He was a common citizen who joined the militia, rose through the ranks in the army, and then in a meeting of the senate he ordered his men to kill all the senators and to install him in power. Agathocles’ reign was characterized by constant difficulties and threats to his power. However, he withstood them and maintained his rule. Once in power, Agathocles was a competent ruler, but the severity of the crimes he committed during his ruling prevented his being considered great. For Machiavelli, cruelty can be used well if it is applied once at the outset, and subsequently only employed in self-defense and for the greater good of the people. Regular and frequent perpetration cruelty, like in the case of Agathocles, earns a ruler infamy. If a prince comes to power by crime and wishes to be successful, he, like Agathocles, must only use cruelty wisely. In other words, princes who commit criminal acts for their own advantages can achieve power, but never glory. Glory is achieved when a prince wisely measures cruelty and uses it to bring about something positive. In fact, Machiavelli does not hesitate to characterize the use of cruelty as “evil.” I believe that this point clearly shows that Machiavelli is not proposing an immoral or amoral system of politics and ethics. On the contrary, he is concerned about morality; but in order to maintain certain standards of morality, and ensure that the populace is happy, a prince must have the authority to override the established morality, rather than abide by it. Therefore, Machiavelli’s very recognition of the intrinsic immorality of cruel behavior contradicts the reading that sees Machiavelli as a “Machiavellian.”

 
Now, I want to turn to my third point of discussion and address Lefort’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s work. To be sure, Lefort’s position is anti-interpretation. That is to say, Lefort notes that although Machiavelli invites us to interpret his work, we modern are not in a position that allows us to do so objectively. To be precise, he seems to argue that a quest for an objective meaning and or interpretation of a work is not possible and, moreover, is not desirable. One difficulty that Lefort sees in interpreting a work is the very fact that many perspicacious readers come down with many different readings of the Prince. For Lefort, a work such as the Prince is not a static piece of matter, but rather an organic advent whose meaning continues to evolve through time. This idea reminds us of what Löwith says about interpreting history. Philosophy of history, he writes, is a “systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning.” (p. 1) Löwith ultimately argues that philosophers of history were either religious figures who posited theological views of history or philosophers who unwittingly secularized the same religious interpretations of history. He says that the Western view of history is a confused combination of Christian faith and secular view, which is neither Christian nor pagan. The modern historical consciousness is, according to Löwith, derived from Christianity. Christians are historical people to the extent that they view the world as a temporary state where humans fulfill the Imago Dei in order to eventually be saved and become one with God. This view, according to Löwith, explains the tendency in history (and philosophy) to an eschatological view of human progress. Before Christianity and Judaism, ancient Greeks also had a sense of history as a process, though they interpreted history as a cyclical process, perhaps directed by a god or gods.
Therefore, theology of history had two interpretations, cyclical and eschatological. When we consider modern interpretations of history, we find that some historians and philosophers still think of history as a succession of events leading toward a final purpose, though moderns may not believe that events are directed by a god. These two views create confusion. According to Löwith, modern thinkers have unwittingly secularized theology of history; they have unknowingly retained the Christian, Hebrew, and Greek ways of interpretation. The way Löwith puts it is that “We of today, concerned with unity of universal history and its progress toward an ultimate goal or at least a ‘better world,’ are still in the line of prophetic and messianic monotheism; we are still Jews and Christians, however little we may think of ourselves in those terms.” (p. 19) For Löwith, our modern view of history is an inconsistent compound of ancient and modern, i.e., of religious and secular. I do not think that Löwith is mistaken, but I do think that he paints only half of the picture, namely, I think that those philosophers he describes in his monograph, particularly Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, were not necessarily “confused” or unaware of applying theological principles to their theories of history; rather they were metaphysicians applying metaphysical principles to their philosophies of history claiming to be doing scientific work.
Similarly, Lefort is aware of these difficulties when he writes that

 

It is only in a sense that interpretation, thus extended to the time of history, dissolves the identity of the interpreters; in another sense, interpretation lives only thanks to the diversity of historical time. Its movement presupposes the continuous fall of a discourse…In trying to ignore this, in maintaining, for example, that each person fades away before his or her statements, we would be making do with a half truth—a half truth that, because it gives itself out as the whole truth, would turn into a lie, since it would conceal the imprint always left by a Subject on discourse…a knot impossible to undo, binding the word to knowledge. (430)

 
Lefort wants to say that the interpreter that claims to render an objective interpretation of the work—one who thinks that interpreting the Prince does not require much more than just carefully reading the words and understanding the message—very often finds himself or herself interpreting his or her own voice, that is, the very voice, beliefs, predispositions, and desires projected into the work by the interpreter. For Lefort, a text like the Prince envelopes the reader so much that it would be not only impossible to try to capture all the aspects of the text and to understand them in a mathematical way, but it would also be deflationary as to the richness of the message. Such attempt will inevitably confine the meaning of the text to a narrow perspective. In other words, we of today cannot pretend to know all the historical aspects and circumstances that contributed to the production of a rich work like the Prince. We cannot know what the world was like in the 1500’s, for example.
To begin with, I want to point out to what extent I agree with Lefort’s argument. In a nutshell, his view is that a work like the Prince cannot be objectively and precisely interpreted like an algebraic expression. The nature of the work itself and the socio-historical circumstances surrounding it, do not allow us today to attain an objective, unbiased interpretation; all we can hope for is a hermeneutic process of understanding through time and traditions. I want to say that Lefort is correct in maintaining that the content of a philosophical work, such as the Prince for example, is not a solid object with defined boundaries, which gives us a true and unbiased picture of itself. Perhaps Machiavelli himself did not want his message to be so strict as to yield a specific interpretation. But a question that Lefort does not explore is why interpreting the Prince in the first place? Namely, if we take, say, a work of art, and try to give it a universal interpretation, I believe that virtually all art critics and art lovers would say that it is not possible to put into precise words and attain a precise meaning of the artwork. One must consider the intention of the artist, the subjective experience of each single individual generated by the work of art, and a host of other aspects and circumstances. But is it the same with Machiavelli’s prince? Arguably, Machiavelli did not write the Prince as an artistic expression. As far as we can say, Machiavelli was not an artist. At least, his intentions in writing the Prince were not artistic. Thus why should we not expect to attain an objective interpretation of the Prince? The question is whether the interpreter wishes to interpret Machiavelli in his own context and historical circumstances in order to perhaps understand 1500’s political thought or rather use the message contained in his work as a model to use to inform us about ideas applicable to modern political thought. Namely, if by “interpreting” Lefort means interpreting in the first sense, i.e., understanding Machiavelli in his own socio-historical context, then, I have to agree with him. That is an impossible task because of many factors, some of which I reviewed earlier. On the other hand, if by “interpreting” Lefort merely refers to the activity of philosophers by which thinkers of the past are read and interpreted for the sake of advancing our understanding of philosophical literature, then, it seems that a precise interpretation is possible as well as desirable.

 

My point here is this: Lefort says that interpreting the Prince is an impossibility. Yet, Lefort’s Machiavelli in the Making is itself an interpretation of the Prince. To say that a work cannot be interpreted is in itself a philosophical position, that is, an interpretation. Now, Lefort may respond that he is aware of this and that it is not his intention or his claim that his interpretation is the correct one. However, he sure understands that his interpretation is more informative and more precise or accurate of one rendered by a person with superficial knowledge of Machiavelli’s work or even a reader who learned about Machiavelli’s Prince through secondary sources. In that case, Lefort’s interpretation is superior in its level of accuracy. But if it is so, this indicates the possibility of having an accurate interpretation. My point is that acknowledging that there can be more accurate interpretations of a work than others is acknowledging the possibility of accurately interpreting a work. Granted, interpreting a work is no easy task for reason I have already discussed. Perhaps we may never accurately know to a degree of precision around 100% what Plato had in mind when he formulated his theory of ideas. Nevertheless, over the millennia, and thanks to the collective effort of scholars, we of today are able to read and understand standard interpretations of the Republic and other works by Plato. To close with an analogy, imagine we could take a time machine and go back to the time of Vivaldi. We may discover that his works sound different. The acoustic for which his songs were meant was different. The meaning and subjective experiences from listening his music may be different. The instruments were for sure different and the tempos and techniques and performances were surely different. But should we conclude that we cannot accurately play and feel Vivaldi’s music the way it was meant to be heard? I think not.

 
In the foregoing discussion, I presented an exposition of the reasons according to which some readers find Machiavelli as being Machiavellian, that is, sanctioning to the prince immorality and deceit and other unorthodox courses of conduct as fundamental dispositions for successful ruling. I hope to have shown that those readers adopt an uncharitable interpretation of Machiavelli’s Prince. I also hope to have shown that there is an alternative interpretation based on well-grounded textual evidence, which sees Machiavelli as a pragmatic thinker giving effective advice to the price. According to this reading, Machiavelli does not positively encourage the prince to be ruthless and or immoral for the sake of it. Machiavelli understands that a prince who acts immorally and ruthlessly all the time as a natural disposition may become successful. But in the end, it is glory and respect that a prince should strive to attain. Thus, the use of sporadic acts of cruelty or deception are meant as sort of utilitarian principle that will in the long run bring about happiness to the greater number of people. With regard to Lefort, I wish to make a few points. My understanding of Lefort’s contention regarding the interpretation of the Prince is limited to my reading of Machiavelli in the Making and our class discussions. Lefort’s thought is very rich, and his dense prose makes it a challenging endeavor to capture all its nuances. Still, I believe I presented a fair exposition of his chief argument. My response to his chief argument is not meant as a slam dunk, but rather a reflection generated by it. I think he is right in asserting that there are many difficulties preventing interpretations of texts in retrospective, especially philosophical texts. Indeed, there are many obscure areas of the past, and many other factors I discussed above, that hinder completely accurate textual interpretations. Therefore, Lefort seems to lean in the direction of a hermeneutic approach. But as I suggested, it is possible to have better or worse interpretations of the same text. Texts such as the Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics—which are even older than the Prince—are given accurate interpretations. This means that there is a genuine possibility to attain a precise interpretation, one that is agreed upon by the philosophical community.

 

 

 
References

Augustine. City of God Hendrickson Pub (March 2009)
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine Scott Kirby Publishing (August 27, 2013)
Cassirer, E., 1946, The Myth of the State, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Croce, B., 1925, Elementi di politica, Bari: Laterza & Figli.
Lefort, C. Machiavelli in the Making, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology &
Existential Philosophy (March 30, 2012).
Löwith, K. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History
Phoenix Books University of Chicago Press (April 15, 1957).
Machiavelli. The Prince W. W. Norton & Company; Second edition (May 17, 1992).
Strauss, L., 1958, Thoughts on Machiavelli, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Viroli, M., 1992, From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition and Transformation of the
Language of Politics 1250-1600, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

 

 
References

Augustine. City of God Hendrickson Pub (March 2009)
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine Scott Kirby Publishing (August 27, 2013)
Cassirer, E., 1946, The Myth of the State, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Croce, B., 1925, Elementi di politica, Bari: Laterza & Figli.
Lefort, C. Machiavelli in the Making, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology &
Existential Philosophy (March 30, 2012).
Löwith, K. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History
Phoenix Books University of Chicago Press (April 15, 1957).
Machiavelli. The Prince W. W. Norton & Company; Second edition (May 17, 1992).
Strauss, L., 1958, Thoughts on Machiavelli, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Viroli, M., 1992, From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition and Transformation of the
Language of Politics 1250-1600, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Author: Carlo Alvaro

philosopher

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