This is a transcript of Episode 23 on Machiavelli.
Please realize that if any one of us was born just a few short centuries before we were, we could’ve easily found ourselves right in the middle of this horrific time period we’re talking about: The fall of the middle ages and the re-birth or re-hashing of human thought. This is something that no matter how many times I read about this point in history I just, can’t get over it. Life was so different in so many ways, but eerily similar in others. The people were terrified.
We talked about the bubonic plague, we talked about how that turned into an economic crisis and then a political crisis, but there are many layers to this parfait. The thing about covering something like the Renaissance is that it’s so multifaceted and so vague regarding things like where the beginning was, when and where certain things caught on, and the causal relationships between things; this thing we call the Renaissance had many tentacles and many different storylines and to relegate them to a couple episodes is about as impossible as it is pointless. We will delve into many different thinkers, many times coming from very different parts of Western Europe and living through a different phase than the last guy we covered. But with each episode you’ll get a little more insight of the big picture. One piece of the big picture, one piece that is crucial to understand because it qualifies ALL OTHER pieces of the big picture, is to understand this period of transition and what it meant to be human being living through it.
Just imagine being born into the world and being told from the moment you’re old enough to understand the words coming out of your parents mouths that you are broken. You are a flawed, sinful bag of skin and bones and there are rules you need to abide by. Strict rules. You have impulses that tell you to do the opposite of the rules, you will eventually break the rules, but luckily for you there is still a way for you to get to heaven despite being so weak. The way to atone for your sins, the ONLY way to atone for your sins, was through the Church. Through a sacrament. See, apparently God said, at some point after he said, “let there be light” the only entity on planet earth that has the authority or the know-how to perform a sacrament and therefore receive forgiveness and God’s grace and get the ticket into heaven was the church. Somebody else could technically TRY to perform a sacrament, and it may FEEL like you have been forgiven, but God only REALLY forgives you if the church does it. Conveniently enough, the thing that relayed this policy by God was the church. In fact, they were also the people relaying what the rules were to everybody. The average person had no way of reading about it themselves; the Bible was written in Latin and none of the people spoke Latin anymore.
Just imagine if in modern times we were told that we need to corral ourselves into a little herd of people, waddle on down to the local preaching hall and listen to a guy read from the Bible in Latin and we hadn’t faintest idea of what he was saying, we just had to accept that our eternal fate rested on whether this guy was telling us what it really said or not. How long would it take before somebody got a copy of the Bible and copy and pasted it into Google Translate and saw if he was telling the truth? How long would we stand for that? Well, needless to say it wasn’t THAT easy back then. They certainly didn’t have Google Translate, but it was becoming VERY clear that this system where we just listen to what the priest says in Latin and take his word for it wasn’t going to cut it for long.
The reason why is because the entire world was collapsing around them. The church had a complete monopoly over spirituality. These people living at the time were told that they were being given God’s grace and that it was only the church that could give it to them, but yet they looked around them and they understandably asked well if that’s true, why is all of this bad stuff happening? Why is 30 to 60% of the population dying? Why are we constantly at war? Why are people starving to death? Why is there all this infighting within the church? But In fact, these people had even MORE reasons to doubt the authority of the church on top of all this! Most notably the complete, categorical corruption and immoral behavior of the leadership of the church. Top to bottom. Not just the Pope or the archbishops, we’re talking down to even the very low level priest that would be the head of a very small congregation. There are stories of how most of these low level priests didn’t even know how to speak Latin themselves. So when they would read out of the Bible they would just fake it, they’d speak in gibberish that sounded kind of like Latin and no one in the audience was going to call them on it because they didn’t know Latin either. They were seen as corrupt. These priests weren’t supposed to get married so as a loophole they would take concubines, that was kind of seen as an immoral work around. There was a LONG period called the Great Schism where the church wasn’t unified under a single pope having as many as three popes at one time; they were fighting each other for who was going to be in charge. That was seen as a needless dropping of the proverbial ball and one that made people question whether these people were as anointed by God as they said they were. There was a growing confusion about transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is a really cool sounding word that refers to the process of, well, you know in Catholicism when you’re at church and you get the wine and the cracker? Well these people were supposed to believe that when some guy says a few Latin words that that wine literally transformed into the blood of Jesus. The bread literally transformed into the body of Jesus. Even people back then were wondering how that was possible. Now, people have written entire books on all the various factors that came together to cause the protestant reformation, but the important thing for us is to realize that there was considerable reason for the people of the time to see the leadership of the church as not really knowing what they were doing, and when they looked around them at all the bad stuff happening to them OUTSIDE of church, it makes sense that they would ask themselves, What are we doing wrong? Why is God allowing this to happen? Let me see what is in that book you’re reading from.
See, all these different crises that were going on led people to CRAVE some kind of personal spiritual experience. The priests at the time were not doing much preaching as we would expect in church today where there is some reading from the Bible and then some overarching takeaway message for the week that you can apply to your life. The function of church was simple: Sacrament. To absolve you for whatever sins you committed since the last time you went to church, so if you died you would go to heaven instead of purgatory. People wanted more than that. They wanted a new, more personal version of religion to help quell the fear that went along with the new pandemic disease crisis, the new political crisis, etc.
Now, remember what we talked about last time with Erasmus, this new Humanistic way of learning and looking at the world through what it meant to be a human being; a more individualistic approach. Well when the sum total of all these factors, most notably when the religion of the day was looked at through a Humanistic lens you end up with Martin Luther TRANSLATING the Bible into German, which effectively TRANSMUTED religion into a more personal, fulfilling experience for people.
This new humanistic approach really is the story of the early Renaissance. The protestant reformation was the reformation of one religion. But really, there were “reformations” of practically every aspect of human life during the Renaissance. They weren’t always immediately evident to the people living at the time, but the culture prevalent in classical antiquity was SO FAR REMOVED from anything these people had seen, that the intellectual progress couldn’t help but go through huge sweeping changes. So if I try to think of the two institutions that keep people in line the most, the two that come to mind are religion and government, and it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you guys that during this time period there were revolutionary thinkers when it comes to the proper way to govern a society. One of the most notorious and most highly criticized by later authors was a guy named Niccolo Machiavelli. You’ve heard the adjective: Machiavellian. And if you knew what the person meant when they were saying it you knew that it means, this is out of the dictionary: cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one’s career.
But this would be misleading. That would be like saying that something was Orwellian if it has to do with animals living on a farm somewhere. Machiavelli was actually much less one dimensional than that, but people take away a one dimensional interpretation of him because they judge him based on only his most famous work. Machiavelli was a political philosopher. Plain and simple. Some people don’t like to even consider him a philosopher because he only really made contributions in the area of politics, but I like to think of him as just more focused than most. The concept that is really interesting to consider is to think of virtue broadly, and how unspecific the term is in itself. When we think of virtue in modern times, we typically think of how it applies to us on a personal level. We think of virtue and we think of things like patience and honesty and courage and things like that. Now at this point it would be easy to mistake the term virtue as meaning what the best way to live is. Sort of like a best practices template for being a human being. You act this way and it yields the best life possible; that’s what virtue is. But that’s NOT what virtue is, really. Virtue concerns itself with what is right and what is wrong. Yes, if our goal is to live the happiest life possible, then the RIGHT thing to do, the virtuous approach to achieving that is to be, patient, honest, courageous, etc. However, if we change the end goal we’re trying to arrive at, if we for instance determine that we want to be the UNHAPPIEST person possible, then the right thing to do, the virtuous thing to do if that’s the goal you want is to be impatient, dishonest and cowardly.
We’ve all heard the saying that you have to know where you’re going if you want to know how to get there. Well, that is the reason why there is no one, single framework of being virtuous. That’s the reason why what virtuous behavior changes from philosopher to philosopher. Virtue to Saint Augustine is much different than virtue to Socrates because they had very different goals they were trying to achieve. Again, there may be ideas of right action that are common among people or more popular than other ideas of right action, but there is no intrinsically “correct” way to do things because good or bad is defined by a goal that is trying to be achieved.
Now that said, we, as humans, have many goals that we assign to ourselves. There is a decorum that is acceptable for each one of these goals and we would consider certain behaviors right or wrong based on what we were trying to achieve. For example, the decorum that makes a good stand up comedian is MUCH different than the decorum that makes a good doctor. When you’re doctor is reading you your test results, you probably don’t want him to put on the fuzzy red shoes and the clown nose, unless of course he is Robin Williams in the movie Patch Adams. You don’t want him to start berating you or being sarcastic or pointing out ironies in your medical history. However, you would want all of these sorts of behaviors if you were going out to watch some good stand up comedy. Nothing is intrinsically bad about wearing the fuzzy red shoes, but we CAN deem them bad when we have a goal that we’re trying to achieve. The decorum of a cheerleader is much different than the decorum of a library attendant. Well, this is a great place to start from when talking about Machiavelli and his thoughts on the best way to rule a society. Sure the average person walking around living their life should be honest and temperant and things like that because they yield the greatest result for him, but the rulers of an entire population have very unique problems they are presented with, very unique circumstances, Machiavelli thought it would be naive to think that to be a great ruler you could live with the same goals in mind as the average citizen, you don’t have the same goals, so because of that you have to act a certain way.
His most famous work was entitled “The Prince”. This book was a handbook to a new ruler or prince, over a city-state or a population and it gave them a blueprint for how to take control and maintain stability of their empire. Stability is the most important word of all. Remember, Machiavelli lived during this time of constant political unrest. Just during his lifetime the ruler of Florence, where he lived, changed almost 10 times. You read Machiavelli’s writings and it is very evident that what he wanted more than anything was a stable, unified Italy, not this collection of city-states constantly arguing with each other. See, what Machiavelli realized is that a ruler can have THE BEST PLAN in the world, he can have a 10 year plan where at the end of it there is going to be a complete utopia in his kingdom, but if his kingdom lacks stability, nothing can happen. When a nation is unstable it doesn’t matter how much prosperity you might bring your people, that instability undermines the whole process. Therefore, the chief concern of any ruler should be the stability of the state, and no matter what you have to do to achieve that stability you do it, even if it is outside the confines of what the average person would conventionally see as moral. Murder, deception, war-mongering, none of these things are off the table.
Machiavelli would say that people that don’t understand what it means to be a ruler would talk about things like human rights and that a ruler should set an example and we should never spill a single drop of blood, Machiavelli would say that these are all noble pursuits in their own right, but it would be naive to think that a ruler can actually be like that in any practical sense. Just think about it. No country ever in the history of the world has been founded on people all coming to a grassy clearing in the forest with a river flowing through it and they all start holding hands and singing like it’s Christmas in Whoville and they all look at one guy and say “He is our leader!” and everyone starts cheering and things go on happily ever after. Machiavelli thought if that sounds like a fairy tale then it’s because it is. Noe! Nations are founded on deception, espionage, bloodshed, you name it. Nations are FOUNDED on immorality, how can we expect that immediately after a new ruler takes power, if he wants to maintain stability of the empire that he can instantly live in a moral way? Machiavelli describes it here:
“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.”
Now don’t jump to conclusions and think that this is the only way Machiavelli thought about how to run a nation. His second most famous work was called “Discourses on Livy” What is this Livy that he was providing discourse on? Livy was a renowned historian of Rome. He is best known for writing an entire history of Rome. So Machiavelli, again turning to writings of earlier Greeks and Romans for a new model, looked at the success of Rome and wrote about how it would behoove new city-states to try to implement their system of government and experience success on the level that they had. Rome, was a republic for most of the time Livy wrote about them. So at first glance it seems like a contradiction for Machiavelli. On one hand he is advocating a king or a ruler that shouldn’t be bound by the conventional idea of morality and then on the other hand he thinks a republic is the best thing for states to model themselves after. There are many explanations for this apparent contradiction, some people even go so far as to say that “The Prince” was a satire. Machiavelli was just showing people how these sorts of rulers actually act so that they would overthrow them and create a republic. That’s probably not the case. In reality, Machiavelli was probably talking about what he saw as two different stages in the development of a state. First, a nation is founded on bloodshed and immorality and the goal of the state should be to maintain stability whatever the cost. Then, through the creation of institutions of control the state could eventually transform into a more ideal form of government, namely a republic. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” can be thought of as how that initial ruler can best maintain stability and implement those institutions of control so that the state survives long past his death. But the thing that ruler needs to remember is that without stability first, the republic never happens. He talks about the contradiction in the way people typically think about leaders here:
“How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity, and not with astuteness, every one knows. Still the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation. You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary to know well how to use both the beast and the man.”
Machiavelli says that as a prince you need to be willing to maintain stability by using both methods of fighting. One is the law, which is typically used by men. The other is force, which is typically used by beasts. The best ruler is one who knows when and how to use both. Yes, you can kill people or even a group of people in order to maintain stability, even your own citizens, but it might not always be the wisest move just because it solves the problem. For example, if there are people protesting about your princely abilities outside of your city hall, that is a problem for a ruler. So, there are multiple ways to stop that protest. You can invite them inside take them out for lunch, make sure the media is there and make everyone think you really care about their protests. You can use the law, as Machiavelli said. Or you can be like a beast, round up the group of protestors, take them behind the courthouse and put a bullet in their head.
Now, all three of these solutions solve the problem. The question is which one is the wisest? Machiavelli says that although the ruler should expect to kill some people, not all cases warrant that response. For example, what if you take the protesters back there, shoot them and then the population turns on you and has an uprising because they’re furious about that? You didn’t do a good job of maintaining stability now did you? He sums up the principle a ruler should live by here:
“I say that every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel. He must, however, take care not to misuse this mercifulness. … A prince, therefore, must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and confident; for, with a very few examples, he will be more merciful than those who, from excess of tenderness, allow disorders to arise, from whence spring murders and rapine; for these as a rule injure the whole community, while the executions carried out by the prince injure only one individual.”
So in other words if you’re going to kill someone make sure it contributes to the stability of the nation. The act of killing a group of people should be to prevent future killing of a LARGER group of people. If you kill people with impunity it will lead to the people hating you, which is not the goal of being a ruler. You should appear to be caring and loving to the population, not tyrannical. Killing people should not be based on ego or insecurity, that was the mistake that people like Hitler or Stalin made. Killing people should always yield a better long term outcome for more people. See, there are two ways to maintain stability: to be loved or to be feared. Machiavelli says it here:
“Is it better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved? It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both: but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
This concept of acting immorally in the interest of preserving the state is not something that is exclusive to the way the ruler treats his population. This extends to your relations with other nations and the expansion of your empire. Machiavelli talks about how stupid it would be to be a leader of a state and be beholden to typical Christian morals. Imagine having to be completely honest about all of your intentions, imagine having to never spy on what other countries are doing because you don’t want to steal. Machiavelli would say that to only use diplomacy or tactics that are compatible with traditional ethics that individuals should hold themselves to puts a nation at a HUGE disadvantage against every one else. And if some nation is plotting a secret attack on you, and that surprise attack leads to instability, you have failed as a leader. Because of this, Machiavelli advocates acting like a beast. He gives two different beasts that you should model yourself after:
“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.”