Harvey Mansfield VI Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have with me again Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Philosophy, of Political Philosophy at Harvard University. I guess Government Department, but the political philosophy subsection of Government.
And leading interpreter, translator, student of Machiavelli. And you’re going to explain Machiavelli and modernity today. Machiavelli and modernity for dummies.
MANSFIELD: Was Machiavelli the founder of modernity?
KRISTOL: Yes, that’s my question. I learned that from you, and I dutifully repeated it in my few years of teaching, but I can’t say I really understood it.
MANSFIELD: Well, let’s attack the meaning of those words. First, Machiavelli doesn’t speak of himself as a founder; he doesn’t seem to use that word very much. I think if you wanted to know what he thought of himself was, he was a prince. A strange kind of prince. A thinker or a writer who’s a prince. But that doesn’t – that isn’t announced.
And then modernity. For him he lived in modernity already. Modernity was – especially Christian modernity – was the ancients who have been corrupted into decadent Christianity. Christianity, which is both weak and cruel. It saps your sense of honor, your sense of honor in this world, and makes you think always of the other world. But then it can sometimes make you go on crusades to save other people’s souls, and that makes it cruel.
So those – so modernity for him is something bad. Originally. And it’s only as you see what he does with the term and with his own thought that modernity turns out to be something good and new.
There are the ancients and there are the moderns, and Machiavelli says the ancients are strong and the moderns are weak. But that gets turned around. Because it turned out that the ancients were defeated by the moderns. That the pagan world was overthrown by the Christian world. How did the ancients get defeated by someone who’s weaker?
That’s the, you could say, the first puzzle that he offers, and his answer is that the moderns or the Christians are stronger than they seem, and that their religion, which seems to make you both weak and cruel, can actually be reinterpreted to do the opposite and to make you strong and free.
Now, how did he do this? You can look at, I think, say, three areas: politics and morality and philosophy.
Let’s start with politics and morality. What did he want to change in order to make us better, more effective, and more modern? Well, the best text to start from, I think, is the first paragraph in the 15th chapter of The Prince in which Machiavelli says that he departs from the orders of others. How does he depart? He says that others have asked you to behave as you ought to behave, and he says you must take as your standard how men actually behave. So you must go from the ought to the is or what exists. And that’s a usual – that’s usually known as realism. And so Machiavelli, you could say, begins realism as a feature of both politics and morality.
But there is a characteristic of realism, which is that he doesn’t think that it’s realistic to give up on politics or to give up on morality. The criticism that he makes of the previous politics and morality, he says that they’re all based on imagination, they’re not based on an understanding of the effectual truth. That is, the way things actually proceed as opposed to the way you would wish or would like them to proceed.
So you must take as your standard then what will make you succeed realistically, and that standard, the word that he uses is necessity. So it’s kind of a paradox. You’ll make yourself more free and more strong if you behave as if you were a pawn, you could say, of necessity. So that’s realism. Or is it?
Because underneath Machiavelli’s realism and modern realism generally is idealism. In other words, a realism that has – the other side of which is the opposite, idealism. It’s a realism, which thinks that by being realistic you will make your life much better than otherwise it could have been.
KRISTOL: But surely before Machiavelli there were hard-headed realistic observers of politics who knew that life didn’t go according to – politics wasn’t always conducted according to moral dictates and idealistic cities and so forth.
MANSFIELD: You can say that all the ancients were aware of this. And some of them thought that the best thing to do was to go into imaginary best regimes and use that as your standard. That’s, generally speaking, the Socratic tradition of Plato and Aristotle, and Machiavelli refers to that as basing your hopes on imaginary republics and principalities. Imaginary republics like Plato’s Republic and imaginary principalities like St. Augustine’s City of God.
For him, underneath realism or this sort of pessimistic view of human possibilities, there is opportunity for great change for the better. If by being realistic, if you turn realistic, you can solve all the problems that the ancients had when it came to, when their basis was imaginary.
Necessity replaces imagination. Now how does this happen? Well, for both morality and politics, and especially morality, you can begin from his play called The Mandragola. That play is a comedy. It tells of a young man who falls in love with a beautiful women who happens to be married to a professor of political science – or that’s a slight exaggeration. A man named Messer Nicia.
But the woman is very Christian and very chaste. She believes very much that she should keep her vows as a wife and not consort with young men who happen to fall in love with her. But she wants a child. She and her husband want a child. Her husband wants him for political purposes. So the play proceeds in such a way that everybody gets what he wants. The young man gets to possess his love. And the couple gets to have a child.
The reason they couldn’t have a child is that one of them – and that’s a bit of a comical part – namely, the professor, doctor, Messer Nicia is sterile, but of course, he thinks it’s his wife who is the cause of it. So it’s a complicated tale. But the result is that is – it’s just as simple lesson. If you are brave enough to choose the way of adultery, you can have a child. What they do is –
KRISTOL: Who’s not known to be an adulteress’s child?
MANSFIELD: So they have a complicated way of bringing this about. But the end of the play is a complete success because the couple gets the child and, as I say, the young man gets his prize. And so the lesson is if you do evil, the result will be good, but if you do good, the result will be evil. So if you do good and be chaste and refuse to engage in adultery, you won’t get that child. But if you’re willing to let somebody else who’s not sterile actually father the child, then the result will be good.
So that I think is the general moral lesson of Machiavelli. If you can relax the absolute standards of morality, then you can make them succeed in what they’re trying to do. And you see the Bible says, “Be chaste. No adultery.” But it also says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” So the Bible really doesn’t give you the means necessary to the end.
And if you really want to be fruitful and multiply and have a child, you have to be willing to relax your morality. And actually you can say that in Aristotle, too, the same contradiction exists. He says, “Man is a pairing animal by nature.” But he also says, “By nature we like to be able to reproduce.” If you can reproduce only by deserting or abandoning, at least for the moment, your wife or your husband, then that’s something you need to do, according to Machiavelli.
That’s necessary, seeing how he presents necessity. The necessary means to a perfectly good end. Or one lapse of nature, or one lapse of morality, will get you what morality wants. So that’s a view of morality. And what it suggests then is that morality can’t stand on its own the way it wants to. If you’re a moral person, you’re supposed to be moral because it’s moral. And not because someone is watching you or praising or going to reward you for your morality.
But for Machiavelli, no, you have to look at the consequences. So you have to look at how you are held – as in this Chapter 15, he talks about what moral qualities might be, but he also talks about how you are held if you want to be moral. If you’re generous, say, and want to be held generous, what you – you can’t always be generous because it won’t succeed. If you always try to give to someone who deserves something, that person will after a while consider it to be routine. And he won’t be grateful to you anymore. So you have to be concerned with a reaction of the person, of another person to your moral behavior.
And that means that morality, speaking generally, is politicized. You always have to think of the situation that you’re in when you’re going to be moral. How will people react to this? And they won’t react to morality with morality. It’s foolish to expect that if you do a good deed to someone, that person will do a good deed back to you, and that’s because that person thinks that he deserves this good deed that you’ve given to him. He doesn’t look at it as your generosity he looks at it as his justice. Why therefore should he do something good for you? Just because you’ve done something good for him?
So that would be the way in which beneficiaries of benevolent deeds look on benevolence. And if you generalize this and try to apply it to all the moral virtues, you see that you come up with his picture of what you must do – what it is prudent to do, in terms of morality.
KRISTOL: So why does that make him, I guess the – there were people before him who were not devout believers in piety or morality, who understood there were tensions between moral demands and either pleasure or political advancement or so forth. There were troublemakers.
Everyone ranging from ancients to people who lived just a century or two before Machiavelli or his contemporaries who were critics of morality, you might say, in various ways. Advisors to princes who understood that you couldn’t really be moral, even if it’s better to look moral.
So I guess but the sort of the normal kind of cartoon version of Machiavelli is this hardheaded debunker of morality of all that. Obviously, the next step somehow, as the founder of modernity, that’s different somehow. The argument is that Machiavelli pushes that in a direction beyond debunking. Or hard-headedness or cleverness.
MANSFIELD: You could say that he starts from the – Machiavelli and those who preceded him but haven’t earned that name. And the reason that they haven’t earned that name is they didn’t have a Machiavelli to justify them. So the people who justified them were like Aristotle and the Bible, that always putting before you the demands of morality as opposed to the advantages of it or the advantages of appearing it.
The people that came before Machiavelli and who did this always were inhibited by this – the atmosphere, you could say, of morality, which had been imposed by the philosophers and by religion. It wasn’t – yes, it wasn’t that the philosophers didn’t realize too that you had to be careful of the way you looked if you tried to do something immoral, but that there were advantages to being immoral. It wasn’t that they didn’t know that, but they thought that, on the whole, it was good and necessary to – goodness depended on a climate, you would say, or an atmosphere in which goodness is thought to be primary.
And that your main business in life was to lead a good life and not just to survive in a situation of scarcity.
KRISTOL: Amoralists who preceded Machiavelli – presumably, an awful lot wrote in private – I don’t know much about Boccaccio, but people like that. The difference is that Machiavelli believes somehow it’s not just a way to personally flourish in a climate where others are moral, but somehow he can change – it will help human beings. Again, what makes him distinctive and the founder of modernity?
MANSFIELD: Yes, you could imagine that Mandragola story being told by Boccaccio. But then the lesson that he would draw is how paradoxical our life is. On the one hand, we want to be good, and on the other hand, we refuse to take the measures that are necessary to succeed.
KRISTOL: And some clever individual might see that and take care of his own life in that way.
MANSFIELD: But to make this general and, I could say, political is something quite new. Now, Machiavelli didn’t make a new morality that would be more realistic as a whole. He was a little more subtle and complicated than that.
Later on, in the 17th century, you had a new morality of the rights of man. And the primary right of man is self-preservation. That’s really, Machiavellian in origin, as you can see back in this paragraph in The Prince that I mentioned that you don’t – if you follow the moral way or how people ought to behave, you learn your own ruin rather than your preservation.
Machiavelli, too, was in favor of preservation, but he thought that you couldn’t really change morality for the people, for most people, that means. Most people are weak. Most people are aware that there are powers over them that they can’t control. Most people resort – to make their lives more secure and more calm – to religion. Because religion tells you that you will be taken care of by God if you follow the necessary commands of God.
Most people think that if you are treated unjustly, God will save you or will reward you and will punish the person who treats you unjustly in the next life. So most people look on this world as depending on the goodness of paradise and hell in the next life. And they call on the strength of religion to cover over the defects of their own weakness.
And I think Machiavelli believed that this would never change. And this is a permanent feature of human existence. So morality will never go away. There will always be, if not Christianity, something similar that has the same effect. But at the same time, these are not all people. There are princely types that you mention, that have always existed, but now have a kind of new license to operate in their way.
Also, new techniques to use, that Machiavelli gives them in his political science. And these are princes, and princes have prudence. Most people don’t have prudence, princes have prudence. Every society has princes. You can’t have a multitude without a head, and the head has to be a prince. These princes are taught by Machiavelli that it’s perfectly okay to exempt themselves from the religion, that you can really, say, manipulate in order to control the mass of the people.
This, I think, is what makes Machiavelli different from preceding philosophers who also may have thought that religion was necessary for the common people. But they didn’t think the prince could exempt himself from religion or at least be seen to do so.
KRISTOL: This is for the sake of the prince, or for the sake of, ultimately, the project that he launches for humankind?
MANSFIELD: It’s for the sake of the prince, but especially in order to keep his office. He must do what is necessary to keep his office. But it’s mainly for the sake of the people, actually. It keeps them more secure to have a prince who can act sometimes against them, but mostly on their behalf. Because what princes mainly do is secure themselves against other princes.
And to do this they need the help or the backing of the common people. So you get the picture – the typical picture of Machiavelli’s politics, which is an alliance between the prince and the common people. And this – it’s not an aristocracy. The typical picture of Aristotelian politics is the rule of the aristocrats, of the better sort, more refined, anyway. The nobles. But Machiavelli doesn’t like gentlemen. He thinks that princes should attack gentlemen.
One of the best ways to get the common people on your side is to kill the gentlemen because the common people – maybe they don’t always express it – but they have kind for deep underlying hatred of their betters. The weak hate the strong. So, you can with – it’s a sensational execution now and again – that’s one of Machiavelli’s techniques, political techniques. You can impress the common people.
Now, you wouldn’t impress them unless you can really shock them. Machiavelli retains a kind of sensationalism. He doesn’t want life or political life to be without drama and excitement. That’s – moral life is kind of boring so morality needs immorality if only to keep itself more interesting than it otherwise would be. Morality serves to make people capable of shock. Unless you can be impressed or be shocked, you won’t really believe what is necessary.
Now, morality has a further characteristic that it wants always to be absolute. It never makes exceptions for necessity. But that’s really impossible. So back to The Mandragola. It was really impossible for that couple, Messer Nicia and his wife Lucrezia, to have a child by themselves.
Once that necessity was accepted, then you see in order to accept it, you have to violate morality. So morality, on the one hand, is always alive and always insistent that it be respected. It always wants to make an issue of itself. But on the other hand, it can never achieve what it wants or it can’t regularly do that. There always will arise some occasion in which you have to do some dirty deed in order to, in order to just keep yourself alive and certainly in order to succeed.
You can live a long life and think you’re happy, but if you’re not really willing to murder someone or to do him in in some dirty way, then you’re living a protected existence, which you’re living on fortune instead of on your own virtue.
KRISTOL: But all this deliberation of the princes and the undercutting of the morality, ultimately, is not just “This is the way the world is, and if you want to flourish, this is what you have to do,” it’s ultimately part of a project.
When we say Machiavelli and the founder of modernity, that somehow – to get back to where we began – rectifies the problem of the weakening of human beings and Christianity, or that strengthens human beings altogether, is somehow for the common good, right? Not just advice to his most clever readers to have more individually satisfying amoral lives.
MANSFIELD: This is a boon to mankind as a whole. Not just for the thinkers and the philosophers or the big shots. Or the princes.
KRISTOL: And in that respect, he’s launching the kind of – ?
MANSFIELD: He’s launching a great operation. Launching. Maybe founding goes too far, but launching. He doesn’t think that in his time this is going to happen. He does think that Christianity is corrupt, that the Church is corrupt, and there’s a good chance that it won’t last very much longer. And indeed, of course, in his time, almost the same year that he wrote The Prince – 1513 – Martin Luther nails his theses to the church. And Protestantism and the Protestant Reformation gets started. That, too, was an attack on corruption of Christianity or the Church, as it was.
So it would have to take some time for Machiavelli to influence or persuade or in a certain sense corrupt the philosophers who followed him and who might make changes in his program but still would carry out the general thrust of it. Make it happen.
So that might take a century or so, as it did. And he couldn’t make his project altogether open and announce it. He does say that he’s bringing new modes and orders and that he departs from the orders of others. So it’s there. So anyone who reads can see that but you have to think your way, really, to the, really, enormity of his ambition. He himself is very ambitious.
He wants to do something that will affect in a positive way all mankind. And he calls that his enterprise. La mia empresa. Empresa means enterprise. Now, we have free enterprise. That becomes already a modern concept. A word – so the way we are today, we moderns, I think, is in good part due to the launching, let’s call it – or okay, founding of Machiavelli.
KRISTOL: So the relief of man’s estate, Francis Bacon, pioneers, and the new political science of Hobbes and all the things we associate with, in a more direct way, with modern politics and modern morality and modern life, that’s – the argument would be that Machiavelli lays the groundwork for that?
MANSFIELD: He lays the groundwork for that. And he anticipates it. The one thing, I think, he also anticipated is that his own name would be named for doing evil. Which is, of course, what happened.
KRISTOL: He’s willing to take that opprobrium?
MANSFIELD: He is. He’s willing to take the opprobrium of most people, if underneath, it there isn’t a certain secret admiration.
KRISTOL: Some people like you come along and show how much credit he deserves ultimately. He was confident that would happen at some point.
MANSFIELD: You’re right, that someone would be open-minded, or to blurt out the truth, about his project, as we now say. Project or enterprise. Yes, so the fact that most people will use this term Machiavellian to mean something you mustn’t do, that’s part of the fact that morality is going to continue as it is. So therefore he’s always going to have an ill repute. And too that’s another way in which a successor of his might want to or be able to change the reputation of Machiavelli.
His successors, the early modern philosophers, owe a lot to him but they say – they hardly ever mention him. The only one he does is Francis Bacon. He was the only one brave enough, you could say, or open enough to mention his debt to Machiavelli.
KRISTOL: I suppose that illustrates Machiavelli – the correctness of his own though or judgment to found something that would ultimately be beneficial to mankind, you’d have to do or say things or teach things that would have to be decried by conventional mankind.
MANSFIELD: He would be revered as a kind of reverse founder, of everything evil. But the actual founder, to those who can penetrate his thinking, of everything good.
KRISTOL: So just to finish on the political, moral side of it. So the key – I don’t know if there’s one key, but a key – he needs to publicly do what people had previously, perhaps, thought but not thought you could, should publicly –
MANSFIELD: Publicly. And the word that makes that possible is necessity. So it’s necessary to do this or that. Which previously thought was evil, but necessary only in difficult times and emergencies, or when things pinch you. Circumstances force you. But, no, it’s necessary, and that means your principle is necessary. So it might not be necessary right now to be evil, but you have to anticipate that you might be in the future.
So that means that necessity isn’t present necessity, but it’s anticipated necessity, and that’s much expanded. And you have to anticipate, if you’re anticipating, that most people won’t agree with you, that they won’t see this necessity, and that is their weakness. And their weakness is their necessity. In a strange way, it’s necessary for them to resist what is truly necessary.
So necessity must account for the fact that lots of people will resist you. Necessary to them, but they will resist what you see to be truly necessary and therefore in their interest.
KRISTOL: So again on this political, moral side going forward, do you think Machiavelli would have thought that after you prepared the way, Hobbes and Locke and all of them would be able to gradually change public morality in a certain way, or would he have thought at the end of the day though they can’t really grasp – there would always have to be a certain kind of wistfulness or hopefulness?
I guess, well, maybe he would have thought Hobbes and Locke indulged that. They don’t really expose the true necessity even as they pretend to be more or are more hardheaded. They were hardheaded but not really truly hardheaded in their public presentation, I suppose.
MANSFIELD: The right of self-preservation is not understood as the right to life, and more important than that somehow is the right to pursue happiness, which means to live your life as you wish. Which is much more of a hope than would seem to be promised by the word necessity.
“I can live as I wish.” How can that be true? In that way, you might say liberalism, the liberalism of John Locke especially, is a kind of delusion. It keeps you from thinking about what is necessary to you, but it also serves as a justification for doing the sort of things that Machiavelli might suggest in a difficult situation or even in a non-difficult situation looking ahead to a difficult situation.
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