For several hundred years, Machiavelli’s work was regarded as the height of immorality , as the complete divorce of morals from politics. Recently this view was substantially revised by many, if not most interpreters, who see Machiavelli’s revolution in political thinking as being considerably more complex and subtle. In connection with this question, there are two things worth focusing on: first is the transformation Machiavelli effects in the content of morality, where there is something like a radical shift in priorities; second, there is the notion of correct political action as being or instituting an economy of violence, “economy” in the sense of the most effective results from the most minimal investment.
1. Let’s deal first with the idea that Machiavelli is radically upsetting traditional moral priorities and values. It is pretty clear that Machiavelli is not recommending immoral acts for their own sake, nor is he celebrating them as inherently good. Yet he is not interested in what people in general or philosophers think ought to be, but in what is – “reality”. He definitely begins, therefore, a separation between political knowledge and morality. Of course Aristotle’s political knowledge paid such attention to the “hard facts” of actual political life, but this acceptance of fact is nonetheless embedded by Aristotle in a comprehensive theory about what the good life is and how political order can be shaped to attain it (at least for some). Machiavelli could be said to be looking at the pre-moral foundations of individual morality. These themselves would not be subject to moral valuation. For Machiavelli, morality is not the fundamental thing and therefore from the point of view of the ancients, he is effectively lowering the standards of political life.
Machiavelli, however, always sees the possibilities for argument about what the good life is; but everyone can agree that life itself (“mere life”) is a good --- so life becomes the good. It becomes the first and highest priority. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living (and surrendered his life to emphasize the point). Machiavelli thinks that life per se is worth living (and one could go on to imagine him thinking that any examination of the worthiness or unworthiness of the unexamined life depends on their being life). So for Machiavelli, what is politically virtuous will first of all answer to the needs of security, stability, duration.
The highest values for the ancients were moderation and the rule of reason. The passions were there to be tamed by reason and made its allies. In a sense both the ancients and Machiavelli agree about the nature of the appetites: they are an aggressive acquisitiveness for pleasures, wealth, power and glory. But for Machiavelli, the project of taming the “animal” passions, after 1500 years of Christianity, has failed. For him, the path to the attainable good is only through the liberation of the passions and through their scientific manipulation. They must, to be sure, be channeled, but now by a reason that is understood to be a servant of the passions. Machiavelli thus moves away from the ancient contest of enlightenment versus self-interest to the rule of enlightened self-interest.
To the ancients, therefore, Machiavelli forgets the good life for the sake of mere life. To Machiavelli, the ancient ideas of the good life are speculative or religious illusions about a realm of being that does not exist. The new idea of the good life is therefore, rather than moral virtue in harmony with the basic essence of the cosmos, instead, as much security as possible in the unobstructed search for satisfaction. Gone is the ancients’ question of how humans could develop their specific potentialities (their essence as human beings) through lives involved in and crowned by public service and public responsibility. The purpose of political society as now conceived is to liberate the passions (from all false moral inhibitions) and channel them in the direction of security and freedom. Peace and order are now conceived as the conditions of a “safe” aggressive acquisitiveness. For the ancients security was only a means to the perfection of moral excellence. In Machiavelli, if anything, the relationship is inverted: what he calls “virtu” is the means of security.
Machiavelli is far from being the first to recognize the existence of evil in human beings or the necessity of evil acts in times of extremity. You can find that in the ancients and in the most important Christian thinkers, such as St. Augustine. The real break with the tradition (and one which is taken up by later liberalism and refined again and again over the past 500 years) is that good only emerges from an acceptance of the basic evil that is at the bottom of our social relations: the only stable and reliable good is the one realistically built upon a system of evils counter-balancing each other. You can think about this by contrasting the view of Thrasymachus back in Book I of Plato’s Republic, with the view of Machiavelli. Thrasymachus concludes that goodness or justice is an illusion, that it doesn’t really exist. What is called good always boils down to what is in the interest of the stronger party. But for Machiavelli, selfishness or evil (whether it belongs to a Prince or to the “people” in a proper republic) is potentially a good thing. Selfishness can result in either good or bad, depending on whether that selfishness is “enlightened”. From Machiavelli’s point of view, the whole argument between Socrates and Thrasymachus is misconceived: there is no necessary conflict between selfishness and the good, between private vice and public virtue – as long as that vice is “enlightened”. Since for Machiavelli morality simply is enlightened self-interest rather than the abolition or conquest of selfishness, its opposite would be anarchy, which would be traceable back to bad, because stupid, selfishness, the situation where no one’s selfishness can be realized. Society is no longer understood as an education in virtue but as a relatively safe arena for selfishness. For Machiavelli, society essentially exists to protect what the ancients considered a disease or a fundamental but corrigible human flaw.
Since stability, security and order are now the highest goals of political action and knowledge, virtue is now whatever is a means to this security or stability. Morality, at least political morality, is whatever is necessary to create or preserve society or order. The traditional virtues (whether Greek or Christian) should be judged in terms of their contribution to this. The test of morality is its utility, its usefulness in getting and holding what is desired without questioning its desirability. Therefore insofar as virtue (what the philosophers or the priests tell you is the good) is an obstacle or a threat to order it is not to be considered a “virtue” (in his sense). Traditional morality and political theory were blind to the ironic structure of political reality. The ancients thought that good acts from good people would directly translate into good situations, and that good laws, following from knowledge of the real though not visible order of the cosmos, were necessary to educate people into that goodness. But Machiavelli claims that the opposite is in fact more likely to be the case. Take a look at his account of Cesare Borgia’s campaign in the Romagna, in Ch. XVII of The Prince. Cesare fails by trying to at least appear to be kind, by showing compassion and generosity. For Machiavelli, traditional morality is not only rigid, absolutist, inflexible where politics requires flexibility and the ability to appear to be what you are not. Worst of all, traditional morality always assumes that goodness always coincides with expedience (especially when you consider the Christian afterlife and last judgement). But the essential advice that Machiavelli gives to princes and would-be princes is that it is not always rational to be moral, that above all princes “must acquire the power to be not good and understand when to use it and not to use it.” (Chapter XV) True political morality is simply the ability to understand what is necessary to success in the circumstances, and to act on that understanding.
2. All of this leads Machiavelli in the direction of understanding the political good as an “economy of violence”. Machiavelli is assuming (not unlike the ancients) that human passion is selfish aggressivity and that its demands know no inherent boundaries. Political action is for him a struggle among a tightly crowded group of actors, each of whom can only benefit from another’s loss. Everyone is out to gain and can only gain at the expense of others. In this situation, if anarchy is not to become the general and permanent condition, violence must both be used and it must be strictly controlled. Political stability and therefore liberty as enlightened selfishness cannot exist without such violence. If reason cannot tame the passions or transform them, violence may subdue, control and channel them. Machiavelli’s contribution is to understand the political task as setting the goal of an economy of violence. The aim is a science of the controlled application of force, one which will know how to administer just the precise dosage required in the circumstances – like surgery or chemotherapy. To use too much would be just as dangerous as using too little, the wrong kind or none at all. The indiscriminate use of violence would lead to provoking fear and hatred of the kind that drives human beings to desperation. The true test of its right and economical use would be whether it could diminish over time.
Is politics here amoral? Is Machiavelli purely a “cynic” ( but not like Diogenes)? Does this idea of an economy of violence show that Machaivelli wants to completely divorce politics from the moral standards governing private life? (In relation to this question you might compare his treatment of Cesare Borgia, who had nearly all the stuff it takes to be a Prince, with his treatment of Agathocles of Syracuse, who much more clearly didn’t meet Machiavelli’s standards.)
Under already stable conditions, political and private morality would tend to converge. But because most political situations are not stable, a state cannot be governed morally in the same way. Politically, therefore, the traditional (philosophic and Christian) morality is too dangerous to the “good” of the whole society. Machiavelli does not romanticize violence. When he seems to admire it, he is admiring its most economical and foresightful uses. But he does not romanticize moral purity either. (That would be the role reserved to Socrates and Christ and their followers). Thus Machiavelli can be said to be acutely sensitive to the moral dilemmas of political life. Yet sensitivity by itself does not guarantee the ultimate truth of his responses to these dilemmas.
For Machiavelli it is not simply the case that the end justifies the means. The only possible end (a stable order of selfishnesses checking each other) dictates means where both the purely good act and the purely evil act are both superfluous. The political actor in Machiavelli’s universe is condemned by necessity to eternal moral ambiguity. Why? Ultimately because of the existence of what he calls “Fortuna” – the nature of a universe in significant part controlled by capriciousness and chance and accident. But also, and especially, because Machiavelli took for granted the permanence of the clash between major human ambitions. In combination, these two things always make action unreliable. They are the source of the permanent ebb and flow in human affairs that might be temporarily eased, but never permanently eradicated.
So Machiavelli is left with a political ethic that is perhaps not completely divorced – although certainly extremely distanced from – the private one. Do they complement each other? The existence of a common private ethic could be said to restrain the prince from excess ambition. On the other side, the Machiavellian political ethic does not let the private one lead to the destruction of the order and power that make a private ethic possible. So for the Machiavellian at least, this would not be an immoral politics. But its principles are not to be the simple transposition of private virtues into the public realm