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The following is a transcript of this video.

“Daring as it is to investigate the unknown, even more so it is to question the known.”

Kaspar

It is often said that to understand the present we must understand the past. For history is our greatest teacher and one thing it teaches us is that mankind is a fallible species. Our past is as much defined by the truths we have discovered as by the errors we have lived by. But while it can be easy to recognize the mistakes of generations past, it is much more difficult to see the errors in our own ways and for this reason we must be willing to continually question the known.

In this video we are going to apply this skeptical approach to the field of politics by exploring the ideas of the contrarian Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was born in 1469 and he served as a diplomat, politician, and a commander of the Florentine militia, but his political life was cut short by a conspiracy charge against him in 1513. After being tortured, but never confessing, Machiavelli was released and he retired from politics and spent the remainder of his life focused on his writings. As an astute observer of the political side of man, Machiavelli believed that most people are utterly mistaken about the true nature of politics and these confusions remain entrenched to this day. These Machiavellian ideas we are about to discuss may seem like heresy to some, but they are ideas worthy of our consideration because if there is truth to them, then it could radically change the way we approach the political world and the way we pursue freedom, or as James Burnham writes in his book The Machiavellians: 

“If the political truths stated or approximated by Machiavelli were widely known by men, the success of tyranny and all the other forms of oppressive political rule would become much less likely. A deeper freedom would be possible in society than Machiavelli himself believed attainable.”

James Burnham, The Machiavellians

The first step to a more accurate view of the nature of politics is to recognize how often we fail to separate the real from the ideal in our formulations of all things political. Instead of looking to the abstract theories of philosophers, or to the idealistic notions that spill from the mouths of politicians, we need to look at how people act in the political realm. We need to, in other words, separate the wishes we may have about how politics should work, from the reality of how it does work. This was one of Machiavelli’s foremost goals in the writing of his most famous work The Prince, or as he explains:

“. . . it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation. . .”

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

The essence of politics, according to Machiavelli, is not the pursuit of the good society, the realization of the general welfare, nor is it fundamentally a mechanism for the maximization of social welfare or social cooperation. Some forms of political organization may be conducive to these ends, while others are completely antithetical to them, but what defines politics in all ages, and in all its manifestations, is that it is the realm where men and women compete in open and concealed ways for power and control over others. The primary object of the politician, or of any member of a ruling elite, is always the same – to cement, to augment, and to increase their power. 

This struggle for social power is not a game in which all of us participate and this leads to another of the Machiavellian principles about the nature of politics and its impact on a society. A society, according to Machiavelli, is always divided into two classes: the rulers and the ruled, or as Burnham writes:

“The [ruling class], always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas [the ruled], the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first, in a manner that is now more or less legal, now more or less arbitrary and violent, and supplies the first. . .with material means of subsistence and with the instrumentalities that are essential to the vitality of the political organism.”

James Burnham, The Machiavellians

If the primary motivation of those in the class of the rulers is not to improve society – although this may be a by-product of some of their actions – but to increase their own power, why do those in the class of the ruled, always far greater in number, accept this state of affairs? Machiavelli identifies a number of tools used by ruling classes to grow their power and these include force, fraud, deception and the tactical redistribution of the wealth they expropriate. None of these things, however, would be effective at cementing their rule and allowing them to spread their tentacles into ever more areas of a society without the existence of a justifying myth, ideology, religion or political formula. Rulers, in other words, always rely for their legitimization on the spread of ideas that are favourable to their aims and which somehow convince the masses of the necessity of their rule, or as David Hume wrote: 

“It is therefore on opinion that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.” 

David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary

For much of history, the political formula, or justification for the rule of an elite, was tied to a religion. The reason a king sat on a throne and the masses toiled at his feet was because God wished it to be so. In the west God no longer has the power to legitimize our rulers, but in place of God a new idea has emerged and this is the nebulous idea of the will of the people. Democracy is the formula that legitimizes the political structure of our day by teaching us that we are the true rulers and our politicians merely our loyal servants and representatives.

Some may wonder if our ability to vote has made Machiavelli’s insights into the nature of politics antiquated. The answer to this question by those who have followed in the tradition of Machiavelli is an emphatic no. The ability to check a box next to a name every few years does not rid the world of power-hungry individuals, nor does it the rid the world of the power games that Machiavelli identified as the essence politics. For even in democracies many positions of social power are not open to the voting process, being attained through means such as the accumulation of great wealth, nepotism, or political appointment. And in terms of the politicians we do vote for, to believe that we are their rulers, and not vice versa is wishful thinking, or as Mikhail Bakunin explains: 

“However democratic may be their feelings and their intentions, once [a politician] achieves the elevation of office they can only view society in the same ways a schoolmaster views his pupils, and between pupils and masters equality cannot exist. On one side there is the feeling of a superiority that is inevitably provoked by a position of superiority; on the other side, there is a sense of inferiority which follows from the superiority of the teacher. . .”

Mikhail Bakunin, The Illusion of Universal Suffrage

Whether power is attained through a vote, through force, or through fraud, the results are largely the same: Power over other people begets the desire for more power and even in a democracy a stark division exists between a class of rulers and the class of the ruled. But what are we to do with these Machiavellian revelations? Should we just accept our status as mere pawns in a game played by men and women whose fundamental motive is to accumulate more power and to use this power to control us? Or can we make use of this knowledge in a constructive manner? One of the purposes of Machiavelli’s writings was to open people’s eyes to the way politics works so that more effective strategies could be devised to counter the machinations of a ruling elite, or as he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“If I have been a little too punctual in describing these monsters in all their lineaments and colours, I hope mankind will know them, the better to avoid them, my treatise being both a satire against them, and a true character of them …”

Niccolò Machiavelli, from a Letter to a Friend

Machiavelli believed that a better knowledge of our rulers would help us avoid one of the traps that have led many a nation into the hands of a tyrant. These are the calls we hear so often for political unity. For unity, when preached by a member of a ruling class or one of its apologists, is not a path that will lead to increased freedom, but instead is the path to a despotic hell, or as Burnham explains:

“Since Machiavelli is neither a propagandist nor an apologist, since he is not the demagogue of any party or sect or group, he knows and says how hypocritical are the calls for a “unity” that is a mask for the suppression of all opposition, how fatally lying or wrong are all beliefs that liberty is the peculiar attribute of any single individual or group—prince or democrat, nobles or people or “multitude.””

James Burnham, The Machiavellians

Freedom is not borne through political unity, rather freedom, as history lays witness is borne in the cracks that emerge when a ruling class is divided against itself. Even more ideal for freedom is the existence of independent institutions of social power which counterbalance each other by dividing those who wish to rule into separate and competing factions. A prime example of this occurred in the early history of the West, or as Gerard Casey writes in Freedom’s Progress?:

 “As the Western world began to settle down after the fall of Rome, there would be not one but two loci of authority, neither of which would have a complete claim to the total allegiance of the individual. In the tension between the [church] and the [state], a space was created that permitted freedom to flourish. This freedom took concrete form in the high Middle Ages in the emergence of commerce, technology, the cities and universities, all of these institutions and practices forming the social spine of a world that is recognizably modern and is still with us today.”

Gerard Casey, Freedom’s Progress?

Machiavelli’s view of the political world suggests that far from lamenting the divisions that seem to be emerging in the ruling elites of our day, we should instead see this as a positive development. For this infighting will weaken them and expose their true colours to ever more people. But we should not rest content on the hope that a ruling class will divide against itself and that we can merely sit back and watch the show. Such a passive approach will only leave us at the mercy of whichever ruling faction gains the upper hand. Rather as a ruling elite weakens the thirst for liberty among the class of the ruled must intensify. For liberty will only be gained by men and women who actually desire it and who are willing to take actions in the furtherance of this end, or as Frederick Douglass, a 19th century American who escaped from slavery wrote:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made…have been born of earnest struggle…This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them. . . . The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Frederick Douglass, West India Emancipation

Further Readings

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