The Prince and I
Throughout history, humans have arranged themselves in societies ranging from tribes to city-states to feudal kingdoms to nation-states. From the relatively democratic tribal councils to the less democratic Greek city-states onto monarchy and empire, it appeared that societies became more authoritarian as they grew larger and more complex. Soon, to paraphrase St. Augustine's pirate, thieves molesting the oceans in small boats were called pirates and emperors molesting the oceans with large navies were spoken of as great men. In this environment, using the heuristic of circumcision, Paul joined many religious figures arguing that the world of flesh and empire was superseded by the world of spirit and common mankind. Paul's sentiment created a church supposedly at odds with temporal power. In the Renaissance, Machiavelli argued for an opposite sentiment, elevating the temporal above the spiritual. The war between Paul and Machiavelli is a war between an ethic that seeks to make the polity its servant and an ethic that makes the state the highest good. Irrespective of whether or not one views rights or ethics as the fundamental political goal, both outlooks at their core demand a revolutionary new polity that exists only insofar as it can propel these needs, different from all forms throughout history. One's particular spirituality is also largely irrelevant, as no consistent spiritual development is consistent with hierarchical and callous power, which inevitably follows Machiavelli's path rather than Paul's. Politics should be concerned wth the practical, spiritual and ethical development of every human being as well as their involvement in decisions insofar as they are impacted; it should not be concerned with aggrandizing elites or developing a cult of nationality, and to avoid this requires a break with the nation-state.
Machiavelli is explicitly statist in The Prince. Chapter I even denies the concept of anything beyond “either Republics or Princedoms” (Dover Thrift Edition of The Prince, page 1). It is hard to describe Viking or Native American societies as either Republic or Princedom, but irrespective, Machiavelli makes no argument as to why that which has not been seen in the past cannot exist today. After all, Machiavelli argues for a united Italy in Chapter XXVI (pages 68-70), something that had not been achieved since Rome and is different in conception from the Roman Empire. Chapter XXVI also demonstrates Machiavelli's commitment to a unified nation-state, which (by definition) must be either Republic or Princedom. In Chapter VI, Machiavelli argues, “They who come to the Princedom, as these did, by virtuous paths, acquire with difficulty, but keep with ease. The difficulties which they have in acquiring arise mainly from the new laws and institutions that they are forced to introduce in founding and securing their government.” (page 13). In short, they are “forc[ed]” to establish new laws to crush those who happen to think that a prince taking what he wants with violence should not be rewarded with obedience. “Securi[ty]” must be established to preserve the rule obtained by “virt[ue].” It seems to slip Machiavelli's mind that any conqueror will claim to have arrived at his success through “virtue”, and that such a conqueror may have interests beyond “security” when he creates institutions to aggrandize him. Machiavelli masterfully obscures the cynicism of this sentiment by combining Moses, Romulus et al, despite each's almost qualitatively different circumstances, into a seamless mold of Princes who are “virtuous”. Thus Romulus, who murdered his own brother, and Moses, who liberated his people from slavery, are made into moral equivalents. For Machiavelli, what matters is power and success.
To give Machiavelli the benefit of the doubt, he appears to have a reason beyond simple power-worship to propose any crime in service of the State. He even admits that not all Princes are equal; Chapter VIII acknowledges that Princes can come to power through “crimes” (pg. 20). However, he gives the game up in the first paragraph; “...a man may also rise to be a Prince in one or other of two ways, neither of which can be referred wholly either to merit or fortune”. But Machiavelli's description of “merit” is precisely the willingness to commit crimes, at least as the word “crime” is normally understood. He also seems to consider it just that some may rise to power based on no “merit” of their own but simple “fortune” (“fortune” such as being born with the Princedom, as he discusses in Chapter II, which even under his twisted ethic has no bearing on merit of any kind). The two ways he speaks of are “paths of wickedness and crime” and “becom[ing] ruler of [a] country by the favour of [one's] fellow citizens”. His description of “crime” in the case of Agathocles (pg. 21) is “to slaughter fellow-citizens”, which implies that human worth is connected not to humanity but due to membership in some arbitrary nationality. More importantly, did not Moses also slaughter his own “fellow-citizens”? Machiavelli seems to find some distinction between Agathocles and Moses in merit, yet this speaks more of the positive associations of any Biblical character and the malleability of Machiavelli's doctrine to state power than to the reasoning involved.
Machiavelli makes an astounding revelation later in the chapter (pg.23): Cruelty may be “well” or “ill” employed, with the only criterion to decide being the effectiveness of the cruelty. And what of the second path? Princes who secure the favour of the “people” must reconcile them to the fact that, “A Princedom is created either by the people or by the nobles...” A world without nobles is beyond Machiavelli's imagination. Luckily, Machiavelli does imply that “the aim of the people [is] more honourable than that of the nobles, the latter seeking to oppress, the former not to be oppressed”. However, such a Prince arrives at a dilemma: “And in times of peril it is too late for a Prince to assume to himself an absolute authority, for the citizens and the subjects who are accustomed to take their orders from the magistrates, will not when dangers threaten take them from the Prince...” Why does such a citizenry need a Prince? Why do they even need magistrates? Why does the Prince necessarily need to consolidate his rule, even during times of strife? Answers are not forthcoming.
It appears Machiavelli has a few values to which he puts his crass utilities. The first is a concept of “greatness”. In Chapter XVI, Machiavelli posits, “In our own days we have seen no Princes accomplish great results save those who have been accounted miserly.” (page 41). Apparently generousity and kindness is not greatness in and of itself; great things are “enterprises” such as what the contemporary King of Spain embarks on (p. 42). He does argue in this chapter that all liberal princes must tax, but he ignores the very concept of taxation: to have a centralized authority invest in things worth more over time. Of course, this liberality is not a problem when acquiring power or when dispensing with “the property of others”. The implication, of course, is that the Prince owns everything in his domain and has the right to take away that which is outside of it. Other than mentions of “greatness”, he offers no reasons why the Prince is needed. However, the greatest hint is in XXVI. There, he begs for a Prince (particularly he who Machiavelli is writing to) to unite Italy. Thus, for Machiavelli, all of the conquering and domination is justified by the continued stable existence of the State.
Machiavelli's fundamental flaw of both reasoning and ethics has to do with a naivete of the true operations of power. There are roughly three symptoms of this consistent mistake. First, Machiavelli assumes that the state is the only means to accomplish what he desires: some kind of unity and security. Yet Machiavelli offers precisely one paragraph describing why he assumes this, and the paragraph has to do with his impression of history, which is a patent irrelevancy.
One can imagine a polity with multiple levels of governance, thus satisfying the people's legitimate urges for self-government while allowing them to unify for the common good. One can also imagine such a polity where the binding “glue” is not a Nation defined by borders and common identity (a fundamentally exclusive identity) or a State defined by hierarchy and coercion, but a different form described by Bakunin, Proudhon, Rocker, and others defined by voluntary interaction and participatory self-management. Such a polity can at least in theory accomplish “greatness”, stability and the common good; indeed, much more effectively.
Second, Machiavelli assumes that there will be no cost to such a state. But the fact is that there is no plausible argument that the Prince will always rule out of even enlightened self-interest, especially since there is every incentive for him for aggrandize himself with more power and wealth and virtually no check upon him doing so. Machiavelli even admits that it is highly unlikely that any Prince will have the good qualities that a reasonable person would desire in a leader; thus, he says, “It is not essential... that a Prince should have all the good qualities which i have enumerated... [but] he should seem to have them.” (p. 46). (Obviously, even a totally enlightened Prince is a fundamentally wrong category because it denies the rights of individuals to influence decisions that affect them, but Machiavelli has assumed those away). A foolish, greedy, callous, insane or vile leader is beyond Machiavelli's conception, yet any one of these cases destroys the Prince's necessity. His state also represses individuals and minorities, who inevitably will let hate and anger fester until the society unravels by violence; creates national identities that establish possibilities for war and genocide (after all, Hitler's extermination of the Jews was because they supposedly stained the German body politic); requires entire classes of commissars, apologists and mercenaries to maintain, all of whom create hierarchy and disorder; and exists in the long term by constructing threats and repressing the citizenry. At the bottom, this state serves the elites of its society, whom the Prince is ultimately beholden to; Machiavelli's own descriptions of failed rulers makes this much clear. These elites do not have security or stability as primary interests
Third, Machiavelli assumes a mean and crass human nature, yet describes no possible explanation for how people got that way, thus replicating the error he critiques in others of assuming that people behave in any particular fashion (whether good or bad). For Machiavelli, men are “dishonest” and “do not keep faith”. Putting aside the obvious ethical argument of universality that what is wrong in others is equally wrong in oneself, Machiavelli's proposed solution is thus to have one “wise” person (of course, the idea that the type of wisdom required to brutally gain power is not the same type required to rule effectively is one he does not bother to explain) who is encouraged, indeed required, to have all of these properties and more. It seems rather more logical to create a state where people are encouraged to be good and where being bad is very difficult, but Machiavelli objects for reasons that remain nebulous.
Paul, on the other hand, supports no special rules for Princes or magistrates. In Romans 2:3, Paul asks, “Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” To Paul, one's status as judge does not obviate the crime one iota; that which is wrong is universally wrong. Further, ethics and blessings do not belong to any one group; “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek... For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law... When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2:9-14). To Paul, Jews are “instructed in the law” (Romans 18), but this does not grant them any special privileges, because that is merely hearing, not complying, with the law (“law” here meaning ethics, not the law of the state). Indeed, such individuals acquire unique responsibilities; they must be a “light to those who are in the darkness” (Romans 2:19). Compliance with the law of circumcision is only useful if one complies with the broader law of ethics (Romans 2:25). This law acquires an oddly temporal character, in that ethics are deemed to reside in living beings; thus, in Romans 7: 1-3, Paul offers the example of a woman whose husband dies who “lives with another man”, and says she is not an adulteress.
Paul admittedly may fall in an ambiguous sense. Romans 13 begins with, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” But there is a hidden implication: Those in authority owe allegiance to God; they do not rule by virtue of power or innate right. He also says, “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenu is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due”. One must compensate for the fact that Paul was writing under a powerful empire that persecuted his sect. The hidden implication is that a just society in line with God's law (ethics) should be complied with, but one that is not worthy of respect is owed none. Paul goes on to say in Romans 14:13, “Then let us no more pass judmgnet on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother”. Paul seems to argue that people should live and let live; not impede other's spiritual development... in short, a nascent anti-statism.
When applying these insights to politics, a few things must be altered. The rightness of the society, based on the notion that ethics accrue to living creatures and that men should place no impediments to each other, is distinct from the rightness of the spirit. Paul may seem to imply a theology, but a theology would explicitly be an institution that judges, and thus would be vulnerable to hypocrisy and oppression. They key to derive from Paul is that a society that is right deserves involvement from its citizens and that such a society should be based on tolerance and freedom, but should not eschew ethical considerations. The modern formulation is that of rights. While this may seem to imply secular humanism, it does not necessitate it whatsoever. Paul states in Romans 14:6, “He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord...” In short, mundane actions that seem non-spiritual on the surface can be spiritual at the base of it. The point of individual rights is to acknowledge that there is something sacred to one's free actions and that those rights reside in every human being by virtue of existence, and that to challenge them is fundamentally to judge and to impede in violation of God's law. These rights are not designed to make atomistic individuals, but precisely to facilitate full and free interaction between people in safe and tolerant forums leading to all sorts of new and sacred acts.
What, then, would Paul's vision bring? A world without borders that divides human beings into antagonistic clans, no matter how well disguised. A world where an injury to one is perceived as an injury to all. A world with concrete economic, political, cultural and gender institutions that promote happiness, spiritual development, and the free development of all forms of spontaneous interaction. Machiavelli posits that such a world is impossible with the meanness of humankind, yet he has the problem precisely backwards, for it is the world of Princes and authoritarian institutions that reward what innate greed and violence is there and that make cooperation not a normal fact encouraged by the society but an extraordinary feat that requires constant war with the society. It is Princes who make “men” bad, not men who require Princes be bad. In any respect, even if “men” are bad, by Machiavelli's logic they are not bad enough to continue in evil even when the government prevents such actions. All Paul's vision requires is that there be no Prince who is allowed to commit the evil.
Princes must by their nature “judge”; they must by their nature not “respect” those to whom respect is due; they are concerned with their power and the existence of their state and not the power and existence of God; they intrinsically put “stumbling blocks” in the way of their fellow human beings. In short, though there is a nascent statism to Paul's letter to the Romans, it is a statism entirely at odds with Machiavelli's crass utilitarianism. Even if one sheds the concept of Princes, the very notion of a nation-state that judges some to be privy and others not and that draws lines upon the world that God created is antithetical to Paul.
It is essential to note that one need not believe in the Judeo-Christian God or indeed any God to identify with Paul's sentiments. One can take his tack and complete the ambiguity of “law” and “ethic” that undercuts Romans and simply speak of “law”, not “law” generated by elites seeking to maximize their power and wealth in whatever forms the polity encourages but rather “law” that resides in the rights of individuals arrived at in voluntary congress that allows rights conflicts to be resolved and people to fully influence decisions that affect them. A libertarian society would want “law” of some form, if only because having predictable norms is essential for the proper working of a society. The key is that the law is arrived at with the participation of all impacted, that the law is subject to change and scrutiny, and that the law does not become an independent organism that takes on sanctimonious robes but is always a tool. In short, one can be a secular humanist (thus saying that one particular religious ethic, or any religious ethic, should not enter into politics) and not thereby conclude that politics thereby become vapid subservience to violence (in a positive formulation, that politics include a secular ethic grounded in the rights of humans as temporal, not spiritual, creatures). One can even note that many oppressors throughout history have said words similar to Paul and that Paul's own Catholic Church precisely judged and impeded and still nod to the sentiments in Romans. Surely, such sentiments at least contain some notion of an ethic and an obligation of the “rulers” if such a category must even exist, whereas Machiavelli is simply a crass justification for any crime committed by the state because it is committed by the state, in the worst form of circular logic.
Machiavelli ironically provides one justification for an alternative polity. In Chapter XXV, he argues that, “...no man is found so prudent as to know how to adapt himself to these changes [changes created by Fortune], both because he cannot deviatre from the course to which nature inclines him, and becausem having always priospered while adhering to one path, he cannot be persuaded that it would be well for him to forsake it” (pg.67). He then goes onto argue that the most successful Princes are those who can adapt to changing circumstances. Yet one of the arguments for democracy is precisely that democracy, even if taking longer (and Machiavelli in this sense makes no mention of limited time or the necessity for decisive decision-making), incorporates more viewpoints and has more time for deliberation, precisely leading to more complex and flexible policy-making. A truly federated, democratic polity with complex decision-making procedures and paradigms could be more flexible than any one woman, who will always be constrained by her parochialisms.
Such an alternative polity (featured most prominently in the anarchist literature, but developed by and proposed by utopians and revolutionaries of all ilks throughout history) would facilitate both Paul's and Machiavelli's vision. Through federation, it would govern more effectively, having more actors at more levels capable of evaluating circumstances and making democratic decisions. It would endure longer because it would be more flexible in meeting the demands of the people; indeed, it would be the demands of the people incarnated. It would honor people both as “Jews” and “Greeks” (categories that Paul does not scorn unless they are used to provide excuses for judgment) and as people, allowing minorities say in their own affairs and cooperation with broader constituents. Indeed, it would alter identities in a truly revolutionary fashion; one could be cosmopolitan, regional, parochial and local all without skipping a beat. It would be more stable and more creative in responding to the exigencies of Fortune. It would not “judge”; its existence would be predicated on the concept that actions should only be prevented if they impeded the rights of others in a worse manner. Not only would it not allow Princes, magistrates, advisors, flunkies, criminals, and maniacs to impede people, it would precisely create the material conditions under which true freedom would be possible.