The following notes based on an essay by Peter Kreeft and a course notebook; Kreeft is also the author of Socrates Meets Machiavelli: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Author of The Prince (St. Augustine’s Press, 2012).
Who was Niccolò Machiavelli?
He was a Florentine political theorist who founded modern political and social philosophy.
How do you pronounce his last name?
When did he live?
1496–1527. (For historical reference, Machiavelli was 13 years younger than Luther and 13 years older than Calvin.)
What was Machiavelli’s significance?
Seldom in the history of thought has there been a more total revolution.
Did Machiavelli recognize how radical he was?
He compared his work to (1) Columbus’ as the discoverer of a new world and (2) Moses as the leader of a new chosen people who would exit the slavery of moral ideas into a new promised land of power and practicality.
What is his most famous work?
The Prince. (The first print version was published posthumously, five years after his death, in 1532.)
What are the three key assumptions of The Prince?
Everything that Machiavelli says in this book follows from three assumptions:
- Metaphysical assumption: Reality consists only of material facts (not objectively real ideals, goods, or values).
- Anthropological assumption: Man, by nature, is wicked, selfish, competitive, and immoral. (Matter is essentially competitive and so is men; therefore, “morality” contradicts reality.)
- Epistemological assumption: Reality is revealed only by sense observation. (Human history is an empirical science.)
For all social thinkers prior to Machiavelli, what was the goal of political life?
Virtue. Politics was the art of the good. The conception of a good society was one in which people are good.
For Machiavelli, what was politics?
The art of the possible.
How much did this point influence subsequent social and political philosophers?
Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey all subsequently rejected the goal of virtue.
What was Machiavelli’s argument?
Traditional morals are like the stars (beautiful—but too distant to cast any useful light on our earthly path). We need instead man-made lanterns (i.e., attainable goals).
In other words, we must take our bearings from the earth, not from the heavens; from what men and societies actually do, not from what they ought to do.
According to Machiavelli, what is the relationship between the actual and the ideal?
The ideal should be judged by the actual (not the actual by the ideal).
For Machiavelli, what is the relationship between the means and the end?
Not only does the end justify the means (any means that work), but the means even justify the end (the end is worth pursuing only if there are practical means to attain it).
For Machiavelli, what is the greatest good?
Success. (He is the father of pragmatism.)
What did Machiavelli think about morals?
He was an anti-moralist. A successful prince, he wrote, needs “to learn how not to be good” (The Prince, ch. 15), how to break promises, to lie, to cheat, and to steal (ch. 18).
How did he view religion?
He believed that every religion was a piece of propaganda whose influence lasted between 1,666 and 3,000 years. And he thought Christianity would end long before the world did.
He saw his life as a spiritual warfare against the Church and its propaganda.
Who were Machiavelli’s allies and to whom did he direct his philosophy?
Machiavelli wrote for and was supported by lukewarm Christians who loved their earthly fatherland more than heaven, Caesar more than Christ, social success more than virtue.
What was his goal?
Domination or control.
What were the two tools that were need to command men’s behavior and thus to control human history?
- The pen (propaganda)
- The sword (arms).
In his view, what determined all of life and history?
- virtù (force)
- fortuna (chance)
What is virtù?
Virtù is not moral virtue, but rather the ability to impose one’s will on someone or something else.
What is fortuna?
- fate (whether good or bad)
What is the formula for success?
- maximize virtù
- minimize fortuna
He ends The Prince with this shocking image: “Fortune is a woman, and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her” (ch. 25).
What does all of Machiavelli’s advice boil down to?
How to move something from the fortuna category to the virtù category.
What is the relationship of laws and arms?
“You cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow” (ch. 12).
Machiavelli believed that “all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed prophets have come to grief” (ch. 6). Jesus, the supreme unarmed prophet, came to grief (he was crucified and not resurrected). But his message conquered the world through propaganda, through intellectual arms.
This was the war Machiavelli set out to fight.
How did social relativism emerge from Machiavelli’s philosophy?
- Morality can only come from society (since there is no God and no God-given universal natural moral law).
- But every society originated in some revolution or violence.
- Therefore, the foundation of law is lawlessness. The foundation of morality is immorality.
How did Machiavelli criticize Christian and classical ideals of charity?
- How do you get the goods you give away? By selfish competition. (All goods are gotten at another’s expense: if my slice of the pie is so much more, others’ must be that much less.)
- Thus unselfishness depends on selfishness.
The argument presupposes materialism and it is flawed (spiritual goods do not diminish when shared or given away, and do not deprive another when I acquire them).
What was Machiavelli’s anthropology (view of human beings and their nature)?
Machiavelli believed we are all inherently selfish. There is no such thing as an innate conscience or moral instinct. The only way to make men behave morally is by force—in fact, totalitarian force, to compel them to act contrary to their nature.
If a man is inherently selfish, then only fear and not love can effectively move him. He wrote, “It is far better to be feared than loved ” (ch. 17).
The most amazing thing about this brutal philosophy is that it won the modern mind, though only by watering down or covering up its darker aspects. Machiavelli’s successors toned down his attack on morality and religion, but they did not return to the idea of a personal God or objective and absolute morality as the foundation of society. Machiavelli’s narrowing down came to appear as a widening out. He simply lopped off the top story of the building of life; no God, only man; no soul, only body; no spirit, only matter; no ought, only is. Yet this squashed building appeared (through propaganda) as a Tower of Babel, this confinement appeared as a liberation from the “confinements” of traditional morality, like taking your belt out a notch.
Satan is not a fairy tale; he is a brilliant strategist and psychologist and he is utterly real. Machiavelli’s line of argument is one of Satan’s most successful lies to this day. Whenever we are tempted, he is using this lie to make evil appear as good and desirable; to make his slavery appear as freedom and “the glorious freedom of the sons of God” appear as slavery. The “Father of Lies” loves to tell not little lies but The Big Lie, to turn the truth upside down. And he gets away with it—unless we blow the cover of the Enemy’s spies.