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馬夏維里傳 -- 書評 -- E. Maglaque

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Free from Humbug


Machiavelli: His Life and Times

By Alexander Lee, Picador, 762 pp., £30, March, 978 1 4472 7499 5


Erin Maglaque, London Review of Books, 07/16/20


‘Surely it is a great wonder’, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori in 1514, ‘to contemplate how blind human beings are in matters that involve their own sins.’ But it isn’t really very strange. Few of us have the strength to face our flaws. Machiavelli knew that he was the real wonder: a connoisseur of depravity; an atheist who passionately hated the clergy, who thought the institution of the Catholic Church should be dismantled and replaced with the bloodstained altars of pagan Rome. He had lots of sex – from the abject to the sublime and everything in between – with beautiful women and young men throughout his marriage. He hung around with people he called ‘lice’: gamblers and reprobates in the taverns of the Tuscan countryside. He pranked his friends, cheated people out of money, played elaborately cruel practical jokes on holy men. Unlike the ordinary, unselfconscious sinners he despised, he made a study of human nature in its worse aspects, casting a practised eye over the hellscape of 16th-century Italy, with its warrior popes and courtesans and condottieri. He turned that realism into the foundation for the most original political theory of his time – possibly of all time.


And yet Machiavelli never held any proper political power. He was born in a shabby palazzo in Florence on 3 May 1469. Years later, in the midst of a political crisis, he reflected on his childhood, finding consolation in the memory of early hardship:


As for turning my face towards Fortuna, I should like to get this pleasure from these troubles of mine, that I have borne them so straightforwardly that I am proud of myself for it and consider myself more of a man than I believed I was ... I shall get on as I did when I came here: I was born in poverty and at an early age learned how to scrimp rather than to thrive.


The Machiavelli were a prominent family, but their famous name hid a history of adversity. A cousin had rebelled against the Medici and tarnished the family’s reputation; worse, Machiavelli’s father, Bernardo, had inherited a staggering amount of debt. Bernardo preferred a quiet, scholarly life immersed in Latin books, and refused to find a profession, instead living off the profits from the family farm in the Tuscan countryside. One of Machiavelli’s earliest poems lampoons his father’s miserliness. He took pleasure in his ability to transcend these inauspicious beginnings, turning his face to fortune.


Machiavelli doesn’t come into the view of posterity until his thirties – ‘like Christ’, the scholar Sergio Bertelli once wrote, but that’s where the likeness ends. In 1498, he was confirmed to his first public position as a chancellor, working as a secretary, diplomat and negotiator for the Florentine government. The Medici had been forced to flee Florence in 1494, when the fragile peace that had held across the Italian peninsula since 1454 began to crumble. For four strange and chaotic years, the city was under the sway of the theatrical reforming preacher Girolamo Savonarola: Machiavelli was brought into government a few weeks after Savonarola had been burned as a heretic in the main piazza. With the Medici and Savonarola gone, Piero Soderini was elected gonfaloniere for life in 1502, ushering in what Florentines hoped would be a period of republican liberty, stability and peace. Machiavelli worked closely with Soderini in the chancery of the Florentine republic for 14 years. His diplomatic career ran parallel with the Italian Wars, a series of battles (accompanied by ever changing political allegiances) that ravaged much of Italy between 1494 and 1559.


In 1501 Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini. She and their children flit in and out of his personal correspondence: in 1503, after the birth of their son, Marietta reported that ‘the baby is well, he looks like you: he is white as snow, but his head looks like black velvet, and he is hairy like you. Since he looks like you, he seems beautiful to me.’ But these glimpses of domesticity mingle with wilder stories of courtesans and adventures in male brothels. La Riccia, named for her curly hair, was a favourite of Machiavelli’s, and so were the boys of Donato del Corno’s shop. Many years later, his friend Vettori observed that ‘you never would have married if you had really known yourself; my father, if he had known my ways and character, would never have tied me down to a wife.’


But being married wasn’t really a practical impediment. Away on a diplomatic assignment in 1509, Machiavelli wrote a letter describing a strange sexual encounter. He had stepped into his laundrywoman’s barely lit house to inspect a shirt, but instead, he ‘fucked her one’ (it’s better in Italian: la fotte’ un colpo):


Although I found her thighs flabby and her cunt damp and her breath a bit rancid, I was still so desperately horny that I went at it. And once I had done it, feeling like taking a look at the merchandise, I took a burning piece of wood from the fire that was there, and lit a lamp that was hanging above it; but no sooner was the lamp lit than it almost fell from my hands. Ye gods! I nearly dropped dead on the spot, that woman was so ugly.

Machiavelli itemised her ugliness: her nose ‘slit open and full of snot’; her mouth ‘twisted to one side’, pooling with drool because she had no teeth; her ‘long, pointed chin that twisted upwards a bit, from which hung a flap of skin that dangled.’ He was so ‘assaulted’ by the stench of her breath that he vomited all over her. In the retelling, he arranges his own abjection on the page, coolly observing the consequences of physical want.


Back in Florence in 1512, a series of missteps undid gonfaloniere Soderini, and the ground was prepared for the return of the Medici. Giuliano de’ Medici entered the city, storming the Palazzo della Signoria. Soderini fled, and Machiavelli – tainted by association – was well and truly battered by the forces of fortune. Dismissed from government, he was soon implicated in an anti-Medici conspiracy. He was imprisoned and tortured with the strappado: his hands were tied behind his back with a rope and he was dropped six times from a height, probably dislocating his shoulders. Finally released, he retired broken and depressed to the family farm, an outcast from politics.


Though his visits to La Riccia and Donato’s shop were welcome distractions, Machiavelli was unable to turn his mind from politics. ‘I could not help but fill your head with castles in the air,’ he wrote to Vettori in 1513, ‘because since Fortune has seen to it that I do not know how to talk about either the silk or wool trade, profits or losses, I have to talk about politics.’ He spent the days chewing the fat with woodcutters on the farm and playing cricca in the tavern. But in the evening, he told Vettori,


I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable court of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them ... and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains [it], I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus.


Even now, at the distance of five centuries, Machiavelli’s words in The Prince still register physically: you brace for impact. Human nature is fundamentally rotten. Hope and virtue are for the weak, for life’s losers. Raw power must be dressed up in the trappings of piety, but never constrained by it. The ultimate aim of political life is glory and not, as philosophers had argued for centuries, the public good. Machiavelli dismantled traditional morality, but refused to offer a new ethic in its place. Instead he made simple, practical recommendations. Shed illusion. See people as they really are. Adapt nimbly to what you discover. He paid close attention to those princes and popes whose characters became his raw material. He fixated, for example, on Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, who had carved out a state of his own in northern Italy through considerable military intelligence and diplomatic cunning – and, of course, with the help of his father. ‘This lord is very splendid and magnificent,’ Machiavelli observed when he met Cesare for the first time in Urbino in 1502:


In arms, his courage is such that he can accomplish the greatest undertakings with ease. [When he means to acquire] glory and enlarge his domains, he neither rests, nor knows either fatigue or danger. No sooner is his arrival in a place known than he is gone ... and these things, together with his perpetual good luck, make him a fearful and victorious [adversary].


Machiavelli admired Cesare’s audacity, and his instinct for cruelty. ‘There was such fierceness and virtù in the duke, and [he knew] so well ... how men must be either won over to one’s side or else eliminated.’ Cesare exemplified Machiavelli’s concept of virtù: not the bloodless kind familiar from conventional philosophy, but a daring manliness exercised on the transnational stage of politics and diplomacy. This was virtù with an emphasis on the vir. But women could attain virtù, too. Machiavelli’s imagination was also captured by Caterina Sforza, the fierce ruler of Imola and Forlì, whom he met in 1499. (She was also a famous beauty, and Machiavelli’s friend Biagio Buonaccorsi begged him to send a sketch of her back to Florence.) Machiavelli described how Caterina had faced down a group of violent conspirators who had taken her children hostage and threatened to assassinate them, peppering the men with wild threats, and then lifting her skirts: she ‘uncovered to them her genital members, saying that she still had means for producing more children.’


Virtù was essential to defeating the capricious, tempestuous force of Fortuna. In The Prince, Machiavelli identifies Fortuna as a woman: ‘it is necessary,’ he writes, ‘in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her.’ His most important ideas – dependence and autonomy, Fortuna and virtù – were constructed on the foundation of sexual difference. If Caterina was an example of manly autonomy, Cesare Borgia’s ultimate downfall provided an example of the dangers of effeminate dependency. When his father died (many believed he had been poisoned), Cesare was left bereft of support. Machiavelli saw how the pope’s death unravelled the once fearsome duke, who was ‘carried away by that bold self-confidence of his’, ranting and raving with ‘words full of poison and anger’. His state was lost. Machiavelli reflected in The Prince that Cesare had ‘acquired his state with the Fortuna of his father and lost it with the same, though he had taken every measure and done all that ought to be done by a wise and able man to firmly fix his roots in the states which the arms and fortunes of others had bestowed on him’.


The Prince was dedicated to the dissolute Lorenzo de’ Medici and was intended to be Machiavelli’s ticket back to political life. But his timing was a little off. When he turned up at Lorenzo’s palazzo to present him with the book, someone else had just offered a pair of dogs. Lorenzo was so taken with his new pets that he didn’t pay any attention to the book. His ambitions crushed, Machiavelli retreated to the Rucellai gardens, where the humanists and philosophers, poets and playwrights of Florence gathered to converse and to stage their work. It was here in 1518 that Machiavelli dramatised the key themes of The Prince in his sexual comedy La Mandragola. The play follows the bold youth Callimaco, who dupes the beautiful – and married – Lucrezia into sleeping with him. Callimaco is a sensation in bed, and Lucrezia’s wafer-thin virtue crumbles. Callimaco impregnates her and so asserts his mastery over her aged husband, representative of an older generation made redundant by the audacity of the young. This was the triumph of manly virtù over virtue, the hyper-masculine over the weak; it was The Prince translated into the obscene language of Florence’s streets, a playbook showing how a ruler might found a new dynastic state through sheer moxie. La Mandragola played to sold-out audiences during carnival season and made Machiavelli famous. (It also allowed him to spend lots of time with his current obsession, the strawberry blonde Barbera Raffacani Salutati, who sang the madrigals between acts.)


In the following years, exiled from politics but immersed in the classical learning of the Rucellai crowd, Machiavelli wrote prolifically and with a sharpened sense of history. In the Discourses on Livy, he turned from considering the princedom to the republic and, through a close study of antiquity, investigated the role of civic discord in the preservation of liberty, arguing that social conflict was generative, not destructive; disorder should be cultivated, not resolved. The Art of War examined the value of a citizen militia and the role of the army as the foundation of a state’s liberty; and The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca used biography to exemplify the importance of courage and ruthlessness. He began his Florentine Histories, a humanist history of his city modelled on Roman examples but woven through with political diagnoses first developed in his earlier writings (one contemporary reader thought his history was ‘more wise than true’). But he also honed his skills as a writer of poetry and drama: he wrote another comedy, Clizia, as well as satirical poetry and fine love sonnets, even a treatise in which he resurrected poor Dante’s ghost to spar with him over the Florentine vernacular.


When Lorenzo de’ Medici died of syphilis in 1519, aged 26, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici took control of Florence’s government and Machiavelli had a chance to return to political life. In 1525, he brought a copy of the Florentine Histories to Giulio, now Pope Clement VII, in Rome. Its success finally brought him back into the Medici fold. But in 1527, in the chaos of the Italian Wars and the Sack of Rome, the Medici were driven out of Florence for a second time, and a second republic established. Machiavelli, who had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of every major Florentine political upheaval, died on 21 June 1527, entertained by the possibility of meeting Seneca and Plato, both pagans, in hell. ‘The worst that can happen to you is that you’ll die and go to hell,’ he wrote in La Mandragola. ‘But how many others have died! And in hell how many worthy men there are!’


Machiavelli’s​ contemporaries knew him as a scholar and historian, poet and dramatist. His reputation as the ‘murdrous Machiavel’ developed only after his death. The Prince was printed in 1532. A few years later, Reginald Pole would claim that the treatise was written ‘by Satan’s hand’. By 1559, Machiavelli’s name had been placed on the papal Index of Prohibited Books; in the same year, Jesuits in Ingolstadt burned him in effigy. But even his most ferocious critics ended up absorbing some of his ideas: Machiavel in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta sneers, ‘Admired I am of those that hate me most.’ Readers have always found what they wanted to in Machiavelli’s writing: the tyrant hungering for glory in The Prince, or the liberty-loving, ardent republican of the Discourses. During the Risorgimento, Machiavelli’s defence of republicanism in the Discourses foreshadowed the reunification of Italy; but his place on the Index of Prohibited Books was reconfirmed in 1897. Marx called the Florentine Histories a masterpiece; both he and Gramsci thought Machiavelli’s arguments for an armed citizen militia had inherently revolutionary potential. At the other end of the spectrum, two modern Italian prime ministers have written critical introductions to The Prince: Benito Mussolini, who admired Machiavelli’s articulation of the role of force in political life, and Silvio Berlusconi. I like Bertrand Russell’s assessment: ‘It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he certainly is sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug.’


Centuries of wildly differing interpretations of Machiavelli – tyrant or republican, revolutionary or fascist – fractured his thought from his life. His early biographers, Roberto Ridolfi most wonderfully, as well as feminist political theorists like Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, put the two back together again. (This revisionism hasn’t quite entered the popular imagination: trolls in the more nihilistic corners of the internet still debate whether Machiavelli was, in fact, an incel.) Today, Machiavelli’s ruthlessness and cynicism are mostly embraced by those at the contemptible end of the political spectrum: members of the Trump administration have adopted him as a patron saint; in the UK, we have Dominic Cummings, ‘the Machiavel in Downing Street’. But the Succession fans and trolls who revere Machiavellian shrewdness mistake his cynicism for insensitivity to the world, when in fact it reflected precisely the opposite. His cynicism developed from an almost unbearable clarity of insight (it is true that, more often than not, he was disgusted with what he saw). He obviously wasn’t a feminist – Fortuna, remember, was a woman to be mauled – but his ruthless self-inquiry is bracing to read at a time when the right has claimed a monopoly on political realism and popular feminism confuses the cheap pang of emotional recognition for thought.


It also ups the ante for his biographers: how to tell his life in a way that meets Machiavelli’s standards of stylish economy and ruthless realism? Alexander Lee attempts to surmount the challenge by piling up detail: his biography is nearly eight hundred pages long. I am not, on principle, opposed to long books, but Machiavelli provides the strange and particular in spades, and yet these elements are difficult to spot in Lee’s telling. Exhaustiveness is even deadlier when paired with cliché: in Lee’s book, servants often seem to be ‘chattering’ in the background in order to provide a bit of premodern colour; there is a great deal of weather and travel. To commune with the past, we require history writing that leaves space for the imagination. Otherwise, the dead remain indistinct. And the indistinct is what Machiavelli could not abide.


I like to imagine that Machiavelli had future biographers and critics in mind when he wrote to Vettori in 1515 that Anyone who might see our letters ... and see their variety, would be greatly astonished, because at first it would seem that we were serious men completely directed toward weighty matters and that no thought could cascade through our heads that did not have within it probity and magnitude. But later, upon turning the page, it would seem to the reader that we – still the very same selves – were petty, fickle, lascivious, and were directed towards chimerical matters.


He knew that the variety of his own writing – veering between the personal and the political, the sexual and the solemn – was astonishing, even disorienting. Rebuffing any future readers and commentators who might be foolish enough to try to pin him down, he assured Vettori: ‘if this behaviour seems contemptible, to me it seems laudable: because we are imitating nature, which is changeable; whoever imitates nature cannot be censured.’ Keep up, he urges us, as we peer over Vettori’s shoulder: ‘Turn the page, and spit.’



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馬夏維里的政治理念 -- Catherine Zuckert



The people’s prince                  馬夏維里的政治理念


His name has become synonymous with egotistic political scheming, yet Machiavelli’s work is effectively democratic at heart


Catherine Zuckert, 11/19/18


Niccolò Machiavelli has a bad reputation. Ever since the 16th century, when manuscript copies of his great work The Prince began to circulate in Europe, his family name has been used to describe a particularly nasty form of politics: calculating, cutthroat and self-interested. There are, to be sure, reasons for this. Machiavelli at one point advises a political leader who has recently annexed a new territory to make sure to eliminate the bloodline of the previous ruler lest they form a conspiracy to unseat him. He also praises the ‘cruelty … well-used’ by the mercenary captain Cesare Borgia in laying the foundations of his rule of the area around Rome. However, Machiavelli did not invent ‘Machiavellian politics’. Nor was his advocacy of force and fraud to acquire and maintain rule the cause of individual leaders using them. What then did Machiavelli do? What did he want to achieve? 


In Chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli infamously declares:


I fear that … I may be held presumptuous … But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. Many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who let go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good.


Unlike the imaginary republics and principalities advocated by earlier political theorists such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, in which both governors and governed were to be educated to be as virtuous as possible, Machiavelli proposes to teach political leaders, both potential and actual, ‘to be able not to be good and to use or not use that knowledge according to necessity’.


Despite his reputation as a teacher of tyrants, if not a teacher of evil per se, a thoughtful reader recognises immediately that this could not have been Machiavelli’s intention. Who would need to learn ‘to be able not to be good’? Clearly not the likes of Borgia or the harsh and duplicitous Roman emperor Severus, whom Machiavelli also praises. By deceiving and killing their competitors, such men proved that they were ‘able not to be good’ without his help. However, they might not have known how to use and not use that knowledge according to necessity.


Borgia was exiled by the man he helped to make pope, and Severus was unable to teach his son how to perpetuate his family’s rule. As Machiavelli observes, leaders tend to persist in using the means that have enabled them to succeed in the past, even when those means are no longer suited to the circumstances. The impetuous continue to forge ahead even when caution is warranted, and the cautious do not seize the opportunities that arise. In teaching his readers to be able not to be good and to use or not use that knowledge according to necessity, Machiavelli thus appears to be addressing two sorts of political actors: the good, who do not know how to be bad, but need to learn to be able to do so in order to be effective; and the bad, who do not know how to use (or not use) their ‘ability’ to establish a lasting regime.


Why did Machiavelli think such a lesson was needed? According to him, most human beings do not actually want to be virtuous or good. Regarded as individuals, human beings are weak and needy. By seeking to acquire ever more and to protect what we have already amassed, we naturally come into conflict. We thus join together to form political communities not only in order to acquire what we need but also to protect what we have acquired from the predations of others. But once such political communities are formed, their members also become divided by two mutually opposed ‘humours’ or ‘appetites’: the desire of ‘the great’ (or, as we might say today, the elite) to command and oppress the people, and the desire of the people not to be commanded and oppressed. It is an illusion to think that the leaders or ordinary citizens of a political community seek a ‘common good’ beyond defending that community from external predators. There will always be a more or less explicit conflict between those who want to rule and those who do not want to be ruled.


In The Prince, Machiavelli states that there are three possible outcomes of the conflict between the two humours: principality, liberty or licence. But in a book ostensibly devoted to the education of a ‘prince’, he does not explain how ‘liberty’ can be achieved through a balancing of the two humours; he reserves that lesson for his Discourses on Livy, in which he praises the Roman republic as an example of how that happened. In The Prince, he confines himself to urging political leaders, once they acquire power, to seek the support of their people.


The first reason he suggests that a leader should seek the support of the people rather than favouring his ‘great’ allies or partisans is that the ambitious ‘great’ regard themselves as his equals, and therefore wish to displace him. They will demand ever more offices and goods as the price of their continued support. Attempts to satisfy them will necessarily fail and, in failing, add to the leader’s enemies. A leader can satisfy his people, however, because ‘the end of the people is more decent (onesto) than that of the great, since the great want to oppress and the people want not to be oppressed’.


Second and more fundamental, there is strength in numbers: the people are much more numerous than the great. Machiavelli likes to use shocking examples and language. He points to the historical example of Borgia as well as to Oliverotto Euffreducci, the ruthless ruler of Fermo, and Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, to show that the relatively few ‘great’ in any particular polity can be assembled under false pretences and slaughtered, but reminds his readers that a ‘prince’ will have no one to rule if he murders most of his people. A political leader will need subordinates to help him rule, but he can do perfectly well without any given set of ‘great’ persons, since he ‘can make and unmake them every day’. He can make some ‘great’ by giving them lands and offices, or unmake them by taking these, and their lives, away. Machiavelli thus indicates that the ‘great’ are not different from the many by nature – human nature is the same in all. Because those granted high offices have more power and goods, they no longer feel as liable to oppression as the people merely subject to the government. Rather than desiring merely not to be oppressed, as a result of their relative positions the ‘great’ come to desire to acquire more by oppressing others.


Having observed that all human beings fundamentally desire to preserve themselves and, in trying to do so, strive to acquire ever more, Machiavelli tries in The Prince to persuade the politically ambitious that, however they acquire rule, the best way to keep themselves in office is to satisfy their people’s desire to have their lives, families and properties secured. In teaching political leaders ‘to be able not to be good’, Machiavelli does not, therefore, simply advocate self-interested, immoral or amoral behaviour. He appeals to the desire of the politically ambitious to rule in order to convince them that the best way of realising their desire is to satisfy the desire of their people not to be oppressed. Satisfying the desire of the people to be secure in their lives, families and property is and ought to be the end or purpose of government, as Machiavelli sees it. However, because he explicitly dedicated The Prince to a prince and addressed his advice to the politically ambitious, many readers and commentators have missed this central democratic thrust of his argument.


Machiavelli teaches readers of The Prince to be able not to be good by showing them that practices and attitudes thought to be virtuous in private individuals have deleterious results for public officials. Liberality was praised by ancient moralists, and generosity or charity has been praised by Christians (and others) to this day. However, Machiavelli points out, a political leader who depletes his own resources by generously granting offices, lands, titles and other emoluments to his aristocratic friends or partisans will lose their support when he needs it, unless that leader acquires new funds by taxing his people and so arousing their hatred. Rather than squander his capital by rewarding an ungrateful few, a political leader will prove himself to be truly liberal to the many by conserving his own resources so that he will be able to use them to defend himself and his government when needed. Likewise, a political leader who pardons criminals might appear to be merciful to a few, but he is cruel to his many subjects or fellow citizens who fear for their lives and property when the law is not enforced.


Machiavelli argues that political leaders have to use both force and fraud in order to acquire and maintain power. But he warns that they must always strive to appear to be full of mercy, faith, honesty, humility and religion – especially religion – even if they cannot be so in fact. (Anyone accused of being a ‘Machiavellian prince’ has not, therefore, succeeded in becoming such.) Why will everyone not merely believe but praise a head of state when he claims to be waging war, rigorously enforcing the law, or raising taxes for the sake of the true faith or humanity? If a political leader does what is necessary to ‘win and maintain a state’, Machiavelli assures his readers, ‘the means will always be judged honourable, and will be praised by everyone’.


Readers often take this to mean simply that the end justifies the means. Machiavelli refers, however, to a particular end: establishing and maintaining law and order, which is in the people’s interest as much as it is in the ruler’s. It is difficult, if not impossible, for observers to discover what a person’s true motives are. In fact, political leaders act in order to acquire and maintain power for themselves. But if a leader acts to maintain a state that protects the lives and property of his subjects or fellow citizens from external aggression and domestic crime, they will believe him when he declares that he has been acting for the common good. In other words, people judge a leader’s character and words by the effects of his deeds. That is the ‘effectual truth’ that Machiavelli seeks in The Prince.


Machiavelli’s redefinition of the true ‘virtues’ of a ruler obviously constitutes a severe debunking of both ‘virtue’ and ‘rule’. Rather than a noble endeavour undertaken from a sense of duty in order to achieve a common good, effective rule will be undertaken and conducted solely on the basis of a clever calculation of the best means an ambitious man can use to satisfy his desire to command without becoming hated and so possibly overthrown. However, Machiavelli also shows that there is – or, at least that there can be – a certain conjunction of the prince’s desire to command and the people’s desire to be secure, even though these desires remain essentially opposed, but it requires great ingenuity to conceive of the means by which both can be satisfied to a certain extent. In The Prince, he points to one way of doing this by reminding his reader that there are two ways of fighting – the human way with laws, and the bestial way with force and fraud.


He indicates what he means by the human way of fighting with laws when he observes that France is an example of a well-ordered and governed kingdom, and that the first of the ‘infinite good institutions on which the liberty and security of the [French] king depend … is parlement’. This French court enabled the people to resist the ambition and insolence of the nobles by accusing and trying them of crimes against the king. Parlement thus contributed not only to the security of the people, but also to the security of the king. In a monarchy, the laws are the laws of the king; and those who have the power to threaten his rule are the nobles or ‘great’ who see themselves as equals to the king and continually try to acquire more wealth and power for themselves, if not simply to replace him.


By giving the people the power to check the arrogance and ambition of the nobles, the institution of such a court enabled the king to use the people as a means of securing his rule without his having to act directly or with force against the nobility. Just as Borgia brought good government to the Romagna by using a cruel administrator to frighten everyone into submission, and then avoided responsibility himself for the use of such cruel means by replacing his assistant with a civil court, so, Machiavelli suggests, the king of France has acted both to secure his own rule and to escape blame for the means by setting up a court in which the people judge the nobles.


In The Prince, Machiavelli thus seeks to persuade his politically ambitious readers to institute what we have come to know as a ‘constitutional monarchy’, based on an army composed of their own people, and characterised by a balance of powers that secures the rule of law. Because such a nation-state could be established only in a relatively large territory, Machiavelli concludes The Prince with a call to the Medici to muster and train an army ‘to seize Italy and to free her from the barbarians’.


What Machiavelli does not mention in The Prince, but what he states explicitly in his Discourses, is that a young virtuous political leader at the head of a citizen army, who seeks and acquires popular support the way Machiavelli argues that a ‘prince’ should, constitutes the greatest threat to the preservation of a republic. Ordinary people do not perceive the seeds of tyranny that are concealed by the favours that a popular leader does for them. Happy to see such a popular leader put down the ‘great’ who have lorded over them in the past, the people are often willing to see a leader (such as Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chávez, say) abolish the constitutional checks or restraints that prevent any single individual from becoming a tyrant. So, whereas in The Prince Machiavelli advocates a kind of alliance between the prince and the people to keep the great in check, in the Discourses he seeks to create a kind of alliance between the other ‘great’ men and the people against any emerging prince or tyrant.


The ‘remedies’ that Machiavelli proposes to counter the threat that a popular leader poses to a republic are to make both the people and other ambitious citizens suspicious of the motives and ambition of seemingly virtuous young leaders. In other words, he urges them not to be taken in by the ‘appearance’ of religion, mercy and humanity that he himself advised a ‘prince’ to project. Instead, the people should suspect that their ‘captains’ have more dangerous hidden ambitions. He also counsels other ambitious or ‘great’ citizens to compete with emerging young heroes for popular favour. To ensure that there is rotation in office and that term limits are respected, ambitious citizens must be willing not only to cede offices they have held to their competitors, but also to serve under them. And to expose attempts on the part of ambitious individuals to overthrow the republic, it is necessary to institute procedures whereby such individuals can be accused and tried before large popular juries.


These trials will not necessarily produce justice for the individuals in question, but the danger of facing such a trial will serve as a check on individual ambition. Indeed, the trials themselves allow the people to ‘vent … those humours that grow up in cities’. Unorganised ‘spontaneous’ popular resistance to the oppressive desires of the ‘great’ is not sufficient to check them, Machiavelli emphasises. The blind fury of a mob can be immensely destructive, but it soon subsides and thus has no lasting positive effect. It takes a single mind to design institutions, and a single leader to arm and organise an effective force capable of defending a city from external aggression and maintaining order inside it. The great advantage of republics over principalities is not that they do not require ‘princes’ or leaders; it is that they are not stuck with one. They can elect a succession of different individuals able to act in a variety of circumstances.


Why does Machiavelli think that republics are better than ‘principalities’, the rule of one man? In properly structured republics where people feel secure in their lives, families and property, both individuals and the community grow and prosper:


Larger peoples are seen there, because marriages are freer and more desirable to men since each willingly procreates those children he believes he can nourish. He does not fear that his patrimony will be taken away, and he knows not only that they are born free and not slaves, but that they can, through their own virtue, becomes princes. Riches are seen to multiply there in larger number, both those that come from agriculture and those that come from the arts. For each willingly … seeks to acquire those goods he believes he can enjoy once acquired. From which it arises that men in rivalry think of private and public advantages, and both … grow marvellously.


The main criterion by which governments should be judged to be good or bad is not the moral character or intelligence of the person or persons who rule. It is rather the common good that results from a government that secures the lives, families, liberty and property of its citizens. Machiavelli thus advocates a thoroughly democratic purpose for government. But he does not think that purely democratic processes or means are always the best or even adequate ways of achieving that end. Leaders who understand that the best way to fulfil their own desire to rule is to satisfy the desires of their people for security, prosperity and advancement are also needed.


Because all effective political action requires organisation and thus leadership, Machiavelli addresses all of his political writings to individuals in positions of power or ambitious to hold them. But in urging them to institute and maintain ‘good government’ by securing the lives, families and properties of their subjects or fellow citizens, he does not appeal to their sense of justice, mercy or public-spiritedness. On the contrary, he appeals to their ambition – their human desire for status and wealth. Machiavelli’s debunking of traditional notions of virtue and vice was therefore a necessary part of his broader contention that government should not serve the interests of the few best, but that it should serve the more modest desires of the many. He does not expect ordinary people to understand the intricacies of military strategy or institutional design – that is, the means by which their basic desires can be satisfied. He is certain, however, that they are the best judges of the outcomes or effects.



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在美國開始工作後,我常常逛書店和和聖荷西大學校園附近的舊書攤。買到一本英譯的《君王論》。讀了十幾頁後,我對這本書內容的了解和我以前看到對它的介紹和評論完全不同。我覺得做上述負面評價的人,或者是以訛傳訛,或者沒有看懂《君王論》。後來陸續看到許多跟我看法相近的評論。大多數學者對馬夏維里都是正面的評價。可惜的是,我後來對哲學和認知科學的興趣比較高,工作也很繁忙,《君王論》這本書到現在都沒有讀完。我在這個部落格轉載過幾篇介紹《君王論》和馬夏維里政治思想的評(《馬夏維里的睿智 -- What Machiavelli Can Teach Us Today》,2013/03/23)



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