Understanding Machiavelli

Although I found Algis Valiunas’s essay on Jacob Burckhardt welcome and insightful (“A Historian’s Craft,” Spring 2016), his digression on Machiavelli was off the mark. The author of The Prince was not “the foremost philosophical mind of the Renaissance.” He was a (minor) practitioner of statecraft whose mental habits, even in his more reflective moments, were formed by his experience as a functionary and diplomat. Hence his disdain, expressed in the crisp language of a dispatch, for a too-close application of the “ancient philosophic wisdom” to the practice of politics, as hypocritical and self-serving in his day as in ours. Hence also the famous tension between The Prince and the Discourses on Livy—Machiavelli was untroubled by a philosopher’s need for abstract coherence. His life’s great project was less the destruction of Christianity than the creation of a functioning militia for Florence. If he indeed wrought a “jailbreak,” it was by saying well what wiser statesmen already intuited. In doing so, far from erecting a “structure of brazen immorality” Machiavelli pointed a way out of the morass of the Italian Wars, and much other evil besides, brought about by the application of airy principle to the flawed material of mankind.

Carsten Belanich
Seattle, WA

Algis Valiunas replies:

Far from a small-time political operator principally of provincial significance, Machiavelli was a thinker and writer of genius who understood, and largely succeeded in, the philosophic project that Friedrich Nietzsche claimed for himself: the transvaluation of all values.

Machiavelli demands and rewards the closest reading, preferably to be done with a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or Plato’s Republic open beside The Prince. Machiavelli does his thinking with the ancient philosophic masters ever in mind, as the most revered and worthy antagonists to his subtly drawn intention: to correct the fateful errors of the ancient—and in his day still most potent—tradition. He is out to redefine for good the key words of moral and political philosophy—virtue, prudence, fortune, greatness, the good, honor, necessity, wisdom, happiness—and to rid philosophy of the noisome excrescence once known as the soul.

For the delicate touch and formidable reach with which he composes, consider the way Machiavelli begins his most famous work. The Epistle Dedicatory that opens The Prince is addressed from “Niccolò Machiavelli to the Magnificent Lorenzo Medici,” who happens to be not the famed Lorenzo the Magnificent but a lesser descendant. Magnificence is the penultimate Aristotelian moral virtue, immediately prerequisite to the greatness of soul that is supreme among moral virtues. Aristotle writes, “It is also typical of a magnificent man to furnish his house commensurate with his wealth—for it, too, is a kind of ornament—and to prefer spending his money on things that endure, since they are the noblest” (emphasis added). And of the great-souled man he declares, “He is a person who will rather possess beautiful and profitless objects than objects which are profitable and useful, for they mark him more as self-sufficient.”

Then there is Machiavelli’s first sentence: “Usually, in most cases, those who desire to acquire grace before a Prince, make themselves come up to meet him with those things that among them are held most dear, or that they see delight him the most; whence one sees them many times being presented with horses, arms, gold cloths, precious stones, and similar ornaments (ornamenti) worthy of their greatness (grandezza).”

In the next sentence Machiavelli offers a different sort of gift from the customary beautiful and delightful objects: “the knowledge of the actions of great men (uomini grandi).” For there is greatness and there is greatness, and the magnificent great-souled man, who believes he has everything, lacks the essentials that Machiavelli will provide to a worthy recipient. By addressing the magnifico who presumes himself complete, and intimating the need of something he doesn’t possess, Machiavelli breaks down the old notions of perfection and reconstitutes the best of men according to his new idea. Machiavelli is not coming up to acquire grace from the prince; he is bending down to dispense grace to the prince (although this particular Lorenzo is unlikely to appreciate the magnitude of the offering). There is that much in the first two sentences of the book, and the rest of Machiavelli must be read with comparable pains, which will yield rich pleasures.

Of course it is God who bestows grace upon those He chooses, so Machiavelli’s opening sentence already has a blasphemous flavor. For further edification on Machiavelli as Antichrist—the Prince of Perpetual War as against the Prince of Peace—consider what Machiavelli makes of the cardinal Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (and love, which he treats quite apart from charity). But one will have to read carefully. I recommend the invaluable translation and notes by Leo Paul S. de Alvarez, keeping Aristotle and the Bible at hand.

Heroic Hamilton

Richard Samuelson’s review of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton (“Hamilton versus History,” Summer 2016), is inaccurate, unjustified, and divorced from the reality of the greatest cultural phenomenon in defense of the founding generation in the past half-century.

The show does not exaggerate Alexander Hamilton’s opposition to slavery—he was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, which worked, de spite political pressure, for the liberation of slaves and eventual abolition of slavery. His first act as a member was to push for a requirement that all members liberate their own slaves. It is of course possible to argue that his motivations were Machiavellian—so many of his stances were—but when another founding member, John Jay, later signed emancipation into law as New York’s governor, the Manumission Society might have had something to do with it.

It is clear, contrary to Samuelson, why Hamilton would, at the moment when his life is on the line, choose to “throw away his shot,” despite his insistence throughout the musical that he would never do so (in the sense of career and opportunity). Hamilton has learned from George Washington’s example. He has learned from the public humiliation of his affair. In the end, this founder understood what leadership demands—as Calvin Coolidge put it: “Not being beasts, but men, we choose the sacrifice.”

In place of more noble motivation, Samuelson sees a kind of pathetic romanticism bereft of serious truths. At the end of my first viewing of Hamilton, I climbed the stairs at the back of the theater and passed a group of high school girls who had paid for standing room seats. Their cheeks were wet with tears as they consoled each other. One of them said, “Can you believe, can you honestly believe, that really happened?” It is that emotion, the power of that expression of the fearless, passionate, and principled beliefs of the founding generation that rescued Alexander Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill and has excited the minds of students betrayed by public education.

And yes, it happened. Lin-Manuel Miranda has reminded us that such men existed, and that our freedom was won by their heroism, their might, and the power of their ideas. Richard Samuelson’s disrespect for the most positive development in American culture fails to recognize the power of culture to change a people.

Benjamin Domenech
The Federalist
Alexandria, VA

Richard Samuelson replies:

Ben Domenech objects to the suggestion that Lin-Manuel Miranda exaggerates Hamilton’s anti-slavery commitment. Hamilton’s opposition to slavery is well documented, but even Stephen Knott acknowledges in his review of the book on which Miranda’s show is based (“The Man Who Made Modern America,” Fall 2004 CRB) that “One minor flaw in the book is its overstated account of Hamilton’s commitment to abolition.” According to Knott, one of Hamilton’s greatest contemporary defenders, Hamilton “never elevated the issue to the forefront of his concerns.”

As for why Hamilton didn’t fire at Burr, George Washington may certainly have had an important influence on Hamilton, but I simply don’t see the evidence that Hamilton learned from Washington that it would be wrong to fire in a duel.

Similarly, I do not see how the show’s popularity—even its ability to bring high school girls to tears—is evidence against the charge that Miranda romanticized the story of Alexander and Eliza. I was using the term “Romantic” in its formal, philosophical sense, connecting the ideas Miranda puts on stage with those of the French Revolution. It isn’t true that part of what “really happened” was Eliza staking a historic claim for herself. To make his case, Domenech would have to show how, exactly, I misread the words, music, and dramatic action.

As for the debt we owe Miranda for saving Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill, granted. After all, as I noted at the end of my essay, “Miranda is brilliantly pointing us back to the founding, and for that he should be thanked.”

Ultimately, however, any account of Hamilton’s life that has no room at all for the words “nature” and “nature’s God” gives a skewed account of his life and work. Miranda’s musical, viewed from this perspective, is part of the larger project to appropriate the founding for progressive causes. That Lin-Manuel Miranda reworked the lyrics of his hit show for a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton is no surprise. A left-wing take on American politics flows naturally from the ideas he so artfully writes into Alexander Hamilton’s life.

Et Tu, Brute?

Although he makes not much more than a passing reference to Brutus in his excellent discussion of ancient Rome (“The Cicero Test,” Summer 2016), Timothy Caspar says that Shakespeare’s account of the assassination of Julius Caesar “mythologizes” Brutus. For Caspar, the Bard presents an “unmixed view of Brutus as a ‘model of ethics.’” Might I suggest a more nuanced interpretation?

A possible hint occurs in the play’s opening scene as Shakespeare introduces two craftsmen, a carpenter and a cobbler, the latter of whom is described as a “mender of bad soles.” Is this a pun on the playwright’s art?

The two most prominent plotters of Caesar’s assassination exhibit very different characters: Cassius is eager to proceed while Brutus, from his friend’s point of view, “bears too stubborn and too strange a hand over your friend that loves you.” Cassius admits that he is a flatterer, but he knows that Brutus “love[s] the name of honor more than [he] fear[s] death,” and asks Brutus to consider why Caesar’s “name [should] be sounded more than yours.” Cassius believes Brutus is not “so firm that cannot be seduced.”

After the deed is done, Brutus strangely attempts to render Caesar’s death a pious act, even as he is drenched in blood. Cassius needed Brutus to lend his plot respectability, but Brutus doesn’t realize he needs Cassius’s craftiness to succeed in the aftermath. When Mark Antony asks to speak at the funeral, Brutus doesn’t hesitate to allow it. Cassius knows the man and his eloquence well enough to caution against his inclusion, begging Brutus to reconsider. But Brutus is concerned with appearances, and the crowd that initially cheers his speech promptly turns against him after Antony’s. Antony plays upon Brutus’s greatest vulnerability, his honor, calling Brutus or his co-conspirator’s “honorable” eight times, and thus slyly revealing the vanity beneath Brutus’ patriotism.

Having fled the city, and facing the combined forces of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus, Cassius urges caution to Brutus, hoping their adversaries will make the first move and reveal their vulnerabilities. But Brutus instead calls for an attack, which fails, and after which both men commit suicide.

At no time does the proud Brutus give even polite consideration to Cassius’s recommendations, believing that his superior virtue trumps all considerations. He would have been wiser to pay heed.

Richard H. Reeb, Jr.
Helendale, CA