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Machiavelli's Ethics

Machiavelli's Ethics

by Erica Benner
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Machiavelli's Ethics challenges the most entrenched understandings of Machiavelli, arguing that he was a moral and political philosopher who consistently favored the rule of law over that of men, that he had a coherent theory of justice, and that he did not defend the "Machiavellian" maxim that the ends justify the means. By carefully reconstructing the principled foundations of his political theory, Erica Benner gives the most complete account yet of Machiavelli's thought. She argues that his difficult and puzzling style of writing owes far more to ancient Greek sources than is usually recognized, as does his chief aim: to teach readers not how to produce deceptive political appearances and rhetoric, but how to see through them. Drawing on a close reading of Greek authors—including Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Plutarch—Benner identifies a powerful and neglected key to understanding Machiavelli.

This important new interpretation is based on the most comprehensive study of Machiavelli's writings to date, including a detailed examination of all of his major works: The Prince, The Discourses, The Art of War, and Florentine Histories. It helps explain why readers such as Bacon and Rousseau could see Machiavelli as a fellow moral philosopher, and how they could view The Prince as an ethical and republican text. By identifying a rigorous structure of principles behind Machiavelli's historical examples, the book should also open up fresh debates about his relationship to later philosophers, including Rousseau, Hobbes, and Kant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691141770
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 780,358
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Erica Benner is fellow in ethics and history of philosophy at Yale University, and the author of Really Existing Nationalisms.

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Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14176-3

Chapter One

Civil Reasonings: Machiavelli's Practical Filosofia

It is widely assumed that Machiavelli either had little interest in philosophy, or thought that its role in human enquiry should be subordinated to practical political concerns. In its simplest form, the assumption rests on a sharp distinction between philosophy as a "contemplative" activity and politics as a realm of "practical" action. Thus one scholar has written recently that Machiavelli cannot be called a philosopher at all, but a "practitioner of politics" who engaged himself "heart and soul" in political, administrative, military activity. A more nuanced view is that there are philosophical elements and implications in Machiavelli's writings, but that the kind of philosophy found there is radically empirical. By treating "what is" in human conduct as the sole standard for what "ought" to be done, Machiavelli is supposed to have subordinated ethical judgments to a new "science of politics" that broke with both ancient and Christian conceptions of philosophical ethics. Another view is that Machiavelli redefined the idea of philosophy in ways that reject any ethical limits, including those derived from what empiricists regard as objective or natural data, unless the limits are determined by a more fundamental criterion of political necessity. Thus Leo Strauss sees it as an error to deny "the presence of philosophy in Machiavelli's thought." But whereas for ancients "philosophy transcends the city, and the worth of the city depends ultimately on its openness, or deference, to philosophy," Machiavelli's "new notion of philosophy" remains "on the whole within the limits set by the city qua closed to philosophy" and despises the ancients' "concern with imagined republics and imagined principalities." Philosophy on this view must not set its sights on standards beyond what the prince or the demos sets, but accept them as "beyond appeal" and simply look for the "best means conducive to those ends."

A few recent scholars have suggested that Machiavelli reevaluated the role of philosophy in several later writings and identified his own purposes with those of ancient philosophers. But no systematic case is made for this alternative view, nor is it treated as the basis for a philosophical reinterpretation of Machiavelli's major works. This chapter questions the first three views, and outlines a more systematic set of arguments against the presumption that Machiavelli subordinated philosophy to politics. This prepares the ground for two further arguments that are developed throughout this book. One is that although Machiavelli did not openly proclaim or disavow philosophical intentions, all his main writings refer to and build on a particular ancient tradition of philosophically informed politics. This tradition did not conceive of philosophy as an "otherworldly," purely contemplative, or elite activity, but as an indispensable element of a well-ordered civil life in which all citizens should participate. The second argument is that while Machiavelli does argue from observations and common opinions concerning what is or has been, he does not treat empirical data as an exhaustive or sufficient basis for reasoning about human conduct.

I start by locating Machiavelli's main ethical and political concerns in the context of his own times, in relation to what he saw as the most pressing problems that his writings sought to address. Many studies of Machiavelli contextualize his views by examining how other Florentine humanists viewed the problems of maintaining or expanding republics. Yet few take his own mature writings on Florence as a starting point. There are good reasons to begin, then, with Machiavelli's unjustly neglected Florentine Histories. His general diagnosis of how political corruption sets in and spreads is developed most clearly here, as are his views on the rise of "entrepreneurial" princes in unstable republics. Moreover, just because the Histories is less widely read than the Prince or Discourses, it offers a way to approach Machiavelli's ideas afresh.

1.1. Florentine Histories: Decent words, indecent deeds

The Histories, completed around 1525, was Machiavelli's last major work. Whereas his previous political writings had been entirely independent, the Histories was commissioned by government bodies under the auspices of Giovanni de' Medici, then Pope Leo X, and Giulio de' Medici, who became Pope clement viii. Since the return of the Medicis to power in 1512, Machiavelli had been out of favor with the city's authorities and proscribed from employment as a civil servant, having served for many years as a loyal diplomat under the republican Soderini government. By 1520 several prominent Medici scions, particularly Giovanni, sought to strengthen their regime's position by inviting known critics such as Machiavelli to express their views more openly. As Machiavelli's correspondence with close friends shows, he was well aware of the need to remain guarded when responding to such apparently liberal-spirited invitations. His dedicatory letter is cautious and respectful. But it states up front that the Histories will neither celebrate Florence's greatness nor pretend that generations of Medici dominance had brought unmitigated boons to the city. Machiavelli notes that he "was particularly charged and commanded by your Holy Blessedness that I write about the things done by your ancestors" in a manner that would show "that I was far from all flattery (for just as you like to hear true praise of men, so does feigned praise presented for the sake of favor displease you)." True to his word, his account of Florentine domestic and external politics under various Medici princes is unflattering. Yet Machiavelli insists that his sponsors should not take this critical portrayal as a slight to their own or their family's honor. According to his analysis, the principal causes of present-day Florentine "disorders" (disordine) long predate the Medicis' emergence as effective principi in the republic. The Florentine Histories puts these causes under a searingly harsh spotlight.

According to Machiavelli, throughout its history Florence's most noteworthy characteristic was not the outstanding reputation of its high culture, its free republican institutions, or the greatness of its dominions in Tuscany and beyond. Above all else, Florence had long been distinguished by the variety and intensity of its internal dissensions. "If in any other republic there were ever notable divisions," Machiavelli observes, "those of Florence are most notable." other republics have typically had one principal division, such as that between plebs and the patrician senate in Rome, which often proved a source of strength and a contributing cause of freedom. But in Florence divisions were multiple, and endlessly multiplying. There "the nobles were, first, divided among themselves; then the nobles and the people; and in the end the people and the plebs: and it happened many times that the winning party [parte] was divided in two." The result was continual civil strife; for "from such divisions came as many dead, as many exiles, and as many families destroyed as ever occurred in any city in memory." According to Machiavelli, the root cause of Florence's divisions was the "unreasonable" desire of each party to dominate all the others. Not only the nobles but various popular parties too refused to share power on terms acceptable to their rivals. "The prize they desire to gain" through unrestrained political rivalry was not "the glory of having liberated the state," thereby serving the common good. Each parte was motivated by private ends, seeking only "the satisfaction of having overcome others and having usurped the principality of the city." one of the main lessons of the Histories is that when competing parties regard unilateral dominance as a reasonable aim, partisans lose respect for the juridical and ethical limits that are necessary for political order. As Machiavelli has a prudent speaker note, rivals in this kind of struggle for dominance reach a point at which "there is nothing so unjust, so cruel, or mean that they dare not do it."

This point was repeatedly reached in Florence long before the Medicis came to power. Indeed, such conflicts paved the way for one parte dominated by a single family to assert control over the divided republic. In Florence, Machiavelli writes,

orders and laws are made not for the public but for personal utility; hence wars, pacts, and friendships are decided not for the common glory but for the satisfaction of few. And if other cities are filled with these disorders, ours is stained with them more than any other; for the laws, the statutes, and the civil orders have always been and still are ordered not in accordance with free life but by the ambition of that party which has come out on top.

If Florentine divisions had undermined civil orders for so long, how then did the city manage to remain intact under nominally republican institutions, let alone increase its territorial dominions and reputation for grandezza? Machiavelli's answer is that until his own time, generations of Florentines had deployed a specific set of civic skills to conceal the most crippling deficiencies in their institutions. The ambivalent effects of these skills on Florentine politics are examined throughout the Histories. Although "the things done by our princes outside and at home may not be read, as are those of the ancients, with admiration for their virtue and greatness," Machiavelli observes wrily that they may "be considered for other qualities with no less admiration when it is seen how so very many noble peoples were held in check" by badly ordered armies and badly enforced laws. The admirable "other qualities" are not "the strength of the soldiers, or the virtue of the captain, or the love of the citizen for his fatherland"; of these the honest historian of Florence "does not tell," for his subject presents scant evidence of them. The qualities that maintained Florence's reputation and dominion are skills of making men or deeds appear better than they are. In each successive period described in Machiavelli's Histories "it will be seen with what deceits, with what guile and arts [con quali inganno, astuzie, arti] the princes, soldiers, and heads of republics conducted themselves so as to maintain the reputation they have not deserved." The city might be corrupt, divided, and compromised by dependence on foreign powers. But so long as its republican and "princely" leaders were adept at creating appearances of civic virtue, concord, and independence, the Florentines' idea of themselves-and their image in Italy and the world-remained that of a serious regional power governed by impeccably free institutions.

If the Florentine Histories has a single leitmotif, it is the disparity between good words, appearances, or reputations and the less praiseworthy deeds that these may gloss. In the dedication Machiavelli declares that "in all my narrations i have never wished to conceal an indecent deed with a decent cause [una disonesta opera con una onesta cagione ricoprire], or to obscure a praiseworthy deed as if it were done for a contrary end." Throughout the work he urges readers, particularly citizens of republics such as Florence, to consider how genuinely onesto actions aimed at serving the public good can be distinguished from disonesto deeds that pursue private or partisan aims in the name of the republic. The great difficulties of seeing through onesto appearances are underscored in Book III. Here Machiavelli has a group of citizens, "moved by love of their fatherland," put forward a scathingly critical diagnosis of Florentine disorders. They note that in Florence and the rest of Italy notions of duty, religion, legality, and justice had become so corrupted by sectarian divisions that they were treated as mere weapons in struggles for dominion. "Because religion and fear of God have been eliminated in all," the main speaker notes,

an oath and faith given last only as long as they are useful; so men make use of them not to observe them but to serve as a means of being able to deceive more easily. And the more easily and surely the deception succeeds, the more glory and praise is acquired from it; by this, harmful men are praised as industrious and good men are blamed as fools.... From this grows the avarice that is seen in citizens and the appetite, not for true glory [vera gloria], but for the contemptible honors on which hatreds, enmities, differences, and sects [sètte] depend; and from these arise deaths, exiles, persecution of the good, exaltation of the wicked.... And what is most pernicious is to see how the promoters and princes of parties give decent appearance to their intention and their end with a pious word [la intenzione e fine loro con un piatoso vocabolo adonestono]; for always, although they are all enemies of freedom, they oppress it under color [sotto colore] of defending the state either of the optimates [ottimati] or of the people.

Though it reverberates throughout the Histories, the distinction between onesto words, names, or appearances and disonesto deeds sharpens up in later books where Machiavelli discusses the Medicis' rise to power. With Cosimo and Lorenzo, the creation of decent appearances to "color" dubious deeds reaches an apogee. Machiavelli acknowledges that these popular princes were largely responsible for giving Florence a name for greatness and glory throughout italy and beyond. But he also implies that their actions greatly diminished the city's already brittle internal freedoms, and undermined its external security. Instead of stating his critical judgments directly, Machiavelli employs various indirect techniques to imply them. One technique is to praise cosimo and Lorenzo's ancestors for more consistently placing the public good above private ambitions than their descendants. of one Medici ancestor, Machiavelli writes that many Florentines "agree that if Messer Veri had been more ambitious than good, he could without hindrance have made himself prince of the city." But when relatives tried "to persuade him to seize dominion over the republic," Veri de' Medici refused to seize power through any "extraordinary" or illegitimate means; instead he urged the people to "put down their arms and obey the signori."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii
Abbreviations xv
Introduction 1
Arguments: Philosophical ethics and the rule of law 5
Sources: Greek ethics 8

Part I: Contexts

Chapter 1: Civil Reasonings: Machiavelli's Practical Filosofia 15
1.1. Florentine Histories: Decent words, indecent deeds 16
1.2. Flawed remedies: Rhetoric and power politics 25
1.3. Flawed analyses: Self-celebratory versus self-critical histories 30
1.4. Philosophy and the vita activa in Florentine humanism 37
1.5. What is, has been, and can reasonably be: Machiavelli's correspondence 43
1.6. The Socratic tradition of philosophical politics 49
1.7. Forming republics in writing and in practice: The Discursus 54

Chapter 2: Ancient Sources: Dissimulation in Greek Ethics 63
2.1. Constructive dissimulation: Writing as civil "medicine" 64
2.2. Inoculation for citizens: Words and deeds in Xenophon's Cyropaedia 71
2.3. Conversations with rulers: Plutarch and Xenophon on purging tyranny 78
2.4. Dissimulating about deception: Xenophon's Cambyses 84
2.5. Dissimulating about justice: Thucydides’ Diodotus 88

Part II: Foundations

Chapter 3: Imitation and Knowledge 101
3.1. The ancient tradition of imitating ancients 101
3.2. Inadequate imitation: The "unreasonable praise of antiquity" 107
3.3. Historical judgment: Criticism of sources and self-examination 111
3.4. The Socratic metaphor of hunting 116
3.5. Ethical judgment: The "true knowledge of histories" 124
3.6. Machiavelli's dangerous new reasonings 132

Chapter 4: N ecessity and Virtue 135
4.1. The rhetoric of necessity 136
4.2. Necessita as an excuse 140
4.3. Necessita as a pretext 142
4.4. Imposing and removing necessita 147
4.5. Virtu as reflective prudence: Taking stock of ordinary constraints 150
4.6. Under- and overassertive responses to necessity 153
4.7. Virtu as self-responsibility: Authorizing constraints on one's own forces 156
4.8. Virtu as autonomy: Imposing one's own orders and laws 161
4.9. Necessita and fortuna 166

Chapter 5: Human Nature and Human Orders 169
5.1. Fortune and free will 170
5.2. How to manage fortuna: Impetuosity and respetto 175
5.3. Practical theology: Heavenly judgments and human reasons 180
5.4. Practical prophecies: Foreseeing the future by "natural virtues" 184
5.5. Moral psychology: The malignita of human nature and the discipline of virtu 190
5.6. Human zoology: The ways of men and beasts 197
5.7. Human cities, where modes are neither delicate nor too harsh 201
5.8. Who is responsible for the laws? Human reasoning and civilita 206

Part III: Principles

Chapter 6: Free Agency and Desires for Freedom 213
6.1. The Discourses on desires for freedom in and among cities 214
6.2. The Florentine Histories on freedom and the need for self-restraint 221
6.3. Are desires for freedom universal? 226
6.4. Inadequate conceptions of freedom 231
6.5. The rhetoric of liberta in republics 239
6.6. Free will and free agency 244

Chapter 7: Free Orders 254
7.1. Priorities I: Respect for free agency as a condition for stable orders 255
7.2. Priorities II: Willing authorization as the foundation of free orders 259
7.3. Conditions I: Universal security 262
7.4. Conditions II: Transparency and publicity 266
7.5. Conditions III: Equal opportunity 269
7.6. Foundations of political freedom: Procedural constraints and the rule of law 279
7.7. Persuasions: Why should people choose free orders? 287

Chapter 8: Justice and Injustice 290
8.1. Justice as the basis of order and liberta 291
8.2. Partisan accounts of justice 299
8.3. Non-partisan persuasions toward justice 306
8.4. Why it is dangerous to violate the law of nations 309
8.5. Forms of justice: Promises, punishments, and distributions 314
8.6. Ignorance of justice: Who is responsible for upholding just
orders? 320

Chapter 9: Ends and Means 325
9.1. Responsibility for bad outcomes: The dangers of giving counsel 326
9.2. Judging wars by post facto outcomes 331
9.3. Judging wars by anticipated outcomes 335
9.4. Reflective consequentialism or deontology? 340
9.5. Problem 1: Unjust means corrupt good ends 343
9.6. Problem 2: Who can be trusted to foresee effects? 347
9.7. Problem 3: Who can be trusted to identify good ends? 351
9.8. Problem 4: Corrupting examples 357
9.9. Corrupt judgments: Means and ends in the Prince 360

Part IV: Politics

Chapter 10: Ordinary and Extraordinary Authority 367
10.1. The antithesis between ordinary and extraordinary modes 367
10.2. Are conspiracies ever justified? 373
10.3. Extraordinary and ordinary ways to renovate corrupt cities 380
10.4. Unreasonable uses of religion: Easy ways to acquire authority 386
10.5. Reasonable uses of religion: Fear of God and fear of human justice 394
10.6. Folk religion and civil reasoning 400

Chapter 11: Legislators and Princes 407
11.1. Spartan founders and refounders: Lycurgus, Agis, and Cleomenes 408
11.2. Roman founders and legislators: Romulus and Aeneas 418
11.3. God's executors and modes of free building: Moses 424
11.4. Ordinary mortals and the ancient ideal of the one-man legislator 432
11.5. Persuasion in the Prince: On maintaining one's own arms 437
11.6. Princely knowledge and the "knowledge of peoples" 447

Chapter 12: E xpansion and Empire 451
12.1. Why republics must expand: The defects of non-expansionist republics 451
12.2. Three modes: Equal partnership, subjection to one, and the Roman mode 454
12.3. The Roman "middle way": Making subjects or partners 458
12.4. Bad Roman modes, good Roman orders: The choice between
extremes 464
12.5. Why Roman imperio became pernicious: The wars with Carthage 468
12.6. Expansion by partnership: The forgotten Tuscan league 475
12.7. Should Florence imitate Rome? 478

Conclusions 484
This interpretation and others 490
Machiavelli and the ethical foundations of political philosophy 496
Bibliography 499
Index 509

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Machiavelli's Ethics is excellent—learned, subtle, highly original, and a constant pleasure to read. And, since it is really a study of Machiavelli's thought in its entirety, it is also the first book of its kind. Its originality lies in taking seriously the claim by some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers—notably Bacon, Spinoza, and Alberico Gentili—that Machiavelli was essentially a moral and political philosopher. Erica Benner does a brilliant job of resurrecting this neglected Machiavelli."—Giulia Sissa, University of California, Los Angeles

Maurizio Viroli

Machiavelli's Ethics is a superb scholarly book. Erica Benner does truly impressive work in analyzing Machiavelli's views on the most fundamental ethical issues—including necessity and virtue, justice and injustice, and ends and means. She shows, with very solid evidence, that Machiavelli did in fact worry a lot about justice and that he put it at the core of his republican theory.
Maurizio Viroli, author of "Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli"

Giulia Sissa

Machiavelli's Ethics is excellent—learned, subtle, highly original, and a constant pleasure to read. And, since it is really a study of Machiavelli's thought in its entirety, it is also the first book of its kind. Its originality lies in taking seriously the claim by some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers—notably Bacon, Spinoza, and Alberico Gentili—that Machiavelli was essentially a moral and political philosopher. Erica Benner does a brilliant job of resurrecting this neglected Machiavelli.
Giulia Sissa, University of California, Los Angeles

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