In The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, James Burnham sets forth a Machiavellian method for interpreting political texts. (Methods of interpretation are also known as “hermeneutic” methods.) Burnham distinguishes between the “formal” and the “real” meanings of texts. The formal meaning of a text is “what it explicitly states when taken at face value” (p. 8). The formal meaning also expresses, albeit in an indirect and disguised manner, “what may be called the real meaning” (p. 8). The real meaning is what a text signifies “in terms of the actual world of space, time, and events” (p. 9).
The distinction between formal and real meaning cannot be reduced to conscious deception or even self-deception, although these often occur. Rather, Burnham seems simply to assume that there is always a gap between what we say about the world and the world itself, although he also thinks that science can considerably narrow that gap.
To demonstrate the Machiavellian method, Burnham interprets Dante’s De Monarchia (circa 1312–1313). In De Monarchia, Dante argues that mankind should be governed by a single monarchical state, an “empire.” Second, he argues that the Holy Roman Emperor is the legitimate ruler of all mankind. Third, he argues that the authority of the Emperor is independent of that of the Pope.
Dante’s starting point is that the natural end of mankind is the full development of our faculties, which can only take place in the afterlife in the eternal beatific vision of God granted to the saved. The aim of politics is to support this goal, which requires peace. Peace can best be secured by eliminating all competing sovereignties and establishing a global government. There is one God, and one natural end of man, so why shouldn’t there be one political order?
The Roman Empire is the legitimate ruler of the world because Christ was incarnated under Augustus. The Holy Roman Empire is merely the continuation of the Roman Empire.
The independence of the Emperor from the Pope follows from the fact that “Christ, Paul, and even the angel who appeared to Paul acknowledged the temporal authority of the emperor” (p. 7). The idea of two supreme authorities, one temporal and one spiritual, also harmonizes with the dual nature of man.
Burnham regards the formal meaning of De Monarchia with utmost disdain. Dante’s idea of man’s ultimate end is “meaningless” (p. 8). The idea of a world empire is “utopian and materially impossible” (p. 8). Dante’s arguments are more bad than good, but even the good ones are “completely irrelevant” to real-world politics. Thus, taken at face value De Monarchia is “worthless, totally worthless” (p. 8). (Perhaps we should count our blessings that Burnham did not go on to interpret The Divine Comedy.)
But then, with a conjurer’s flourish, Burnham produces his Machiavellian decoder ring and reveals the actual meaning of De Monarchia. It turns out that Dante was a partisan of the Ghibelline defenders of the Holy Roman Empire against the Guelph defenders of papal supremacy. After a brief summary of the Ghibelline-Guelph contest up to Dante’s time and place (fourteenth-century Florence), Burnham concludes that the “real meaning” of De Monarchia is “simply an impassioned propagandistic defense of the point of view of the turncoat Bianchi [Ghibelline] exiles from Florence, specifically; and more generally of the broader Ghibelline point of view . . . De Monarchia is, we might say, a Ghibelline Party Platform” (pp. 17–18). According to Burhnam, Dante’s “practical political aims toward his country were traitorous; his sociological allegiance was reactionary, backward-looking” (pp. 18–19). Indeed, Dante was an enemy of “progress.”
Burnham then sums up the Machiavellian method of interpretation.
First, there is almost always a sharp distinction between the formal and real meaning of political texts.
Second, formal meanings are usually supernatural or metaphysical, and hence meaningless — or they are simply utopian: meaningful, perhaps, but unrealizable.
Third, formal meanings, regardless of their logical validity, are “necessarily irrelevant to real political problems” (p. 22).
Fourth, the formal meaning both disguises and indirectly expresses the real meaning; i.e., “the concrete meaning of the political treatise taken in its real context, in its relation to the actualities of the social and historical situation in which it functions” (p. 22).
Fifth, because the formal meaning is not the real meaning, debating the formal meaning entails leaving the real meaning “irresponsible” (p. 22). The Machiavellian hermeneutical method’s purpose is to disclose the real agendas behind political texts and compel them to defend themselves.
Burnham makes a great show of dismissing religious, metaphysical, and utopian speculation from political theory. But he implicitly dispenses with moral philosophy as well. By taking political theories as mere propaganda for established political agendas, he treats these agendas simply as “given preferences,” much as economists treat consumer preferences as given.
But the fact that people happen to want something does not mean that they ought to want it. Moral philosophy seeks both to discard and to generate preferences based on an understanding of the ends that we ought to prefer.
Burnham assumes that Dante’s given political preferences generate his political philosophy. But couldn’t Dante’s more fundamental philosophical convictions have generated his political preferences? Anyone who has changed his political preferences after encountering better arguments knows that such changes are possible. Yet, this possibility is ruled out in advance by Burnham’s method. Thus, it is a bad method.
Before Burnham was a Machiavellian, he was a Marxist. Marxism holds that philosophy both expresses and distorts underlying material interests. When Burnham moved from Marx to Machiavelli, it is tempting to say that the (Machiavellian) apple did not fall far from the (Marxist) tree. But the metaphor needs to be reversed, because Machiavelli is the tree of which all modern political philosophies are the fruits, Marxism included.
Burnham assumes that social and political conditions give rise to philosophical outlooks. But this conviction is itself a philosophical outlook — which, if Burnham is correct, is itself the expression of a prior political program.
What was Machiavelli’s political agenda? Burnham thinks that Machiavelli’s aims were limited to the unification of Italy, which is a noble and worthwhile aim.
But Machiavelli’s agenda was far more sweeping. He aimed to overthrow classical political philosophy, which is founded on norms, and replace it with modern political philosophy, which is founded on given preferences.
Why? Because Machiavelli believed that a political order based on something low but common to all men—namely the satisfaction of their given preferences—would be more stable than a political order founded upon high but rarely achieved ideals.
But what is this political order? Ultimately, it is what we call modernity: the organization of society around the satisfaction of human desire through the mastery of nature by science and technology.
Has Machiavelli defeated classical political philosophy? No, because we can always ask: “Is modernity the right thing to choose?”
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 James Burham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943) (London: Lume Books, 2020).
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