Print March 17, 2023 11 comments
The Machiavellian MethodGreg Johnson
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).
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I missed the first part of the stream but I would like to know how you arrived at your contention that Signor Machiavelli aimed to overthrow a classical political philosophy of norms with one based on given preferences.
To my mind The Prince ‘s main theme seems to be the utility and, in a complex international political environment, the necessity of not slavishly following the dictates of Catholic teachings, this being especially required of the small, weak Italian states, his beloved Florence in particular. He only proposes this in the realm of statecraft though and really he was just saying out loud what much of the ruling class already took for granted. Christendom wouldn’t have survived for twelve centuries if at least some potentates hadn’t understood this.
It seems most unfair to ascribe to him the situation that now pertains. His main concern was that Florence, by building a citizen army, should be strong and prosper and beyond that he wished that Italy should be politically united in order to exclude the Hapsburg and French Empires.
Whenever Machiavelli rebukes utopianism, virtue, and high standards of behavior, he is referring to classical political philosophy.
I think Burnham would respond that asking whether ‘modernity’ is the ‘right’ thing to do smacks of utopianism. Modernity has happened. Any thought of changing it is playing right into the hands of modernity.
The moral dichotomy isn’t between good choices and bad choices.
It’s between a belief in choice or a belief in fate.
Once you’ve accepted ‘choice’ as an option, you’re ‘doing modernity’.
Modernity was not a “fate.” It was a utopian project launched by people like Machiavelli under the cloak of “realism.” Bad projects can be questioned, halted, and replaced with better ones. We have the freedom to do that.
Remember to read your Machiavelli, and do not take anyone else’s opinion for what he said, what he meant, or what you would think of his work if you spent a good amount of time on it, trying to reduce the role of your preconceptions to a minimum.
Machiavelli states that classical political philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle wrote about what ought to be, whereas he himself wrote about how the real world actually worked, how real rulers actually behaved and which policies were effective. Machiavelli saw himself as merely a messenger, a cataloguer, a scientist.
That’s how he presented himself, but in fact he was advancing an alternative set of norms by which he wished to reshape facts.
So you’re saying his formal meaning was different from his intended purpose. 😉
You should interview Ed Dutton about this. Although incredibly reductive, he synthesizes contemporary politics with Machiavelli in the most articulate way I’ve ever heard. He claims leftists are the most Machiavellian and individualistic because they use woke/postmodernism/cultural Marxism (whatever you want to call it) as a ‘crucible of evolution’ against rightist whites, thereby carving out an ‘individualist’ space for themselves to dominate their allied diversity. I don’t think this strategy is anything new because it was the basis of Helter Skelter.
Ha good name. I was going to say the January 6th proceedings are a good example of machiavelli’s effective use of cruelty. Yes, the left is the most Machiavellian, in the common sense of the term, not burnham’s.
Idly I wonder how much of Burnham’s awareness of doublethink rhetoric is due to his years in the Bolshy and Trotskyist swamps. He didn’t really know his Partisan Review colleague, Orwell, but he had a profound influence on him in his last years, particularly upon Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Burnham explained the whole rationale of Ingsoc and Stalinism.
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