John Gray muses on the importance and relevancy of Machiavelli’s political thought today, and argues that any misreading of him comes from the fact that the Florentine philosopher is “as much as heretic today as he ever was”:
If Bobbitt misreads Machiavelli, it is because Machiavelli is as much of a heretic today as he ever was. Resistance to his thought comes now not from Christian divines but from liberal thinkers. According to the prevailing philosophy of liberal legalism, political conflict can be averted by a well-designed constitution and freedoms enshrined in a regime of rights. In reality, as Machiavelli well knew, constitutions and legal systems come and go. According to Bobbitt, “The lesson of Machiavelli’s advice to statesmen is: don’t kid yourself. What annoyed . . . Machiavelli was the willingness of his contemporaries to pretend that quite simple formulations were adequate to the task of governing in the common interest.” Plainly, the market state is a formula of precisely this kind.
The true lesson of Machiavelli is that the alternative to politics is not law but unending war. When they topple tyrants for the sake of faddish visions of rights, western governments enmesh themselves in intractable conflicts they do not understand and cannot hope to control. Yet if Machiavelli could return from the grave, he would hardly be annoyed or frustrated by such folly. Ever aware of the incurable human habit of mistaking fancy for reality, he would simply respond with a Florentine smile.
Quick note here: I study this stuff — or will do this fall — in grad school, and from the start I think Machiavelli has been my favorite political philosopher. Not necessarily for his message, though I think he’s been more right than most give him credit for. The reason I enjoy reading and re-reading The Prince and his many other works including the Discourses is because he’s a particularly easy read. There’s something to be said for simplicity in writing, and i’ve always been turned away by theorists who complicate theirs for impact — or perhaps it’s more that they cannot simplify (see Foucault).
(Photo: flickr user Joshua Schnable)