Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Machiavelli, Modern Realism, and Extremism


Machiavelli, Modern Realism, and Extremism

Peter Schultz


            In his book, Natural Right and History, Strauss asserts that “Machiavelli takes his bearings not so much from how men live as by the extreme case.” To illustrate for students what Machiavelli meant when he argued that it is so far from how men live to how they ought to live, I would use the Oedipus complex, viz., that what looks like love is actually a desire to kill one’s father and sleep with one’s mother. That is, what looks like love is actually incest, even murderous incest.


            It would appear that my explanatory example was unknowingly consistent with what Strauss says here. Obviously, Oedipus’s case was an extreme case. And, yet, Freud and others took this extreme case and made it seem normal, that is, descriptive of all human beings. But is it normal? Or is it not just extreme – that is, aberrational – behavior? Why do we think it describes all human beings? Because we too are modern realists.


            We are then, as modern realists, guided not so much by how human beings actually live but by extreme cases, which we take to be normal. In our politics, we take extreme cases as normal, thereby taking our bearings from those extreme cases, e.g., 9/11, 1/6, Pearl Harbor, Hitler and the Holocaust, and acting accordingly. Is it any wonder then that our politics is characterized by extremes, slavery, genocide, constant wars, humongous bureaucracies, including what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, imperialistic adventures, etc., etc., etc. No, it isn’t wonderful that we often, as Billy Joel sang, “go to extremes.”

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