Modernity and Politics: Lowering the Standards
Machiavelli, who some say was the founder of modernity, wasn’t interested in “imaginary republics,” and was only interested, as he wrote in The Prince, “the effectual truth,” a phrase that tells us that Machiavelli knew that the effectual truth wasn’t the whole truth. What this means is that Machiavelli wasn’t interested in what some ancients called “the best regime,” a regime that existed only in speech, as in Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics. Machiavelli was willing to give up on the possibility of the best regime, replacing it with what may be called “legitimate regimes;” that is, regimes based on the consent of the governed.
Of course, that these legitimate regimes would be despotic is not something that Machiavelli broadcast transparently, but that seems to be the crux of his political philosophy, as it was of other moderns, like Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The trick then for these moderns was to get the people to consent to this despotism, to accept it as legitimate and even as desirable. This is what it means to say that modern political philosophers lowered the goals of politics to guarantee success. To ensure the consent of the governed required that the reigning despotism be moderated or even humanized by ameliorating the human condition by means of liberating the acquisitive desires shared by almost all humans, by separating and balancing governmental powers so that neither the rich nor the poor could control the government. Constitutional government, in one sense, merely disguised despotism, a disguise that is revealed for what it is in times requiring extreme measures, like a “war on terror.”
A troubling question arises, however, viz., to what extent can despotism be humanized? Unless one confuses “humanizing” with ‘’comfort” and “security,” it seems that despotisms cannot be humanized insofar as human beings have desires that rise above the desire for security and comfort. As a result of the lowering of the standards, modern nations resemble criminal conspiracies, as even Augustine knew. As such, they embrace injustice, ruthlessness, and even brutality for the sake of ameliorating the human condition. As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince, inhuman cruelty underlies all successful political orders and the activities of the greatest political actors. As might be said today, “It is what it is.”
This is what leads Thomas Pangle to raise the following questions in his book on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws: “does not Montesquieu’s political program, aimed at making life secure, eventually threaten to create a way of life no longer lovely or enjoyable enough to be seen as worth securing? Is it possible that at the root of the practical difficulties is the unalterable nature of man, animated by needs and longings that cannot be harmonized with the desire for security or equality?” [303-304]