Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Conspiratorial Character of Political Life


The Conspiratorial Character of Political Life

Peter Schultz


            Here’s a question: Can American political life be understood without referring to conspiracies? A more general question is: Can political life itself be understood without reference to conspiracies? I think the answer to both questions is “No.” Conspiracies are central to political life in general and to American political life in particular.


            Regarding American political life, it cannot be understood without taking a conspiratorial view of, say, the assassination of JFK, as well as others. If that assassination was not the result of a conspiracy, i.e., was not planned for by persons for political purposes, then it was nothing more a random event, almost as if it were a traffic accident. And that’s how many Americans want to think about it. JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, moving separately, ultimately met in Dallas, where they “ran into each other,” and JFK ended up dead. This is what “the lone gunman theory” of that crime meant and means. And it is a comforting theory, more comforting than if JFK was assassinated by the CIA, the Soviets, or Cubans who were protecting Castro from Kennedy’s attempts to have him assassinated. Such explanations are similar to those used to account for, say, the Vietnam War, which is said to have been “a quagmire” into which the US was dragged, almost against its will.


            One reason such explanations are popular is because we Americans don’t want to think that not only are conspiracies a permanent part of political life, but that they often control our political life. We prefer to think that our political life is controlled by laws, elections, Supreme Court decisions, and outstanding individuals, e.g., “great presidents.” To think that conspiracies are key to determining our political life would require us to rethink things we take for granted as “common sense” or “conventional wisdom.” This would be a major task; one most people have no desire to undertake. Hence, they are quite content to think of “conspiracy theorists” as delusional, paranoid persons who live in fantasy worlds of their own creation. But it could be that in fact it is the rest of us who are living in a fantasy world, although not of our own making.


            Aristotle wrote about political life as characterized by what he called “regimes.” That is, there are democratic regimes, oligarchic regimes, monarchical regimes, aristocratic regimes, and tyrannical regimes. These regimes are arrangements of power that reflect “the values” – as we say – of the most powerful. Democratic regimes rest on democratic values, values which are embraced by and motivate those who have them. So, democrats seek to maintain and fortify their democracy, and act in ways to accomplish that end. You may say that democrats will join together, act conspiratorially to maintain and fortify their democracy, whereas oligarchs will do the same. To see political life in terms of regimes is to see political life in terms of conspiracies. Machiavelli, famous as a conspiracy theorist, knew nothing about conspiracies that Aristotle didn’t know too. For both, conspiracies were the stuff of political life. Regimes can only be preserved or subverted by way of conspiracies, as Aristotle’s Politics and Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses make clear.


            Most Americans don’t think about political life in terms of regimes, as did Aristotle. Even Machiavelli downplayed their importance, without ever downplaying the centrality of conspiracies in political life. This points to the differences between Aristotle’s political teaching and Machiavelli’s political teaching. Whereas political life was animated by conflicting ideas of justice for Aristotle, for Machiavelli political life was animated by psychological forces – as we say – by different types of human beings that are not best described in political terms. For Machiavelli, there are essentially the ambitious few and the insecure many, rather than there being democrats, oligarchs, aristocrats, or tyrants. Machiavelli redefined political life by minimizing or rejecting concerns about justice as central. Questions of justice and injustice are, for Machiavelli, ultimately irrelevant when understanding or constructing republics or princedoms. For Machiavelli, the best political order is not defined as the most just political order, as it was for Aristotle; rather it is the most secure, the most stable, the most prosperous, the most powerful, and the one that secures “the general welfare” and does so over time, “for ourselves and our posterity.”


            Despite these differences, however, Aristotle, like Machiavelli, saw political life as essentially conspiratorial. Democrats want a regime that is just as democrats understand justice, that is, as essentially egalitarian. But to achieve that goal, democrats join forces, conspiring against the oligarchs, the aristocrats, the monarchists, and the tyrants, while the latter are conspiring against the democrats. Appeals to justice are made. But the character of political life is not determined in the final analysis by such appeals. Rather, the character of political life, the character of any regime, is determined by conspiracies, i.e., covert and overt actions meant to secure and fortify the prevailing arrangements of power, whether democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic, monarchic, tyrannical. Because all arrangements of power are partial, all are unjust in some ways. Hence, all are unstable, even open to subversion. Democrats, oligarchs, aristocrats, monarchists, even tyrants must join forces, i.e., conspire to preserve their rule, their regime. And even the best regime, as Aristotle’s account of it in his Politics illustrates, would need to conspire to preserve itself.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Machiavelli, the Ancients, and Hedonism


Machiavelli, the Ancients, and Hedonism

Peter Schultz


            There is a very interesting paragraph in Harvey Mansfield, Jr.’s introduction to his and Nathan Tarcov’s translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses.


“To answer the question of why Machiavelli felt it necessary to change ancient virtue, we return to the criticism of Christianity in which he blames it for creating ‘ambitious idleness’ (DI, pr. 2) and for being interpreted according to leisure and not virtue (DII, 2.2). Idleness, or leisure (as ozio can also be translated), is the contrary of virtue in Machiavelli’s view. For Aristotle, leisure (schole) was the very condition of the virtuous. Machiavelli directs his venomous criticism of idleness against not only the priests but also the gentlemen (DI, 55.4), who were bearers of worldly honor according to the ancients. Thus, it is not enough to recover the honor of the world against Christian humility if honor is still be found in high-minded leisure. Leisure makes republics either effeminate or divided, or both: the idle or the leisurely are included among the enemies of the human race. Machiavelli puts necessity over leisure as the concern of the legislator. He wants men to seek that worldly honor – or, better to say, glory – that is consistent with vigorous devotion to answering one’s necessities. However much ancient virtue and Christian virtue are divided over worldly honor, they are together in their high-minded rejection of motives arising from necessity and, in general, of the acquisitive life.” [xxxv-xxxvi]


            There is a suggestion here that for Machiavelli, the ancients were too hedonistic as their embrace of the superiority of the leisurely life implies. For Aristotle, virtue is to be found in a life of leisure, not in a life of necessity, a life of acquisition, or a life devoted to the pursuit of glory. This implies that at least for the ancients, if not for Christians, pleasures such as contemplation define the peak of human potential. Gentlemen are not defined by lives of acquisition or by the pursuit of glory or fame, which is achieved through great political acts. And while gentlemen are not philosophers and so cannot enjoy the most intense pleasures available, their lives reflect the kind of life that is best, an essentially private life devoted to the enjoyment of the finer things of life, a life of “high-minded leisure.” For Machiavelli, such lives are effeminate, not manly, and, hence, are “among the enemies of the human race.” “Both [the ancients and Christianity] find the highest types – philosopher and saint – in one who puts the contemplative life over politics….” [xxxvi] In a material world, a world of matter, both of these arch types will prove to be dangerously weak, “and thus who could not be described as a ‘new prince,’ Machiavelli’s highest type.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Soulcraft and Politics Again


Soulcraft and Politics

Peter Schultz


            Machiavelli treats human beings as infinitely malleable; that is, not as ensouled. The status of the soul is the key, but oddly soulcraft isn’t what politics should be about because the political life corrupts the soul. Even in a way then moral virtue corrupts or enervates the soul, because moral virtue is the result of habituation and habituation flattens the soul.


            On the other hand, intellectual virtue doesn’t corrupt the soul, but the political life and intellectual virtue don’t fit together, at least not easily. Moderation isn’t an intellectual virtue but moderation is crucial politically and with regard to the moral virtues. Insofar as the peak of intellectual virtue is philosophy moderation isn’t such a virtue as philosophy is characterized by what might be called extremism, and not by moderation. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus at the outset is an extremist, much like Callicles in another Platonic dialogue. But neither of them was a philosopher, although they might be called potential tyrants. Tyrants and potential tyrants, like philosophers, embrace extremism and are, as are philosophers dangerous , but in a different way. The most dangerous tyrants are those who pretend to be or are morally virtuous, their tyranny serving the cause of moral virtue, e.g., in the form of racial purity or racial supremacy.


            Both Machiavelli and the ancients reject the idea that politics is or should be about soulcraft, but for different reasons. Machiavelli not only rejects the idea that politics should be about soulcraft; he also rejects the idea that any human endeavor should be about soulcraft because humans are not ensouled. The soul is an illusion, so the best humans can hope for is to acquire fame, which is a kind of immortality, and the acquisition of fame requires that humans learn how to be able not to be good, as he said in The Prince.


It is pretty clear that the ancients would agree with Machiavelli regarding the way fame, human greatness is acquired. They would disagree, however, that this is the best humans can do. Because they are ensouled, humans can attain happiness when their souls flourish. And what causes souls to flourish are pleasures, both bodily and spiritual. There is a hierarchy of pleasures, the lowest being the bodily pleasures and the highest being contemplation of the highest things. In between, there are phenomena like play, that is, activities that are engaged in because they are pleasant and not for any ulterior motive, like fitness or wealth. When humans play, as when they contemplate the higher things like art or love, they are indulging their souls, not for the sake of improvement or re-creation, but for the sake of pleasure. Pleasure causes souls to flourish and perhaps the pleasant is the pleasant because our souls flourish as a result.


Although for very different reasons then, Machiavelli and the ancients agree that the political life isn’t about soulcraft. For Machiavelli, soulcraft is as illusionary as is the soul. For the ancients, the best to be hoped for is to live in political order that is open to, not opposed to soulcraft, understood as the flourishing of souls. The fate of Socrates should remind us that it is no mean task to create a political order open to “making our souls the best possible.”

Monday, February 21, 2022

CRT, Racism, and Slavery


CRT, Racism, and Slavery

Peter Schultz


            Oddly, even perhaps ironically, CRT, Critical Race Theory, disguises the race slavery that has existed and still exists in the United States, thereby helping to perpetuate it. How so? It does so by implicitly treating racism as “natural,” and not as the result of a freely chosen and maintained slave system, created and maintained, even now, for political, economic, and social  reasons.


            So, racism as a natural phenomenon is to be combatted, rooted up as it were, by “re-education,” i.e., without changing the political, economic, and social arrangements of power that exist in the United States. Hence, the agenda is: don’t have racial thoughts; take down Confederate and other statues; rename places and streets; have a “Black History Month;” don’t say “the N word.” But don’t do anything to dismantle the system, still a slave system, that exploits and oppresses blacks while allowing some of them to be successful, even to be, ala’ Obama, the head overseer of the slave system. Think “The Jeffersons,” moving on up to the sky, as if that emancipated them.


            But emancipation, genuine emancipation requires a redistribution of wealth and power in the United States. That is, it requires more than allowing some blacks entry into our elites. It requires creating middle class wealth and letting it “trickle up” to the wealthy, because “a rising tide lifts all boats.” This is the only way to destroy the US slave system, which is still visible in mass incarceration, black unemployment figures, and cruel acts like Bill Clinton, future president, going back to Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign to authorize the execution of a black man, a special needs black man at that. And when that slave system is destroyed by such redistributions of wealth and power, racism will disappear because racism is the result, not the cause of racial slavery. If you doubt this, look at nations without a history of racial slavery. As has been pointed out: “There are no black people in Africa!” By choosing slavery, we Americans chose and continue to choose racism. Unless our slave system is destroyed, efforts to eradicate racism will fail.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Politics as Soulcraft: Musings


Politics as Soulcraft: Musings

Peter Schultz


            Some, even many like to claim the high ground, so to speak, by asserting that politics is soulcraft. This means of course that their politics is high toned, refined, not concerned with the mundane and merely material. Yet such a claim is, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, dangerous.


            The idea of the soul points to the limits of the political. To say humans are ensouled is to say that they have a nature ordered toward certain ends, which is to say that they are not infinitely malleable. So, the soul both guides and limits politics, which is to say that soulcraft isn’t or shouldn’t be what politics is about. Of course, soulcraft does take place within a political context, within different regimes, as Aristotle would say; but it is ultimately not what politics is or should be about.


            The best regime – not to be confused with the “ideal” or “perfect” regime – is one that is open to soulcraft, allows for its possibility, but doesn’t engage in soulcrafting itself. A regime devoted to soulcraft would be repressive, even oppressive, because the means required would undermine, negate the end(s) sought, ala’ Plato’s Republic. The crafting of souls transcends, or should transcend politics, and should do so in ways that do not undermine the city or the polis. That Socrates could be condemned for corrupting the Athenian youth reveals the difficulty involved, the dangers faced by those who would engage in soulcrafting. But Plato’s Republic reveals the dangers of embracing politics as soulcrafting. Of the two dangers, it would seem that the latter is to be avoided at all costs as it leads to what can only be described as inhuman results. And the former danger, while real, seems more manageable, if not simply preventable.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Flying Over the Cuckoo's Nest: On the Malleability of Human Beings


Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; On the Malleability of Human Beings

Peter Schultz


            Aristotle wrote in his Politics that “being without law and right” human beings are the worst living beings. And in the same context, he referred to cannibalism and incest, thereby indicating that human beings can live in violation of law and right in both primitive and civilized societies.


            Regarding the latter, it is useful to remember that being without law and right not only characterizes anarchy, the absence of government, the breakdown of law and order, where perhaps mobs rule the streets. But it also characterizes nations with governments, with legislatures, courts, and even with educated and intelligent elites. And it is also useful to realize that the latter phenomenon may be even worse than the former insofar as such nations have far more power than anarchists. Moreover, such governments can disguise or justify their violations of law and right as necessary, as the Bush administration did – to great popularity – after 9/11. Dick Cheney said that the US would “go to the dark side;” that is, it would violate law and right. And, of course, the results were what Aristotle predicted.


            There are other, even numerous examples of the US government violating law and right. Such events in my lifetime are: the assassinations of Fred Hampton, JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X, as well as the war in Southeast Asia, terrorist attacks on Communist Cuba, coups in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Honduras, the invasion and destruction of Iraq, to name a few. So, US elites have violated law and right repeatedly over the last 75 years and, of course, the results – millions killed, children incinerated, humans tortured and assassinated, nations destroyed – have been among the worst kinds of events imaginable. And yet US elites and probably most ordinary Americans are proud of themselves and the government, holding the US up as an “exceptional” and “indispensable” nation, thinking that the US that is preventing the world from sliding into anarchy or tyranny.


            This is a most interesting illustration of just how malleable human beings are. And this malleability isn’t limited to the uneducated and less intelligent, as is so often thought. Even the educated and intelligent can be – and are – persuaded that not only is the US respectable, but is an exceptional and indispensable superpower that, like Superman, uses its power for good. Sure, the US makes “mistakes,” but those mistakes merely prove it is a “great nation,” attempting to do great and good things. It might even be the greatest nation to have ever existed, ready now to colonize the universe, thereby literally “universalizing” its way of life.


            The malleability of human beings is astounding; the perambulations of the human mind know no bounds. Wrong becomes right, vice becomes virtue, dark creates light, mass murder is celebrated, wars are waged endlessly for peace, and doing evil, being without law and right, is said to be how to rid the world of evil. John Prine sang that “this world will make you crazy,” and it seems to me he hit the nail on its head. And the craziest humans are those in charge. “One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” Welcome to the cuckoo’s nest.

Friday, February 18, 2022

What If: Aristotle and Machiavelli


What If: Aristotle and Machiavelli

Peter Schultz


            An interesting passage from Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli. Speaking about the men of supreme virtue that Machiavelli considers the best of humans and their dependence on chance, Strauss wrote:


“Still, the man of supreme virtue can create his opportunity to some extent. Contrary to Aristotle’s view according to which multitudes have a natural fitness either for being subject to a despot or for a life of political freedom, fitness for either form can be artificially produced if a man of rare ‘brain’ applies the required degree of force to the multitude in question; compulsion can bring about ‘a change of nature.’ No ‘defect of nature’ can account for the unwarlike character of a nation; a prince of sufficient ability can transform any nation however pampered by climate into a nation of warriors. We may express Machiavelli’s thought by saying that Aristotle did not realize to what extent man is malleable, and in particular malleable by man.” [252-53]


            But what if Aristotle did realize precisely what Machiavelli realized, viz., that human beings are to a large extent malleable and even malleable by other men? If so, then perhaps Aristotle had his reasons for downplaying this fact, and one of his reasons might be indicated by Strauss’s statement that any nation, any people can be transformed “into a nation of warriors.” That is, the transformations that are possible, man’s malleability point in the direction of being warriors, not being made into “peaceniks,” for example. So, what if Aristotle, recognizing the malleability of humans, downplayed it, deflected from it to promote certain political ends, e.g., peace or humanity. That Aristotle contended that the best regime, although unlikely to ever exist, was possible is evidence that he, like Machiavelli, understood human beings to be quite malleable. And, of course, it is a question of some import to ask just what Aristotle thought it was that would lay way the best regime. To say the best regime is not likely to arise is not to say why this is the case. It might be that Aristotle thought that the best regime could easily become a nation of warriors, an outcome that Aristotle would be more likely to consider undesirable than would Machiavelli.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Machiavelli's The Prince: Manual for Sociopaths?


Machiavelli’s The Prince: Manual for Sociopaths?

Peter Schultz


            Some have described Machiavelli’s The Prince as a manual for sociopaths. But that that is not the case for a very simple reason: As Machiavelli illustrated throughout that book, sociopaths don’t need a manual. Sociopaths are perfectly able to act successfully as sociopaths without any training. No sociopath ever had to learn how to be sociopathic. And Machiavelli knew this.


            So, then, what is The Prince? It’s a book about sociopaths, who they are and, more importantly, why they succeed as often as they do. Interestingly, sociopaths appear most clearly as the most successful, the most famous, and the most accomplished political actors, people like Caesar, Hannibal, Romulus, Moses, and Alexander the Great, along with some pontiffs and some prophets. This means, among other things, that the political arena is home so to speak of and for sociopaths. And as Machiavelli boldly asserts, it not only means that sociopaths are often successful; it means that their successful because they are sociopaths. Being morally virtuous isn’t the best way to success in the political arena. In fact, as Machiavelli says, the morally virtuous are only successful accidentally and, so, are most likely to fail. Sociopathic success isn’t accidental.


            Leaving aside for now how it would be best to deal with these facts, what do these facts tell us about the world, the nature of our world and the nature of human beings? What kind of world do we humans inhabit and what is the best way to navigate through it? This is what Machiavelli’s teaching is about, what he’s trying to teach us.


            Machiavelli focuses on two examples of how this world has been successfully navigated, both occurring in Rome, viz., the Roman republic (as it was called) and Christianity as Catholicism (as it was and is called). At first, it seems that Machiavelli wants to replace the Christian dispensation with the Roman dispensation, to replace the Christian virtues with the ancient virtues of pre-Christian Rome. But, in fact, because of the nature of the world and the nature of humans, Machiavelli isn’t interested in recommending virtue in either mold. In fact, it may even appear that Machiavelli isn’t recommending moral virtue at all. As he said in The Prince, to succeed men must learn to be able not to be good. And they must learn this because how men actually live is “so far” from how they should live that failure will come to those who don’t learn to be able not to be good.


            How do people learn not to be good? What is required for people to learn this? One way is to realize that being good doesn’t work, doesn’t guarantee successfully navigating the world. Successfully navigating the world requires that people embrace what are called the moral vices. Courage is one the moral virtues and it is good. But success most often requires rashness, which is one of the moral vices. Courage is good but it isn’t sufficient. Likewise, liberality is a moral virtue, and it too is good. But to practice liberality, you must have possessions and possessions must be acquired, i.e., taken from the world or from others. In other words, to be liberal one must be rapacious or grasping. In other words, it is those who are not good, those who practice what are called the moral vices, who are rewarded, who successfully navigate through the world. That’s the way it is. “It is what it is.”


            What about justice? How does that arise out of injustice? Interestingly, Plato’s Republic illustrates this phenomenon. Socrates and his interlocutors set about to establish a city in order to find justice. The first city they establish seems to fit the bill until Glaucon objects and calls that city a “city of pigs,” even though the city is well-ordered and all have one job to do. But Glaucon’s label illustrates that some people want more, i.e., more than what is sufficient. They want more than what others have. And they are willing to take it, either directly or indirectly, from those others. While this seems unjust, there is a kind of justice in it insofar as some deserve more than others. Some are better than others and deserve more. Hence, to do justice to these people, it is necessary to treat the others unjustly. Injustice is required in order to get to justice and there is no political arrangement that is free of injustice.


            My point is this: Plato was as aware as was Machiavelli that successfully navigating the world, creating decent communities, requires more than goodness. He was as aware as Machiavelli that moral virtue is not sufficient as the basis of decent, just, and peaceful human communities. This is one implication of Socrates’s assertion that until philosophers rule, the world will not know such communities, will not know real justice.


            But why then didn’t Plato trumpet these facts as Machiavelli did? Or why did Machiavelli trumpet these facts as a rejection of Plato’s political philosophy, of all previous political philosophy? Why did Machiavelli reject, openly, what he called “imaginary republics” such as that created in Plato’s Republic? More generally, why did Machiavelli reject imagination in favor of “the effectual truth?” How does imagination mislead human beings?


            I think because in our imaginations we see things that don’t exist. For example, we imagine that the sun is rising and setting when in fact it does no such thing. Imagining a republic as Socrates does in The Republic is imagining an illusion, something that doesn’t and can’t exist. Such imaginings deceive us as to the character of our world, the real character of our world, including ourselves. Such imaginings might even inspire us. But they are illusions and what we humans need is to be dis-illusioned. We need to be “realistic,” to see things as they really are, i.e., as things, because only things exist. Because the world is composed of objects, we must become objective. And being objective is to reject being inspired. Objectively speaking, the imagination is delusional, creates delusions. Using one’s imagination, you might even conclude that happiness, blissful or divine pleasures are available to we humans. But they aren’t available and whatever appears to as such, like romantic love, is actually something else altogether like sublimated lust or even sublimated incestuous lust, ala’ the Oedipus complex.


            But this isn’t sufficient even for understanding Machiavelli. For not only does imagination create illusions, it also provides insights. That is, it allows us to see things more clearly than being objective does. Objectively speaking, the United States had to win the war in Vietnam because it was a superpower fighting what LBJ called a “pissant nation,” a nation of peasants. So, objectively speaking, the US had to win – a thought still common today. But Graham Greene, using his imagination, knew better and he predicted the outcome of the war in his novel The Quiet American, a novel filled with flawed characters whose Greene’s imagination captured precisely. Using his imagination, Greene saw all of the war even before it happened, saw it in a way no objective account could have done.


            And, so, despite his alleged rejection of imaginary republics, Machiavelli used his imagination to clarify, to see more clearly both the Roman republic and the Christian dispensation than any objective account of those phenomena could do. That is, it is only by virtue of his imagination that Machiavelli sees as clearly as he does. Whether he saw clearly enough is a question, one that someone with more imagination than I will have to answer.



Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Moral Virtue, Aristotle, and Machiavelli


Moral Virtue, Aristotle, and Machiavelli

Peter Schultz


            I have said that, for Aristotle, the alternative to greatness isn’t goodness. It’s hedonism. This has something to do with the status of moral virtue, as we’ll see.


            For Machiavelli, the alternative to greatness isn’t goodness because there is no real alternative to greatness. Humans, as he says in The Prince, have to learn to be able not to be good in order to succeed. For Machiavelli, goodness may be said to be “socially constructed.” The moral virtues aren’t real, they aren’t natural, as are the moral vices.


            Hedonism isn’t an option for Machiavelli because in a world that is simply material, matter in motion, hedonism is indistinguishable from [self] indulgence. In a material world, indulgence must mean indulging in bodies or matter of some kind – human bodies, food, drink, drugs, etc. Hedonism understood as not being self-indulgence requires a world that is receptive to longings that are not material, desires for things not simply matter or material like love or art or truth.


            There is some agreement between Aristotle and Machiavelli regarding moral virtue. For Aristotle, the peak of moral virtue is magnanimity, which is a kind of greatness, “the great souled man.” So those craving to be morally virtuous are craving, ultimately, greatness. Moral virtue at its peak is indistinguishable from a kind of vanity, which is of course a vice. This helps explain why Aristotle did not think that goodness was an alternative, a viable alternative to greatness.


            For Machiavelli, the moral virtues are actually vices, splendid vices sometimes but still vices. For example, to be liberal requires wealth, possessions, property, but wealth, possessions, and property must be acquired. And, of courses, in the world acquisition requires rapaciousness, taking, either from the world or from others. To be liberal requires rapaciousness. The moral virtue of liberality rests on the vice of rapaciousness.


            So humans are compelled to embrace vice, even to be virtuous. Men are compelled to be bad just as they are, according to Christianity, compelled to sin. That is, men are compelled to embrace vice even to be morally virtuous and certainly they are compelled to embrace vice in order to succeed.


            The peak of humanity for Machiavelli, the greatest success, is greatness. Greatness is what the best human beings seek or crave, in part because moral virtue isn’t “real.” Men are taught to be good so as to be controlled; they are taught to desire to be good but this is a desire they can never fulfill given the unreality of moral virtue. That humans continually fail to be virtuous isn’t their or even a fault. It could be said that Machiavelli thought that “men are bad,” but that would be misleading. For Machiavelli, humans are humans, controlled ultimately by passions, by desires like greed, lust, etc. because in a material world our passions have to seek matter of some kind. This is just a fact; this is just, as Machiavelli said in The Prince, “the effectual truth.” Ignore it at your peril.

Saturday, February 12, 2022


Greatness versus Hedonism: The Fundamental Alternatives? Email exchange

Peter Schultz


On Fri, Feb 11, 2022 Peter Schultz wrote:

We seem to keep running into hedonism as we read. Here’s another thought on that: Isn’t that what Jane Austen’s magic, romance is about? Romantic or passionate relationships are hedonistic and, hence, superior to and supplement what are basically utilitarian or socially approved/socially useful relationships, which as utilitarian or socially useful are not pleasurable or hedonistic. Romantic relationships are, unlike their utilitarian alternatives, pleasant or pleasurable and justified on those grounds. [Tom Robbins: a key question: How to make love stay? Over time, some marriages move from being romantic to being utilitarian, perhaps influenced in part by the birth of children, the progress of careers, or the buying of houses, etc., etc., etc.] 


And isn’t that the justification for Pangle’s defense of the superiority of the arts, of music, of poetry [and perhaps of Aristotle’s focus on music in his educational scheme]? That is, certain activities are pleasurable without being socially useful, which would explain why play is superior to business [or why we say “we play music” but we don’t say “we play business”]. [Tom Robbins: No one ever ran off to join McDonalds, although many have run off to join the circus. Graeber: the sadomasochism that is built into the corporate world is savagary, unlike staged or playful sadomasochism.] 


Further, politics is a threat to and threatened by hedonism, even or especially thoughtful hedonism because the thumotic is the enemy of the erotic, because erotic activities are pleasurable, whereas thumotic activities are not. Not even tyrants, or perhaps not especially tyrants live pleasurable lives - hence, the need for bodyguards. Tyranny and the life of tyrants reveal the true character of the political life. 


The Crown is illustrating the same thing about monarchies and monarchs. The monarchy requires that the queen give up most of her pleasures and her erotic relationships, that is, those with her husband, her sister, and even her son. And Charles’s erotic relationship with Diana didn’t stand a chance of continuing. And insofar as Diana was erotic, she didn’t stand a chance of surviving either. [Also, I just remembered, one monarch had to give up the throne to marry his love, Mrs. Simpson.] 


Matthew wrote:


Dear Peter,

In "The Heredity Principle," Princess Margaret confronts Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother with her discovery of the appalling secret of the institutional abuse, neglect, and trauma of estranged relatives of the Royal Family.  As Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother justifies the abuse, the neglect, and the trauma, she cites the abdication of David, Duke Of Windsor, causing Princess Margaret to exclaim: "No!  Not everything that is wrong with this family can be explained away by the abdication."[1]

What makes your thought really interesting is that Princess Margaret may be wrong, that everything that is wrong with the Royal Family may be explainable by the abdication.

I thank you for this thought. 

 [1]Princess Margaret: Five.  Five, Mummy!  Five members of our close family locked up and neglected!  
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: What do you expect us to do?
Princess Margaret: Behave like human beings.
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: Don't be so naive.  We had no choice.
Princess Margaret: They're your nieces.  Daughters of your favorite brother!
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: They were unwell.  Aunt Fenella was overwhelmed.  And then the way things suddenly changed for all of us, none of us could have foreseen it.
Princess Margaret: It?  What's it?
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: Well, the abdication-
Princess Margaret: No!  Not everything that is wrong with this family can be explained away by the abdication.
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: Well, the abdication did change everything.  You were too young to understand.  Everything.  It's complicated.
Princess Margaret: No, it's not!  It's wicked, and it's cold-hearted, and it's cruel.  And it's entirely in keeping with the ruthlessness I myself have experienced in this family.  If you're not first in line, if you're an individual character with individual needs, and God forbid an irregular temperament...If you don't fit the perfect mold of...silent, dutiful supplication, then you'll be spat out, or you'll be hidden away, or, worse, declared dead!  Darwin had nothing on you lot.  Shame on all of you.
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: Margaret-
Princess Margaret: No.
Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: Margaret!


 I wrote in response:

Well, it’s not just the abdication that explains things. It’s what explains the abdication that is crucial. The issue is hedonism. When Margaret says she expects her relatives to “behave like human beings,” she’s equating acting like human beings with being hedonistic. The best human beings are hedonistic. It is in the pursuit of pleasure that human beings become fully human, when playing, when loving, when caring, when enjoying the arts and its creations. Everything else is, ultimately, “wicked, cold-hearted, cruel, and ruthless.” Even moral virtue.  


Margaret is right: The abdication didn’t change everything or anything, actually. It merely reflected the inhumanity of the monarchy and its monarchs, which is to say it reflected the inhumanity of the political life, in all its forms, whether democratic, aristocratic, oligarchic, and even republican [as Pangle argues Montesquieu knew and even Aristotle knew as his best regime includes slavery, not natural slavery but unjustified slavery]. The political life is “wicked, cold-hearted, cruel, and ruthless,” which Machiavelli thought needed to be made clear in order to make it less wicked, cold-hearted, cruel, and ruthless because its wickedness, its cold-heartedness, its cruelty, its ruthlessness was disguised in his day as the revealed will of God via Christianity. And, if so, this means that the regime Machiavelli was facing was even more wicked, more cold-hearted, more cruel, more ruthless than what existed during the ancient Roman republic. But “the glory that was Rome” was, for Machiavelli, really just wickedness, cold-heartedness, cruelty, and ruthlessness - you know, like American greatness itself. In reality, that’s what greatness is, wickedness, cold-heartedness, cruelty, and ruthlessness. 


The alternative to greatness isn’t goodness. It’s hedonism.