Machiavelli’s The Prince: Manual for Sociopaths?
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.