Machiavelli: Learning Not To Be Good
Machiavelli recommends that human beings should learn to be able not to be good. Most often, this is taken to mean that they should be “bad.” And, of course, there is some truth to that conclusion. But what of other alternatives, like being happy, being content with oneself, being successful?
What Machiavelli is challenging is the aspiration to be good, and he implies that aspiring to be good is a common trait of human beings, so common that they have to learn to not aspire to goodness. So, it is useful to ask: how this aspiration might be criticized? What does aspiring to goodness produce? What does it produce practically and politically speaking?
One possibility is that aspiring for goodness becomes, willy nilly, a sacrificial striving because humans, while they are disposed to want to be good, are not naturally disposed to being good. So, insofar as this is the case, such striving for goodness or moral virtue necessarily becomes sacrificial. Another possibility is that this striving, which is common to human beings, can be manipulated and used to control or rule over human beings, much as it could be argued that this is what Christianity did. The sacrificial striving for goodness becomes or became under the Christian dispensation the basis for what Nietzsche called “slave morality.” That is, the sacrificial striving for goodness is used to enslave the many for the benefit of the few, who are controlled by ambition, and do not strive to be good. They strive for, even lust after power, for rule, for conquest.
And it is also possible that that phenomenon is not simply historical, that is, arose only with the rise of Christianity. It is possible that this phenomenon is common to political life, that it is a universal feature of political life. The few embrace and manipulate the sacrificial striving of the many to be good; they encourage the many to be good even as they provide opportunities for the many to be bad, as a way of controlling them, ruling them as they see fit. This is how the few, the ambitious few, the despotic few control and rule the many. Insofar as this is so, then the many should learn to be able not to be good to protect themselves and to establish a basis for republican government. It is only by means of such a consciousness – a self-regarding, non-sacrificial consciousness – that republican governments can be created and maintained. So, if the many don’t learn to be able not to be good, learn not to aspire to goodness, they will be abused and oppressed by the few. Learning not to be good, for Machiavelli, is the key to establishing republican or non-despotic governments.