Those who want to preserve the republic need to familiarize themselves
with the classics of political literature.
It is no accident that our political leadership proves less intelligent year by year, since our leaders no longer read or comprehend classic texts. The fact is, our high political culture derives from the ancients — whatever anyone might say to the contrary. And with the decline of historical learning comes a decline in
Our civilization is blessed with a rich literary tradition. It is only obvious, in terms of raising the intellectual level, that the antidote to present-day political stupidity is to refresh ourselves with good books. Last week this column discussed the ancient historians and their contribution to our store of knowledge and understanding. Today I’d like to discuss a writer who lived 500 years ago, whose political analysis was based on ancient histories.
Niccolo Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with political duplicity because of his most famous work, “The Prince,” which offers advice on how to build a solid dictatorship. The book might be called a practical guide, and that is why many have condemned it. The methods employed by successful dictatorships are not honest, says Machiavelli, but they are
Machiavelli wanted to know how real power works. He wanted to look at how men get hold of power, how they keep it and what they achieve by it. In doing this he had patriotic motives. As an Italian he wanted his country to find peace and unity, so he looked at how states were formed and nations were built. His patriotic feelings demanded practical solutions, and this caused
him to look at real-life political behavior.
In condemning Machiavelli’s scientific approach to “the way power works,” people forget that Machiavelli not only offered insights to dictators, but to republics as well. In his “Discourses” Machiavelli offers insights into the functioning of republican institutions. Using the first 10 books of Livy’s Roman history as a point of departure, Machiavelli carefully examined the strengths and weaknesses of republics. He noted the necessity of religion, the need to cope effectively with class conflict and the dangers of empire. One of his discoveries, striking for the way it disagrees with today’s thinking, has to do with the basis of military power.
The Roman orator Cicero once said that, “The sinews of war are unlimited money.” But Cicero was already living in the late Roman Republic, during a period of decadence. It is during such periods that men forget that the sinews of war originate in human will-power. As if we ourselves did not lose the Vietnam War to one of the world’s poorest countries, our politicians
nonetheless continue to ignore this great lesson which Machiavelli taught and our own history confirms.
Denying absolutely that money is the sinew of war, Machiavelli recounted the story of Solon of Athens, who when showed the treasure of Croesus, King of Lydia, was asked what he thought of Croesus’ power. Solon answered Croesus by saying that wars are fought with steel, not with gold, “and if anyone came along who had more steel than he had, he could deprive him of his power.”
Not surprisingly, that is what happened to Croesus and his Lydian kingdom. A conflict with Persia led to defeat. The steel of Persia overcame the gold of Lydia. The richest country was not the strongest country after all.
Machiavelli also mentioned what happened when the Gauls crossed into Greece upon the death of Alexander the Great. They wanted a treaty with Macedonia and sent ambassadors to make arrangements. In order to frighten the Gauls, the Macedonian leadership showed the Gauls how much silver and gold they had in their treasury. But the Gauls were not frightened.
Instead, they broke off negotiations and invaded Macedonia to take the gold.
“I assert, then,” wrote Machiavelli, “that it is not gold, as is claimed by common opinion, that constitutes the sinews of war, but good soldiers; for gold does not find good soldiers, but good soldiers are quite capable of finding gold.”
Today we believe that America is the leading power because it has the most money. Like Croesus, king of Lydia, we set ourselves up for a fall. Looking at this issue with strict logic, money is money (and ours is merely paper). “Gold is necessary,” admitted Machiavelli, “but it is of secondary importance.” As Solon of Athens said, it is steel that is decisive. And
steel may be, more than anything, a quality of heart.
Americans today are making a terrible mistake. As our ease of life progressively turns us into human marshmallows, we have begun to think in narrow economic terms, ignoring the reality that war is decided by steel and not gold.
Sparta was poor in comparison with Athens, yet Sparta prevailed over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Carthage was a great commercial power, yet the Roman farmers defeated Carthage in three successive wars. The Romans themselves became rich, complacent and decadent, and were overcome by barbarians.
Today we hear that the threat from Russia and China is treated dismissively. “They have no money,” say the pundits. “Russia is broke,” wink the politicians and bankers. But isn’t it interesting how, by a subtle nuclear blackmail — whether in North Korea, Russia or China — money flows from West to East?
We anxiously send money to the Russians and Chinese, we placate them in a thousand different ways. We offer them trade deals, low-interest loans and gifts. We allow huge technology transfers. Is all of this founded upon strength, or are we secretly afraid of Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons?
“In five to seven years we will be stronger than you,” Nikita Khrushchev once told Averell Harriman. “And at the bargain price of thirty billion dollars we will be able to destroy all of Europe and America. We have this option.”
Could anything be more clear?
Of course, we are told that the Cold War is over. Russia is no longer threatening to launch a destructive war. Communism is said to be a thing of the past; the Kremlin announces to everyone that it has turned over a new leaf. Therefore we are persuaded that money has triumphed over steel, that the commercial West has defeated the hard and militant East.
Can we trust the Eastern princes?
If we turn to Machiavelli’s book, “The Prince,” we find a relevant passage under the heading “How princes should honor their word.” According to Machiavelli, “contemporary experience shows that princes who achieve great things are those … who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.”
The West imagines that the princes of the East want peace and prosperity. Our business and media elite view Russia as pathetic and exploitable. Our very statesmen, whose ideas were hatched in the higher corporate management, delude themselves that American cash keeps the Russians and Chinese in check.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “If you only knew how the youngest of the officials in Moscow’s Old Square roar with laughter at your political wizards!”
The Russian and Chinese leaders, more than anyone, subscribe to Machiavelli’s dictum that a prince “must not and cannot honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage.” A dictatorship is a criminal enterprise led by enterprising criminals. The rules a dictatorship plays by are immoral. Princes must lie and deceive at all times. “If all men were good,” wrote
Machiavelli, “this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.”
This is the passage in “The Prince” which has made Machiavelli infamous. And yet, there is a great truth here. It is Stalin’s truth and Mao’s truth and Vladimir Putin’s truth. Since men are ruthless when it comes to the attainment of great objects, a serious player must assume dishonesty at every turn — and he must act accordingly. He must fight fire with fire.
The Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt once wrote that “power is evil.” This statement should not mystify us. “When crime is thus monopolized by a communal criminal in the seat of government, ” wrote Burkhardt, “the security of the community may prosper greatly. Before he came onto the scene, the powers of a brilliantly gifted nation may have been employed in a permanent and internecine war of destruction, which prevented the rise of everything which can flourish only in peace and security.”
This has been the justification of tyranny again and again in history. It is, at bottom, the justification that communism has set forth. Thomas Hobbes, in arguing for absolute monarchy in the 17th century, set out this exact argument in his “Leviathan.” Men need an absolute ruler who alone can halt the “war of all against all” which is the natural state of human society. The Marxist-Leninists have rediscovered this justification for dictatorship, to which they have added modern sociological frills. Marxism seeks to end the struggle between haves and have-nots, so that the lion can finally lie down with the lamb. But the unbridled egoism of the criminal dictator proves a sorry foundation.
Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Modern republicanism, as understood by the Founding Fathers, takes a different approach to the wickedness of man. Instead of checking wickedness by giving all power to one man, power is divided according to a system called a “constitution.” The evils produced by republican government are those of perpetual division,
slowness in action and confusion in purpose. But the evils of dictatorship (i.e., principality), involve the sacrifice of liberty and economy to political and military efficiency.
By reading Machiavelli’s works we learn the principles that guide republican government and one-man government. We learn how to safeguard our security. Whether or not we agree or disagree with the advice offered, we can begin to understand the logic that animates Saddam Hussein and Jiang Zemin versus the logic that animates our own political leaders. We can trace
the outline of important principles and rules of thumb, and we can discover errors in our thinking.
Read Machiavelli and learn to think about politics on a higher level.