The modern Prince

Francis Fukuyama finds Philip Bobbitt too keen to smooth over Machiavelli’s hard edges in ‘The Garments of Court and Palace’

The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made, by Philip Bobbitt, Atlantic Books RRP£22 / Atlantic Monthly Press RRP$24, 246 pages

‘Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli’ (17th century) by Antonio Maria Crespi

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) has always had an ambiguous place in the western canon. The political philosopher Leo Strauss memorably described him as a “teacher of evil”, an assessment in harmony with the popular view that has made his name a shorthand for unscrupulous calculation. And yet Machiavelli has also been seen by scholars in the tradition of JGA Pocock as a crucial theoretician of classical republicanism – one who, particularly in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, greatly influenced the “mixed regime” of separated powers that underlies the American constitution.

In The Garments of Court and Palace, Philip Bobbitt places himself squarely in the latter camp. Bobbit, a constitutional lawyer, former US government official and author of the well-received The Shield of Achilles (2002), about the rise of the modern state and international law, has written a short, lucid book designed to introduce general readers to the Florentine thinker’s work. It serves its purposes well, giving valuable historical context and countering some common negative assumptions. However, his Machiavelli has been made so palatable to modern constitutionalism as to be largely unrecognisable, shorn of those hard edges that make this philosopher truly interesting.

The bad reputation that Bobbitt seeks to improve began with the Huguenot essayist Innocent Gentillet, whose critical digest of alleged Machiavelli maxims did much to shape perceptions. Bobbitt, by contrast, celebrates Machiavelli as the originator of some distinctly modern ideas. He was the first, for example, to recognise and welcome the emergence of the modern state, one that was based on enduring impersonal institutions rather than personal feudal relationships, and a citizen militia rather than hired mercenaries.

Bobbitt goes on to argue that Machiavelli’s apparent support for autocracy in The Prince does not contradict the sympathy for republican government expressed in the Discourses. Princes are simply better at establishing regimes, while republics are better at maintaining them. According to Bobbitt, Machiavelli “decisively prefers republics to monarchical states” because the former pursue the common good, which “is indispensable to an appreciation of his ideas”. He believed that both principalities and republics were better off under a rule of laws that were “neutral, general and principled”, and even seemed to anticipate modern democracy when he noted that: “A constitution that did not provide a decisive role for the people in political decision-making could never summon and maintain collective virtù.” (As Bobbit explains, virtù is a complex concept better translated as “manliness” rather than “virtue”.) Machiavelli’s frequent advice that princes lie, cheat and act with appropriate brutality simply reflects the morality of collectivities rather than the morality of individuals, as theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and the experience of American foreign policy have suggested.

While thus not quite placing Machiavelli in the pantheon of the American Founding Fathers, Bobbitt does not see many serious incompatibilities between his thought and the views expressed in the Federalist Papers. Many have noted the republicanism that links Machiavelli to the Founders, but few have gone quite so far in sanitising the Florentine philosopher for modern readers.

The problem is that Bobbitt’s reading of Machiavelli is highly selective, and fails to confront some key issues in the latter’s thought. It is true enough, for example, that Machiavelli lived at a time when the modern state was emerging, and that he celebrated certain characteristics that would come to be associated with it, such as citizen militias. As Harvey Mansfield demonstrated in his 1996 study Machiavelli’s Virtue, however, Machiavelli’s stato always refers to a personal state, that is, a state dominated and run in the interest of a particular group within it. This was no less true of republics than of principalities; in the former, the many oppressed the few rather than the reverse. A truly modern state, by contrast, is an impersonal construct reflecting the sovereignty of the whole community based on the natural rights of its equal citizens. It would be Thomas Hobbes a century and a half later, not Machiavelli, who first articulated this view.

A much more serious problem is Bobbitt’s attempt to portray Machiavelli as a supporter of what we today understand as the rule of law. Machiavelli indeed praises the law and shows how law-governed republics often achieve greater popular support than ones subject to arbitrary rule. But a theme that runs through the whole of Machiavelli’s work is the centrality of executive audacity and action to its authority. By executive authority Machiavelli often literally means execution: not just the punishment of lawbreakers but often executions that were beyond the law and ordered in effect for their political theatre. He does not say that these are necessary only in the founding of new regimes, such as in the slaying of Remus by Romulus at the beginnings of Rome. Such extra-judicial killings also help maintain a regime’s authority, including in republics that periodically need to demonstrate their partisanship in audacious and memorable ways.

Machiavelli is interesting not simply because he is a progenitor of liberal constitutionalism. He is interesting because he, like the German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, points to the limits of liberal constitutionalism by showing its ultimate dependence on virtuous princes, on discretion rather than rules in political decision-making. Mansfield might almost seem to be taking aim at Bobbitt’s interpretation a number of years before the fact: “We would like to believe that [Machiavelli’s] insights can be retained and his extremism discarded, that his notion of esecuzione can be absorbed into the modern liberal constitution without the tyrannical requirement of uno solo [one leader acting outside the law] that may give us a shiver or may merely seem quaint. Machiavelli may have founded the modern doctrine of executive power, but in his extremism he stopped short of developing doctrines of power and of separation of powers.”

Bobbitt is certainly correct in his general association of Machiavelli with modern politics. The Florentine was the first philosopher decisively to break with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition that saw the end of politics as promotion of a good or flourishing life. Not wanting to base his regime on “imagined republics”, Machiavelli deliberately lowered the horizon of politics to the pursuit of what was politically realistic. He was one of the first to see that domestic politics would be driven by the ruthless demands of foreign policy. We cannot rescue a “moral” Machiavelli by pointing to his references to the “common good”. That good was not based on a substantive view of a good life; it was simply instrumental to the ability to dominate others. This banishment of the good in favour of the possible or realistic is what in fact links Machiavelli to modern liberalism, and hence to us.

Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford and author of ‘The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution’ (Profile)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on Philip Bobbitt