Machiavelli’s Children – or Ours? Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 29 March 2011

It has been said that the American Founders stood outside this American regime in the way that we, the children of this regime, could not. Those of us who have grown up in America find it hard to imagine that our form of government, our institutions, could be cast in some other way.   But John Adams and George Washington risked their lives to bring about something new, a government founded on the proposition that the only rightful governance over human beings drew its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And yet for those of us who spend our days encountering the young of college age, the sober recognition sets in that they are not really the children of the American Founders. When they turn to questions of politics, their moral premises are not those of the Founders, and they do not view politics with the moral lens we had inherited in the teachings that came both from Jerusalem and Athens.   In their political reflexes, the students seem to have been shaped more by that writer who had sought to discredit and displace, in politics, the moral perspective that came from both the biblical and the classical tradition.  

Leo Strauss remarked that America was the only country that had been founded explicitly on premises that were at odds with the teaching of Machiavelli.   Machiavelli encouraged us to see an art of politics that achieved its purity as an art to the extent that it became utterly detached from those atavistic moral inhibitions.   Strauss thought that this teaching, once so shocking, no longer shocked because our people had come, more and more, to absorb Machiavelli’s premises as their own.

At the height of the sexual scandals in the later Clinton years, I was invited to speak at a meeting of the Italian-American Association, and I drew out a line quite in the air at time: “He may be a bad man, but he’s a good politician.” He may have done something reprehensible, but a personal scandal, it was said, would not bear on his fitness for office.   It was an Italian writer, I pointed out, who had taught us how to say those words. 

Machiavelli recalled the story of Agathocles of Syracuse. One morning he convened the senate and some of the notables as though he had some weighty matter to discuss. With a “preordained nod,” his soldiers appeared and killed all of those assembled. With that work done, Agathocles took hold and ruled “without any civil controversy.” Machiavelli noted, in his subtle way, that one could not exactly “call it virtue to kill one’s own citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without pity, without religion.”

          Niccolò Machiavelli (by Santi di Tito c. 1500)

Agathocles, he said, could not be “celebrated among the most excellent men.” But could he not be emulated by those who sought the success he attained by jettisoning, as he had, that moral baggage that gets in the way?   Reckoning everything, as Machiavelli put it, “one does not see why he might have to be judged inferior to any most excellent “captain.” Translation: “excellence” in commanding, in the military or politics, may be measured aptly by success, quite detached from those moral concerns that are always vexing and produce no clear answer.

It has been aptly said that the Biblical injunction, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” could not have referred simply to the biological father and mother. If that were the case, we would be obliged to honor the father who had sired us in a rape. Honor can flow rightly only to the father who had fulfilled the moral definition of fatherhood – the one who had been there, reliably, to sustain, to nurture, and protect.

But what if we sought to refer to the rapist as an “effective father” – he had performed the biological function shorn of the moral trappings?   I think we would recoil from that proposal, and what is marked in the recoil is the sense that the definition of fatherhood can never be detached from its moral component. But precisely the same understanding used to attach to the office of a political man, who would rule and administer the laws. The Machiavellian state of mind began to erode that sense as our media stopped referring to “tyrants” and “despots” and retreated to the value-free terms of “dictators” and, in later years, the “Soviet leaders.”

But in the late 1980s, President Reagan set off a firestorm in the country when he agreed to visit the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. The cemetery contained men who had died in the service of Hitler’s SS. But these men were dead. Could we not let bygones be bygones? And yet something in our people still held back: Somehow we could not honor these men for their arts of commanding and soldiering, because their talents and sacrifice had been put in the service of ends that were despicable. 

There was an echo of General Grant receiving the surrender of General Lee: How sad, he thought, to see such a valiant soldier brought to this downfall. But, Grant said, Lee had expended his valor for “one of the worst [causes] for which a people ever fought, and for which there was the least excuse.”

The modern sensibility may be the sensibility of Machiavelli, but something deep in our people, deep in our nature, still runs back to Jerusalem and Athens.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law

© 2011 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

The Catholic Thing
is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Other Articles By This Author