For all previous social thinkers, the goal of political life was virtue. A good society was conceived as one in which people are good. There was no “double standard” between individual and social goodness-until Machiavelli. With him, politics became no longer the art of the good but the art of the possible. His influence on this point was enormous. All major social and political philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey) subsequently rejected the goal of virtue, just as Machiavelli lowered the standard and nearly everyone began to salute the newly masted flag.
Machiavelli’s argument was that traditional morals were like the stars; beautiful but too distant to cast any useful light on our earthly path. We need instead man-made lanterns; in other words, attainable goals. We must take our bearings from the earth, not from the heavens; from what men and societies actually do, not from what they ought to do.
The essence of Machiavelli’s revolution was to judge the ideal by the actual rather than the actual by the ideal. An ideal is good for him, only if it is practical; thus, Machiavelli is the father of pragmatism. Not only does “the end justify the means”—any means that work—but the means even justify the end, in the sense that an end is worth pursuing only if there are practical means to attain it. In other words, the new summum bonum, or greatest good is success. (Machiavelli sounds like not only the first pragmatist but the first American pragmatist!)
Machiavelli didn’t just lower the moral standards; he abolished them. More than a pragmatist, he was an anti-moralist. The only relevance he saw morality having to success was to stand in its way. He taught that it was necessary for a successful prince “to learn how not to be good” (The Prince, ch. 15), how to break promises, to lie and cheat and steal (ch. 18).
Because of such shameless views, some of Machiavelli’s contemporaries saw “The Prince” as a book literally inspired by the devil. But modern scholars usually see it as drawn from science. They defend Machiavelli by claiming that he did not deny morality, but simply wrote a book about another subject, about what is rather than about what ought to be. They even praise him for his lack of hypocrisy, implying that moralism equals hypocrisy.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: email@example.com The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.