Encouraging evil for the common good

Mansfield does not condemn him: rather refreshingly he exhilarates in Machiavelli’s genius

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

While there are few scholars who would laud that master of the dark arts Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) as a saintly figure, in his new book Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield goes all out to portray the Renaissance writer as a diabolical character well deserving of his sometime sobriquet “Old Nick”.

Yet Mansfield does not condemn him; instead, and rather refreshingly, he exhilarates in recognising Machiavelli’s radical genius and in establishing him as the father not only of modern philosophy, but also of the modern world. It is quite a claim, but such is Mansfield’s erudition and inspired enthusiasm that he takes the reader a long way with him. The result is a bold and often brilliant exercise in political philosophy and effervescent intellectual speculation.

Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth: Creating the Modern World
Harvey C. Mansfield
(Cambridge University Press, £25.99)

“Machiavellian” is a universally acknowledged adjective to describe unscrupulous cunning in politics. Machiavelli would be well pleased with this: as Mansfield argues with force, if not always quite convincingly, the diplomat and government official wrote more for posterity than for advancement in his own lifetime. Here Mansfield focuses on Machiavelli’s masterworks: the Discourses on Livy (written 1515-19) and his notorious masterpiece, The Prince (written by 1513), neither of which was published in his lifetime. Mansfield rightly hails The Prince as “the most famous writing ever composed on politics” and sets out to show why its author is deserving of universal recognition.

Machiavelli himself certainly thought so. He attempted, not very successfully, to hide his immodesty (deception being central to his political ideas): Mansfield notes how the Discourses’ first and last words are intentionally “I” and “greatest”. It is hard to dispel the notion that Machiavelli fawned to the new Medici regime in early sixteenth-century Florence — The Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici — seeking a career boost.

Rulers should cloak their actions under the guise of necessity; fraud is a cornerstone of successful governance

But Mansfield depicts a Machiavelli much more ambitious than that, someone whose purpose was to persuade Florence’s rulers to publish these two works and thus allow Machiavelli’s fame and influence — his fortuna — to influence the ages to come. The glory and prestige assured to future princes who followed his advice would thus transfer to him. Mansfield cheerfully and repeatedly admits the speculative nature of his musings, but one must grant that Machiavelli has achieved his aim to a considerable degree, with the publishing industry churning out book after book on him.

Stripped to its essence, the volume is remarkably based on just two words: “effectual truth”. This is Machiavelli’s “effectual truth of the thing rather than the imagination of it” from The Prince. Mansfield notes how the phrase occurs only once in Machiavelli’s writing and nowhere else in the Renaissance; indeed, he treats it as Old Nick’s own invention.

The book encompasses a range of fascinating discussions emanating from this phrase, three crucial ones being Machiavelli’s successors, necessity, and morality. Machiavelli is well known for arguing that the ends justify the means (this is contested by scholars, but it is the effectual truth of the matter). Necessity is central here, as when Romulus found it essential to kill his brother Remus, excused as “the kind of crime necessary at the beginnings of great accomplishments”.

Rulers should cloak their actions under the guise of necessity; this may be fraudulent, but fraud is a cornerstone of successful governance and is one of the many “evils” to be encouraged for the common good. It is also a requisite of glorious achievement and the ascendancy of the individual; as such, Mansfield says, it is in conflict with the “fearful, unambitious self of later liberalism”, with its “namby-pamby self-preservation”.

Mansfield relishes Machiavelli’s revolutionary bad-boy abandonment of misplaced morality and Christian teachings — mere encumbrances for the atheistic Machiavelli, for whom sin is a practical failing, not a moral one. “Knowing the world means learning how not to be good,” is Mansfield’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s works; moral condemnation only applies to those who do not succeed in obtaining their goals.

He believes Machiavelli was intentionally paving the way for his successors, who often mitigated or disguised Machiavelli’s extremism. Among these, it is the early-eighteenth-century Baron de Montesquieu who receives the most attention (it must be said, at unnecessary, distracting length). In his The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu accepts Machiavelli as the father of modern philosophy and takes on board his effectual truth. Machiavelli’s grand ambition, his legacy, had been secured. Thus, Mansfield claims, we have — as Machiavelli always intended — the philosopher as a guiding prince post mortem.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover