Machiavelli's Ethics

Machiavelli's Ethics

ERICA BENNER
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 544
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7stx3
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Machiavelli's Ethics
    Book Description:

    Machiavelli's Ethicschallenges the most entrenched understandings of Machiavelli, arguing that he was a moral and political philosopher who consistently favored the rule of law over that of men, that he had a coherent theory of justice, and that he did not defend the "Machiavellian" maxim that the ends justify the means. By carefully reconstructing the principled foundations of his political theory, Erica Benner gives the most complete account yet of Machiavelli's thought. She argues that his difficult and puzzling style of writing owes far more to ancient Greek sources than is usually recognized, as does his chief aim: to teach readers not how to produce deceptive political appearances and rhetoric, but how to see through them. Drawing on a close reading of Greek authors--including Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Plutarch--Benner identifies a powerful and neglected key to understanding Machiavelli.

    This important new interpretation is based on the most comprehensive study of Machiavelli's writings to date, including a detailed examination of all of his major works:The Prince, The Discourses, The Art of War,andFlorentine Histories. It helps explain why readers such as Bacon and Rousseau could see Machiavelli as a fellow moral philosopher, and how they could viewThe Princeas an ethical and republican text. By identifying a rigorous structure of principles behind Machiavelli's historical examples, the book should also open up fresh debates about his relationship to later philosophers, including Rousseau, Hobbes, and Kant.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3184-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-12)

    Since his death in 1527, Machiavelli’s thought has been subject to widely differing interpretations. On the one hand, he is credited with the “Machiavellian” doctrine that prudent rulers should shed moral scruples, adopting whatever means are necessary to preserve their state. This doctrine has been evaluated both critically and positively. Machiavelli’s early critics claimed that he defended the evil methods of tyrants. Since the nineteenth century, many sympathetic readers have argued that “Machiavellian realism,” as they see it, sets out the necessary foundations of stable government or national independence.¹ On the other hand, many early readers argued that Machiavelli’s main...

  6. I: CONTEXTS

    • CHAPTER 1 Civil Reasonings: Machiavelli’s Practical Filosofia
      (pp. 15-62)

      It is widely assumed that Machiavelli either had little interest in philosophy, or thought that its role in human enquiry should be subordinated to practical political concerns. In its simplest form, the assumption rests on a sharp distinction between philosophy as a “contemplative” activity and politics as a realm of “practical” action. Thus one scholar has written recently that Machiavelli cannot be called a philosopher at all, but a “practitioner of politics” who engaged himself “heart and soul” in political, administrative, military activity.¹ A more nuanced view is that there are philosophical elements and implications in Machiavelli’s writings, but that...

    • CHAPTER 2 Ancient Sources: Dissimulation in Greek Ethics
      (pp. 63-98)

      In the first few centuries after Machiavelli’s death, many independent-minded readers considered not only theFlorentine HistoriesandDiscoursesbut also thePrinceas republican texts.¹ In theSocial Contract, Rousseau called thePrincea “book of republicans”; he, Gentili, Bacon, Spinoza, Herder, and other philosophers had no doubt that its fundamental teachings were consistent with the more open defenses of human and political freedom that appear elsewhere in Machiavelli’s corpus. But these philosophers also noted an apparent contradiction in Machiavelli’s writings. On the one hand, they describe him as an “honest man” and praise his unwavering commitment to the...

  7. II: FOUNDATIONS

    • CHAPTER 3 Imitation and Knowledge
      (pp. 101-134)

      TheDiscoursesbegin by observing that in modern times antiquity is never “imitated” in the field of politics. On the whole “the most virtuous works the histories show us, which have been done by ancient kingdoms and republics, by kings, captains, citizens, legislators, and others who have labored for their fatherland” are, Machiavelli notes, more often admired than imitated. Indeed these works “are so much shunned by everyone in every least thing that no sign of that ancient virtue remains with us.” This, Machiavelli declares, makes him “marvel and grieve.”¹ yet his own admiration for the ancients is not naïve...

    • CHAPTER 4 Necessity and Virtue
      (pp. 135-168)

      Necessitàandvirtúare two of the most widely discussed concepts in Machiavelli’s writings. The two concepts often appear together, paired or contrasted, to explain, justify, or critically evaluate actions. In classical history and philosophy, the wordnecessity(Greekanangkē, Latinnecessitas) identifies very strong causalities that constrain human actions. Virtue (aretē, virtus) has many specific senses, but broadly speaking refers to specifically human capacities to respond in appropriate ways to natural, supernatural, or man-made constraints. While it is generally acknowledged that Machiavelli’snecessitàandvirtúretain these broad meanings, the precise content he gives each word is disputed. There...

    • CHAPTER 5 Human Nature And Human Orders
      (pp. 169-210)

      Some scholars have claimed that Machiavelli rejected traditional ethics, both Christian and classical, in favor of a “a new naturalistic ethic” that represented a decisive break from “premodern” thinking. This “ethic” dismissed all man-made standards and restraints as arbitrary, subjective, and ultimately toothless. In their place it set the unalloyed “dictates of nature,” demanding that men follow them “impartially and resolutely.” Although according to Friedrich Meinecke ethics for Machiavelli “is always a question of following the natural forces of life,” it is also one “of regulating them by means of reason.” Machiavelli’s regulative reason, however, is said to be narrowly...

  8. III: PRINCIPLES

    • CHAPTER 6 Free Agency and Desires for Freedom
      (pp. 213-253)

      Although Machiavelli’s concept of freedom has been widely discussed, scholarly interest has focused on his thinking about political freedom. One influential interpretation asserts that “the only freedom Machiavelli recognizes is political freedom, freedom from arbitrary despotic rule, i.e. republicanism,” and “the freedom of one state from control by other states.” on this view, Machiavelli does not consider human desires for freedom as strong or ethically compelling. He ostensibly holds that human beings “care little for liberty—the name means more to them than the reality—and they place it well below security, property or desire for revenge.” As a motive...

    • CHAPTER 7 Free Orders
      (pp. 254-289)

      This chapter seeks to clarify the relationship between specific forms of political freedom that Machiavelli discusses and his more general, ethical ideas of free will and free agency. The main capacities that Machiavelli ascribes to free agents were discussed in the last two chapters. Insofar as human beings have free will even under the most severe necessity, they are nonetheless capable of authorizing or withholding their authority from whatever orders are imposed on them. Recognition of this basic human power of giving or withholding authority is, I will argue, among the most basic conditions for Machiavelli’s politicallibertà. If agents...

    • CHAPTER 8 Justice and Injustice
      (pp. 290-324)

      Machiavelli often uses the word “justice” (giustizia, iustizia) in his political and historical writings and correspondence. He seldom uses it, however, in the same ways as many Christian political theorists and humanists. This leaves the impression that Machiavelli is uninterested in developing a more adequate account of justice as part of his political theory. The impression is reinforced by the overtly prudential form of his reasonings. He does, of course, frequently discuss topics that classical and humanist authors place under the heading of justice. The distribution of public goods and offices, appropriate punishments for bad conduct or rewards for good,...

    • CHAPTER 9 Ends and Means
      (pp. 325-364)

      The last chapter’s account of Machiavelli’s thinking on justice calls into question another widespread preconception about his ethics. The basic structure of that ethics is thought to consist in a strong form of consequentialism, sometimes described by the phrase “the ends justify the means.” This kind of consequentialism differs from ethical and political theories that include judgments about resultsamongother important considerations to be weighed when evaluating actions, but do not treat consequences as the sole or primary basis for judgment. The consequentialism usually ascribed to Machiavelli holds that the goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness of actions should...

  9. IV: POLITICS

    • CHAPTER 10 Ordinary and Extraordinary Authority
      (pp. 367-406)

      The last four chapters have tried to reconstruct the ethical principles of free agency and justice that inform Machiavelli’s political judgments. This chapter examines one of the most important distinctions he uses to evaluate the necessity, and therefore the prudence and justice, of different policies: the distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” ways of seeking and maintainingautorità. The import of Machiavelli’s distinction betweenordinarioandestraordinario(orstraordinario, istraordinario) modes of action is essential for recognizing his often oblique evaluations of various policies and institutions. if the ethical principles that underpin the distinction are overlooked, fundamental mistakes may be made...

    • CHAPTER 11 Legislators and Princes
      (pp. 407-450)

      Although he offers many reasons to reject one-man “orderers,” Machiavelli sometimes seems to say that these reasons do not apply in two sets of exceptional conditions. One is at the first founding of a new city, where there are no laws yet and no “people” duly constituted under laws. The other is in times of extreme corruption when civil orders must be renovated.¹ Where there are no laws or orders, the authority of oneprudentissimoman may help to found them swiftly and firmly. Where previous orders have become disordered, it may be “necessary to turn” a republic “more toward...

    • CHAPTER 12 Expansion and Empire
      (pp. 451-483)

      One of Machiavelli’s best-known maxims is that well-ordered republics must be prepared to “expand” if they wish to preserve their security and their internal freedoms. He discusses various forms of expansion in theDiscourses, appears to prefer Roman modes over other ancient models, and seems to recommend them to contemporaries for imitation. We have seen throughout this study, however, that Machiavelli’s appraisals of Roman modes and orders are extremely ambivalent. His praise for some Roman orders and individuals—the order permitting and regulating “tumults,” for example, or the conduct of Furius Camillus—is unqualified. But his calls to imitate other...

  10. CONCLUSIONS
    (pp. 484-498)

    Machiavelli’s writings are not how-to manuals, whether for aspiring princes or for citizens who want to rebuild crumbling republican “orders.” Nor do they simply reassemble conventional republican maxims in a rhetorical way, with the aim of reigniting Florentine passions for the lost republic. The underlying purpose of his historical and political works is philosophical in the specific, very ancient sense discussed in chapters 1 and 2. Machiavelli’s texts seek to challenge, exercise, and improve readers’ capacities to make discriminating moral and political judgments. They do this by examining a variety of “opinions” found in ancient and humanist literature, in the...

  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 499-508)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 509-527)