It is something of a trope among Machiavelli’s liberal readers that his infamy is undeserved for two basic reasons: 1) he is simply telling it like it is–he is the first “realist” and one should not shoot the messenger. (This for another post.) And 2) far from being an innovator, he is best read as a representative of a certain humanist tradition, writing in well-known genres.
It is hard to know why 2) is seen as so exculpatory– but it is. Indeed, there is a never-ending profusion of books which appear with the announced intention of “rescuing” Machiavelli from the unjust revilings he has endured by re-situating him in his renaissance context. To understand him in his age and surroundings, the reasoning goes, is to see that far from being some diabolical innovator, he was a man of his time, reasoning and speaking as many others had, and so needing to be measured by that standard. (Similar defenses are made for Richard III by his fan club, the Ricardians.)
Otherwise stated, the first principle of competent interpretation of Machiavelli, according to these readers, is to ignore his own explicit claim that his political thought was radically and threateningly innovative. A glance at the first few sentences of The Preface to The Discourses on Livy shows just how innovative:
“Although the envious nature of men has always made it no less dangerous to find new modes and orders than to seek unknown waters and lands, be cause men are more ready to blame than to praise the actions of others, nonetheless, driven by that natural desire that has always been in me to work, without any respect, for those things I believe will bring common benefit to everyone, I have decided to take a path as yet untrodden by anyone, and if it brings me trouble and difficulty, it could also bring me reward through those who consider humanely the end of these labors of mine.”
The “unknown waters and lands” whose discoverer Machiavelli likens himself to, are of course the New World, and he is comparing himself to a kind of political Christopher Columbus, who has discovered a vast and unknown land ripe for colonization–and conquest. Indeed, the stated intention of the book is “to find new modes and orders,” an undertaking than which, as we know, no other is more dangerous, for human nature is envious.
Still, in this respect at least, one might wonder whether the liberal reading of Machiavelli has some ghost of reasoning behind it: what, after all, is so new in what he taught or is believed to have taught? ‘ Machiavellian’ politics has been around as long as politics has existed. Are we seriously asked to believe that any two-bit Italian condottieri–let alone Lorenzo–did not know that it was sometimes inexpedient to keep faith, etc.? (One of the more unfortunate consequences of the liberal effort to contextualize Machiavelli is that it reduces him to a purveyor of banalities.)
But of course, such readings miss the point. For Machiavelli’s intention was, as he said, nothing less than to introduce new modes and orders, to institute a fundamental revaluation of values–which means in the first instance changing the way that people talk, making certain things speakable that before were not. That “realism” is publicly speakable as a defense of immoral action is not the smallest sign that his success has been comprehensive.
One has grasped his thought very poorly, then, if one does not recognize the source of the modes and orders he wishes to overthrow–what he characterizes, amusingly if wickedly, as the “present religion.”