"Relativism," contra Jaffa (and Bloom), was merely administrative compromise. But the academy no longer believes all sin is relative...
The Art of Spiritual War
Or, How to (Posthumously) Conquer the World from Your Desk
I long ago concluded that a full and accurate account of Niccolò Machiavelli’s work will forever elude my grasp. In more than thirty years of studying “the most penetrating Florentine,” my interpretation of his thought has changed and I expect will change further. Nonetheless, in discussions with friends recently, I presented some ideas which have developed in my head over the last decade or so. Those friends encouraged me to set down my ideas in pixels, hence this essay. I make no claim that anything here is authoritative.
To the (frequent) criticism that I rely on Machiavelli overmuch, my typical reply is that his writings are so comprehensive that there is almost no issue I ever examine on which he hasn’t already said something incredibly apt and incredibly wise (and typically incredibly droll). Machiavelli’s relevance would endure not simply because of his importance in the history of philosophy, but above all because of the depth and accuracy of his infinite insights into war, international relations, the nature of things, politics, and man.
But in this specific case, Machiavelli’s relevance is direct. For, if my read is correct, Machiavelli faced a challenge so startlingly similar to ours that it almost seems as if history does repeat itself. To put it as succinctly possible, he sought to liberate philosophy and politics—theory and practice—from a stultifying tradition and corrupt institutions. And then he did it. He recruited and trained a new army, defeated his enemy, promulgated a new teaching and conquered the world, or at least the West—with books (“the foreigner … was allowed to seize Italy with chalk”; Prince 12). We might therefore be able to learn something from him about our challenge and how to meet it.
Machiavelli the Antichrist?
There’s no way around this, so I may as well just blurt it out: the tradition and institutions Machiavelli attacked were Christian. This will make some Christians today understandably squeamish about taking advice from the faith’s greatest earthly antagonist since Julian the Apostate. Those who can’t bear the thought may go; I won’t be offended. To those who might be intrigued, I will do my best to blunt the edges of Machiavelli’s more pointed criticisms of Christianity.
But first, it might help to defend Machiavelli from the teaching of what we may call “orthodox Straussianism” (as opposed to the actual thought of Leo Strauss, whose writings are, intentionally, similarly hard to interpret). According to the former, Machiavelli was not simply opposed to the corruption of the institutional church (see, e.g., Discourses III 1), nor simply an atheist (against the Bible, he holds that the world is eternal, i.e., uncreated; D II 5), but an opponent especially of revealed religion (as opposed to paganism), and above all of Christianity, which he sought to destroy.
There are at least two problems with this opinion. The first is that Machiavelli makes a distinction between Christianity interpreted “according to idleness [ozio]” versus virtue. If, he says, the “cowards” who hold to the former interpretation considered how the faith “permits us the exaltation and defense of the fatherland, they would see that it wishes us to love and honor it and prepare ourselves to be such that we can defend it” (D II 2). Most orthodox Straussians will dismiss this as mere exoteric cover. And yet even they would have to admit that Christianity interpreted “according to virtue” mostly cures the disease Machiavelli diagnoses. Hence to establish this remark as window-dressing, they would have to show that Machiavelli believed interpreting Christianity according to virtue is impossible. On this score, I will simply say for myself that history no less than present times show many examples of it not being impossible.
Second are all the ways (too numerous to list here) that Machiavelli coopts and borrows from Christianity, which are, to say the least, not compatible with its destruction. It is better to say, as Harvey Mansfield does, that Machiavelli attempts to “show how Christianity can be controlled for political purposes.” This attempt alone might be too much of a perversion of the faith for some Christians. To them I can only say that a faith “interpreted according to virtue” and aligned with a politics dedicated to the common good would not give us things like the aggressive wokeness of mainline Protestantism or the open-borders-ism of Russell Moore and the U.S. Conference of bishops.
Machiavelli believed that, by his time, the weak interpretation of Christianity had long since taken over the faith, that the institutional Church was rotten to the core and exerted far too much (and almost wholly deleterious) influence on politics, and that thought itself had been captured by a narrow orthodoxy and placed under strict supervision. In short, princes aside, the symbiotic combination of thought (doctrine) and institution (Church) was the real sovereign, one that tyrannized the common people no less than the mind of man.
His Time and Ours
The parallels to our time should be obvious enough. Any sign of life or strength from Christianity is relentlessly attacked while interpretations according to weakness are broadcast at a hundred decibels. Other enfeebling doctrines—attacks on masculinity, the family, tradition, community—further weaken man. And not just doctrines but practice: live in a pod, eat the bugs, take your meds, and stream some porn is the regime’s message to young men. (For women, replace the last with “make some porn.”)
Our institutions are rotten. For those needing details on how, I lay it out in chapter 3 of The Stakes. For two fresher examples see, first, the way the government colluded with hedge funds to crush small online investors trying to block an all-too-typical financial sector wealth-extraction power play; second, look at Anthony Fauci’s transparently false denials of having funded COVID research in China, and the media’s (and government’s) shameless attempts to cover it all up. There is really not one institution left in America that is not corrupt in both senses: borderline incompetent, but also venal, self-serving and lawless.
Thought is in slightly better shape than it was in Machiavelli’s time, but it won’t be if the ruling class gets their way. They’re working hard to constrain expression through censorship, de-platforming, cancellation and above all endless propaganda that drowns out all other ideas. If technology allows it, the control they’ll exert over the mind will make the measures Machiavelli faced seem permissive.
The universities are equivalent to Machiavelli’s monasteries—the places where doctrine is formulated, incubated, refined and defended—while the media is their church, the means of dissemination to the masses. The real sovereign is not any elected official or anyone formally and visibly moving the levers of power; it is the doctrine (neoliberal capitalism, “expert” managerialism, socially corrosive libertinism, anti-whiteness) and the people and institutions pushing it.
Other parallels suggest themselves. Christianity was the world’s first universalist doctrine meant for mass adoption. The classical philosophers’ inner doctrine may have been universalist, but they concealed that aspect beneath a surface that showed genuine (if qualified) respect for national differences and local customs and laws. In Machiavelli’s time, the Church was the world’s premier, and really only, transnational (dare we say “globalist”?) institution, and in its venality and corruption, consistently exerted its power at cross purposes to the interests of nations, states, and peoples.
Christianity teaches the inherent sinfulness and fallen nature of man. In Machiavelli’s words (D II 2), it places “the highest good in humility, abjectness and contempt for things human” as contrasted with the ancient religions which “placed it in greatness of spirit, strength of body, and all other things capable of making men very strong.”
Lest anyone think this is simply an endorsement of the latter over the former, Machiavelli shines in a bright light on the seamy side of paganism. Of the sacrifices, “full of blood and ferocity … with multitudes of animals being killed” he says that “the sight, being terrible, rendered men similar to itself.” Machiavelli nearly always presents himself as implacably opposed to the “middle way” even as he silently endorses many. Perhaps he conceived of a via media between pagan ferocity and the Christian tendency toward softness—Caesar with the soul of Christ?
However that may be, we may see in wokeness a radicalization of the Catholic teaching on original sin, only without the possibility of redemption or grace, and targeted only at those guilty of whiteness. (Other demographics are said to be inherently Christ-like, without sin.) People, especially men, are told they should hate themselves. Their spirits are deliberately degraded. They are made weak. One need read Machiavelli with only ordinary care to see that he arrived at a similar conclusion about his own times.
Was Niccolò Justified?
Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli, his longest and most detailed (and, in my opinion, greatest and most profound) book, appears to be an elaborate condemnation of the Florentine Secretary. Yet one must immediately wonder why a thinker of Strauss’s rank would devote 299 pages, plus another 45 of the most substantive and labyrinthine footnotes I’ve ever seen, to someone the author thinks simply led the world into a ditch. (I here pause to say, wishing this were unnecessary but knowing it is not, that Strauss was neither a “neocon” nor even remotely responsible for the Iraq war. Those are calumnies from his enemies, who are also our enemies. If you think you have nothing to learn from him, fine, though you’re almost certainly wrong. He was the last century’s greatest reviver and reader of the classic texts that inspire and instruct our side. He also cherished Western civilization and the Great Tradition and fought to defend both. Dismiss him if you want, but an intellectually honest person would do so only after grappling with what he actually taught.)
In a few places, Strauss explicitly affirms his admiration for Machiavelli. In a letter to Eric Voegelin written while drafting Thoughts, Strauss admits that “I can’t help loving him—in spite of his errors.” In the introduction to that magnum opus itself, Strauss praises Machiavelli for “the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision and the graceful subtlety of his speech”—no backhanded compliment.
Yet in that same introduction—in the book’s very first sentence—Strauss famously exposes himself to “good-natured or at any rate harmless ridicule” by professing himself “inclined to the old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil.” Seventy-two paragraphs later, Strauss excuses Machiavelli’s clinical willingness to endure, and more-than-occasional eagerness to savor, the sight of blood:
[O]nce one grasps the intransigent character of Machiavelli’s theoretical concern, one is no longer compelled to burden him with the full responsibility for that practical recklessness which he frequently recommends. The ruthless counsels given throughout the Prince are addressed less to princes, who would hardly need them, than to “the young” who are concerned with understanding the nature of society. Those true addressees of the Prince have been brought up in teachings which, in the light of Machiavelli’s wholly new teaching, reveal themselves to be much too confident of human goodness, if not of the goodness of creation, and hence too gentle or effeminate. Just as a man who is timorous by training or nature cannot acquire courage, which is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, unless he drags himself in the direction of foolhardiness, so Machiavelli’s pupils must go through a process of brutalization in order to be freed from effeminacy. Or just as one learns bayoneting by using weapons which are much heavier than those used in actual combat, one learns statecraft by seriously playing with extreme courses of action which are rarely, if ever, appropriate in actual politics. Not only some of the most comforting, but precisely some of the most outrageous statements of the Prince are not meant seriously but serve a merely pedagogic function: as soon as one understands them, one sees that they are amusing and meant to amuse. Machiavelli tries to divert the adherence of the young from the old to the new teaching by appealing to the taste of the young which is not the best taste or, for that matter, to the taste of the common people: he displays a bias in favor of the impetuous, the quick, the partisan, the spectacular, and the bloody over and against the deliberate, the slow, the neutral, the silent, and the gentle.
So much for “teacher of evil.”
But only at the end does Strauss really reveal himself. After spending 298 pages in elaborate condemnation of Machiavelli’s alleged destruction of the West, Strauss asks:
Confronted by this amazing process, we cannot cease wondering as to what essential defect of classical political philosophy could possibly have given rise to the modern venture as an enterprise that was meant to be reasonable. We disregard the many answers which assume the truth of the modern premises. The classics were for almost all practical purposes what now are called conservatives. In contradistinction to many present-day conservatives however, they knew that one cannot be distrustful of political or social change without being distrustful of technological change. Therefore they did not favor the encouragement of inventions, except perhaps in tyrannies, i.e., in regimes the change of which is manifestly desirable. They demanded the strict moral-political supervision of inventions; the good and wise city will determine which inventions are to be made use of and which are to be suppressed. Yet they were forced to make one crucial exception. They had to admit the necessity of encouraging inventions pertaining to the art of war. They had to bow to the necessity of defense or of resistance. This means however that they had to admit that the moral-political supervision of inventions by the good and wise city is necessarily limited by the need of adaptation to the practices of morally inferior cities which scorn such supervision because their end is acquisition or ease. They had to admit in other words that in an important respect the good has to take its bearings by the practice of bad cities or that the bad impose their law on the good.
The meaning here, beneath the surface and beyond the theoretical or transhistorical truth, is specifically the invention and success of “propaganda” or transnational popular rhetoric. Whereas sophistry is the art of persuading a particular democratic assembly on a given issue on a specific day, propaganda aims to shape public opinion broadly and, if not permanently, for as long as humanly possible. Strauss is saying that the classics’ reluctance to innovate—their dispositional conservatism—made them vulnerable to conquest via this new weapon. The conquest happened. Christianity waged a spiritual war against the classical world which the latter proved unable to resist.
In Machiavelli’s account, in every city or state or province—hence always and everywhere in the generality of mankind—two “diverse humors” (P 9) are found: the people and the great. The classical philosophers chose to ally with the great, for self-protection, out of a preference for aristocracy over democracy, and because the “great” (understood not merely as the rich but above all the naturally virtuous) were more receptive to philosophic attempts (in Strauss’s words) “to humanize imperfect society within the limits of the possible.”
But this meant that the classics left the people prey to capture by a charismatic new prince. When He came, promising eternal life and aided by the Roman destruction of freedom throughout the ancient world, the classics were routed.
Machiavelli’s overarching strategy, then, is to win over—not “win back,” since the philosophers never had them—the people. He proposes to do this via a popular-philosophic alliance in which the people are convinced by a new type of propaganda, disseminated by Machiavelli’s successors, to allow the philosophers to rule (indirectly) in exchange for philosophy providing what the people most want: material plenty and a modicum of security (P 25). Fat and happy, they will forget God, or at least bestow their gratitude on others. (Though there’s a lot more to it than just this.)
Is He Responsible for Our Mess?
Strauss seems to argue—not just in Thoughts but also in the landmark essays “The Three Waves of Modernity,” “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” and “What Is Political Philosophy?”—that a direct, if zig-zag, descent runs from Machiavelli’s proposal that philosophers rule to “the crisis of the West.” Philosophy setting for itself the task of solving practical problems is the seed of modern natural science. The indirect rule of the philosophers morphs first into the indirect rule of scientists and finally into the direct rule of “experts.” Senze Machiavelli, no Fauci?
More fundamentally, Machiavelli and his successors’ insistence that every higher doctrine of the classics—the eidos, noesis noeseos, the summum bonum, etc.—had been coopted by philosophic Christianity meant that they all had to go. No more abstractions! In this way, Modernity disenchanted the world—cut off the people’s access to God and the philosophers’ access to the Good.
Yet it’s impossible to deny that modernity’s first three centuries at least were a time of rebirth and revival in the West, of exploration and achievement in politics and the arts and sciences. It’s at least possible that Machiavelli’s liberation of philosophy from theological supervision had something to do what that. It’s also impossible to read Machiavelli and miss his ferocious will to live, deep concern for his fellow man (D I preface) and zest for “earthly and earthy humanity.” These are hardly the sentiments of a man who believed in nothing and didn’t care.
Hence careful readers may not be surprised when, twice in Thoughts’ final paragraph, Strauss quietly but unmistakably qualifies his condemnation of Machiavelli. That paragraph begins: “The necessity which spurred on Machiavelli and his great successors spent itself some time ago.” The necessity. With that one little word, Strauss has justified or at least excused Machiavelli’s whole project. Later, he writes that:
The difficulty implied in the admission that inventions pertaining to the art of war must be encouraged is the only one which supplies a basis for Machiavelli’s criticism of classical political philosophy.
This beautiful sentence, reminiscent of Machiavelli’s best, is an appreciation dressed up as a condemnation. To say there is “only one” reason to suspect classical philosophy sounds reverential (“only”), but to admit there is “one” is to concede that the basis is real.
Yet Strauss also says that, the necessity spent, modernity “must now be judged entirely on its intrinsic merits.” That judgement appears to be negative. The problem, then, was less Machiavelli’s epoch-making action than his inner doctrine, or the way that doctrine was (mis?)interpreted and implemented. (The über-Straussian Henrich Meier argues that Machiavelli’s inner doctrine is identical with that of the classical and medieval philosophers and that the sole purpose of his outward politicality is to justify and defend philosophy. In order to assert that this is also Strauss’s view, Meier must explain away as “exoteric” a great deal of what Strauss actually writes. I agree that Machiavelli’s true teaching is much closer to the classics’ than first appears, and that Strauss deliberately exaggerates the ancient-modern divide for his own pedagogical purposes. But it goes too far to deny any fundamental differences between the two teachings.)
The question of that inner doctrine cannot, and need not, be resolved here. We will in any case have to formulate our own doctrine. Whether or not Machiavelli got us into this mess, it’s much less questionable that he found a way out of his own. What can we can learn from him, then, about how to get out of ours?
Not All Parallels Are Exact
We must first see clearly the biggest differences between his situation and ours. Our Godless tyranny of “experts” is not religious. Many of our best intellectuals who say it is are certainly right that wokeness is akin to a religion. It’s supremely self-confident and intolerant. It’s irrational—even anti-rational. It clearly has roots in various perversions of Christianity. Some may even be right that wokeness is morphing into a religion.
But for now, in the decisive respect, it is not one. A real religion recognizes a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. A real religion says to its faithful “there are things we cannot understand but that we believe are true.” Even the highest priests cannot explain the central mysteries. They know that certain truths are beyond their comprehension, and they believe regardless, based on trust (and love, and fear).
The ruling doctrine of our time by contrast understands itself as natural, as “scientific,” as not merely true but knowably true to the unassisted—that is, unassisted by revelation—human mind. We are tempted to see wokeness as a religion because we see its irrational basis, its lack of grounding in anything real. Its adherents manifestly do not.
Our challenge is then in a sense the reverse of Machiavelli’s: to reacquaint the people with God and an intellectual elite with the Good. If we do our work wisely and well, prudence may still rule indirectly, but it will be a prudence that is better and truer—than what have now, certainly; than Machiavelli’s, arguably.
The other two differences are related. The thing to which Machiavelli professes to wish to return, ancient (pre-Christian) Rome, had in his time been dead for a thousand years. Plus, its flaws led directly to Machiavelli’s morass. His call for return is therefore ultimately not serious. “Man, unlike a crab, cannot crawl backwards” is another Nietzschean sentiment he anticipated.
America’s constitutional order has been dead—fifty years? Less? More fundamentally, Machiavelli’s enemy was less a corruption and cooption than a replacement of the ancient orders. He had no wish whatsoever to restore its glory. Our regime by contrast rules in the name of Constitution. That’s a lie, but the constitutional order that operated admirably within the living memory of so many feels, to some, still within reach. Should those of us who cherish that order try to go back or forward? This is a prudential question that Machiavelli didn’t face.
When Machiavelli took up arms, his enemy was 1,500 years old. How old is ours? If we understand our present problems as originating with modernity itself, then it is at most 500 years. If as Second (Rousseau) and Third (Nietzsche) Wave modernity, then half that. If as Progressivism, then half that. If only since the 1960s, then half that.
Is our enemy as decayed and corrupt now as Machiavelli’s was in his time? There are many reasons to believe so. But there are also reasons to believe a new woke-faith is still forming itself. If so, that might be a cause for optimism since it’s always easier to destroy a new sect (D II 5) in its infancy than in its maturity. It’s also possible (I would say likely) that with technology, things move faster, so dynamics that once took centuries now play out much quicker. Bottom line: we don’t know. But I think I know what Machiavelli would say if we could ask his advice: assume the hour is late and fight.
Machiavelli presents his strategy primarily in the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, and primarily in Book I, Chapter 60, Book II, Chapter 33, and above all in Book III, Chapters 35-49. (As Strauss was the first to explain, in all cases these are the final sections of the Book in question.) Because Machiavelli presents all his lessons metaphorically, in the guise of episodes from Roman history, these chapters read like a random series of bedtime stories cribbed from a high school Latin textbook (“Cornelia and Flavia went down to the emporium …”).
Rather than go through all seventeen minutely, I will summarize what my thirty years with Nick have led me to believe is his strategy. (I note that my reading of the Discourses has for those same thirty years been greatly informed by Harvey Mansfield’s magisterial commentary Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders. I make no claim that he would endorse anything I say above or below.)
First, Machiavelli played a very long game (D III 37; P 14). He published only one book in his lifetime, leaving all the others to young friends to reveal to the world after he was safely in the grave. This way, he avoided the persecution that would almost certainly have followed (his books were banned about a quarter century after publication). But, like Plato, Machiavelli also allowed himself the freedom to “fatten and polish” his work right up until the end—to leave his thought to posterity exactly as he wanted. He apparently either didn’t feel a sense of urgency or else didn’t think he could win in his lifetime, or both. Essentially, he threw a 99-yard Hail Mary and then died not knowing if anyone would catch it, much less score. But this meant that the benefits of his revolution wouldn’t begin to accrue for at least a generation. Do we have that kind of time?
Necessarily, Machiavelli formulated and disseminated a new doctrine. We’ve touched on this above. Whatever one’s final judgement of Machiavelli’s thought, it is not sufficient for us for two important reasons. First, our circumstances and adversary being different (however similar), we can’t port 1:1 a doctrine from the sixteenth century to 2021. Second, Strauss appears to be right about the long-term deleteriousness of cutting off man from the High. Access to God and the Good must be restored via serious intellectual effort, with serious intellectual underpinnings, and not merely as an exoteric fig-leaf concealing the alleged “truth” of nihilism.
The good news is that formulating a better doctrine is relatively easy. We may say that it’s already been (or is being) done, as serious study of the classics was revived in the 20th century and interest in them continues to mount in the young—at least those dissatisfied with the present regime. What’s needed is something both life-affirming and grounded, that can serve as a real support to real life in the real world. Machiavelli provided that for his followers. We will have to do the same.
The doctrine in essence has three parts: one philosophic, another “catechistic” and the third practical. The “catechism” is in effect a simplified version of the real inner doctrine, which few can grasp, dressed up to look like philosophy but which is really “ideology” (a concept, though not a term, that Machiavelli invents). The ideology gives “order” to the “French,” Machiavelli’s feisty but unreliable allies (D III 36). He needs their ardor but also needs to find a way to ground and sustain it.
Also, many of Machiavelli’s (potential) supporters—the humanists above all—have imprudently “served as philosophical allies” (Mansfield) of the enemy (D II 24, P 3). One need only think, in our time, of Conservatism, Inc., the fusionists and the libertarians. The philosopher must to a degree hide the distance between his true inner teaching and the ideology. For Machiavelli (as opposed to the classics) this is less because of a fundamental gulf between the differing types of men than so as not to insult the spirit (animo) of his allies. For there are three kinds of brains, “one that understands by itself, another that discerns what others understand,” and a third that does not understand (P 22). The philosopher needs the intellectual or popularizer to reach the masses, but intellectuals flatter themselves that they’re philosophers and so must be flattered by philosophers to be cajoled into performing their proper role.
The practical doctrine is how the new teaching wins back the people, as Machiavelli won them. I can’t sketch the whole thing here, but J.D. Vance does a fine job of summarizing it in a recent speech:
We should fight for the right of every American to live a good life in the country they call their own, to raise a family, in dignity, on a single middle-class job.… If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to live a good life in this country, that is your own, built by your grandparents and parents, that will be inherited by your children…. That requires that we respect our history … so that people are anchored in the traditions of this country, so that they can teach their children those traditions, and so they can pass off a feeling of rootedness in their own community…. It requires that we give our children, and ourselves, the right to speak openly and to participate meaningfully in this democratic society of ours.
This vision is no less anathema to our globalist ruling class than was Machiavelli’s to the ruling class of his day. We shall see if it holds the same popular appeal, but there are reasons to hope. In any event, the appeal to the people must be both practical—your lives in the here-and-now will improve—and spiritual: your lives will have meaning and purpose.
To promulgate his doctrines, Machiavelli recruited a new elite, whom he called, affectionately, his “captains” (D III 37, 38; cf. 10-15). They would be primarily an intellectual elite who would attack the foundations of the existing regime using arguments (and tactics) supplied by Machiavelli and also build the walls of the new regime on a foundation he had already laid. One thinks primarily of his great successors among the early modern philosophers—Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Sidney, Montesquieu, &c.—but also popularizers such as Diderot and Voltaire. It’s fair to say this effort is today well underway, with the ferment on the non-collaborationist (i.e., genuine) right. New voices and new leaders are emerging.
Yet clearly we need not just a new intellectual elite but new elites across the board. This one is harder and not specifically addressed in Machiavelli. He either thinks that training functionaries is not his “highest and best use” or else that conquering intellectually will take care of the rest. If the latter, that’s doubtless true, but does point back to the time question.
Machiavelli makes a virtue of necessity in decentralizing his army. There is no way a posthumous conqueror can give direct orders, so he’s forced into this. But allowing his captains to make decisions on the spot (D II 33) also confers certain benefits. They will know better how to deal with the specific situation they’re in than any rule written centuries prior could. They also want, and need, the self-satisfaction of feeling that they act alone and earn their glory. No captain wants to be congratulated merely for carrying out his general’s orders to the letter. The right is more decentralized that it’s been in a long time. But the influence of legacy, gatekeeper organizations is still powerful, and they use that influence to police us in the interests of the ruling class. As long as they retain that power, we can’t win.
The next point is related: Machiavelli is, and urges his captains to be, willing to act without authorization (D II 33). They will not be constrained by the scoldings of “the French” nor by the legalisms of the enemy, which are only used against them in bad faith to harm their interests. For Machiavelli in any case, all authority arises from usurpation. He would not flinch from doing what he deemed necessary even in the face of a legitimate authority, but against one that had lost all claim to honor or respect, he counseled no mercy.
It should not be surprising to anyone familiar with his reputation that Machiavelli explicitly recommends fraud (D III 40; cf. II 13), especially against a dishonorable enemy, and always when required by necessity. It’s better to be a hypocrite than a hypocrite’s victim. He flatly rejects noble or principled sacrifices (though he does recommend claiming noble motivations when forced to sacrifice). Good-faith concessions to a bad-faith enemy he considers the height of folly, and also pointless, in that no benefits ever follow. Rather than credit your nobility, the enemy simply pockets the concession and draws up for the next battle.
The flipside to this is a different sort of “principled stand,” one made not in the vain hope of receiving credit from the enemy but to impress allies with one’s courage or commitment. In this case, you might actually get credit, but you might also get killed, and it is always best “to follow entirely the policy that saves one’s life and maintains one’s liberty” (D III 41). The prudence of Fabius, who judged “a slow assault more useful, reserving his thrust for the last, when the enemy had lost its first ardor for combat” is to be preferred to the zeal of Decius, who “sacrificed himself to the Roman legions in imitation of his father” (D III 45)—though this lesson is less simple than it first appears: Decius’s sacrifice no less than Fabius’s prudence saved the army and won the victory. There is no perfectly safe way forward. He who counsels a new way forward can protect himself to a degree but must inevitably take risks (D III 35). Machiavelli may have preserved his life but he also sacrificed his name to everlasting infamy—a price he clearly judged as necessary and was willing to pay.
Machiavelli explicitly appeals to the young and pits them against the old. The old are conservative, the young impetuous. More important, the old have a greater stake in the present regime; the young have a greater stake in the future. But he also recommends rewards accrue to those youth who have achieved “some very notable action” (D I 60) that benefits many. New leaders must earn positions of responsibility.
Even as Machiavelli prefers the ardor of youth to the prudence of age, he seeks to combine the two, or to yoke the former to the latter. As with quasi-philosophic or irreligious allies, he seeks to channel and sustain youthful energy. He will do this through his doctrine and through education: “It is very important that a boy of tender years begin to hear good and bad said of a thing, for it must of necessity make an impression on him, which afterward regulates the mode of proceeding all the times of his life” (D III 46). Machiavelli recommends hunting, to get to know the countryside, to accustom the body to hardship, to hone one’s skill in fraud, and as preparation for war (D III 39). Getting to know the particulars of one country enables one to learn the nature of any country, and hence of countries (nature) simply. Machiavelli here, if he does not pioneer, certainly emphasizes as no prior thinker had inductive reasoning or reasoning from the general to the particular, another root of modern science.
Machiavelli insists that the old make way for the young (a lesson for our gerontocracy!), while nonetheless retaining some measure of influence, for the young are rash: Machiavelli’s forward troops need to be restrained while his wiser, but more timorous, rearguard need to be encouraged. Both of these tasks Machiavelli reserves for himself, as the mastermind who fades into the background without ever really going away. He hides his glory beneath the salutary fraud that he’s no longer in charge, and by distributing more visible glory to his captains.
Machiavelli specifically advises reading “histories” (P 14)—not philosophy, not poetry (and certainly not theology!)—and choosing some excellent man as one’s model to imitate. In this way, the young can not only learn the specifics of the past and derive from them general precepts; just as important, they can be inspired. Perhaps this is why Mark Zuckerberg’s sister is on such a jihad against young men learning the classics and why the Princeton Classics Department (!) eliminated its Greek and Latin requirements: they understand, with Machiavelli, that such books are dangerous—to them.
As an aside here, we may note that Machiavelli is rarely above twisting history for his own purposes: changing stories, misquoting authors, omitting highly relevant details, etc. But in pointing readers to the original texts, he expects to be found out, at least by some, who will wonder why he did it, and whose wonder will lead them into the deeper recesses of his thought. When his rhetoric is false, it is always helpful; that is to say, calculated to firm up and inspire his captains. He combines his exhortations to strength and virtue with reassurances that the enemy is weaker than he looks, that “we got this.” Nor is he above using religion to sustain the ardor of youth and to conceal innovation (D III 36).
Integral to Machiavelli’s preference for youth is his rhetoric: he is willing to say things that would have made prior thinkers, and did make later ones, shudder. He does so to attack the enemy, to appeal to that taste in the young “which is not the best taste,” and to “reeducate” them away from the enemy’s doctrine. The long passage quoted above excuses Machiavelli’s rhetorical excesses, but the fact that the excuse had to be made illustrates the problem. To tie the two points together, Bronze Age Mindset is successful because it appeals to the young; it appeals to the young in part because it’s outrageous. Because it’s outrageous, it opens not just the author but his readers to “attaq.” Machiavelli’s advice: accept the charge of being a sinner so long as it is seen that one sins in defense of the patria (D III 41). There may be no easy way to thread this needle.
Except, perhaps and in part, to hide your real meaning (D III 35). As bold as Machiavelli is, “his boldness hides his boldness,” Mansfield explains, “for men are not ready to believe that a man who seems bold is bolder than he seems.” Strauss says that the ancient practice of esoteric writing was intended partly to protect philosophy and the city from one another. Machiavelli practices it to change the world. It may seem an inapt means—how can “secret writing” change the world if no one knows what it really means?—but he proved it could be done. Some readers will have to be able to figure it out, and adapt the lessons and present them in a more popularized way. The trick, as ever, is to say just enough to motivate and direct your allies without handing your enemies a noose. There is also an inherent uncertainty in the practice, as one can never be sure that even one’s most valuable readers really get it. In Machiavelli’s judgment, that risk simply had to be borne.
Machiavelli strongly urges his captains to avoid the enemy’s strongholds in favor of attacking its weak points (D II 24). Besieging fortresses is costly and dangerous. The obvious analogy to today is direct assaults on the universities, media, Fortune 500 and especially the feds. Attack and delegitimize them by all means, but indirectly, focusing where the walls are crumbling. Above all, do not directly attack the enemy’s doctrine, which it will defend most furiously. One does not see Machiavelli making headlong charges at scripture or the catechism, which would only have gotten him cancelled (even posthumously). His spiritual war was a kind of intellectual insurgency, not Patton’s Third Army racing across Europe. Relatedly, he recommends being lightly equipped so as to be unencumbered and nimble (D III 39). This is, again, to make a virtue of necessity since he (as yet) has no institutions to marshal. But the enemy’s baggage train is as much, and maybe more, a hindrance as a help (D III 37).
Perhaps Machiavelli’s most important advice is: know the truth. If, as he believed, the truth was on his side, then knowing what it is constitutes an enormous advantage. Machiavelli was too wise simply to say “the truth will out” absent human effort. But a rotten edifice propped up on false doctrine can be felled with the truth—only if you know what it is. The contrast between the enemy’s actions and his stated beliefs necessarily requires hypocrisy because of the latter’s lack of correspondence with nature (D III 42). This is another flaw in the enemy’s order of battle that Machiavelli’s clever captains can exploit: arbitrage opportunities abound! Also, pointing out the fakery inherent in the enemy’s metaphysic is very effective at bucking up your side and purging your soldiers’ fears. Necessity may force you to dissimulate to others but you must never lie to yourself (D III 43).
Never lose sight of what the enemy is. It pretends to be weak when it is in fact strong, if only in the spiritual. It relies on your fears to control you. Above all, it relies on you not seeing it as an enemy. Hence it uses “orders that have grown old with religion” (P 11) to gaslight you into believing that it is what it says it is, not what you clearly see it is, that it has your best interests at heart, that your objections to its attempts to despoil you are soul-risking heresy (or “sedition” or “treason”). The enemy calls you its enemy for recognizing its enmity. It can ruin your life, which is another reason to be cautious, but unlike Machiavelli’s, our enemy cannot send you to Hell, which is a reason to be both hopeful and contemptuous.
Our enemy cannot be converted but must be defeated. He is “obstinate” like a Samnite (D III 44). A big part of Machiavelli’s rhetoric is intended to make his own soldiers even more obstinate. He attempts to do so with “firm science” (D III 39)—the confidence that comes from knowing you are right—the promise of glory, and the satisfaction of successfully defending the patria. Yet “infantry,” the obstinate military order par excellence (D II 16), must be supplemented with “artillery” (propaganda; D II 17), and “cavalry” (authority; cf. “ideology” above; D II 18) in the order of battle of spiritual warfare.
Machiavelli firmly insists that his captains avoid abstractions. On the theoretical level, this is related to his “forgetting” (Strauss’s term), or as we might say today, “cancellation” of the high. But at the practical level, it means to be loyal to your family, your friends and allies, your people, and your patria over and above any ideas or “principles.” Or one may say that Machiavelli elevates to a principle standing up for your own—being, as the kids say, “based.” Yet here we see a difference between his teaching and our challenge. Machiavelli’s first loyalty was to this world as against the next; he was less loyal to any one part of it, even Italy or Florence, over and above his concern for the totality of the West (D III 37). Today, the “effectual truth” (P 15) of loyalty to “this world” is globalism. Our task is therefore to combine loyalty to our particular people with our obligations to God.
Machiavelli was also willing to accept, and even seek, allies wherever he could, even in unsavory quarters (D III 47). In his time that meant, primarily, “men of little faith.” In appealing to them, he risked confirming the enemy’s worst fears about himself, thus reducing his wider appeal. He also ended up with many allies who did not fully accept nor even fully understand his real doctrine, even who rejected parts of the slimmed-down version. These were prices he was willing to pay for the sake of victory. He counsels being receptive, if cautious, to defectors from the other side (D III 48)—as we should be toward the likes of Greenwald and Taibbi.
Finally, Machiavelli thought BIG. His aim was nothing less than to reorder the world (D III 49). He was not merely trying something no one ever had, but something no one would believe possible. This is the meaning, Strauss explains, of the story of the Ciminian Forest (D II 33): “it is the incredibility of [Machiavelli’s] enterprise which secures him against detection.”
There you have it, as succinctly as I could say it. I have threaded in some thoughts on what Machiavelli’s strategy might teach us about today and left others unsaid. Doubtless there are many more I haven’t thought of that will occur to others.
Those more expert than I in so-called “fifth generation warfare” may find the above summary somehow both familiar and inadequate. But as I said, no solution formulated in the sixteenth century can be applied today like a recipe. I hope to have established, however, that there is still much we can learn from the Florentine Secretary, not just about theory but about practice.