23 september 2009


Some Machiavelli with some Burnham

I am not very well, what with ME, and originally meant to write in Dutch on "History and Civilisation", continueing and extending an earlier Dutch piece.

Instead, I add some to what I wrote yesterday, which piece may have the merit of showing that I differ from others in various ways, and notably in my appraisals of human beings and societies.

And in fact, this moves in the same way as the piece I intended to write, in that a considerable part of the reason that my appraisals of human beings and societies differ from others is that they have not read much decent history, and usually have altogether missed or avoided the great historians, such as Thucydides, Tacitus, Machiavelli, Gibbon and Burckhardt - who have the merit of showing their intelligent readers a much better founded estimate of human beings and their capacities and incapacities than any contemporary author, let alone the popular media.

Now to Machiavelli. My source is "The Machiavellians", by James Burnham, which is a fine and well-written book about Machiavelli's main ideas and about some of those he inspired, namely Mosca, Sorel, Michels and Pareto, and also, of course, Burnham himself, and indeed George Orwell, probably through Burnham (*)

And my subject is "Man as he really is" (as a species, not a gender, I have to add, alas, in these post-po-mo times) who really is not what the vast majority of the species - homo sapiens, self-styled - think he is.

Of course, I only touch on my subject - for which also see: Human nature and  Ordinary men, in my Philosophical Dictionary, and indeed Machiavelli and others in my Philosophy-section - and I do so only briefly and partially, but what follows should give some perspective on Man, Machiavelli and Burnham.

My text is from Burnham's Part II - Machiavelli: The science of power, and thence from II.1 - Political Man, that starts thus (and it helps if you have read some Machiavelli, which ought to be able to clear away rather a lot of delusions, if done with care and intelligence):

There have been many critical discussions about Machiavelli's supposed veiws on "human nature". Some defend him, but he is usually charged with a libel upon mankind, with having a perverted, shocking, and detestable notion of what human beings are like. (p. 55)

Indeed, and see also yesterday (titled "39 Questions - Why I am much hated by the Dutch élite"), for I am claimed to fail despicably in a similar way, and indeed for the same reason: Machiavelli's new approach to politics was to let the facts speak for themselves, supplemented by logical argumentation, obviously immoral or amoral as that must be, for some.

And this is bound to conflict with all political and religious ideologies, and also with what people learned in schools and universities, and is also bound to present a - by and large - painful or bitter view of mankind and its needless follies and stupid cruelties.

But indeed, Burnham is right, and the general attitude to Machiavelli is still that he calumniates mankind, as most of mankind wishes to see mankind, and especially their own nations, institutions, and creeds, which tend to be especially benevolent and excelling in good qualities.

Machiavelli thought that wishful thinking, completely forgiveable to the stupid, should be taken serious by the intelligent or the learned, and Burnham continues the above thus:

These discussions, however, are beside the point. Machiavelli has no view of human nature, or, at any rate, none is presented in his writings. (p. 55-6)

It is true that it is not quite to the point, given Machiavelli's method, which he quite consciously formulated and applied, for that is not concerned with speculation, metaphysics or religion, but I do think he did have a view of human nature, that can be gleaned best in his Discourses, that may be described as satirical or cynical scientific humanism, and quite a bit like Samuel Butler (author of Hudibras), Bernard Mandeville, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and Nicholas Chamfort.

Almost immediately following upon this Burnham starts a new paragraph and argument thus

It is clear from a study of Machiavelli that what he is trying to analyze is not "man" but "political man" in somewhat the same way that Adam Smith analyzed "economic man". (p. 56)

There is considerably more, but you get the idea, and I think it is not so: Adam Smith did not analyze "economic man" nor did Machiavelli do the same with "political man" - they studied men, as they are, respectively in their attempts to gain a livelihood and power, both in the context of human societies.

So this seems mistaken abstractions to me, that suggest that there is something which there in fact is not, though it is true that in either study one will have to abstract (mostly) from themes not relevant to the problems posed and concentrate (mostly) on kinds of facts and ideas that seem relevant.

Now onto human nature, as it manifests itself in human politicking, in various shapes and forms, for as Burnham says

From studying the facts of politics. then, Machiavelli reached certain conclusions, not about man but about "political man". (p. 58)

And this is what I wanted to quote, and you see here why I had to briefly discuss the quoted words - for Machiavelli speaks of men in politics, no more nor less, and Burnham continues the above thus:

First, he implies everywhere a rather sharp distinction between two types of political man: a "ruler-type," we might call one, and a "ruled-type," the other. The first type would include not merely those who at any moment occupy leading positions in society, but those also who aspire to such positions or who might so aspire if opportunity offered; the second consists of those who neither lead nor are capable of becoming leaders. The second is the great mass. (p.58)

These days, the great mass is deceived and self-deceived that any man is just as good and valuable as any other man, and that any man can achieve excellency, but clearly the former is against what all people feel (some are or seem just better, more beautiful, stronger, wiser, more familiar, or indeed of better colour, caste, religion, political creed or sportsfanship than others), and the second is close to logically contradictory (for if all excel all none does excel any).

But indeed, what Machiavelli thought I think, and indeed always felt, for I have always been conscious of the fact that some are leaders and most are followers, and that I am certainly not a follower, and never was, not even as a small child. (**)

And it is as Burnham says

(..) Machiavelli thinks that the distinction reflects a basic fact of political life, that active political strugggle is confined for the most part to a small minority of men, that the majority is and remains, whatever happens, the ruled. (p.58)

Indeed, and this is both a sociological fact: all human societies of any complexity are pyramidical, with a few at the top and many at the bottom and inbetween, and nearly all human beings are followers, from force or from inclination, and usually both. (***)

Burnham continues

The outstanding characteristic of the majority is, then, its political passivity. Unless driven by the most extreme provocation on the part of the rulers or by rare and exceptional circumstances, the ruled are not interested in power. They want a small minimum of security, and a chance to live their own lives and manage their own small affairs. (p.58)

And thus it is, and indeed that great majority is quite right also, for managing  their own small affairs they may probably do, with some luck, but leading many well or in difficult circumstances is ... difficult, and also simply not in the character of the vast majority to want, nor within their abilities to do.

But there is more

"In the general", Machiavelli finds, "men are ungrateful, inconstant, hypocritical, fearful of danger, and covetous of gain (....)
At the same time, they have great respect for firm authority.

Indeed, and somewhat more specifically about the great mass of the people, though still in general outline (and this is Machiavelli speaking)

They are bold, and will speak liberally against the decrees of their  Prince, and afterwards, when they see the punishment before their faces, everyone grows fearful of his neighbor, slips his neck out of the collar, and returns to his obedience. So that it is not much to be considered what the people say, either of their Prince's good management or bad; so they be strong enough to keep them in their good humor when they are well disposed, and provide (when they are ill) that they do them no hurt.

And thus it went nearly always, in history, where the few ruled and the many followed and indeed mostly has no choice not to, if they wanted to live.

Nevertheless, Machiavelli is - like me, unlike Nietzsche - also hardly optimistic about the rulers, for in Machiavelli's words

"(..) it is so provided by Providence, that no man can be exquisitely wicked, no more than good in perfection..." (Discourses, (..)) (p. 62)

Burnham immediately continues this with

When Machiavelli concludes that no man is perfectly good or bad, he is not making a primarily moral judgment. (p. 62)

I believe he did, and that he was no relativist, and that he well might have agreed with Hume on morals, but Burnham continues thus and more to the point

He means, more generally, that all men make mistakes at least sometimes, that there are no supermen, that no men is always intelligent and judicious, that even the stupid have occasional moments of brilliance, that men are not always consistent, that they are variable and variously motivated. Obvious as such reflections may seem, they are easily forgotten in the realm of political action, which is alone in question. The tendency, in political thinking, is towards black and white: the leader, or the proletariat, or the people, or the party, or the great captain is always right; the bosses, or the crowd, or the government always wrong. From such reasoning flow not a few shocks and dismays at turns of events that might readily have been anticipated. (p. 62)

Indeed, and most judgement about politics are mostly totalitarian in expression, taste and motivation, for reasons briefly explained in Groups and in Groupthinking.

To return to the qualities of leaders and followers, Burnham continues

The ruled majority, changeable, weak, shortsighted, selfish, is not at all, for Machiavelli, the black to the rulers' white. Indeed, for him, the ruler-type is even less constant, less loyal, and on many occasions less intelligent. (p. 62)

The reader who has read my comments on Machiavelli's The Prince may remember that I am inclined to read The Prince as (in part) a satire, but that is as may be, and here is, also in conclusion, Machiavelli himself from his greatest and most serious work on the qualities of leaders and followers, which I will hope will shock the (naive) reader a bit, this way and that way (and remember by "Prince" Machiavelli simply meant "leader"):

"That nothing is more vain and inconsistent than the multitude, Titus Livy and all other historians do agree... He says, 'The nature of the multitude is to be servilely obedient, or insolently tyrannical.'
"Things being thus. I know not whether I shall seem too bold, to undertake the defense of a thing, which all the world opposes; and run myself upon a necessity of either quitting it with disgrace, or pursuing it with scandal; yet methinks. being to maintain it with arguments, not force, it should not be so criminal.

I say then in behalf of the multitude; that what they are charged withal by most authors, may be charged upon all private persons in the world, and especially upon Princes; for whoever lies irregularly, and is not restrained by the Law, is subject to the same exorbitancies, and will commit as bad faults as the most dissolute multitude in the world; and this may be easily known, if it be considered how many Princes there have, and how few of them good... I conclude, therefor, against the common opinion, that the people are no more light, ungrateful, nor changeable than Princes; but that both of them are equally faulty; and he that should go about to excuse the Prince would be in very great error..."(Discourses, Book I, chapter 58) (p. 63)

Thus it seems to me (and supports my reading of The Prince) - and in conclusion I only add that in things human all real human excellence is to be measured in human individual terms, for only individual men have minds, wills, feelings, and purposes, and only individual men feel and think.

P.S. My edition starts with a foreword of Burnham that ends thus:

Through the Machiavellians I began to understand more thoroughly what I had long felt: that only by renouncing all ideology can we begin to see the world and man.

I quite agree.


(*) I think I have read all that matters of Orwell, which is all but his earlier novels, which I found too boring to finish (probably agreeing with his own later estimates of his early efforts), but I cannot say I am aware of much knowledge of Orwell of these political thinkers. He may have read them, and since I have read their main works I can tell you that I can recommend Machiavelli and Mosca strongly, like Burnham though his is clearly not on their level, though he was a very intelligent man who wrote well, and the others less, since they mixed in more that I regard as nonsense than the others did.

(**) Thus, I started to show my dissidence when I was seven, and kept standing up in the class, declaring that school was just too stupid for me, and walked out, quite proudly, and quite offended also, not because I had to learn, but because I did not learn anything. (The head master of the school was a kind and intelligent men, who at least three times fetched me from the street with his bike, and dediced I could read in the class what I wanted, mostly, if I did not hinder the others.)

Similar things happened quite a few times: When 14 I was to be removed from the German Democratic Republic (that is, the Soviet part at the time) because I kept insisting it was a "fascistische Schweinerei" there, and as I outlined yesterday I in my turn was turned out of the University of Amsterdam because I was "a fascist" and not a member of the communist party (which would have made me professor of philosophy with virtual certainty, if only I had it in me to lie and kiss ass for a career).

In the end this is just the personal characteristic one is very probably born with, that Chamfort described thus:

"Presque tous les hommes sont esclaves, par la raison que les Spartiates donnaient de la servitude des Perses, faute de savoir prononcer la syllabe non. Savoir prononcer ce mot et savoir vivre seul sont les deux seuls moyens de conserver sa liberté et son charactère."

I am not thus, and neither were my parents.

As to leadership: I have had the capacities for it and can get it - indeed, it was repeatedly trust on me, or at least I was insistently asked to take the lead, but I am too much of a scholarly and theoretical and thinking type to care for being a leader, which I found also mostly boring and unpleasant when I was.

And I really rather walk in a wood all by myself (with a good book, to rest with in the shade) than exercise power over men in social institutions: That is boring and is not worth my efforts. (Here I am rather like Hazlitt.)

(***) And they feel that way, as very few do not feel that way, and a considerable multiple of those very few pretend (or hope, or believe) they do not feel that way (and so read Managements-, Leaderships, and Selfdevelopment-courses), and then become Bureaucrats or Business-Leaders, with Bonuses.

Maarten Maartensz

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