Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is reviled for espousing political ruthlessness when he should be hailed for diagnosing the varieties of political confusion. His achievement seems especially pertinent these days, if only because so many aspects of modern life replicate situations in his own. Centuries may not repeat themselves—a logical absurdity—but their patterns often imitate those of recognizable historical dilemmas.
The most important Renaissance political philosopher, who is still read everywhere and no doubt for just this reason, Machiavelli lived through a period of shattering Italian, not to mention European, disorder. The Christian world, together with its economics, science, medicine, politics and war-making, had splintered. In the eyes of many, it had imploded. Strangely, it recovered, only to implode again. A Christian-Ptolemaic ideological system, which for hundreds of years had offered an explanation of what might be happening, usually by attributing terrors such as the plague to divine intervention, seemed vulnerable. At a minimum, it seemed ill-suited to describing the changes in progress. Those nostalgic for the older medieval certainties began to find it cold comfort. An overriding problem was that fashionable beliefs were succumbing to a powerful new empiricism. As the more modern, quasi-scientific attitude burrowed its way through human industrial, legal, medical and aesthetic activities in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, extraordinary questions cropped up in unsettling ways.
What, for instance, might be the role of chance in human affairs? How could political stability be preserved in the face of misery and aristocratic arrogance? Should it be? Was injustice often preferable to justice?
To grasp something of Machiavelli’s modern relevance it may be enough to acknowledge these very questions as bedeviling the attention of modern populations, or masses of the disaffected and alienated. Occupy Wall Street reflects an international malaise. The Arab Spring may well turn into a Russian or Chinese Winter. New technologies have become a catalyst for mass movements. On the other hand, it may be sensible to take note not so much of these approximate parallels, playing a somewhat shopworn this-is-like-that card, as to consider the resemblances between patterns of Renaissance and modern disorder. These too are propelled by a formidable wave of empiricism.
Today, as when Machiavelli traveled by horseback across much of Italy, France and Germany on diplomatic assignments for the Florentine Signoria, ideology, especially of the political sort, seems not only under attack but teetering toward collapse. So-called “totalistic” accounts of history are rejected as misleading if not inaccurate by hefty majorities, or at least since 1989 and the collapse of Soviet-style communism. This is not to suggest that Marxists are no longer around—they are—only that the ranks of those who believe that at bottom human history, or its “totality,” consists of class struggle, or purely economic problems and their derivatives, have dramatically declined. Even the ideologically committed are apt to view economics as based in more than a competition between capitalists and workers. Psychology is accepted as fundamental. Game theory, which has nothing to do with class struggle, is seen as unconsciously guiding huge numbers of economic choices. So is nationalism, or feelings of nation or group superiority, which may lead to wars and genocidal outbursts damaging to crucial interests of all types. So is chance.
The role of chance, or what Machiavelli and his fellow Florentines termed Fortuna, the all-powerful, indifferent, punishing, ancient Roman goddess (though the Romans never thought of her as terribly influential), is once again accorded star billing. Her consent is courted, her whims dreaded.
To Machiavelli, Fortuna simply meant changing circumstances. Then as now, these seemed not only uncontrollable and unpredictable but inevitable. They included the wide world’s bag of dirty and welcome tricks: bad weather, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, inventions (such as the arquebus, or fourteenth-century handgun) and illness (Machiavelli describes Cesare Borgia’s downfall as resulting from a coincidence between his sudden personal illness and the death of his papal father). History was not “one damned thing after another,” but it amounted to a vast if limited crapshoot.
Given this risky situation, Machiavelli viewed extreme flexibility, unquestionably distasteful to many people, and especially to ethical and ideological purists, as the key to political success. Cherished principles could never apply everywhere. Negotiating with Fortuna would prove more baffling than striking questionable bargains with human enemies. Democracy as well as tyranny would sometimes fail. Few politicians would show themselves capable of the adroitness essential for survival. Constant change, in alignment with Fortuna’s whims, would be forever in demand. The chief reason for Machiavelli’s admiration of the ancient Romans was that, over long stretches of time, they had managed it.
Paul Oppenheimer is the author of Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology (Continuum, December 2011) as well as Rubens: A Portrait and Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior. He is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at The City College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.