Where Exactly Does the Cruelty of The Prince Reside?

What is below is subject to being revised entirely at a later date.

Allowing man to acquire all he wants is the unleashing of vice. We know moderation is key in some form to all the virtues. But to see the uses of virtue and vice, one has to move beyond the individual, as in the following from Christopher Nadon, pg. 22 of his Introduction to Xenophon’s Prince

If Manlius and Valerius won equal success against Rome’s enemies, they do not earn Machiavelli’s equal praise. He claims that Manlius’ mode of proceeding was better for a republic. His harshness, love of the common good, and reverence for the fatherland – manifest in his ordering the execution of his own son – inspired his soldiers with obedience but did not win him “particular friends” or “partisans” who could then advance his (and their) “private ambitions.” So useful was Manlius to Rome, Machiavelli claims, that “if a republic were so happy that it often had [such a] one who with his example might renew the laws, and not only restrain it from running to ruin but pull it back, it would be perpetual. Machiavelli’s judgment of Valerius is altogether different. His “kindness” and “humanity” earned him the goodwill of the soldiers, and this threatened to have “bad effects on freedom” when combined with the long military commands made inevitable by the expansion of the republic: “I conclude, therefore, that the proceeding of Valerius is useful in a prince and pernicious in a citizen, not only to the fatherland but to himself: to it, because those modes prepare the way to tyranny; to himself, because in suspecting his mode of proceeding, his city is constrained to secure itself against him to his harm.”

Now Nadon uses the martial metaphor here to discuss Machiavelli as a writer – Machiavelli discusses what is harsh and therefore takes on the risk of being “Manlian.” Someone like Xenophon, on the other hand, mentions the harsh things a ruler does but dwells on the ruler’s “Valerian” qualities, and thus does no good for a republic.

But let’s stay on the question of the comparison itself: what sort of rule is most beneficial to a republic? We’ve unleashed acquisition. We praise vices inasmuch they resemble virtues. In doing this, rulers relate to the ruled on terms the ruled can understand exactly. All this is useful.

However, last I checked, I didn’t see President Bush taking US citizens in large numbers and beating the crap out of them, or killing members of his own family. Where does the necessary cruelty of the Prince reside in the republic?

Some might say “empire,” and then add that the US beats up on other countries. We all know that kicking other countries around is bad, and ‘bad = empire.’ This proof is less than convincing. We probably need a more expansive definition of what empire is.

Manlius’ public spiritedness provides the clue: his private interest conflicts directly with the public good in the case of his son. In eliminating the private, he also destroys himself as a potential ancestor. Our public/private conflation is purposeful, and manifest in “right” according to the “popular will.” That’s the real difference between ancient and modern democracy, not the modern mechanism of popular government versus Athenian direct democracy or the modes and orders of the Romans – the essential difference is in how they hearken back to the ancestral in some way (Pericles aside).

The cruelty of the Prince is diffused amongst all of us, therefore, no matter how “energetic” an “executive” may be. All of us are engaged in the enterprise of beating up Fortuna, all of us are aware of our “rights” and aren’t so thrilled with virtue for its own sake, and the ancestral is used by us to proclaim what we think is good. The resulting order is humane, because utility and some measure of gregariousness go a long way. We don’t need to be perfect.

The downside is that the past can grow ever more remote as democracy marches on in this fashion – the past can be lost to our detriment. Manlius was an insane psychopath, Valerius was a wuss (knowing M, I’d better check this soon). We still have plenty of people like that around, and the last thing we need is their worst tendencies showing up at the wrong time.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting- I wonder what the longevity of Venice and Sparta says about this issue and the way that Machiavelli knows about that longevity and comments about it in the Discorsi.

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