Leo Strauss, “Thoughts on Machiavelli”

for Laura Jensen


Daughter’s If You Leave refuses to let go. Over and over it indulges pains the mere thought of loss could provoke. Some might think this overblown, adolescent angst brought to a grander stage. Personally, I’m inclined to the view of Mr. Sam Shepherd of musicOMH: “The emotional honesty that informs every second of Daughter’s… album is so raw and damaged that it actually becomes quite frightening.” We have been given something raw and honest, terrible in its beauty. What now?

“Medicine,” from The Wild Youth EP, sold me on the band. The lyrics set up the problem of love and loss, letting it be tangled and complex. The speaker pleads with another to go “home.” “You could still be, / what you want to, / What you said you were, / when I first met you.” From these few lines, “home” sounds unqualifiedly good, staying completely bad. Ay, here’s the rub:

You’ve got a warm heart,
you’ve got a beautiful brain.
But it’s disintegrating,
from all the medicine.

If the audience of the message stays, the medicating continues, and everything continues to break down. If he leaves, the medicating stops. The speaker talks of “home,” implies the recovery of wholeness, is vague about everything else. Not for nothing do some people think this is about the “choice” cancer treatments pose. I tend to imagine it as the self-medicating which occurs in bad relationships. You can quit on being loved in some awful but still concrete way, hoping your pain will subside as you walk away and fend for yourself. Or you can take drugs, feel better, pass the time, hope you don’t break down completely.

Private, local pains are not small or irrelevant. They constitute worlds unto themselves, defining how we see anything and everything. Yet I do wonder what can be learned from their confession.


Machiavelli confesses a different way, shall we say. Credo – “I believe” – prefaces critical statements in works otherwise cryptograms. It is easy to get lost in what seems never-ending puzzles, forgetting the details of his personal pain. Dejected and disgraced after holding a senior post in a failed republic; hung from his wrists tied behind his back, feeling every moment of his shoulders dislocating.

Machiavelli’s mind contemplates both universal questions and particular practical problems. As the Letter to Vettori attests, he has no choice but to enter dialogue with the past, searching for nearly everything there. If he obtains wisdom, so be it. The necessity of imagined, ghostly interlocutors stands fundamental:

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study…. I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them. (1)

An intimacy with old books is detailed which we might dismiss as delusional. He talks to dead kings and statesmen? He feels welcomed by them, given access to their motives and knowledge? He’s no longer afraid of death? These sound like the rantings of an insane man. In Xenophon, Socrates declares that he reads old books with his companions all the time, looking for wise things in which to take pleasure. Socrates, to be clear, is full of it. Only one instance remotely like this exists in all of Xenophon, and its erotic overtones are unmistakable. (2)

Of course, Machiavelli takes the time to document, closely, carefully, and cryptically, his engagement with the past. His work attests to far more than a passing acquaintance with Livy, Tacitus, Xenophon, and Plutarch. The description in the Letter above is the heart of the matter. Belief in his search, his task, makes what may otherwise be delusional the height of nobility.


What enterprise does he dare which requires so many bold claims, so much imaginative introspection? It feels like his pain pushed him to remake the world. All of it had to be remade: the medieval, feudal order and its traditional and ancient underpinnings had to go (cf. the title of Discourses I.26). His subversive, evil teaching, which involves using religion and turning morality on its head, could not be written in order as an instruction manual. Instead, it is chopped up and scattered so as to dodge the censors, appeal to particular audiences, and avoid causing immediate revulsion in those audiences.

There are clues in numerology, omissions, contradictions, references, and titles to the true order within his works. Nonetheless, those clues are frustrating to employ in large part. The more you try to use them, the more you scratch your head and wonder: Can anyone really read like this at length? Is it possible to learn anything from continuous and immediate rearrangement of the very book you’re trying to master? The clues have to be subordinate to a more intuitive approach to reading. Leo Strauss, in Thoughts on Machiavelli, provides the essential theme of the Discourses, one which would easily ensnare an ambitious reader of the Renaissance: the superiority of ancient orders to contemporary (modern) ones. (3) That theme alone can create a diligent, note-taking reader, one willing to write a manual for himself as he goes along. It is part and parcel of learning how to rule, after all. The theme lends itself to ordering Machiavelli’s comments in a useful way: maybe you’d put together a page or two on types of governments, or how cities are founded, conquered, kept, reordered, or how people respond to laws or policies in particular circumstances.

In which case, as soon as the advice on any one of these issues or others is put together, the subversive twist, one breaking from things both ancient and modern, is impossible to miss. To use a very famous example from The Prince: regarding types of government, Machiavelli speaks of principalities, places ruled by a prince. It looks like, at first glance, he’s trying to enable princes to simply conquer Fortune, achieve whatever they want. But one of his most elaborate examples of such a prince, the infamous Cesare Borgia, ultimately fails in his bid for power. And there are strong hints in other parts of his text that Machiavelli considers himself a prince. If his works are burned, it is because he has made himself something to be feared, not loved.

Perhaps the most subversive teachings concern maintaining a city. The topic seems wholly innocuous, unless one thinks beyond one’s situation to the problems of civil war, revolution, tyranny. Machiavelli argues that the religious order of his day, Christianity under the universal Church, does not have the flexibility, concern, or proper means to keep a people free. He makes this argument indirectly, as over and over he praises the ancient religion, the religion of the Romans, and how it was well used in supporting enterprises which were necessary, or ones where much could be gained and little lost, keeping class conflict in line, helping people be secure and not turn on each other like animals. (4) A quick glance at the various wars fought in Italy in Machiavelli’s time testify to the need for security and stability. Religion used rightly could aid proper governance.

Religion used wrongly? Again, an indirect critique. The Samnites, facing a battle with the Romans upon which their survival depended, held a ritual where the soldiers, one-by-one, would swear before an altar never to flee and kill anyone they saw fleeing (Discourses I.15). Some soldiers did not take the oath and were slaughtered on the spot. The Roman commander, hearing of all this, said two things to his men. First, Roman javelins should have no problem with their opponents’ shields. Second, the Samnites have nothing but fear of everything, and no actual strength. The Romans won the battle. What of the inhuman ritual, one which aimed to create courage through fear and trembling? What of insisting on a complete coincidence between private feelings and public virtues? The Samnites insisted on perfection while degrading the very people they needed to be perfect.

In the final analysis, Machiavelli pushes for things we take for granted. Enlightenment, secular government, private property, an emphasis on freedom and security rather than morality, equality before the law. Strauss’ contention about the Discourses, that Machiavelli presents himself as restoring ancient modes but goes far beyond, is half the battle. The notes one would take on regimes and tactics don’t address the most fundamental question: Who is Machiavelli to tell us all these things in the first place? I rather like Harvey Mansfield’s careful dissecting of a complicated statement from The Prince: “Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.” (5) At first, we’re apt to take this on its face, as we’ve heard that Machiavelli taught evil or unleashed nationalistic passion in the hope of revolution. Then we realize how utterly false it is. Jesus was most certainly not armed and yet conquered. Machiavelli himself is an unarmed prophet. What Machiavelli must mean is something about being armed in a different sense, perhaps having prudence, or knowledge that enables one to engage in spiritual warfare. (6)


Our pains can remake the world, if they don’t already. But a funny thing about achievement of that magnitude is that it goes so far beyond what pain actually calls for: some sense of restitution, a sense of resolve, a space for healing. Those things seem almost meager, and they’re very difficult to get. Indeed, some people engaged in the grandest enterprises have gotten used to being ignored.

Which brings me back to Daughter. I’m listening to “In the Shallows,” with its delicate guitar and quiet, building instrumentation. The vocals cry, and the lyrics are heavy with suicidal-sounding verses:

And let it all rain down
From the blood stained clouds
Come out, come out, to the sea my love
And just
Drown with me

To state the obvious: I believe this song to be absolutely beautiful, and I don’t take it as a hymn to self-harm or suicide. For me, it’s about investing everything in a relationship, trying to get love right, make life right, and failing. What you hope, what I hope, is for our grief to be understood by each other. Unfortunately, the one who would most understand is already going. Hence, the cry to him/her:

If you leave
when I go
find me
in my shallows

One is left alone, left to own one’s grief to continue living. That grief is as a death, and I do remember a short poem of Dickinson’s being blithely dismissive of it. “Some things that stay there be / Grief — Hills — Eternity — / Nor this behooveth me.” Dickinson is wise on many matters, but if speaking past grief were so simple, we wouldn’t be human. Our pains make us responsible, strangely enough. Not in the limited sense that we learn from pain, but in that we feel very much part of the world. That sometimes, in giving ourselves our due, we are merely, rightly, truly asserting our place. No less than Machiavelli would agree. At length he emphasizes keeping things within the ordinary when possible, typically using “extraordinary” to describe the influence of another world upon us.


1. Machiavelli, Letter to Vettori. Quoted from Wikipedia’s entry on Machiavelli, accessed 11/29/2015: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli

2. Xenophon, Memorabilia I.6.14 ; Symposium 4.27-28

3. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. p. 91-92

4. ibid., p. 86

5. Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. p. 3-4

6. ibid., p. 101