The More Things Change Watch....

The Writer's Almanac:

[Machiavelli] also argued that most people value their property more than the lives of their friends and family, and so in some situations it's okay for rulers to kill their citizens, but it's almost never okay to take away their property. He wrote, "Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge."
We have gladly slaughtered hundreds of thousands (mostly by willfully denying the slaughter) in Afghanistan and Iraq (I stand by the studies published in the Lancet), and sacrificed thousands of American lives as well (for which we are supposed to feel greater concern) for the sake of oil and ideas. And all, of course, without serious fear of revenge (although fear of retaliation has been used to justify our actions, and is still used to justify our military operations to this day). I've often noted that if you want to be disbarred, at least in Texas, just mess with your client's money. Even sleeping through a murder trial won't get you removed from the bar, but taking $100 of your client's money for your own purposes will.

What has always fascinated me about Machiavelli is how close Reinhold Niebuhr came to agreeing with him.


Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Besides, pretexts for taking away the property are never wanting; for he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse. But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.

Among the wonderful deeds of Hannibal this one is enumerated: that having led an enormous army, composed of many various races of men, to fight in foreign lands, no dissensions arose either among them or against the prince, whether in his bad or in his good fortune. This arose from nothing else than his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valour, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect. And shortsighted writers admire his deeds from one point of view and from another condemn the principal cause of them. That it is true his other virtues would not have been sufficient for him may be proved by the case of Scipio, that most excellent man, not of his own times but within the memory of man, against whom, nevertheless, his army rebelled in Spain; this arose from nothing but his too great forbearance, which gave his soldiers more licence than is consistent with military discipline. For this he was upbraided in the Senate by Fabius Maximus, and called the corrupter of the Roman soldiery. The Locrians were laid waste by a legate of Scipio, yet they were not avenged by him, nor was the insolence of the legate punished, owing entirely to his easy nature. Insomuch that someone in the Senate, wishing to excuse him, said there were many men who knew much better how not to err than to correct the errors of others. This disposition, if he had been continued in the command, would have destroyed in time the fame and glory of Scipio; but, he being under the control of the Senate, this injurious characteristic not only concealed itself, but contributed to his glory.
Or, if you will pardon a longer excerpt, this:

EVERY one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word. You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the Centaur Chiron to nurse, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make use of both natures, and that one without the other is not durable. A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about. Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance. Of this endless modern examples could be given, showing how many treaties and engagements have been made void and of no effect through the faithlessness of princes; and he who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best.

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived. One recent example I cannot pass over in silence. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise, and he always found victims; for there never was a man who had greater power in asserting, or who with greater oaths would affirm a thing, yet would observe it less; nevertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind.

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.

One prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name, never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.

The selfishness of nations is proverbial. It was a dictum of George Washington that nations were not to be trusted beyond their own interest. "No state," declares a German author, "have ever entered a treaty for any reason other than self interest," and adds: "A statesman who has any other motive deserves to be hung." "In every part of the world," said Professor Dickey, "where British interests are at stake, I am in favor of advancing these interests even at the cost of war. The only qualification I admit is that the country we desire to annex or take under our protection should be calculated to confer a tangible advantage upon the British Empire." National ambitions are not always avowed as honestly as this, as we shall see later, but that is a fair statement of the actual facts, which need hardly be elaborated for any student of history. (p. 84)
As for relationships between nations:

It is of course possible that the rational interest in international justice may become, on occasion, so widespread and influential that it will affect the diplomacy of states. But this is not usual. In other words the mind, which places a restraint upon impulses in individual life, exists only in a very inchoate form in the nation. It is, moreover, much more remote from the will of the nation than in private individuals; for the government expresses the national will, and that will is moved by the emotions of the populace and the prudential self-interest of dominant economic classes. Theoretically it is possible to have a national electorate so intelligent, that the popular impulses and the ulterior interests of special groups are brought under the control of a national mind. But practically the rational understanding of political issues remains such a minimum force that national unity of action can be achieved only upon such projects as are either initiated by the self-interest of the dominant groups, in control of the government, or supported by the popular emotions and hysterias which from time to time run through a nation. In other words the nation is a corporate unity, held together much more by force and emotion than by mind. Since there can be no ethical action without self-criticism, and no self-criticism without the rational capacity of self-transcendence, it is natural that national attitudes can hardly approximate the ethical. Even those tendencies toward self-criticism which do express themselves are usually thwarted by the governing classes and by a certain instinct for unity in society itself. For self-criticism is a kind of disunity, which the feeble mind of a nation finds difficulty in distinguishing from dangerous forms of inner conflict. So nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals on Golgotha, not being able to distinguish between the moral idealism which surpasses, and the anti-social conduct which falls below, that moral mediocrity on the level of which every society unifies its life.... [A]s Tyrell the Catholic modernist observed..."So far as society has a must be self-assertive, proud, self-complacent, and egotistical." (p. 87-89)
For Macchiavelli, of course, "society" is the Prince.

What Niebuhr was arguing against was the idea of a "Christian nation," of a country (not a group of people) that would adhere to Christian principles. Those principles require sacrifice and "moral idealism" which, as Niebuhr points out, no country can aspire to or even hope to achieve. Consider how easily emotions have been stirred in this country just since 9/11. Or that I received an e-mail the other day once again denouncing "Hanoi" Jane Fonda (the past really isn't over, especially for those of us who remember "Hanoi" Jane). The Jane Fonda example is a perfect example of the "difficulty in distinguishing...dangerous forms of inner conflict." Indeed, you could say the same about the entire Vietnam War, a conflict still alive and well for those of us who lived through it, but already ancient history and a unitary, settled issue ("College protests ended the war and everybody knows it was unjust!") to those with no memory of it. Some still think Jane Fonda committed treason; much simpler to see it that way. Some don't; and many, of course, know nothing about it, or consider it at best a minor historical footnote. But if Fonda is not guilty of treason for what she did during the war, what meaning does treason have? And if some are not guilty of war crimes, or at least violations of U.S. law, for committing and directing torture, what meaning do the laws have? Perhaps it's just a matter of whose ox is being gored. Perhaps it is a matter of whether the nation acts, or demands action. Clearly it is not a matter of individual choice, except for the individuals who have the power, or who exert the influence of the dominant class.

I see something similar in the accepted history of World War II. You need only watch "The Best Years of Our Lives" to see characters who declare a new depression will follow the end of that war, and that the war itself was unjust and unnecessary and a conspiracy among dark powers, to realize the picture even then was not so simple, nor the national mind so clear and rational and united, as we imagine. To this day we imagine that war as an ethical exercise, especially as we use it to justify new wars because "freedom is not free!", or some such nonsense. Of course, no one in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya, for that matter, threatens my freedom. As Osama bin Laden reportedly said, if he was fighting us because he hated our freedoms, why didn't he attack Sweden? But there was nothing ethical about World War II; it wasn't fought to end the Holocaust and establish the nation of Israel. It wasn't even fought to keep us free. We fought because we were attacked, and for no other reason. We have since decided it meant we must remain ever vigilant and truly make the world safe for democracy, and from that delusion came all of our post-war and Cold War history, right down to the current actions in Libya.

The nation Nieubuhr describes is little different from the prince Macchiavelli describes. Both must act in the interests of self-preservation, but preservation of a larger group, not of a small, homogeneous group. That reality is its own set of problems. The other set of problems comes when we cover our self-interest in self-justification, in a "higher purpose," in the decorative colors of a purpose other than our selfish ones. Perhaps at this point its timely to remember the words of Niebuhr far less famous than his "Serenity Prayer," but more appropriate:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.

“Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."

--Reinhold Niebuhr

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