Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MACHIAVELISM. If there can be two opinions with regard to Machiaveli, there can be but one with regard to machiavelism. Whether or not this political system was that of the man whose name it bears and tarnishes, no one can be found so audacious or so cynical as to defend it openly. There will always be those depraved enough to practice it deliberately and those weak enough to let themselves be drawn into it by self-interest; but the force of public opinion has at least achieved this much, that machiavelism can not be spoken of except to be contemned and repudiated. Kings, even the least scrupulous, have seen fit to oppose it, and have in their public utterances called in question its odious tenets when proposed for their acceptance. Frederick the Great and Voltaire, in the earlier days of their friendship, united in emphatically condemning Machiaveli's "Prince"; and it may not be out of place to give an example of the way in which it was spoken of by them. "How deplorable," writes Frederick, then prince royal (November, 1740), is the situation of a people which has everything to fear from the abuse of sovereign power, whose possessions fall a prey to a prince's rapacity, whose liberty is at the mercy of his caprice, whose peace depends on his ambition, whose safety rests on his falseheartedness, and whose life is the plaything of his tyrannical temper. Such is a tragical sketch of what a state, ruled by such a prince as Machiaveli's, might be." Voltaire, to whom the young man had long previously confided his praiseworthy aims, encouraged him in them, and said (May 20, 1738): "It was for the Borgias, father and son, and for all those petty princes who could only hope to obtain notoriety through crime, to make a study of that diabolical policy; it becomes a prince like you to despise it. Such scheming, fitly classed with that of a Locusta or a Brinvilliers, may have given a passing power to a few tyrants, as poison may procure an inheritance, but it has never made a man either great or happy; that is certain. The only possible result of this horrible policy is misery, both to one's self and to others."


—To define machiavelism is easy: it is the surrender of all principles to one, namely interest; the violation, and sacrifice to success, of every law of morality. This simple definition might seem, at the first glance, altogether inadequate, and the awful series of consequences which it embraces might for a moment escape notice, but, pondered carefully, the conviction will be arrived at, that this seemingly simple maxim once adopted as the supreme guide to conduct, there is no crime, however heinous, which might not result from it. Once let the confines of justice and duty be passed, and there remains nothing to hinder the taking of whatever steps may be deemed necessary to attain the object desired; the only real obstacle to the upsetting of all laws, divine or human, being lack of power, whether resulting from the weakness of individual faculties or from external opposition. He is no criminal who confines himself to wishing, and crime carried only to a certain pitch is perhaps even rarer than virtue. Let, however, one false step be taken and others must follow, and, as advance is made, criminality increases, till it equals that of a Cæsar Borgia, Machiaveli's paragon, and the model of his "Prince." Machiavelism begins in falsehood, which it uses as other men use truth. If ordinary falsehood is insufficient for its purpose, it then makes use of the solemn form of lying called perjury to reassure its victims and entrap them the more readily. These are its most innocent means. But as a lie quickly begets distrust and puts men on their guard, recourse must be had to more efficacious means, in short, to violence in all its forms, from the spoliation which weakens, to the assassination, open or secret, which removes them altogether. Here, briefly, is the career of machiavelism, but there are few even among the most hardened who are capable of carrying it out in its entirety; to do that, their conscience must be utterly devoid of every idea of good and evil, and blinded by an unbridled lust for possession and power. In its worst form, when united to the necessary power, no villainy is too great to be dreamt of and accomplished by it. To a first crime committed with impunity are quickly added all the others which passion begets, and which hearts, insensible to the horror of their deeds and no longer in dread of punishment, can execute. As Voltaire has well said, nothing is established by machiavelism, and all success gained by it, when success is gained, is temporary, rarely lasting even the brief lifetime of him who buys it at so high a price. But this remark of Voltaire's is almost as old as machiavelism itself, dating from long ages before Machiaveli was to give to that policy the name which at once describes it and dishonors him. We need but to open Plato's "Dialogues" to find in the "Republic" and the "Gorgias" stray features of the machiavelism of the ancients, treating it with the just scorn which it merits. The admirable passages, so applicable to the despots of every age, and in which they are described in language the truth of which is unalterable, should be read. It is not here that those protests of humanity against oppressors and wrong-doers who are in power ought to be repeated, protests as old as the indignation of honest men against the abominations of crime, but we may quote these last words in which Aristotle sums up his incomparable description of a tyrant: "All those schemes, with so many others of a like nature by means of which tyranny tries to maintain its dominion, are profoundly perverse"; and a little farther on, appealing to the testimony of history, he adds, "and yet in spite of all these precautions, the least stable of governments are oligarchy and tyranny; everything considered, most tyrannies have had but a very brief existence." Machiaveli himself might have seen in his own lifetime to what the duke of Valentinois was brought by so much craft united to so much power: having languished in prison after prison he met his death under the walls of an obscure village in Spain which he had besieged; an end, after all, too good for such as he. But from this example Machiaveli learned nothing, and the "Prince" appeared some time after Cæsar Borgia had expiated his crimes by his downfall and exile. Machiavelism will never perish; changing to suit times, places and peoples, it will live as long as men are vicious, or there is power in the hands of the evil-minded which it is possible for them to misuse.


—There have been long and disastrous periods during which all policy, home or foreign, was but a series of machiavelian manœuvres, and during which men considered anything justifiable when used against a foe, either foreign or domestic. The middle ages present an unbroken record of these hateful practices, which all accepted, each endeavoring to turn them to his own advantage. This infernal statecraft, to borrow again Voltaire's expression, reached its climax in the Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Machiaveli did but frame its code. It was adopted by such men as Louis XI. and Philip II.; it still sullied France under the Valois, and sometimes even under Richelien. In our own days it remains the only political system known to a number of petty states, but half civilized, given up to an anarchy almost barbarous and wholly corrupt. In the larger states it has had to disappear, or at least to a certain extent to disguise itself in presence of the law of nations and public honesty; notwithstanding which, there have been occasional disgraceful outbreaks, and our own times furnish a notable example which history stigmatizes by the name of the attentat (attempt) of Bayonne (see Adolphe Thiers' "History of the Consulate and the Empire," books xxix.,xxx.,xxxi., Aranjuez, Bayonne and Baylin). The way in which Napoleon I. obtained possession of the Spanish crown is a chain of acts of perfidy unworthy of so great a man, planned against unfortunates without a defense against it, and forged with a skill and a cunuing vigor which has never been surpassed by the cleverest adepts of machiavelism. With the murder of the Duc d'Eughien it is, as Thiers justly says, "the second of the two stains which tarnish his glory." (Vol. viii., p.658.) But, a moralist as well as an historian, Thiers does not fail to point out the punishment which followed the crime, and instances Baylin as the first expiation for Bayonne. The Spanish war gave occasion for, if it was not the sole cause of, Napoleon's reverses and those of France. But such legitimate retribution the outcome of events, like to avenging justice and a warning of Providence, never discourages crime; led away by force of circumstances, and hoping by redoubled adroitness to escape punishment, it is ever ready to renew its dark plotting. Only where there is such refinement of manners as we find in Europe to day, machiavelism must remain within certain limits, and that it may exist at all it is obliged to be less open and less cruel than it was in a coarser and more barbarous age. The best means of suppressing machiavelism altogether is to give it publicity, to let free discussion unveil the real nature of the equivocal acts through the agency of which it hopes to escape the tribunal of public opinion. The first care of a machiavelian policy is to stifle such voices as might complain, and still more such as might judge. Concealment is an evidence of guilt, if not in fact at least in intention; and honesty, especially when armed with the power to do right, may brave all criticism, for it is little likely to be disregarded, and when it is, it is always easy for it to cause erring minds to retrace their steps. Silence, then, is the necessary condition of all machiavelian power, and one of the safeguards, feeble though it be, which it always aims at securing. Had public opinion been able to discuss in 1808 what was going to take place at the château de Marac between Napoleon and the Spanish Bourbons, there is every reason to suppose that the great emperor would have spared himself and France many a misfortune, and not have sullied his reputation by such base disloyalty. The public conscience would have enlightened and regulated that of the conqueror, and prevented him degrading himself to play the part of a despoiler. It is to be presumed, besides, that he himself saw his error and felt the unworthiness of his conduct. But the Spanish crown was at stake, and the irresistible omnia pro dominatione made him believe that in robbing that weak old king he was putting the coping stone of the French empire and of his own policy in place. A great lesson this, but one that will not be very profitable so long as men have more cupidity than virtue, and more passion than wisdom.


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