Ol’ Nick, to refer to our author by his demonic nickname, finds villainy* somewhat problematic, but not terribly so. His appraisal seems to lie more in how one applies villainy, rather than whether one is a villain or not. As he’s shown before, his concern seems to be with outcome rather than method. The praiseworthy outcome is maintaining control over one’s territory, and method is judged by how well it promotes that end. Because villainy, properly used, contributes to maintaining the principality, Machiavelli cannot simply condemn it, but because done badly it makes it impossible to maintain one’s position, he cannot simply condone it either.
An example makes clear what Machiavelli means by villainy:
Agathocles the Sicilian rose not only from private life but from the lowest and most abject position to be King of Syracuse… [H]e called together one morning the people and senate of Syracuse, as if he had to deliberate on matters of importance to the republic, and at a given signal had all the senators and the richest men of the people killed by his soldiers.
I guess that’s to be expected from a man who “led a life of the utmost wickedness through all the stages of his fortune.” But while Agathocles earned his position through his own abilities, “not by the favour of any other person,” Machiavelli cannot offer him much praise.
It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow-citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, and without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.
That last part is worth noting. There is little doubt that Machiavelli is enthralled with the heroic actor. There may be no glory without a principality, but a principality does not automatically ensure glory. And Machiavelli’s concept of virtue must also be addressed. Although virtue in the sense of moral rightness would fit logically in the quote above, moral rightness is not Machiavelli’s meaning. Other translations use the word “excellence,” which is perhaps clearer, but despite the potential for confusion, I prefer the word virtue, the root of which is virtus, or strength, whose root is vir or man. Virtue, then, is manliness, and Machiavelli is perhaps arguing that while real manliness may be exhibited through warfare and wholesale execution of ruling family members, it is not exhibited through deceitful tactics and unfaithfulness.
This is, of course, unforgivably sexist, or as a feminist might say, masculinist, and I have no patience with the idea that a man can only demonstrate his excellence through warfare. And yet there is a core to this idea that is easy to overlook in today’s political climate. Strength in adversity, an ability to master events rather than letting them master you, faithfulness to friends, compassion (pity)—all these are, by this reading, masculine virtues. Perhaps they ought simply to be human virtues, but virtues they are nonetheless, and Machiavelli, to his credit, disdains those without them.
But his condemnation is tempered by temporal considerations. When the Prince uses these tactics is crucial to his judgment, and depending on the timing, villainy may be “exploited well or badly.” When done well, the “cruelties” are used only for attaining one’s position, and “afterward not persisted in, but are exchanged for measures as useful to one’s subjects as possible,” which allows the Prince to “remedy in some measure their condition, both with God and man.” Remedying their condition with man is not least important here, because the Prince who ceases his cruelties has a chance to hold onto his territory, which is, for Machiavelli, the all-important measure. But for those Princes who continues their wickedness, Machiavelli imposes his ultimate condemnation: “[I]t is impossible for them to maintain themselves.”
This discussion culminates in one of Machiavelli’s most famous, and probably among his most condemned, conclusions:
For injuries should be done altogether, so that being less tasted, they will give less offense. Benefits should be granted little by little, so that they may be better enjoyed.
In this chapter Machiavelli has ably demonstrated his penchant for thoroughly intermingling ethical and practical judgments, in a way that suggests he spent little time considering the distinction between the two. For him perhaps there was no meaningful distinction, so that while we consider him the first of the modern political theorists, he is modern in a pernicious sense. I am reminded of Theodore F. T. Plucknett’s comment in his A Concise History of the Common Law, in which he describes law as essentially medieval, and favors it over the modern amoral state which values only power. So far, the virtue of law has not entered into Machiavelli’s argument at all, only the virtue of power.
Next Week: Chapter 9: "Of the Civic Principality."
*Or “wickedness” as the online version I’ve linked to calls it. I have another translation which translates it as crime. Having no knowledge of Italian, so that I cannot make a principled judgment on which is the superior word, I will stick with villainy, which is indisputably the more poetic choice.