24 May 2010

The Prince, Chapter 11: Ecclesiastical Principalities

The Prince chapter 11: "Concerning Ecclesiastical Principalities"*

This chapter concludes Machiavelli's discussion of different types of states, and from the modern perspective it is a curiously mixed affair, in equal parts thoroughly medieval and wholly modern, while simultaneously being as clear a statement of Machiavelli's adoration of strong leadership.

Substantively the chapter is about the recent rise of the Church to real political power, through the talents of the Borgian Pope, Alexander VI, (discussed in chapter 7), and how enthralling and admirable Machiavelli finds him.  There's nothing new there, so substantively this chapter contributes almost nothing to the book.

Medievalism in Machiavelli
But the medievalism of Machiavelli's thought comes in his opening remarks on ecclesiastical states, which--astonishingly--are the only ones which "can be maintained without either" good fortune or leadership ability,
they are supported by time-honored laws of religion, so powerful and of such nature as to leave their princes always in authority whatever kind of policy they may follow or whatever sort of life they may lead.

It is not simple dissolution that the ecclesiastical prince can get away with, but actually failing to govern.
Such princes alone have states and do not defend them, and subjects and do not govern them, and their states, though undefended are not taken from them. Their subjects make no complaints though ungoverned...These then are the only safe and happy principalities.

This is a nice historical insight into the character of the papal state when it really was a state,** and Machiavelli could just be engaging in strict positive analysis here, except for the curious--to modern ears--bit that follows.

Since, however, they are under the guidance of a higher influence beyond the grasp of the human mind, I will say nothing of them.  Set up and maintained by God, as they are, it would be the act of a rash and presumptuous man to analyze them.

The modern person need not be at all irreligious to balk at this claim. Even those who accept the existence of God are likely to object that it may in fact be humans who set up and maintain such states, claiming--perhaps sacrilegiously--to be acting under the guidance of God.  Even most Catholics today, at least American ones, view the Vatican as only nominally a state/principality, and don't attribute to it, or wish for it, much secular power.

And that, perhaps, is the crucial distinction between the medieval and the modern political mind--the question of the separation of sacred and secular authority.

Machiavellian Modernism
The distinctly modern element in this chapter is Machiavelli's discussion of relations between the Italian states, which perfectly illustrates the 20th century concept, prominent in the field of International Relations, of the balance of power, the idea that state's efforts to seek their own self-preservation--a dominant theme in The Prince leads to a rough equilibrium of power among states.  When one state becomes too strong in its quest for preservation and dominance, others will ally against it and weaken it.***  Here is Machiavellli's overview of the Italian states in his day.

Before Charles of France came into Italy the peninsula was ruled by five powers: the Pope, the Venetians, the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan, and the Florentines.  These rulers had to keep two objects in mind: one, that a foreigner should not be allowed to enter Italy, the other, that no one of the five should increase his domain (emphasis added).  Those who gave most concern were the Pope and the Venetians.  To keep the Venetians in check it took a union of all the others...to keep the Pope down the barons of Rome were employed.

It would be too easy, perhaps, to overplay how modern Machiavelli is here.  The issue was right out there in the open, a basic principle of Italian politics, so he could hardly have missed it, and it is unlikely that Italy was the first place this structure had ever occurred.  But Machiavelli is, so far as I know, the first to so explicitly describe it and treat it as a purpose of each state, which is specifically how contemporary International Relations theorists treat it.

Stability and Order as Machiavelli's Goals?
As a way of conclusion, it's worth noting also Machiavelli's point that one of the two main objects of the Italian princes was to keep foreigners out.  The events that led to Machiavelli writing The Prince stemmed from the successful incursion of France into Italy.  From the perspective of the two goals Machiavelli describes here, his argument for strong leadership can be seen as being purely instrumental, tending toward the end of stability and order, under which the population could thrive in relative liberty.

That, I think, is an important concept for libertarians to wrestle with, and which too often we don't.  There is a strain of thought among some libertarians that in the absence of government there will be stability and peacefulness.  My own thinking is that human nature will lead to the organization of at least some societies on militaristic lines, necessitating that others follow suit or be invaded and subjugated.  In game theoretic terms, the socially optimal outcome (no state, no state) is a disequilibrium, and will be followed by a shift to (no state, state), and ultimately (state, state).

If that is correct, then even libertarians perhaps should favor a state strong enough to defend itself, to maintain the balance of power vis a vis other states.

Next Week: Chapter 12: "How Many Kinds Of Soldiery There Are, And Concerning Mercenaries."

*The long hiatus, in case anyone was actually waiting with bated breath for the next installment in this series, was caused by the typical end-of-term work overload, and an atypical case of burnout caused by trying to do too damn much for the past year and a half.

**Technically, it is still a state, sending and receiving ambassadors from other states, but it's no longer an influential actor in world affairs, and in many ways is little more than a glorified protectorate of Italy.

***In a more contemporary version, it doesn't have to just be states that organize against a too-strong state, but non-state actors as well.  E.g., al Qaeda.  Many IR theorists believe that the Bush administration's drive to have the U.S. be the only superpower in the world, in fact a hyperpower was ultimately self-defeating, because balance of power theory tells us that it just would mean an ever-increasing coalition of other states working in various ways to counteract our growing power.

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