Machiavelli on the Hustings

A manuscript of Niccolo' Machiavelli's 'Il Principe.’ ('The Prince') is displayed at Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze on December 10, 2013 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

In his great but now neglected 1943 book The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, James Burnham—also author of The Managerial Revolution and an important early figure at National Review—argues that Niccolò Machiavelli, the famous and infamous Florentine political theorist, is misunderstood. Burnham insists that Machiavelli wrote about politics in an amoral way not because he was an amoralist but because he was attempting to apply something like the scientific method to the study of politics. In Burnham’s estimate, the moral prescriptivists in politics are something like a doctor who tries to treat cancer by expressing his disapproval of cancer, whereas Machiavelli, to extend the metaphor, was more like an oncologist attempting to understand how the disease actually works. Though he was himself a republican, Machiavelli addressed his most famous advice to The Prince, both because princes were what were available to him and because he believed that his own political project, the unification of Italy, could be achieved only by monarchical means. Burnham asserts:

Science limits the function of goals or aims. The goals themselves are not evidence; they cannot be allowed to distort facts or the correlations among facts. The goals express our wishes, hopes, or fears. They therefore prove nothing about the facts of the world. No matter how much we may wish to cure a patient, the wish has nothing to do with the objective analysis of his symptoms, or a correct prediction of the probable course of the disease, or an estimate of the probable effects of a medicine. If our aim is peace, this does not entitle us, from the point of view of science, to falsify human nature and the facts of social life in order to pretend to prove that “all men naturally desire peace,” which, history so clearly tells us, they plainly do not. If we are interested in an equalitarian democracy, this cannot be a scientific excuse for ignoring the uninterrupted record of natural social inequality and oppression.

For Burnham, sentimentality is a species of dishonesty. The term “political science” is a misleading one—the study of politics is not a science, and “political science” belongs to the great catalog of pretentious pseudosciences and newfangled “-ologies” such as “social science” and “sociology,” part of the great 19th century linguistic inflation that gave us terms such as “social worker.” Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to aspire to a style of inquiry and analysis that is, as the word is used by Burnham, scientific. (I suppose “economic science” is useful for distinguishing what Paul Krugman did from what Paul Krugman does.) Burnham’s “scientific” cast of mind is certainly a welcome palate cleanser for the early 21st century reader of political journalism, who is force-fed a diet of pure high-grade hooey like a goose being subjected to gavage, a nasty process that at least has the benefit of producing foie gras. (Modern American political discourse produces an entirely different kind of animal product.) Burnham stated his ambitions plainly in the subtitle of The Managerial Revolution—he wanted to communicate “what is happening in the world.” Machiavelli, he argued, wasn’t the wicked schemer in the caricature—he was more like something somewhere between a responsible reporter and an honest academic.

In that spirit—and as the 2024 presidential election gets dreadfully under way in earnest—it is a good time for a little Burnham-and-Machiavelli-inspired look at “what is happening in the world,” or in our little corner of it.

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