Leone, Volpe …e Aquila

August 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , )

It seems to be a common misconception that Leo Strauss inspired himself in Niccolo Machiaveli. In my view, that his thesis were influenced by the Florentine secretary is quite clear and Strauss himself wrote abundantly on Machiavelli but it is a misconception that neo-conservatism derives from the Machiavellian school.

There are many who enjoy writing on the similarities between the two, on when and how the American’s ideas were shaped by those of the Florentine. Regrettably, scholars and researchers seldom take the time to consider what sets them apart. There are even those who go as far as to have difficulty in setting them apart, not trying to hide an ill-considered admiration for both…

First and foremost the academia might like to start with the moral considerations Leo Strauss made of Machiavelli. The secretary was often complemented in Strauss’s work for his brilliance and revolutionary ideas, for the pioneering rationale of his thought. That being said, Machiavelli’s groundbreaking thought aside, Strauss often used the Machiavellian school to mark a contrast with the proposed theories which he himself advocated.

For Strauss after all, Machiavelli represented the foundation of the very philosophical forces which neoconservatism was being conceived to fight. Machiavellian ethics had been insidiously crucial to the separation of Church and State, to the advent of liberalism but the Machiavellian teachings also marked the original sin of the liberal school in so far as it carried with it the nihilist gene for Nietzschean social disintegration.

This alone ought to give pause for those who are too eager to precipitously establish the analogy between the two thinkers. However, there are other aspects. One in particular will be addressed, for in today’s post-modern societies it is one of the most controversial: deception.

I assert that Leo Strauss reified the term.

Many neocons are not religious but in spite of this they are prominent thinkers of the GOP and the religious right, in America. The reason for this is the straussian belief in the need for Machiavellian methods in the triumph of good against evil. For the neoconservatives, society is to be a consensus of morality since only morality can check the inherently subversive forces of liberalism. Social morality therefore is a necessary fiction meant to preserve society as a cohesive compact; and the neoconservative pundits are thus comfortable in their respective advisory roles.

This logic however perverts the Machiavellian rationale and it does so in two different ways: on one hand it applies to society, precepts advised for the political leadership, on the other hand it mistakes ends with means.

‘Il Principe’ was meant for a statesman, it taught the natural need for pragmatism and cold calculism in politics but Strauss’s interpretation of Machiavellian deception is erroneous in its assumption that deception can be equated to myth. Both imply deceit but only the latter can be messianic. Strauss as an American naturally tends to understand deception as a mechanism for condescending fiction, a natural emulation of the Founding Fathers’ legacy. This is dangerous and it reveals the bias of a national of an ideological empire. Only a national of a new country which has known but one guiding regime ideology can misunderstand the teachings of a renaissance sceptic ideologue, only he can interpret a historically empirical observation as an instrument for the service of a specific normative doctrine. The danger comes from the inherent potential for social engineering. Machiavelli was not writing a utopia, he was not prescribing the parameters for the perfect society – he was advising a political leader not a social worker.

For Machiavelli attitudes such as cruelty or charisma are nothing but instruments for the wielding of power:

‘A wise prince will seek means by which his subjects will always and in every possible condition of things have need of his government and then they will always be faithful to him’.

For Strauss these attitudes are not supposed to serve the leader or the state but rather the contemporary and not yet corrupted form of liberal society.

In Strauss, Machiavelli’s means – justified by the ends – are instead ends in themselves. The straussian deception is the fiction of the moral society. This fiction/deception/myth is both the means and the end of the urgent preservation of liberalism from its nihilistic tendencies. Straussian doctrine exists as chronological exception whereas Machiavellian doctrine exists as historical normality. The former is based on a linear perspective of history with democratic liberalism at the top of human socio-political evolution, the latter is based on an empirical and circular vision of history where human behaviour is by and large a constant.

On the necessary qualities to feign for the benefit of the masses, the Prince is advised by Machiavelli to primarily feign piety and morality. Of course it is one thing to keep the masses convinced of their leader’s moral superiority, it is another altogether to transform the masses themselves into an amorphous morally compliant throng.

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1 Comment

  1. dptrombly said,

    Well said – I believe in Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli, he directly opposes Americanism and Machiavellianism in the introduction. Of course, to many left and liberal critics of Strauss, neoconservatism and Machiavellianism are equally noxious concepts.

    Strauss is all about a return to classical political philosophy, a tradition which Machiavelli poses a clear break to with his modernism. Straussian deception and his anti-liberal tendencies owe much more to Plato than to Machiavelli.

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