Ethics, Machiavelli, and the Mystery of Existential Cruelty

Philosophically, the problem of Machiavelli’s ethics consists in nothing but the recognition of the elementary fact that the existence of man is burdened with conflicts of values. A spiritual morality will arrive at the Platonic insight that doing evil is worse than suffering evil. In practice, this insight can be made the governing rule of conduct only at the price of endangering, or making impossible, the realization of other values that also are given in human existence, such as one’s own existence, the existence of the community, and the civilizational values realized in community.

Since the existence of man is social, his actions are burdened with the responsibility for their effects on the values realized in the lives of other men. A statesman who does not answer an attack on his country with the order to shoot back will not be praised for the spiritual refinement of his morality in turning the other cheek, but he will justly be cursed for his criminal irresponsibility. Spiritual morality is a problem in human existence, precisely because there is a good deal more to human existence than spirit. All attacks on Machiavelli as the inventor or advocate of a "double morality" for private and public conduct, etc., can be dismissed as manifestations of philosophical ignorance.

As far as Machiavelli himself is concerned, his attitude toward problems of morality is clear beyond a doubt. We have seen his table of values [ranking men in the order of: Religion Founders, Republic and Realm Founders, Successful Generals, Men of Letters, and others according to their art or occupation]; And we have seen that he never tries to base morality on the necessities and expediencies of existence.

Never for a moment does he pretend that his immoral advice to the prince is moral. It would be a gross misunderstanding to classify his ethics with the sophistic "inversions"of the problems of existence that are characteristic of the Greek enlightenment of the fifth century B.C. and the Western enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The ethics of Callicles, for instance, which Plato discusses in the Gorgias, indeed tries to base the idea of justice on the right of the stronger; here we find the attitude of “might makes right.”

Machiavelli, on the other hand, would say that might makes for the establishment of order, for the liberation of Italy, and generally for the onore del mondo , but he would never say that these values include justice and morality. On the contrary, he is keenly aware that these values can be realized only by actions that in themselves are dishonorable and immoral and, therefore, need justification through the values they serve to realize. If they are used for the realization of power without value, then nothing is left but their immorality. In particular, as the case of Agathocles shows [previously discussed], the conversion of an existing order into an autocratic lordship, for no other purpose than the satisfaction of personal lust for power, must be considered sheer criminality.

This part of Machiavelli’s doctrine, as we have indicated previously, is probably the psychological cause for the excitement of the critics. Every political order is in some part an accident of existence. The mystery of existential cruelty and guilt is at the bottom of the best order; [and] while the dictum that "power is evil" cannot be maintained without qualification, it is true if it is qualified as characterizing the component of the existential accident in order.

By social convention this mystery of guilt is not admitted to public consciousness. A political thinker who through his work stimulates an uncomfortable awareness of this mystery will become unpopular with the intellectual retainers of an established order.

Chapter 1, The Order of Power: Machiavelli
§8, Conclusion, pp 82-83.