Niccolo Machiavelli is an enigma wrapped in a household name. For three hundred years after his death in 1527 he was regarded as a deep threat: a powerful, indeed demonic atheist and a persuasive teacher of evil. Later, however, critics began to see him as a symbol and forerunner (that is, they began to take him less seriously as a living thinker). In the nineteenth century he became regarded as an Italian patriot and a republican-a liberal moralist. In the first half of our century, some saw in him a thinker who dispassionately described how things actually worked but refrained on principle from drawing any moral conclusions-the first "value-free social scientist". Others concluded that he was unable to choose between what he sensed to be incompatible, equally valid, political and moral imperatives-that he was a muddler. None of these views shared the appreciation which Machiavelli's first readers had for his depth, power, and moral daring. Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, however, go a good way back to the old view, as they make clear in the introduction to their new translation of the Discourses on Livy. For them, Machiavelli was indeed a threat to the old order. He instigated a profound revolt against Christianity and ancient philosophy, a revolt that was much more important than the return to the ancients effected by the Renaissance. He transformed the grounds not only for political philosophy but also for moral and natural philosophy, metaphysics and epistemology.
The Discourses on Livy is arguably Machiavelli's most important book, and this translation was sorely needed. The readily available translations, by Leslie Walker (Penguin Books) and by Christian Detmold (Modern Library), are very unreliable, based on out-of-date scholarship, and currently printed only in flimsy paperbacks. This has made it even more difficult than it need be to give the Discourses on Livy the kind of attention necessary for coming to grips with it. As a result, the work does not have the wide general readership which it deserves, and debate about Machiavelli among political theorists has been much hampered. But now Mansfield and Tarcov, the former the author of three major books on Machiavelli, have met this need with their excellent new translation. It is a major scholarly event as well as a wonderful gift to all serious readers.
The style and organization of the Discourses makes it enormously difficult to translate. First of all, Machiavelli's terminology is both very everyday and very idiosyncratic. Mansfield and Tarcov strive to translate his terms as consistently as possible while preserving readability. Thus the English usages often seem forced or inconsistent and the connotations wrong; but this should make us alert to what resonances Machiavelli wants his new concept, rather than the traditional Italian word, to carry. Virtý is only the most notorious example; natura is another, as are ordine and principe. Sometimes, of course, a literal translation is simply impossible. In such cases the translators often give the literal term in a footnote-when the term is one of Machiavelli's characteristic ones, such as modo, which cannot always be translated "mode", and also in many other interesting cases, such as "vouches", which is literally "makes faith". One-to-one translation is also impossible where Machiavelli uses ambiguous terms. Here Mansfield and Tarcov must make many hard choices, one example of which I will come back to.
The difficulty of the Discourses on Livy lies not only in its terminology but also in its organization and sequences of thought. These are apparently diffuse to the point of chaos, both as a whole and within smaller sections. The book seems to say so many different things in such a random order that critics have wondered whether Machiavelli was capable of arguing at all. Partly for this reason (i.e., even apart from his reticence about metaphysics), many have decided that Machiavelli is not a philosopher, that he is just not any good at reasoning about philosophical or moral issues. Here too the new translation performs an important service: while being very readable and well laid-out, it does not conceal any difficulties. For starters, it completely eschews the obtrusive extra headings and sub-headings that dominate the layout of Walker's translation. Mansfield and Tarcov discuss the book's structure in their introduction, but they do not let their opinions determine how they print it.
As for small-scale sequences of thought, here is an important example. At I 26 Machiavelli is discussing "modes" for a "new prince" to maintain his rule and continues in Mansfield and Tarcov's translation thus: "These modes are very cruel, and enemies to every way of life, not only Christian but human; and any man whatever should flee them and wish to live in private rather than as king with so much ruin to men. Nonetheless, he who does not wish to take this first way of the good must enter into this evil one if he wishes to maintain himself." This rendering admirably preserves the difficult reversals of thought here. What is being recommended? What is being condemned? And why?
Detmold renders the above passage thus: "Doubtless these means are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian nor even human, and should be avoided by every one. In fact, the life of a private citizen would be preferable to that of a king at the expense of the ruin of so many human beings. Nevertheless, whoever is unwilling to adopt the first and humane course must, if he wishes to maintain his power, follow the latter evil course." Taking "Christian" and "human" to modify "means" is a clear-cut mistranslation. More interestingly, Detmold's rendering tones the passage down, making it run more smoothly and making the twists easier to avoid. The "doubtless" attempts to import order by indicating that everything before "nevertheless" carries less weight; this has absolutely no warrant in the Italian. The "destructive of" hides the question of destructive intent against Christianity which "enemies to" keeps before us. Once the last sentence is interpreted as the recommendation, "good" (bene) gets replaced by "humane" to avoid the moral paradox of seeming to recommend evil over good as such.
In the last sentence Mansfield and Tarcov agree with Detmold in translating "conviene" as "must". This is one of the difficult choices I mentioned earlier, for this word is ambiguous, meaning either "it is convenient" or "it is necessary". Walker, for his part, renders it "it is expedient". This rendering, although possible, destroys the force of the sentence as a possible normative recommendation and turns it into a transparent banality. We do not need Machiavelli to tell us that it is expedient to turn to evil.
This apparent solicitousness towards making Machiavelli seem more reasonable is of a piece with condescension concerning Machiavelli's ability to appear reasonable on his own. Mansfield and Tarcov have the courage to let Machiavelli speak for himself.
If one assumes that Machiavelli is capable of coherent thought, then one must try to understand why he gives us such an unqualified condemnation of such modes in this passage and then such a strangely hedged assertion of the necessity for them. Perhaps he is not being defensive, or dismissive, or whatever Detmold wanted "doubtless" to convey. Perhaps he is indicating his opinion that no moral considerations, no matter how comprehensive and grave, legitimately outweigh certain wishes of certain men. Alternatively, perhaps he is indicating a kind of necessity to do things which everyone truly should wish not to do. Or, again, he may be hinting that an inimicalness to all ways of life, for example to Christianity or to the philosophic life, is the price of effectively establishing or protecting a way of life.
But, then, how can Machiavelli possibly establish conclusions about morality when he does so little philosophical speculating, when all he does is talk about history? The answer seems to be right on the surface of the Discourses: the primary evidence to which Machiavelli appeals on philosophical questions is political history.
This is a dimension of Machiavelli's thought which bears much consideration, and to this end there is no substitute for repeated exposure to the Discourses and The Prince. It is important because it runs against the tenor of the time. For many years moral philosophy has had an "arm-chair" image, as if it could best be carried out in a room without windows; metaphysics and theology seem even more unworldly. Machiavelli is bracing in that he shows so powerfully the extremely important evidentiary character of human history for working out moral, metaphysical, and theological problems. If God is supposedly omnipotent and good it is relevant to wonder how certain twentieth century events could have happened. On the other hand, if the world, and with it human nature, is supposedly eternal it is relevant to wonder why there are no human records more than a few millennia old. The difficulties in reaching conclusions on points like these are obvious; but they should not let us indulge the illusion that other methods are more certain or more "philosophical".
But in fact, such illusions are no longer widely in vogue. In most academic circles any kind of "philosophical certainty" has looked like a will-of-the-wisp for a long time now, and the problems with the reliability of divine revelation are also keenly felt in our day. If we are not going to retreat to a postmodern despair about knowledge, we must realize that serious philosophy cannot do without the evidence of history, including political history. In fact, it needs political history above all, more so than "social history". This is because the actions depicted in political history are bound up with the putative justifications for them, justifications which have philosophical implications if one takes them seriously; whereas the comparatively mute facts of social history are much more subject to pontificating based on the historian's own "values" and rarely offer fundamental challenges to a historian's world-view.
Attaining a wide historical perspective on events, the Discourses clearly suggests, is crucial in achieving a philosophical point of view. It is both sobering and exhilarating to reflect on Machiavelli's comparison of Sparta and Rome. Machiavelli starts from the fact that Sparta lasted "more than eight hundred years" (I 2) but crumbled as soon as she was forced to expand, while the Roman Republic lasted much less long, but expanded much more successfully (I 5). What political thinker today thinks in terms of multiple centuries? We pride ourselves on our historical sophistication, but we take a historical perspective only about the past. Our thinking about the present seems unable to see beyond a decade, or else seems to assume that the effects of tomorrow will last forever.
It is not only technology which is to blame for this state of affairs, but technology does have something to do with it. Consider the political importance of calamities, as Machiavelli does (II 5). Human history is liberally sprinkled with natural calamities that dwarf the AIDS epidemic and rival the worst-case global warming scenario. Within prehistory humans have had Ice Ages to deal with. Nobody today seems capable of facing such facts, clinging to the belief that technology or exhortation is sufficient to ward off major natural calamities, no matter how large-scale, in perpetuam. The exhortations to build a meteor defence are just beginning. This reliance on technological omnipotence and total human responsibility for the planet is directly related to the weird myopia of much political theorizing today.
Briefly put, the following are the philosophical conclusions which Machiavelli drew from history. He rejects the quest to know man's essence. This is not because he has a philosophical theory of the human soul from which it follows that man has no knowable essence: that would be self-contradictory. Rather, it is because the attempts (both philosophical and religious) to discern that essence have had such disastrous political consequences in the two thousand years before 1520 that we are better off giving up the quest entirely. That a stable virtue is so destructive indicates that instead of a stable nature we have "the times", which vary (III 9-10), and both virtue and nature in the wider sense must be redefined. Virtue is no longer bringing out one's nature but dealing with the times. Virtue is not brought out by an inner spontaneity but, on the contrary, by necessity: "Men never work any good unless through necessity" (I 3). Then, of course, one must be careful to avoid metaphysical notions-a God, for example-which assume or would lead one to expect otherwise. This is the case that Machiavelli has to make. One can see how tremendously difficult that is. No book can make it: the most Machiavelli can do is to point us to the kinds of evidence he wants us to ponder and to marshal just a bit of it.
In this way, ironically, Machiavelli emerges as a forerunner not only of modernity but also of postmodernism: for a more academic version of this is exactly Richard Rorty's position in his 1989 Contingency, Irony, & Solidarity: "To say that there is no such thing as intrinsic nature.is to say that the term `intrinsic nature' is one which it would pay us not to use, an expression which has caused more trouble than it has been worth. . `The nature of truth' is an unprofitable topic, resembling in this respect `the nature of man' and `the nature of God'." By "trouble" Rorty has academic controversies in mind rather than, say, the fall of the Roman Empire; still, he has managed, on much narrower grounds, to reinvent the Machiavellian wheel.
The major difference here is that in talk which is not about the essence of man Machiavelli still feels constrained to take his sights by observable behaviour, whereas Rorty almost seems to think that forbidding talk of essence allows unlimited licence to believe what one pleases about human beings. In general, sometimes it seems as though a postmodern actually does want to live in harmony with nature, but wants to allow each ethnic group to define what nature is in somewhat the same way it invents its cuisine. But precisely here, Machiavelli teaches, is where the hard and frightening work would begin. Machiavelli reminds us that you don't get to pick which features of the planet you like as the natural order.
It is in this way that Machiavelli is more the father of Western rationalism than of postmodernism. Nature has no claim to our reverence, but she commands our respect because she has laws that cannot be abrogated. All things, human and non-human, act according to these laws, and ignorance of them is fatal. Now, these are scientific-style laws and do not constitute a natural order. There is none: no stable, i.e. self-repairing or self-correcting pattern which reasonable people can conclude it is better to live under than to try to change. We do see much order around us, but it is only a temporary result of laws and thus not an end to be achieved or maintained. One response to this view of nature is classical Western rationalism: on the level of ends, we are left utterly free to do what we would with our knowledge; but we work under permanent, law-like limits.
Nevertheless, one can easily see how this kind of rationalism partially supersedes itself. If there is no natural order, there is no reason why humans must always behave in the same ways. "It is more true than any other truth that if, where there are men, there are not soldiers"-or any other thing we might want-"it arises through a defect of the prince" (I 21). Machiavelli's successors are split between those who treat observable behaviour patterns as unalterable natural laws, and those who become ever more optimistic about how to change them. Frontal lobotomy, affirmative action, and everything in between: these are the "modes" for the optimists, who cannot face the evil of Machiavelli's own modes for making men over.
As for the great "middle", normal modern liberals: we are all in a manner Machiavellians today. If you want a deep commitment to "tolerance", i.e. both political freedom and a doctrine of the sanctity of individual choice, you almost certainly have to reject the whole notion of a natural order. Otherwise one must be judged on how rationally one conforms to the natural order.
But all of these modern alternatives, compared to their great original, are attempts to evade the really hard issues. To take Machiavelli seriously the way Mansfield and Tarcov do is to begin to investigate seriously whether the most harsh, arrogant, and manipulative aspects of "The West" don't have good arguments and considerable evidence to back them up.
Henry Higuera, a former graduate student at the University of Toronto, teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He has published a book on Don Quixote.