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Saturday, February 26, 2022

Machiavelli, Shakespeare, And The Natural Law Of Dominion–Considerations For The New Russian Empire

Even a cursory look at world history and the political philosophies which underlie it, shows that territorialism, geopolitical hegemony, and empire are the rule rather than the exception.  Not only have empires been a part of history, but they are recalled by modern world leaders who see them as a Golden Age of high culture, moral principle, and order, and they are not wrong.  

The great empires of Persia, China, India, Japan, and Europe were indeed all characterized by periods of intellectual energy, wealth, and cultural influence. While criticized today as profoundly anti-liberal and dismissed by historical revisionists for their lack of inclusivity, civil rights, and democracy, they were the ineluctable, irreversible expressions of human enterprise and human nature. 

Image result for images peter the great of russia

What is human nature but a defensive, territorial, competitive, survivalist mechanism?  It expresses itself in family, sexual competition, regional autonomy, and nationalism.   The behavior of children and the behavior of nations are similar.

Some political philosophers insist that with the proper care, will, and determination the world will evolve to a non-violent, inclusive, respectful place; that human nature can be blunted and overcome; but this is only whistlin’ Dixie; and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is but the latest example.  

Putin is no historical renegade, a delusional monomaniac, and a man out of touch with history.  He is expressing the same ambitions that the Shahs of Persia, the shoguns of Japan, and the emperors of China and India had.  Putin is not an anomaly or an outlier. He is one of many.

Machiavelli and his modern apologist, Henry Kissinger, understood this. They understood that the only way that imperial expansion could be stopped would be to confront it with equal might and resolution. There was no room for moral  handwringing.  

Any world leader who puts moral concerns over geopolitical ones is headed for defeat.  History's victors have been notoriously dismissive of morality.  Genghis Khan, who swept out of the steppes to conquer more than half of the known world was brutal, consequential, and single-minded.  The French kings who mobilized the Crusades were not tolerant, inclusive-minded monarchs, but rulers committed to punishing Muslims for their slaughter of Christians in Jerusalem and for their avowed hatred of the West.  

William Tecumseh Sherman, the greatest of Union Civil War generals wanted not only to defeat the South but to humiliate it.  His goal was not only the destruction of the Confederate Army but the society and culture of the South.

Image result for images wm tecumseh sherman

Nietzsche was influenced by Machiavelli.  Both philosophers were particularly important because they explored the dimensions of human nature and how it – rather than moral constructs derived out of social necessities – is the principal motivating force in politics.  The course of human history cannot progress because Man’s nature will never change.  

Machiavelli understood the nature of princely rule both from the perspective of the ruler and the ruled and knew that it was simply a balance of power. Nietzsche understood that the world would always be ruled by Supermen, individuals for whom the exercise of will was the highest form of human expression.

Machiavelli who wrote a few decades before Shakespeare influenced him significantly.  The Italian, the Bard, and much later Nietzsche all understood the irrevocable and immutable force of human will and aggression behind the events of human history.

Many of Shakespeare’s villains are Machiavellian – that is, they act in an amoral universe and are compelled by power.  Iago, Edmund, and Aaron the Moor are thought to be the least moral and the closest to an apolitical evil – i.e. pursuing power through destruction almost as an end in itself – but the many kings, queens, and pretenders of the Histories act in a classically political, self-serving, and amoral way.  

Whether villain or king, none give moral consideration to their actions.  Richard II, the poet-king reflects on kingship and the fragility of its nature; and his words describing the high ladder to the crown which must be thrown down lest any of his supporters, let alone enemies, ascend it and topple him are almost taken verbatim from Machiavelli.

People are fundamentally self-interested and unreliable. "Men are quick to change ruler when they imagine they can improve their lot." They are stupid and irrational, incapable of knowing what is actually best for them. Their lives are marked by chasms of hypocrisy into which naïve and unwary rulers are liable to fall. "There is such a gap between how people actually live and how they ought to live that anyone who declines to behave as people do … is schooling himself for catastrophe."

They are greedy, "a man will sooner forget the death of his father than the loss of his inheritance"; shallow, "all men want glory and wealth"; ungrateful, "since men are a sad lot, gratitude is forgotten the moment it's inconvenient"; credulous, "people are so gullible and so caught up with immediate concerns that a conman will always find someone ready to be conned"; and manipulative, "men will always be out to trick you unless you force them to be honest".

All in all, human nature offers little to inspire. "We can say this of most people: that they are ungrateful and unreliable; they lie, they fake, they're greedy for cash and they melt away in the face of danger."

Diego A. von Vacano in a more definitive book called The Art of Power writes about Machiavelli and Nietzsche:

Unlike Nietzsche and Arendt, who do believe in the idea of the cultivation
of the soul, Machiavelli is concerned with a more minimalist conception of man; one in which existence is fragile and politics is urgently necessary to safeguard it. Politics is born not from man’s superior qualities, but rather from his weaknesses. He does not see a path for human achievement except insofar as it comes from answering the challenges of the fragility of life.

Machiavelli’s argument is more compelling, for even in a cursory reading, history reveals itself as repetitively aggressive and self-serving; and as Shakespeare and Machiavelli have concluded, these impulses are at the very heart of human nature.  Neither one has any interest in moral regeneration.  Richard III in Shakespeare’s version, sees the ghosts of the people he has killed, but goes on to the battlefield to pursue his interests regardless of the moral insights he may have gained from his visions.  Iago, Aaron the Moor, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan go to their deaths morally unregenerate. Cordelia is moral from the beginning, and King Lear perhaps alone among Shakespeare’s plays deals with good and evil – her battle against her immoral sisters and enemies – but it is still about the unending cycle of kings and queens, ascendancy and downfall, machinations and power.

Vacano goes on to discuss the similarities between Machiavelli and Nietzsche:

The internal competition between tendencies or natures that Machiavelli recognizes in individuals and groups and that Nietzsche sees as multiple drives is a form of “agonism.”  Agonism is the idea that conflict and struggle are the natural basis of life and that this is replicated in social, political, and cultural life. Human artifice can in many ways transform nature, but it does not eliminate the presence and preeminence of conflict in individual human consciousness and Nietzsche’s Machiavellianism in social groups.

For Nietzsche, what makes a man great in political terms is his
ability to go above the constant antagonisms of life and to see that a higher
purpose can be achieved if one abandons the desire to oppress. This is what Nietzsche refers to as the “love of humanity” that a great leader comes to possess by acting for the common good of a people or of humanity. For Nietzsche, Machiavelli’s notion of power is not for a mere power-monger seeking to tyrannize others.

This is where Nietzsche and Machiavelli part company – although not by a great distance.  Machiavelli has no ‘love of humanity’, and that while a prince’s subjects may indeed benefit from his actions, he does not act for this reason, a conception of power and society that is closest to historical reality.  The Roman Emperors, for example, extended the empire to the limits of the known world and that world ultimately benefited from Roman laws, infrastructure, and the establishment of civil society; but the empire’s rulers were driven by power, expansion of territories, domination of potentially dangerous political and military elements, and vast wealth.

What Nietzsche and Machiavelli both understood was that the desire for and acquisition and protection of power should not be corrupted by pure selfishness.  A prince or a Nietzschean Superman might act in their own self-interest and according to their own indomitable will, but if their actions become tyrannical, they will lose their legitimacy and their power.  Nietzsche’s famous counsel – “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” – expresses his understanding of the natural impulse to power and the expression of individual will and his appreciation that such will and power can quickly bring rulers down.

Image result for images nietzsche

Unlike other perspectives that see cooperation, reciprocity, or reasonable agreement (or disagreement) as possible durable equilibriums in social life, such as certain brands of socialism or liberalism, the Machiavellian and Nietzschean philosophy of life makes a case for avoiding such delusions because the reality is that man is agonistic by nature. Communal feeling exists, yet it is not one essentially based on reasonable deliberation but rather constant antagonism. Rather than encasing the sword in a cross-shaped sheath, they opt to expose its metal. Reasonable agreement is in a sense irrelevant, for in the final instance it is conflict and the will to impose one’s view on others that reigns.

This is perhaps is the most relevant aspect of the philosophers’ conclusions of any, for it dismisses the perfectibility of Man and any ‘progressive’ attempts to change human nature. Social groups are not exempt from this interdiction, for they are no more than collection of individuals.  There is no ‘whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts’ quality of groups, and they are subject to the same rules of self-protection, expansion of power, and acquisition of territory and resources as are individuals.

Nietzsche believed than in an age of nihilism, Platonic-Christian morality has run its course and is no longer cogent. Man must overcome himself by seeing himself as he originally is: as a physiological and psychological being who must therefore choose values that will make him stronger in those two realms.

Clearly what strikes us at first, and what is known to be one his central innovations, is his disregard for moral concepts in his understanding of virtù. Virtue as understood by Christianity entails following the rules set down by its religious tenets. In its place Machiavelli wants to promote the idea that one reaches certain rules through experience. The quality of foresight, to be able to see in advance what will come, entails a mastery of the notion of new-ness.

Imagination is at work when one needs to anticipate the future. And this ability requires the mental movement from the present to the future, from one “now I” to another “now II.” This is the essence of modernism, for the term refers to the present, to the “now” of a particular moment, even before it refers to the “newness” of something.

Machiavelli also tells us that it is important, though difficult, to be flexible according to the times. Most men’s natures are fixed, yet there is something in some of us that allows us to alter them a little to suit the circumstances. This relative “transformation” of one’s character is indeed a movement from one form to another. The movement from one form or shape to another requires knowledge about various forms if one is to do it successfully. For this, Nietzsche’s Machiavellian understanding of action as form-giving is necessary, for a unity to one’s new “character” or persona can only succeed if the elements of the new form are well grasped. If one is unwilling to be flexible, one lacks this quality Politics is for him the practice that best orders the world; it is an urgent endeavor, it can engender great deeds, yet it is not always a glorious or progressive path.

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His disregard for the idea of the soul then makes him espouse values that are useful for the sort of man who is in a precarious and uncertain situation. Machiavelli’s own life is the model of such a conception. In this personal-cum-universal view, the values he espouses are: order, stability, durability, development, strength, freedom, independence, and lastly (somewhat out of place) beauty. These values do not necessitate morality and thus make Machiavelli see the positive and normative reasons to reject the need for an ethical perspective in affairs of politics and art.

The world is a nasty, brutish place; and no amount of American moral exceptionalism will change it.   The early 21st century is no different than those centuries past.  Countries are at war or spoiling for war.  America looks back with nostalgia at the Cold War, for at least then one knew one's enemies.  Now, anything goes - surprising alliances, backdoor negotiations among former enemies, shifting ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances, and unheard of demagogues - and we are the surprised deer in the headlights.

Henry Kissinger, America’s only Machiavellian statesman never lost sight of American interests; nor ever dismissed the importance of human nature as the engine of social and political history.  We are all aggressive, territorial, and self-interested, he has said.   We will always try to consolidate wealth, power, and influence; and we will always defend our empires at any cost.

To ignore human nature, to dismiss the ineluctable drive for dominance, and to persist in being accommodating, complaisant, and tolerant will ultimately and always result in defeat and annihilation. The US and the West is ignoring this important lesson of history and human nature.

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