Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Machiavellians: Key to Political Understanding

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on December 14, 2008 )

In an entry a couple of weeks ago regarding Lovecraft, I mentioned that the late Samuel T. Francis, the most significant paleoconservative in America, had written a number of essays on Lovecraft, which now are in manuscript form only, but which I hope will eventually be published.  This would be a second posthumous gift from Sam Francis.  The first, which he gave to us in life, but which we should all the more value after his passing, is his insight into the process of political analysis.  As a prelude to an understanding of this process Sam Francis recommended a reading of James Burnham's book The Machiavellians:  Defenders of Freedom (1943).

The opening chapter of this work presents an analysis of the political writing of Dante versus that of Machiavelli, which gives us a fundamental tool for political analysis.  We should consider, first of all, Burnham argues, the often great distance between the formal meaning of a political work and its real meaning.  The formal meaning of Dante's De Monarchia is a defence of universal peace and world citizenship.  The real meaning, however, is something much less admirable.  It is Dante's defence of the Holy Roman Empire, even if it means the suppression of all freedom and cultural identity among the city-states of Italy.  Contrarily, according to Burnham, the formal meaning of Machiavelli's Il Principe, a work which ostensibly advocates hard-boiled amoral Realpolitik, is a cover for its real meaning, a call for the Italians to unite on behalf of national determination and a warning against tyranny.

Burnham does not offer this observation, but it is obvious that Machiavelli's Il Principe, written in the vernacular, was intended to be read by as wide a readership as possible, a readership far beyond the narrow circles of princes and their hangers-on.  Dante's work, on the contrary, written in Latin, was addressed only to the learned, unlike his great poetic works, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, which were all written in the vernacular.

Burnham proceeds from his analysis of Machiavelli to a presentation of the basic ideas of Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels.  All of these are still worth reading, especially Mosca's The Ruling Class.  The Machiavellians are defenders of freedom, according to Burnham, because they recognize that freedom has a chance only when the ruling power is met by some countervailing power.  Furthermore, a recognition that all societies are ruled and run by a self-seeking elite is a warning to commoners that they must limit state power as much as possible.  This is a fundamentally conservative stance, the very beginning of conservatism in its recognition of the limits of all human institutions, a stance contrary to the disingenuous idealism typified by works such as Dante's De Monarchia.

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