Dec 10, 2023·edited Dec 10, 2023

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter 14:

"What do you expect from society and its government? We must be clear about that.

"Do you wish to raise mankind to an elevated and generous view of the things of this world? Do you want to inspire men with a certain scorn of material goods? Do you hope to engender deep convictions and prepare the way for acts of profound devotion?

"Are you concerned with refining mores, elevating manners, and causing the arts to blossom? Do you desire poetry, renown, and glory?

"Do you set out to organize a nation so that it will have a powerful influence over all others? Do you expect it to attempt great enterprises and, whatever be the result of its efforts, to leave a great mark on history?

"If, in your view, that should be the main object of men in society, do not support democratic government; it surely will not lead you to that goal.

"But if you think it profitable to turn man’s intellectual and mental activity toward the necessities of physical life, and use them to produce well-being; if you think that reason is more use to men than genius; if your object is not to create heroic virtues, but rather tranquil habits; if you would rather contemplate vices than crimes, and prefer fewer transgressions at the cost of fewer splendid deeds; if in place of a brilliant society you are content to live in one that is prosperous; if in your view the main object of government is not to achieve the greatest strength or glory for the nation as a whole, but to provide for every individual therein the utmost well-being, protecting him as far as possible from all afflictions; then it is good to make conditions equal, and to establish a democratic government.”

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Excellent! This short essay on things written in the 15th c. contains within it a huge trove of explainers of the human condition in the 21st c. One thing that is not discussed explicitly is the human psychology of self deception. Christianity is viewed as a foolish but worthy belief system - which it most certainly has been. But there is (and always has been) in addition to genuine altruism and love of one's fellow men, false piety and self-deceiving vanity....what in our time has come to be labelled as 'virtue-signalling'. This, in mine and many other people's view, is the great explainer of modern Western Progressivism. To put it another way, your typical Progressive does not really want to save the world or to raise up the lowly....at least not if that involves any real sacrifice of their own personal best interests. What they really want is the nice feeling that comes from internalising fashionable, politically 'correct' beliefs. https://grahamcunningham.substack.com/p/invasion-of-the-virtue-signallers

Does Machiavelli have anything to say about this aspect of human psychology/social psychology? My guess is that he does...and plenty (but I haven't read him).

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This is excellent. Now do Sowell: There are no solutions. Only tradeoffs. I also think people don’t like Machiavelli because it means work. You’ve got to constantly scheme, project yourself in conscious ways, etc. You can’t just say. I’m going to relax into magnanimity. At least that’s how I feel.

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Thank you for this Rob. Here are two thoughts.

1. Let your readers not forget that the Christian perspective is not one perspective or a static perspective. Obviously, the Christian perspective presented by Machiavelli doesn’t include the multitude of Christian perspectives that emerged in the United States after his lifetime. These vary in accuracy toward human nature, and they continue to evolve, IMPROVE, and die out. Based on this post, how similar to Machiavelli’s ideas are the most similar Christian ideas? Maybe some of your readers can shed light on this.

2. I see the immediate value of Machiavellian ideas to gang members, warriors, politicians, police officers, and militiamen, but I wonder how valuable his ideas are to a parent or teacher? Or to a businessman? To me? Should I study Machiavelli more, or is this overview sufficient? Since you’ve studied him, could you try answering this question in the following way: could you try writing a post titled “The Importance of Machiavelli in My Life and Yours.” Reading chapter five of your memoir makes me think Machiavelli’s ideas are more valuable than many of us realize.

Harder questions (because history is enormous and messy): how relevant is Machiavelli to a citizen of Israel or the United States in view of October 7, 9/11, the Vietnam War, December 7, the Civil War, the history of persecution of Jews or Mormons, Jim Crow, or the enslavement of Africans in America? Too much for one lifetime, but maybe some of your readers might take up one of these questions.

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Hmmm, I think the *solution* to the conundrum lies in one word in this sentence:

> There is no way to comfortably reconcile the virtues of Christian meekness with the virtues of Roman strength.

The word is "comfortably." I believe that Roman virtues and Christian values *can* be reconciled, but that it makes for VERY uncomfortable experiences and decisions one has to consider and enact. I do not believe it necessary to give up on either -- in the grand vision a person holds for their life. It is, in any given situation, maybe impossible to reconcile them *perfectly* in that one given situation, but so long as I hold on to the humanist values, I can then later (after that situation) engage in steps of *reconciliation*.

Just like two guys who come to blows (Roman virtues) one moment, but who later go to a bar to celebrate their friendship and love for one another (humanist values), it is true that they cannot be reconciled at all times, but why give up on either permanently...?

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Thanks for the topic today. Do you feel that the term “Machiavellianism” is understood by people who haven’t read the texts (like me)? I associated the term with a certain cruelty, but it appears to be more of a callous pragmaticism. One thing I’d like to do is read the texts myself now lol.

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Machiavelli was like a tailor making suit for a rich customer. The Renaissance was glorifying the Greek art and thinking and he was glorifying the Roman heritage putting aside the inglorious end. Edward Gibbon did not like the Christians because he considered that, with their way of behaving, they contributed to the fall of Rome.

Machiavelli has omitted to classify this kind of thinking as a short term strategy versus the long term strategy on leading a population. Here it would be an interesting comparison between him and Confucius.

On the other hand, neither him or Confucius could compare with the evil ideas produced by the French Socialist Utopians, after the French Revolution, German anarchists and other like fractions. All of them made him look like a well minded nice psychologist facing a bunch of patients from a mental institution.

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Thanks for this introduction to Machiavelli. I'm left thinking that he had a solid grasp of the difference between is and ought. Conflating those seems to be the basis of every ideology of which I've become sceptical.

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Thank you for this. Great read.

Machiavelli's time was that of the Florence Renaissance... the center of the transition period to modernity... and really the only significant historical record of a utopian liberal society. It was in fact similar today in that the Medici family where the corporatists that controlled the government (with competition from the church). Money flowing from the wealthy purchased featly from the people. It resulted in much leisure time for the people of Florence and that resulted in an explosion in fantastic art from those driven to create and with all that time on their hands. But this was unsustainable. As will always be the case, utopia fails because it runs out of other people's money.

I think Machiavelli noted things we are seeing today... that utopia is unachievable because of human nature. People need to be occupied with toil and enterprise to survive and thrive so they don't have too much leisure time. This is why I fear that automation and AI are the nail in the coffin of modern existence. With robots doing all the work, the people will self-destruct. It seems they are already self-destructing.

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As a follow up piece I guess I like to see how humanist values are modern equivalent to Christian values

That didn’t strike me immediately as true

I did a ChatGPT to compare and contrast between humanist values and Christian values

And now I end up appreciating Roman values better

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How timely is this essay!

What is the liberal imperium other than an exercise in wishful thinking? The entire establishment left is an exercise in delusional thinking. The Academy has become actively and wilfully delusional and throw a hissy fit if you pointed out.

I will speculate that a large percentage of this author’s readership will reject this post, and continue on with their delusional thinking.

If, if, you reject this the Machiavellian argument you are affectively arguing at the passions of man have some how or another changed. And you are wrong.

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Highly stimulating. These quotes are like clarifying glimpses into deeply held premises on which human life is grounded. Machiavelli seems to present a clear and distinct contrast between two conflicting orientations to life. Two orientations that when coherently understood are recognized as mutually exclusive, but that our Western culture has sought to reconcile. In these quotes, Machiavelli doesn't even venture into the teachings of Jesus (and other NT writers) that are inarguable calls to live for truth and love even to the point of martyrdom ("the world will make you suffer"), yet he accomplishes pointing out that even the more abstractly adopted morays derived from Christianity are inherently contradictory with life principles that are integral to the "success" so highly championed. Hence, rationalizations abound in the attempt to justify the embrace of both.

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Great summary, and very important aspect of alternative virtue trade-off summaries.

Justice, in so far as it is punishment, is contrary to mercy - which denies (just) punishment in favor of forgiveness. Society needs justice, and force to enforce laws. Humans, and families, need to be personally forgiving of those who harm them, in order to move on with their lives -- assuming they live and heal thru the injustice they suffer.

The state is not and will not remain stable if it acts like a family with too much forgiveness of bad behavior, rather than enough punishment.

The importance of trade-offs also reminds me of the movie Gladiator, when the son of the older Emperor is killing him, and describing some of his Roman virtues, like ambition and ruthlessness.

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How does Machiavelli explain the Christian conversion of Rome without force?

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I've never seen his writing as anymore than the cold, hard, truth. This was a great explainer I wish I would've had when I was younger.

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Machiavelli also made keen observations of the gunpowder artillery revolution in his time and the "trace Itallienne" fortifications being developed in response to it. In this matter, too, one cannot have all the good things at the same time. The architect of a fortress must make hard choices about what to defend and where and how. No defensive scheme can withstand infinite siege, therefore the commander of the fortress will have to make tough decisions about who may stay and who must go when the enemy approaches. My reading of the military historian Machiavelli finds that his harsh realism was inspired by the realtive military weakness of northern Italian city-states.

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