l. Machiavelli has been for a half millennia reviled as an unscrupulous philosopher when it is unfair to presume that a philosopher who was raised in the 15th century and died in the year 1527 could subscribe to 20th-21st-century ethics. Machiavelli’s Europe was a continent where the devoutly religious would sometimes practice excruciatingly painful torture on heretics. Next, to them, Machiavelli was practically benign. Machiavelli can be considered the first modern philosopher in that he deliberately, cautiously attempted to escape the philosophical clutches of the past.
Machiavelli’s 15th-century focus was much narrower than Nietzsche’s, yet more incisive. In comprehending the 15th and 16th centuries when Machiavelli lived, religion is paramount in doing so. A nominally religious public perceived itself as virtuous and along came Machiavelli to tactfully tell the public otherwise. However, he did so not merely to criticize, but also to demonstrate a ‘better’ (expedient/pragmatic) way, to educate readers in how deceit can be,
“the bodyguard of truth”–Winston Churchill
Machiavelli did not reject religious values, often he ignored religion; sometimes he transcended religion. One might write that Machiavelli anticipated a 20th-21st-century hollowing-out of religion by subtly advocating a well-balanced religiosity. In Machiavelli’s formulation, pious religion has its place albeit is no longer central. In the 15th and 16th centuries, this was something new for a well-known philosopher to expound.
At any rate, Machiavelli wasn’t Galileo, hinting that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos and, by extension, that humanity was not at the epicenter of God’s concern.
What is critical in understanding Machiavelli is how he understood how being moral– even so much as trying to be ethical–both an individual and a nation risk being ruined or destroyed by more ruthless individuals and groups. Machiavelli’s political advice anticipated the ideology and ‘realpolitik’ of Talleyrand and Bismarck.
15th century Machiavelli shared with 19th century Nietzsche a mittel Europa outlook. For brevity’s sake, one cannot go into how 15th-16th century Italy, divided into numerous nation-states and city-states, influenced Machiavelli’s philosophy. That Rome, the center of Catholicism, is on the Italian peninsula needs no comment; and that Machiavelli was influenced by Rome and its faith is not difficult to appreciate. The Protestant Reformation was late in his life and did not have much effect on him.
Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’ and other of his published works, never advocated that a potentate ought to abandon ethics, he advised that a ruler should not allow devout, pious considerations to hinder the prince (which means Principal) from obeying his conscience as a ruler. Machiavelli wrote in ‘The Prince’:
“Everyone agrees that a prince should have all good qualities, but because that is impossible, a wise prince will avoid those vices that would destroy his power and not worry about the rest. Some actions that seem virtuous will ruin a prince, while others that seem like vices will make a prince prosper.”
Don Corleone, the fictitious Godfather, said eloquently,
“let your friends underestimate your virtues, and your enemies overestimate your vices…keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”
The corollary is probably the most famous quote from Machiavelli,
“it is better to be feared than loved…”
The legacy of a bad ruler is complicated but not hopeless; the duty of a person of conscience is to mitigate as much as possible an inherited legacy lacking in conscience. Now it is valid to write that Machiavelli was not promoting positive ethics of any sort: however, this would require a book to explain. Even then it could not accurately summarize 5,000 years of records revolving around secular mores and faith-based conventions.
Suffice it to write that Machiavelli though exhorting less for effect than Nietzsche, was exploring the limitations of ethics. Machiavelli did stress the importance of states being militaristic; for him, the states of Italy could only survive and thrive through military preparation. All the same, Machiavelli did not promote militarization for the sake of militancy alone; rather, his 15th-century upbringing commanded him to be militaristic for patriotic & nationalistic ends. He, like Nietzsche, has had his militaristic imperialism excessively emphasized by his critics. Nevertheless, by the lights of the 21st century, Machiavelli cannot be perceived as any sort of a peace lover.
Today in a time when so many uses ‘Machiavellian’ to denote a person or group lacking scruples, it must be remembered how the same people who detest Machiavelli and his militarism pay taxes to fund WMDs capable of destroying the biosphere. Machiavelli’s sin was to a lesser extent the same as Nietzsche’s: not being diplomatic enough. Even though ethics are used as a means to an end, such is not supposed to be confessed to a broad uncomprehending public. And both Nietzsche and Machiavelli agreed on the public’s lack of comprehension.
II. Nietzsche’s philosophy was wide-ranging, covering art, history, music, politics, religion– and well nigh everything under the Sun. One of his more popular concepts is that of the Übermensch– the ‘superman’. The public has exaggerated Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ to be physically superior (e.g. the Superman of comic books, TV, and films). In his famous book, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published 1883, Nietzsche did suggest a goal of being more evolved.
Though naturally a superman is expected to be strong, a superman is also aesthetically and to a lesser degree, ethically ‘evolved’. Or to be more exact: ‘over’– that is, above & beyond. For Über translated from German means over, as well as ‘superior’. The overman rises above and beyond the herd aesthetically, intellectually, and sometimes ethically.
Ethics were less important than intellect and aesthetics to Nietzsche, because for starters Nietzsche, though he did not reject religion altogether, did think religion frequently sacrificed strength and intellect in the service of ethics. Nietzsche felt that Christianity, being a prominent example of faith, excessively emphasized meekness and weakness. Meek in the sense one is humble before God and weak in different ways. Most commonly, weak-minded. Weak willpower is another factor in why and how Nietzsche critiqued religious morality.
Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead.” Nonetheless, he did so to impress; and though this is nothing more than a hypothesis, he might have been looking to the remote future.
By the second half of the 19th century, it became apparent science would be important in the 20th century and would alter religious beliefs and practices. Nietzsche writing that God is dead appeared original to a public not familiar with deism and by the interwar period, the majority of educated Europeans did think God was dead or dying. It must be reckoned in interpreting Nietzsche that he frequently wrote in a flowery Mittel Europa style.
Due to his influence on 20th century educated European God-is-Dead public, Nietzsche is sometimes held partially culpable for the rise of totalitarianism, another instance of exaggeration. Nietzsche can not be held responsible for totalism any more than the historical Christ can be blamed for excesses committed in His name. In the book of Matthew verses 34-36, Jesus preached,
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household…”
Scarcely ecumenical, let alone filial. As Nietzsche was a Nazi icon, he has been widely associated with Nazism; however, if he had lived three more decades he would have considered Nazis to be guttersnipes.
Nietzsche’s weltanschauung (welt-anschauung translated from German is world-view) meant he saw the world filtered through a 19th-century Mittel-Europa prism. Nietzsche attempted heroically to escape such a mindset, but there is no way someone living in 19th century Europe could truly escape. Not for long. Nietzsche tried with all his strength to transcend, so much so that it might perhaps have cost him his sanity, or at least what the definition of sanity was via the primitive psychiatry of the late 19th century. He died in the year 1900.
What Nietzsche did was incorporate 19th-century European weltanschauung in his own expansive world view. One might with accuracy write that Nietzsche comprehensively surveyed the world and attempted to transcend the past. For better and, naturally, worse. Worse because in forcefully transcending the past, one brings into play various unintended consequences.
Nietzsche, like Machiavelli, is not easy to categorize; though as we have seen above, Machiavelli was more politically oriented than Nietzsche. One of Nietzsche’s more infamous exhortations concerned,
“the magnificent blond brute, avidly rampant for spoil and victory.”
The above quote, in particular, illustrates Nietzsche’s origins and bombastic style more than substance. To be a 19th-century European male, one had to some degree accept imperialism and racism. Otherwise, a man risked becoming an outcast. The 19th century saw the rapid conquest of empire for a number of nations in Europe and elsewhere.
The “Eisen and Blut” (Iron and Blood) values of Nietzsche’s contemporary, Bismarck, could not have allowed Nietzsche to be overtly pacifistic. Nietzsche would have filed his draft card away, not burned it.
Nietzsche’s most salient negative trait was his misogynist weltanschauung, the chauvinist in,
“the magnificent blond [male] avidly rampant for spoil and victory”.
Nietzsche wrote that women ought to be treated with a “whip”. Nonetheless that he loved women as individuals and that his devoted sister took care of him, indicates Nietzsche’s dislike of women was derived from his bombastic, for effect, to impress-the-reader style.
Nietzsche lived a bit before the era of Suffragettes. Plus, Bismarck’s ‘Blood and Iron’ left little room for femininity– ‘feminism’ still meant cosmetics, coiffure, gowns. Also, twelve decades after Nietzsche’s demise, men still dominate women. Hypocrisy has always been,
“the homage vice pays to virtue”– Francois de La Rochefoucauld.