As a young man, before assuming the throne, Frederick the Great of Prussia famously wrote a tract, Anti-Machiavel, attacking Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince. Frederick did so ostensibly under the influence of the nascent Enlightenment (and in the spirit of enlightened absolutism), but his later conduct of foreign policy, particularly his grab of Silesia, struck many as being rather more in the spirit of Machiavelli. Either that, or the Enlightenment misunderstood itself.
In this essay for The American Interest, Jakub Grygiel of Johns Hopkins University SAIS contrasts Machiavelli Il Principe with a critical tract of a different sort: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Saint-Exupéry’s much loved and widely translated novella tells the story of a pilot struggling to survive in the desert after a plane crash, when he encounters a boy who, it turns out, is a young alien prince fallen to earth. Their conversations about the boy-prince’s experiences on earth and his travels elsewhere provide the framework for Saint-Exupéry’s reflections on human nature at an extraordinarily difficult time in his personal life as well as in political history (he was then in exile from Nazi-conquered France). Grygiel’s selection of The Little Prince points out that literature far removed from what one would consider strategic or political matters, often provides deeper insights than prodigious works devoted explicitly to statecraft.
Grygiel compares Machiavelli’s modern, fear-based view of human relations (and that of the followers in his tradition, particularly Hobbes) with the more classically oriented treatment of man as a political (or at least, social) animal, one born for friendship, for whom a political association is a natural rather than a conscripted state. Although Machiavelli’s treatment of human relations is generally categorized as “realistic,” Grygiel, following Saint-Exupéry, argues that it is radically deficient because of its cynicism. Lacking true, sober realism, it leads to the distortion of modern political regimes and, by extension, to the way in which political regimes interact with each other.
Grygiel offers two brief arguments about the effect of Machiavellianism on conceptions of national security. First, Il Principe is at a loss when it comes to responding to the “why” of national security. By placing fear at the source of society, the modern approach is severely handicapped when it comes to explaining why one ought to defend one’s own country. When the polity in which we live becomes an abstraction based on fear management, sacrificing for it becomes impossible. Grygiel is unpersuaded by Machiavelli’s attempts to redress this flaw by hearkening back to the “antico valore” of Italians, a patriotic call to both the manager of fear and his subjects.
Second, Machiavellian politics, in both its domestic and foreign versions, becomes an endeavor to figure out how to solve conflicts and wars, or more broadly, how to solve problems of human behavior. Grygiel argues that the Machiavellian presumption that political power can alter prior social institutions for the better lies at the very core of the modern creed. In foreign policy this has sometimes led to pushing for regime change as a panacea for conflicts and international tensions. By implication, in Grygiel’s assessment, the Little Prince’s alternative view alerts us to the existence of a whole realm of human and political behavior that accounts for familial, friendly, or patriotic love. This view, by implication, does not lead to a world of love, but to the means by which decent regimes can be sustained in a world where Machiavellianism is too often the dominant perspective.
I find myself in substantial agreement with the thrust of Grygiel’s argument. There are different and more favorable views of Machiavelli, however – at least Machiavelli as tamed by his more prudent successors – which hold that a sophisticated understanding of The Prince and of Machiavelli’s other writings points in the direction of liberal democratic (republican) politics and to moderation in international relations. They would say that Machiavelli is not the forerunner of modern totalitarianism (or even of Tocqueville’s soft despotism) or of unrestrained interstate conflict. One certainly could also point out that the premodern world contained its fair share of Machiavellian Princes. But these are arguments worth having.