America and the “Machiavellian moment”

An interesting article on “Power and Morals” by Owen Harries, who I believe is an Australian writer, can be found in Prospect Magazine (via the endless bounty of Realclearpolitics).

The power in question is national power, exerted in relations with other countries.  Harries makes the usual dichotomies between realists and idealists (or Machiavellians versus Wilsonians; or Henry Kissinger versus Ronald Reagan), criticizes the Bush Administration for its heedless ambition, and comes down in favor of an ethics of  “prudence.”  While I don’t agree with many of Harries’ assumptions, he is to be commended for taking on a big subject and scrutinizing it with something like calm and clarity.

The whole problem of morality in foreign affairs begs a question, though.  The call of survival often drives us to accept self-interested decisions in foreign policy:  for example, making an ally of Stalinist Russia to combat Nazi Germany.  But how is this different from any other conflict, political or social, in which power plays a part?  Why do we give foreign policy a moral pass, but demand and assume righteousness in our domestic arrangements?

The answer is that, in some sense, we are all the children of John Locke.  We believe, universally, that we have individual rights and protections encoded in our DNA, and that the main difference between America and the world is that America has laws in the books to protect these rights, and policemen to enforce them, and judges to uphold them.

We consider morality to be a primitive and natural condition, and government to be the protector of our original virtue.  As for ultimate questions of power, we Americans delegate these to our elected representatives, whom we then despise and vilify for doing what they must do; while, free from such temptations, we go about the business of becoming good men and women.

That is the great liberal tradition.  It derives directly from the Christian doctrine of natural law, so it should not surprise us that the assumption of morality is embedded in it.

Yet another, much older tradition exists, that makes no such assumption:  the republican idea.  Republicanism denies that citizens can have natural or inborn rights.  It casts doubt on the possibility that a free person can delegate the wielding of power to another, and still remain free.  At its most hard-headed, it confronts us with an either-or choice between civic virtue and Christian morality, between remaining free and becoming good.  The republican assumption is that tough men, driven by private desires, will destroy the liberty of good men, who follow Christ’s example to love and forgive their enemies.

I have just finished reading J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, which is a history of the republican idea from its first articulation in Renaissance Florence to its adoption and adaptation by many of the Founders.  The “Machiavellian moment” described by Pocock is one of tremendous moral ambivalence, pitting the virtues required by a republic of free men to survive in time against the moral commandments every Christian soul must heed to endure in eternity.

Machiavelli famously came down on the side of freedom even at the cost of damnation.  He had watched the monk Savonarola, an “unarmed prophet,” attempt a Christian reformation of Florentine politics, only to be burned at the stake for his troubles.  The prophet must be armed, Machiavelli concluded.  Political reformation, the “return to first principles,” often entailed brutal methods.

I find it interesting that, according to Pocock, the conflict between civic virtue and Christianity evolved, in the eighteenth century, into a conflict between civic virtue and commerce – or, more accurately, the credit required by a commercial nation to prosper.  Here liberalism stands for Christian morality in the tug of war with republican “reasons of state.”

Another interesting reflection:  at this moment we enter the moral universe, not of Machiavelli, but of Thomas Jefferson.  That universe, as Jean Yarbrough has pretty conclusively shown, placed moral limits on commerce, denounced all credit as corruption, but also glorified the liberal faith in the individual against the (republican) government, and in the individual’s inborn moral sense.  Jefferson assumed virtue would triumph, and he based his optimism on his reading of the Scottish philosophers – who, Pocock maintains, failed to resolve the contradiction between the liberal passion for wealth and the freedom from corruption required by republican institutions.

Americans, it would seem, exist in a “Jeffersonian moment,” in which the contradictions standing in the way of freedom are leaped over, and the moral tensions between power and virtue are never acknowledged or felt.  Somewhere in Hell, I imagine, Machiavelli is shaking his head in wonder and puzzlement.



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