Machiavelli’s misfortun(a)

I don’t fully agree with whatever Machiavelli (appears to) suggest in his treatises, but I’ve always found them (or others’ interpretations of his writings) provocative/insightful:

It’s as if Machiavelli’s treatise is saying, almost against its own doctrine, that this vision of the world, this sort of radical political realism, where any means are justified if they serve the securement and consolidation of power, is doomed never really to flourish. It’s like Cornwall. Some fatality of fortune will always win out over the shrewd, efficacious strategies of this sort of virtù

What I’m putting forward as my own interpretation of The Prince is that the treatise was doomed from the beginning to the same sorry failure as Borgia’s political career. By that I mean that it’s not by chance that the unredeemed realism of The Prince has not had any direct, concrete effect on political history. If its ambition was to be a handbook by which rulers could advance their own agendas, if its ambition was to instruct a prince who could one day unify Italy and throw out the foreigners, if its ambition was to found a school of political theory or promote some kind of trans-formation in the history of nation states, or even if its ambition was much more modest, namely to ingratiate its author with the Medici rulers of Florence, then we have no choice but to conclude that as a political treatise The Prince was an abortion. It failed to achieve its ends. 

The abortive fate of The Prince makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world.

You cannot get reality to bend to your will, you can only seduce it into transfiguration. And the fact remains that reality cannot be seduced by realism, only by trans-realism, if I may use a word that denotes more than fantasy, utopianism, intuitionism, or religious supernaturalism. Trans-realism refers to something that neither resists nor escapes reality but calls on reality to transcend itself, and to turn its prose into poetry.

What I’m trying to suggest is that realism itself is doomed to a kind of fecklessness in the world of reality, while the real power—the real virtuous power—seems to be aligned with the faculty which Machiavelli held most in contempt, namely the imagination. It’s the human imagination that in the long run proves itself the truly efficacious and revolutionary force



Theory, Strategy, and Tactics

“It [theory] is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life.”


Military history is the most accessible source for learning about tactics, and in some ways it is the most popular. The reading lists of various military leaders are filled with military history tomes. However, military history has shortcomings. Clausewitz himself noted the challenges of trying to learn from the experiences of others and carrying that knowledge forward to battle. His main purpose for writing theory was to mitigate this shortcoming by providing a framework and to “educate the mind” of the practitioner to learn from engaged reading.

The pursuit of civility?

For Williams, the question of how you maintain some amount of order in a society where there are deep and enduring differences was an immediate and practical one. He did not imagine that profound mutual respect was going to emerge under such conditions. To the contrary: He knew that when faced with deep and enduring differences, people were going to want to yell at each other. Williams himself wanted to do that; he was an evangelist who never tired of telling others how damnable their beliefs were. His mere civility was a means by which people could be true to their own partiality within the context of a functioning society. Williams did not think that civility required deep respect for the inner lives of other individuals, just a minimal respect for social order. Bejan describes Williams’s thought this way: “While we are stuck in the same boat with people we hate, we had better learn to make the most of it. There is no reason, however, to think that this will make us respect or like each other more. It is usually the opposite.”

This is an interesting read…

Confidence… not perfect knowledge 

Uncertainty is part of conflict. The antidote to uncertainty is not perfect knowledge but confidence. In conflict, leaders need the confidence to act despite risk and imperfect knowledge and to move forward into the fog of war despite ambiguity. If we are to draw any lessons from 1962, it is that a challenge posing unacceptable harm to the United States requires a firm response that, while weighing the risks, is not paralyzed by them.

‘State-in-society’-in-social sciences

“Too often, especially in the new social science literature reviving the states as a major actor and unit of analysis, the state has appeared as a given–autonomous, impenetrable, the ultimate independent variable.”

(Migdal 1988, 180)

“Social control is the currency over which organizations in an environment of conflict battle one another.”

(Migdal 1988, 32)