Machiavelli on the Use and Abuse of “Property”

by George Anastaplo

(Conference on Niccolo Machiavelli – Basic Program Weekend – The University of Chicago – May 1, 2010)


Niccolo Machiavelli, the Master Realist, recognizes that the political man, in order to be effective, needs ample resources.  These include one’s talents and the appropriate circumstances.  May not one’s resources, or property, extend even to what is generally believed about one, as well as to what one believes about oneself?

Whatever one does have (we are taught) should be treasured.  There may come a time (even a “make or break” crisis) when one will need, at once, considerable resources.  Even so, it can be useful for a public man to be generally regarded as generous, which requires that he must know how to use effectively other people’s resources even as he holds on to his own.

I was reminded, during my last conversation with Paul Simon (this was after he had decided not to run for reelection to the United States Senate from Illinois) – I was reminded of how critical one’s resources can be even for (or is it especially for?) the most upright politician.  He explained that he simply was no longer up to raising the money that he would need for still another political campaign.  My insistence that someone with his ability and reputation would not need the resources others might require—this insistence probably confirmed for him the opinion that I was woefully impractical (even though this encounter was at a breakfast meeting in his Chicago hotel for which he paid).


Machiavelli is known as shrewd, and even as devious, as well as very intelligent and learned.  Still, it can be useful to approach him, if only now and then, in a simpleminded fashion.  What, then, is to be made of his advice, to the would-be ruler, that he should be careful about the eminently useful property he accumulates and husbands?

The typical human being, he reports, is likely to resent much more intensely a prince’s taking of his patrimony than a prince’s killing of his father.  After all, it is routinely expected that one’s father will die—and, once dead, he can be buried and pretty much forgotten.  But one can be continually reminded that one does not enjoy the patrimony one had anticipated, that patrimony which lives on, so to speak, as the obvious (often all-too-visible) possession of an acquisitive prince.

Indeed, one may even have “wanted” (at times, at least) to be rid of one’s parents.  This can especially be so when one believes that one can make better use of the family property than decrepit parents who are anything but adventurous.  It may even be felt (but, of course never said), by the resentful heir, that the prince has done him a favor by providing his obstructive parents a well-earned rest, so long as the wealth of the family has been left alone.


Much is made, then, by Machiavelli of acquiring and securing one’s own.  “One’s own”  can include one’s country.  “Acquiring” on a grand scale can include, as the young Abraham Lincoln recognized in his 1838 Perpetuation address, either liberating an enslaved people or enslaving a free people.

Much is made, that is, of being in control.  One determines what works, how secure one is, and how one is regarded, here and hereafter.  This is what reliable access to property can mean, whether it is a modest plot of land or a great empire.

Compare those (sometimes very nice people) for whom being “in control” means an insistence upon living off the fancies routinely provided by others, as if determined somehow to get through still another day and night without trauma.  Mostly they are eager to be diverted and entertained through (if not even past) life.  They are shielded thereby not only from disturbing challenges, but also from serious thought—from ever making the best truly their own—and (it is only fair to add) perhaps some of them are somehow sensible in so protecting themselves from traumas they cannot cope with.


Machiavelli seems to suggest with respect to acquisitiveness (whether personal or political)—he seems to suggest that “anything goes,” at least so long as one can “get away with it.”  Missteps here raise questions not about one’s morality, but rather only about one’s judgment or understanding.  This can lead, in some thoughtful students of Machiavelli’s work, to the plausible judgment that he is “a teacher of evil.”

The “going” of “anything” may be seen in how Cesare Borgia ruthlessly exploited Ramirro d’Orco, empowering this naturally cruel man to do what was believed to be needed to pacify a sorely-afflicted Romagna.  It is not unlikely that Cesare Borgia knew from the outset of this campaign that Ramirro d’Orco, in turn, would eventually have to be dealt with in a vividly cruel fashion.  That is, he would “have” to be spectacularly “punished” for doing precisely what he had been intended and expected to do as the Borgia surrogate in Romagna.

Thus, there was here a series of deceptions, beginning with what Ramirro d’Orco must have been led to believe about how he would be rewarded for his service.  Then the people of Romagna were shown that the atrocities that had been visited upon them had been suitably punished, but by someone who was himself not to be trifled with.  And then, of course, was not Cesare Borgia in turn deceived insofar as he believed that it is truly human and otherwise praiseworthy to conduct oneself as he did on this and other occasions?


But, Machiavelli indicates, Cesare Borgia himself was exploited by his father, Pope Alexander VI.  It is said (by others) that his sister, Lucrezia Borgia, was also exploited in various ways by both her father and her brother.  It can be wondered, of course, how well these children ever knew their father.

But then, it can be wondered how well Alexander knew himself.  An epitaph of sorts is provided by Machiavelli when he reports (in Chapter XVIII of The Prince),

Alexander VI never did anything else and he never thought about anything else but how to deceive men, and he always found a subject for his practice.  And there never was a man who was more efficacious in asseverating, or with greater oaths affirmed a thing, who less observed [his faith].  Nevertheless, his deceptions always succeeded at his will, because he knew so well this part of the world.

Is there not something devilish in such comprehensive (if not even desperately compulsive)  deceptiveness, reminding us of C. S. Lewis’s characterization of the Satan of John Milton’s  Paradise Lost as someone who always lies

We can be reminded as well of what Machiavelli had said about how a prince should hold on to his property.  Alexander VI, it can be suspected, regarded the truth as property to be grasped to (that is, as treasure to be kept within) one’s bosom.  Is there not something grotesque in such determined possessiveness, especially if one is both talented and exalted?


Can Machiavelli truly admire such a man?  After all, he himself is an author who does seem to want to share with others (at least with some others) his property – that is, to share what he has learned about the most important things.  Or does he merely want to make a name for himself, finding it useful (in the style of, say, Cesare Borgia in Romagna) to present himself as a dramatic Italian patriot?

Would Machiavelli have made the name for himself that he no doubt has (perhaps even as a critical founder of modernity) if he had substantially and obviously endorsed such predecessors as Aristotle or that Aristotelian Christian (and fellow Italian), Thomas Aquinas?  Also, would not Machiavelli have made even more of a name for himself if he had anticipated far more than he evidently did the Protestant Reformation that was to be important for modernity?  After all, precursors of that movement, such as John Hus and John Wycliffe (to be distinguished from Machiavelli’s Savonarola) had already appeared in Europe.

Be all this as it may, the Classicist that Machiavelli can seem to admire most is Xenophon.  But does he recognize how much of a Socratic Xenophon was?  A Machiavellian streak in Xenophon would have been properly displayed, I presume to suggest, if he had been in Athens when Anytus began to organize his deadly prosecution of Socrates, a campaign that Anytus would have been helped by a dangerous Xenophon to understand that it would not be “healthy” for Anytus and his co-conspirators to continue.


That is, Xenophon understood that deception may sometimes have to be used in the cause of justice, something that he could have learned from Socrates.  But would he not have understood as well that the thoroughgoing liar, as Alexander VI is said by Machiavelli to have been, is in spirit a slave?  He is, in various ways, a prisoner of his determination to lie, to hold on (at all costs) to an illusive property that can be forfeited by a chance disclosure.

The more “successful” the thoroughgoing liar is, the more isolated he is.  Certainly he cannot be known and hence cannot be truly loved.  Indeed, it can be wondered whether he “really exists” other than as an illusion.

We may even see in him the suicidal character of the miser.  A lifetime devoted to hoarding one’s property means that one has no meaningful possessions.  “Ownership” of anything on such terms may be, at best, an empty use, at worst, a form of suicide.


Consider, further, Machiavelli’s recollection that “Alexander VI never did anything else and he never thought about anything else but how to deceive men . . .”  Did this Master Deceiver truly succeed even in this all-consuming enterprise?  After all, how did Machiavelli himself learn about Alexander’s proclivity and talent for deception?

Must not others have learned about this as well?  Rumors, we are told by historians, circulated after the sudden deaths of Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia (in 1507) that they had been poisoned.  And it was evidently further believed, at least by some, that this father and son had been tricked into drinking poison that they had intended for another.

It is highly likely, we are also told by some  historians, that there was no poisoning involved here, that this father and son were almost certainly victims of an epidemic that killed many others as well.  Still, the poisoning rumor that was circulated with relish does suggest that Alexander VI was believed to be  a Master Deceiver who had himself been fatally deceived.  This suggests, that is, that Pope Alexander VI, who invested so heavily (if not so heavenly) in Deception, had died a Bankrupt.


How, then, should the determined Realist be regarded, whether as a man of action or as a man of thought? Is it truly prudent so to conduct oneself that thoughtful people can recognize in one “a teacher of evil”?  If one did not intend to create this ugly impression, does that suggest a critical (if not even a deadly) incompetence on one’s part?

Still, it should be conceded to Machiavelli that he has been taken seriously and regarded as outstanding by exceptional thinkers in one century after another, thinkers such as Rousseau in the Eighteenth Century and Nietzsche in the Nineteenth Century.  And the Twentieth Century scholar who was obliged to recognize in him “a teacher of evil” still considered him worthy of serious study, recognizing among other things both his evidently sincere republican credentials and his remarkable intellectual influence.  This influence was perhaps compromised somewhat by his evident insistence (suggested by an English poet) that the only sin is ignorance.

Be all this as it may, the modern Realist should find instructive and deeply challenging  what Plato has Socrates do (in the closing pages of the Republic) with that great ancient Realist, the Odysseus of Homer, a hero desirous of wealth, eager to rule, and remarkably adept at deception.  One can be reminded there of the Xenophon that Machiavelli admires.  And yet even Odysseus, when properly instructed, is shown by Plato (in the Republic) to cherish the modest private life (open to philosophy and its promulgation of the truth) that Socrates wisely treasures.

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