Hitler’s Reading of Machiavelli

In his excellent book on Maritain, The Philosopher In Society, James V. Schall comments on Maritain’s theoretical critique of Niccolo Machiavelli. The Florentine master of immorality, Maritain observed, charms and seduces us. Why, or with what teaching, does Machiavelli seduce us? It is not so much when men ought to do, but what they do “do,” that should be the concern of the statesman, Machiavelli says. And what rulers do “do” is stay in power and devote every action to this end. Machiavelli does not simply teach evil, but teaches that evil must be done for the sake of a new good: staying in charge. The other classical realists, among them Aristotle and Augustine, are of course aware that evil things are done by leaders to stay in power – but what they refuse to commend those actions. But for Machiavelli those actions are not simply tolerable vices but positive virtues, inasmuch as they help the ruler achieve his end staying on top. So Machiavelli advocates a kind of prudence, but I say “a kind of prudence” because he reimagines or redefines it in an amoral direction.

Maritain’s theoretical critique of Machiavelli, as Schall puts it, is that he confused artistry with prudence. Machiavelli describes the ruler as the artist, as one who deals with society and individuals as an artist deals with his material: people are to be molded, shaped, remade according to the artists’ liking. One should not restrain the freedom of the artist; Machiavelli indicates also that the leader should not be restrained either, whether by armed opposition or more importantly by the leader’s own scruples. It is the leader’s scruples, his hesitation in doing some evil but necessary deed, that most restrains him. Machiavelli teaches that for the ruler to obtain his end, getting power and keeping it, he must be free of morality. Machiavelli does not work for the long run. In this connection, Maritain cites Hitler himself:

“‘Hitler told me he had read and reread The Prince of the Great Florentine. To his mind, the book is indispensable to every political man. For a long time it did not leave Hitler’s side. The reading of those unequaled pages, he said, was like a cleansing of the mind. It has disencumbered him from plenty of false ideas and prejudices. It is only after having read The Prince that Hitler understood what politics really is.’ Hermann Rauschning, Hitler m’a dit, (The Voice of Destruction, 1940)” in The End of Machiavellianism., 304.

One problem for the Machiavellian leader, however, is that this only works with a moral population that believes otherwise about the leader than the leader himself knows to be the case. That is what happens at first. But the leader’s actions undermine this belief and so corrupts the population by making them like him. When this has occurred, the leader’s immorality no longer gives him an appreciable advantage. Maritain writes,

“It is impossible that the use… of a thoroughly immoral art of politics should not produce a progressive lowering and degeneration of moral values and moral believes in the common human life, a progressive disintegration of the inherited stock of stable structures and customs linked with those beliefs, and finally a progressive corruption of the ethical and social matter itself with which this supramoral politics deals. Thus, such an art wears away and destroys its very matter, and, by the same token, will disintegrate itself” (The End of Machiavellianism, p. 300).

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