Niccolò Machiavelli is experiencing a resurgence in popular culture as the subject of several opinion pieces alongside his continued presence in political theory courses. His most famous work, The Prince, is perhaps the most widely read treatise in the history of political thought. Yet few, if any, historical thinkers have rivaled the evil he has taught and harm he has perpetuated. Strange as it may seem, the gross mischaracterization of his work as encouraging cunning and opportunism does not paint Machiavelli as poorly as a proper assessment does. While Machiavelli deserves much criticism, this essay will focus on the teaching of effectual truth and the way it is wielded by those with virtú, Machiavelli’s corrupted and narrow sense of virtuous manliness. Throughout the modern era, effectual truth has been commonplace in practice and an assumption of political life.1 The greater disturbance is the teaching’s place as a moral and political good, not just as an expedient. We must reject Machiavelli, not accept him, in order to conquer the distrust of contemporary political life.
A recent article published in American Mind, “The Return of Fortuna,” is just one example of a growing trend intended to make politics more Machiavellian. But the piece does not recognize the extent to which the Italian has already captured our minds and souls. Ben Woodfinden, its author, makes a persuasive case for understanding the role of fortuna—Machiavelli’s term for an amalgamation of nature and chance—in civic life. Woodfinden follows Machiavelli in thinking that only through virtú can politics conquer fortuna and become re-ordered. It seems that he thinks only through the subjugation of nature—which, I note, this coronavirus crisis actually shows to be an impossible task—and preparedness for unforeseeable events can politics rebound from the crisis exacerbated by the current pandemic and inoculate itself against future crises.
The truth is, our crisis does not just stem from coronavirus, but predates it as one of incompetent bureaucracies, useless legislatures, untrustworthy executives, and a body politic without any faith in its government or citizenry. This is a crisis of trust. It has been brought about by the Machiavellian mindset with its virtú and exploitation of effectual truth.
At the level of individual actors, Machiavelli has convinced us that we should chase our own selfish good to no end, and he has inspired every subsequent thinker of modern individualism in this endeavor. It should be apparent that this is not a healthy way to structure society. In trying to develop a limited, empirical concept of truth—or as he puts it, “effectual truth”—he has destroyed our yearning for the wholeness of truth, for philosophia, wisdom, moral truth, the normative, or anything of the sort. As Woodfinden seems not to realize, we have given up the search for actual truth in exchange for this effectual truth and its distortions.
The entire history of philosophy has struggled with the desire to understand beyond the material, to develop metaphysics, or to comprehend transcendental being. This is the challenge of philosophy, to shine light on the shadows and conceptualize the immaterial. Machiavelli, rather than showing this quest to be futile, simply asserts it to be wrong. Thus, he closes the possibility of philosophy and the resulting good life, without good reason—or any reason at all. Machiavelli is right that the ancient concepts of the True, Just, and Good are unattainable, but that is part of the point in seeking them: one is ever searching for a more perfect world.
For Machiavelli, virtú is demonstrated by power and the dominating use of “effectual truth.” It is admitted to be a concept stripped of anything the ancients might consider virtue. Machiavelli professes what was known to be empirically true—power brings domination and coercion forces accommodation—and provides a justification for immoral action. More accurately, he argues that there could not be any morality that would judge or constrain action. As such, his position is hardly developed beyond Thrasymachus’s ideas in the Republic, which Socrates never denied.2 Indeed, Machiavelli’s teaching is hardly an improvement on the power politics of Homer. Machiavelli’s innovation is in removing the gods, nature, providence, all of metaphysics—replacing them with an empty and insufficient concept of fortuna. Indeed, in compressing all things beyond the individual into fortuna, Machiavelli destroys the possibility of external motivations for man and crushes any spiritual hopes. He teaches that the only power that matters is what a man can hold against his opponents—that David needs only his sling and sword to slay Goliath.3
But man does not rely on his own arms alone.
Machiavelli teaches “effectual truth” as the only way to accurately see the world, with its use exemplary of virtú and necessary for securing power. The concept, just as it sounds, would hold that one should utilize truth only to the extent that it is useful. It would have rulers, as well as everyone else, forego normative, spiritual, or any other type of claim save strictly empirical claims. Machiavelli teaches that nothing, aside from useful, empirical data, exists—particularly in the world of politics. Normative claims are treated as purely imaginary. He claims that this is seeing the world for what it truly is; in actuality, it is seeing the world as Machiavelli wishes it to be.
The doctrine of effectual truth approaches moral philosophy and human concerns from the very narrow perspective of a scientist, one who is concerned with a picture of human life built out of mechanistic principles and proofs, who sees only a homo economicus that can be understood and directed in clear, instrumental fashion. In this way, effectual truth is the dream of every bureaucrat, technocrat, and autocrat. Effectual truth purports to understand a matter as it is, without recourse to imaginary republics or principalities—particularly those discussed by Plato and St. Augustine. But it fails to comprehend anything beyond superficial motivation. Immediate motivations, be they patriotism, filial piety, or honor, do not make sense through the lens of effectual truth. Final ends, such as human flourishing and personal sanctity, are unimaginable by effectual truth. Effectual truth cannot even conceive of these through a universal mechanism because each instance would only be understood as a result of momentary power relations.
This ignoble lie makes dullards feel like masters of knowledge; it is the equivalent of replacing the nighttime stars with a celestial map. One may observe hierarchy, relationships, position, and movement, but one cannot understand nature to its fullest. The empirical data might divulge where the stars were a month ago or help project where they will be a month in the future but empirical data cannot explain why the stars shine, what formed them, for what purpose they serve, to what end they are directed, or any inquiry that is more than superficial. While the reductionist account of effectual truth might appear to work, it will only lead men and society to the narrow end it understands—power. Thus, by misunderstanding society, politics, and the individual, it debases the aforementioned. This flattened image of life is embraced and abused by tyrants, allowing them to draw conclusions without gazing above.
Truly, man does not and cannot live on bread alone. Any political science that speaks otherwise, let alone one that fails to appreciate that man yearns for more, is deficient. One that does so gleefully, reducing man’s concept of himself to desires, is evil in intent and outcome.
Woodfinden’s analysis reveals a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of politics and Machiavelli. His belief that virtú can improve our current predicament belies a misunderstanding that pervades contemporary political life and contradicts Woodfinden’s own thesis. He admits that governing and rebuilding after coronavirus “isn’t going to be easy, and is going to require virtú.” Virtú neither conquers fortuna nor does it make for good politics—the virtú Machiavelli champions is nothing more than power lust. That “virtuous statecraft is more vital than ever now” is the one claim I can agree with. Woodfinden’s mistake is in thinking Machiavelli knows anything of virtue, in its true sense—virtú is as similar to virtue as astrology is to astronomy. While astronomy and virtue seek to make sense of the stars and understand the method and purpose of action, astrology and virtú do nothing more than project individuals’ desires onto the world. Virtuous leaders seek to lead communities towards healthy policy and good lives; leaders with virtú only seek to perpetuate their unhealthy control of a community at the expense of all communal good.
Virtú can never be virtue in the true sense—as understood in the tradition of Aristotle—because it is concerned only with what is necessary, not what is satisfactory or laudatory. Machiavelli intentionally appropriates and corrupts the word: he rejects that there exists such a thing as virtue or morality and calls this rejection virtú. Virtue is directed towards greater goods, it makes man better. Virtue is to grow, to love, and to understand. Virtú debases and reduces human affairs into transactional power dynamics that are easily exploited. Virtú is an admitted ignorance of morality, natural law, human dignity, or any other means of conceptualizing justice. Virtu is to do no more than what is necessary to control others. Presented with effectual truth, a virtuous man would align his actions with what is just. This is represented by Pericles, acting both effectively and honestly in search of Athens’s good.4 A man with virtú would instead act like Machiavelli’s model, Cesare Borgia, who knows no greater good than his own appetites.
Machiavelli’s mindset is not limited to a chapter in the history of philosophy. His perfidy fundamentally undergirds our world. His rejection of political philosophy as an endeavor of speculation and searching for the ideal leaves only a neutered political science that seeks to most easily explain superficial outcomes. This is a limiting development, not a positive one. A keen political observer needs to make use of both empirical and moral dimensions of life as the ancients did. A ruler needs to understand the totality of politics—both the Republic and the Laws—not just what is sufficient to retain the crown.5 That is the wonder of Pericles and other great leaders of history, they understand effectual truth and moral truth. However, as we have learned to think only as Borgia, we have only become Borgia. Actually, with our alienation from the ancients and their moral vision, alongside centuries of internalizing effectual truth. we have become worse than either Machiavelli or Borgia could ever be.
That every ruler and citizen only seeks their own private goods has been too comfortably accepted. The American government is structured around the competing passions of individuals.6 Social scientists only teach how to study power relations and transactions, and our news only covers interpersonal power struggles. We have accepted Machiavelli’s claims about human nature—that there is nothing beyond our appetites—and so we do not seek knowledge of anything greater.
The Danger of Machiavelli
The danger in pieces by Woodfinden and others is that they think Machiavelli provides solutions for our current crises, yet they fail to recognize that it is Machiavelli who is the root of our true political crisis: the crisis of trust. This process was well described by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She writes, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.” While Arendt does not make mention of Machiavelli, her insights are fundamentally about the evil nature of effectual truth. Reasonably, most do not assume that national news is fictitious—it is not. But the acculturation to and immersion in a sea of not-quite-truthful talking points, aimed at conveying what is useful rather than true, has a more nefarious effect than a single bold lie could.
Effectual truth implies that people are unable to live their lives surrounded by actual truth and requires that they do not acknowledge any actual or moral truth as possible. Effectual truth is an easily and necessarily distorted understanding of truth. By monopolizing what is or is not true—all the while exemplifying virtú and using effectual truth—the power apparatuses are able to control individuals’ decisions and lives.
The ever-present occurrence of this in contemporary life is the “nudge.” That is, government agencies or businesses influencing behavior by manipulating incentives and the presentation of information. This happens every day in countless benign decisions, yet the acceptance of dishonesty in guiding society and being guided by it metastasizes into more sinister and dangerous manipulation of effectual truth. A classic example of effectual truth backfiring is readily at hand: recently, a government agency sought to stockpile masks for healthcare workers at an affordable price by discouraging the purchase of masks and announcing that they are ineffective at curbing infectious viral transmissions. It does not matter whether that agency’s goal was just; the second- and third-order consequences—distrust, harm to public health, &c.—of such an ignoble lie are far more devastating than any first-order good solves. Over time, as distrust builds, it will be impossible to achieve these first-order goods such as government efficiency, reduced coercion, or others. While it appears that a loss of credibility is a surprise to purveyors of effectual truth, there are too many adages cautioning the consequences of dishonesty to feel much sympathy.
As a matter of science, effectual truth reduces inquiry from the world of possibility to the world of likelihood. It does not concern itself beyond that which most commonly and easily can be leveraged for power. If an academic department was filled with curious Platonists or Aristotelians, it would only take one Machiavellian to ruin the enterprise. With the influence of just one virtú-seeking individual, noble institutions and ambitious intellectual projects become calculating, cynical machines that seek power rather than knowledge. With ease, medical researchers turn from developing important medicines to immediately profitable ones.
Effectual truth, in contemporary terms, reveals itself as little more than fake news or disinformation campaigns. The particular claim of effectual truth, that truth is no more than what is immediately useful for advancing one’s goals, encourages the deconstruction of all meaning. Stripping actual truth itself from the concept of truth is cancerous, spreading sickness and immorality into every element of the body politic. It debases political life, wherein all parties compete over equally ludicrous conceptions of truth; community life, with a loss of any sense of moral and acceptable behavior; and individual life, void of any meaning or hope of fulfillment or transcendental good. Effectual truth leads to a continual calculation that seeks outcomes which generate power rather than good.
The way certain media outlets spoke of the escalating coronavirus crisis, separately from their private correspondence and thought, is indicative of a yearning for the power effectual truth grants. By controlling narrative and truth, one influences all downstream decision-making. Being seen with that control strengthens power and influence. Indeed, the larger media landscape distorts stories, promotes corporate interests, and seeks attention in place of truth. Of course, we recognize when the nightly news sensationalizes a story or when a BuzzFeed article is sponsored content. But the danger persists. By delegitimizing the whole of truth in our culture, we are reaching the point where we cannot recognize truth at all.
Arendt is careful to point out that it is not necessarily the state apparatus that brings about totalitarianism in a coup; it is the people who willingly succumb to distorted effectual truth as a substitute for actual truth. While Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism nearly seventy years ago, her analysis feels just as damning as it did then. Each generation’s leaders seem to adhere more closely to Arendt’s model, with the current president hewing closest so far. Arendt writes, “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” This trend will continue to infect each generation and its leaders until society prioritizes truth as such rather than Machiavelli’s distortion.
We Need Truth
While I may, at times, be bullish or pollyannaish in my desire for ordering the political towards the True and Good, it is possible to maintain a semblance of the American political order in opposition to effectual truth. Indeed there may be some hope that the current crisis of truth forces a return to truth as such. It seems that there are few objects left to deconstruct; at a certain point demolition must give way to construction. Philosophically, as well as physically, now is the time to build.
It may be that this epistemic problem becomes a collective-action problem, but a community commitment to honesty will go a long way toward slowly reversing the process Machiavelli initiated. It is remarkable and shameful that no one expects politicians or, indeed, the fact-checking services that criticize political dishonesty to be honest. Yet, a crisis like the current one requires truth and provides the greatest opportunity to promote it.
Although it is hard to imagine partisan politicians will willingly cease to weaponize arbitrary truth claims against their opponents, new election incentives can be developed. Indeed, even a party being acknowledged as actually honest would lead to victory and a recalibration of future campaigns. So far as effectual truth goes, efficient governance for the sake of enriching the ruler is not a just way to govern. Efficiency and efficacy for the sake of the common good is.
The coronavirus has highlighted so many failures of our political and social life. Perhaps most of all, it has shown the futility of man’s urge to dominate nature—we can never be ready for all threats and dangers. The solution is not to accept Machiavelli’s fortuna or to seek virtú. Instead we must reject effectual truth and its distortions. In theory, effectual truth leads to a shrinking of humanity’s horizons and a misunderstanding of our motivations. In practice, it leads to manipulation of the empirical into controlled distortions of truth that can be used to one’s advantage.
Artists, academics, and theologians must offer beauty, truth, and good to society. Politicians must seek the common good. We must recover trust. We individuals must crave honesty and dispute anything less. Imagining republics and principalities not of this world is the only way to help us improve governance in this world.
1. An argument for another day, but the modern era was ushered in by Machiavelli’s upturning of all prior order: “I depart from the orders of others.” Machiavelli’s break from philosophic and moral traditions is still a problem we must grapple with today. ^
2. Cf. The Prince and Republic Book I. ^
“I wish also to recall to memory an instance from the Old Testament applicable to this subject. David offered himself to Saul to fight with Goliath, the Philistine champion, and, to give him courage, Saul armed him with his own weapons; which David rejected as soon as he had them on his back, saying he could make no use of them, and that he wished to meet the enemy with his sling and his knife. In conclusion, the arms of others either fall from your back, or they weigh you down, or they bind you fast.” The Prince translated by W.K. Marriott.
“And he took his staff, which he had always in his hands: and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them into the shepherd's scrip, which he had with him, and he took a sling in his hand, and went forth against the Philistine. . . And David said to the Philistine: Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, which thou hast defied. . . And David prevailed over the Philistine, with a sling and a stone, and he struck, and slew the Philistine. And as David had no sword in his hand, He ran, and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath, and slew him, and cut off his head.” Excerpted from 1 Samuel 17, Douay-Rheims Translation. ^
4. Throughout the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides accounts of leaders who can act both effectually and in accordance with justice or morality. In particular, see the Policy of Pericles speech. ^
5. Plato’s two dialogues encompass what should be the whole of political science, both the theoretical and practical—what is just and what is legal. ^
6. While this is apparent in daily politics, it is best outlined in the theoretical discussion of Federalist 51. ^