Monday, November 25, 2019

Machiavelli and Nietzsche

According to Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli composed his political works with the conviction that the ultimate values often contradict each other—that a harmony between ultimate values (such as political values and ethical values) cannot be achieved. In this sense, a connection can be drawn between Machiavelli and Nietzsche; the latter has, in his works, forcefully questioned the disharmony between ultimate values. Nietzsche notes that the conflict between political and moral values is a fact recorded by history and on this basis he establishes his ethics of the soul.

Here’s an excerpt from Berlin’s essay, “The Originality of Machiavelli”:

“What has been shown by Machiavelli, who is often (like Nietzsche) congratulated for tearing off hypocritical masks, brutally revealing the truth, and so on, is not that men profess one thing and do another (although no doubt he shows this too) but that when they assume that the two ideals are compatible, or perhaps are even one and the same ideal, and do not allow this assumption to be questioned, they are guilty of bad faith (as the existentialists call it, or of 'false consciousness’, to use a Marxist formula) which their actual behavior exhibits. Machiavelli calls the bluff not just of official morality—the hypocrisies of ordinary life—but of one of the foundations of the central Western philosophical tradition, the belief in the ultimate compatibility of all genuine values. His own withers are unwrung. He has made his choice. He seems wholly unworried by, indeed scarcely aware of, parting company with traditional Western morality.”

In another passage, Berlin notes: “Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.”

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