- What Are We Teaching About Morality by Not Teaching Morality?
Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion . . .The Prince 1
A ruler who wishes to maintain his power,” Niccolò Machiavelli assures his readers, and most especially his principal reader, Lorenzo de’ Medici, “must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.” Then he tells us that in his little book of policy he intends to “set aside fantasies . . . and consider what happens in fact” (p. 55). In all the times I have taught The Prince, I have never ceased to find those words chilling—not only in themselves, but also because of the [End Page 160] reaction they invariably evoke from classes of undergraduates. For the last five years one of my colleagues and I have concluded our honors seminar at the University of Maryland, a course we call “The Western Intellectual Heritage: the Hero and Society,” with Machiavelli’s The Prince. We soon learned that unlike the other texts in the course—Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Apology, Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone, Virgil’s Aeneid, or the stories from Judges and Samuel I and II in the Hebrew Bible, or even Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Shakespeare’s Henry V, or certainly Milton’s Samson Agonistes-The Prince would evoke a characteristic and somewhat unsettling shock of recognition.
In some ways, it’s the easiest class of the year. Coming at the end of the semester, with a text the students can read without difficulty in Russell Price’s crisp English translation, with an author, a Renaissance Italian political thinker, whose perspective on the world and political power is uncannily modern, it is a class during which students suddenly find themselves both liberated and empowered. At last, here is a world they know something about. There is no strange moral code, no grappling with arete or pietas, no concerns about sin or the will of God; in fact, there are no gods or religious practices to inhibit a Machiavellian ruler’s behavior. Of course, the successful ruler may have to put on a show of piety and morality, but that is just good public relations, as we all now know. And when we ask why they think we would choose to end our course on “The Hero and Society” with this particular book? Well, they respond, that’s obvious, isn’t it? Machiavelli’s book is about reality; those others are just stories. It’s like Machiavelli says, they’re just “fantasies” but his is about “what happens in fact.”
It’s just about this time in the discussion that the chill begins to reach our old humanist bones. With this one text we have successfully deconstructed in a variety of ways a semester’s worth of reading. Our carefully contextualized and painstakingly nuanced discussions of cultural values among the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad and the Romans in Virgil’s Aeneid, the acknowledged complications of David’s relationship with God in the Bible and of Milton’s adaptation of Greek tragedy and Hebrew story in Samson Agonistes seem now to have been reduced to mere “fantasies,” tales told to children, stories we like to tell about our better selves. Machiavelli is concerned with the real world, with gaining and holding political power. How is it that Machiavelli’s one book can somehow overturn the entire heroic tradition we have been attempting to study throughout the course? Aren’t they bothered, we ask, by the amorality of Machiavelli’s advice? Well, yes, some say, they are troubled [End Page 161] by the lack of concern for moral consequences. And, yes, others say, they think his vision of human nature is perhaps too cynical. But that’s the way things are. Anyway, aren’t all those other books about “the strong taking what they will, and the weak suffering what they must”? At least they remember something from The Aeneid.
But, we flounder, what about Socrates in Plato’s Apology, isn’t he raising questions about morality and truth? What about Antigone, isn’t that about something more than...