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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Will Morrisey Begin A Study Of Machiavelli’s The Prince

Monday, June 16, 2014

HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week. It is for many of you your favorite radio hour of the week. And even in a week of great and extraordinary news, and very relevant news, I might add, I pause for our Hillsdale Dialogue. Usually, as it is today, with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, and he often has, and he does today, one of his colleagues with him. And joining Dr. Arnn today is Professor Will Morrisey, who is the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution and professor of politics at Hillsdale College. He has been there since the year 2000. He teaches in American politics, political theory, comparative politics. Dr. Morrisey is the author of eight books on statesmanship and political theory, including Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War, The Dilemma Of Progressivism. It continues on and on. He received his summa cum laude B.A. from Kenyon College in the great state of Ohio. I pray he is actually a Buckeye, which would make him the perfect guest, and his PhD from the New School, a university. Dr. Morrisey, welcome for the first time. Are you indeed a Buckeye?

WM: No, I came from New Jersey originally, and went to school in Ohio.

HH: You made your way to Gambier, though, so I’m very, very pleased.

WM: I did.

HH: And hopefully, that you took some of that good common Ohio soil sense up to Michigan with you, and fertilized Hillsdale.

LA: Common is the term.

HH: Oh. Dr. Larry Arnn, it’s good to talk to you again. For everyone, as we begin this,, we’ve just added, last week, four affiliates in Montana, this week a new affiliate in Winston-Salem, AM980 The Eagle. So I always have to remember there are people hearing this for the first time. For the last year and a half, Dr. Arnn and I, and his colleagues, have been putting aside an hour to talk about the great books, the great thinkers, the great events of Western Civilization back to the Iliad. They are all available, every one of those conversations at And you can find out all about Hillsdale at, and you ought to at least sign up for their absolutely free speech digest, which is called Imprimus, which comes out to you monthly, sent to you in the mail the old fashioned way, and they have many extraordinary online courses. The Hillsdale Dialogues are conversations, but their courses are well-regarded by every one of the many hundreds of thousands of people who have taken them. And I mean, they’re just extraordinarily well-received. Dr. Arnn got those going about, what, three years ago, Larry?

LA: About that, that’s right.

HH: Well, that is all my summary. And now we are the break. We’re talking about the break that I had a professor long ago and far away by the name of Harvey Mansfield, and he spent a semester trying to get me to understand what the break was. And he succeeded a little bit, and the break is what, the theory of Niccolo Machiavelli is, and I’m going to start with you, Dr. Morrisey, before I give my first hypothetical question to Dr. Arnn, who was Machiavelli? Put him in his timeline and his place before we plunge into his writings.

WM: He was born and lived in Florence, Italy. He was born in 1469, and he died in 1527. He traveled somewhat to other, to the papal states, and centered in Rome, of course, Spain and France as a diplomat. Florence, in those days, it’s important to understand, Florence in those days was a city-state. It was sovereign. There were about a dozen of those in Italy. Italy wasn’t fully united until 1870, many, several centuries later. He served in several positions in the Florentine government between 1494 and 1512. That was when the Florentine regime was a republic. It was an in between the rule of the Medici family. And he had several appointments under the republic. He was a diplomat, as I mentioned. He also oversaw production of government documents, and he oversaw the training of the Florentine militia. That job calls to mind his strong advocacy of military self-defense in all its major works. It’s a theme that runs throughout. And he practiced what he preached on that.

HH: Oh, he was also, however, the victim of an unfortunate turn of circumstances.

WM: Yes. Once the Medici got back in, in 1512, he was imprisoned and tortured. After a while, he got back just a little bit in some minor posts. The Prince, of course, was one of the intentions there was to get him back into the, get him into the good graces of the Medici. It’s dedicated to one of them. And he never was allowed back in any position of major importance, but this is the time, sort of the retirement time when he wrote all of the major books that we associate with him – The Prince, The Discourses, The Art Of War, and the Florentine Histories. The only one that was published in his lifetime was The Art Of War. That was published in 1521, a few years before he died.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, why did Harvey Mansfield, a great and good friend of yours, and one of the great teachers of political theory along with your teacher, Dr. Harry Jaffa, why did he refer to this as the break when he took up The Prince?

LA: Well, he dates the beginning of modern political philosophy with Machiavelli, because Machiavelli has a different disposition about what the essential questions are that human beings have to answer. And there are two things that are related when you say that. The ancient political philosophy, you might say that the first and the last question in ancient political philosophy is what is the good? And there’s a political practice that goes along with that, the practice of virtue, the attempt in public things to achieve justice, and the attempt in private things to achieve a condition of virtue, which produces happiness in the individual. And Machiavelli changes all that. Machiavelli’s question is not so much what is the good. In fact, in this short work that we’re going to talk about first, and one of the most famous passages in all of philosophy, Machiavelli wins the name Machiavellian, for himself, by specifically eschewing the question of virtue as the guide or the good, as the guiding question of The Prince. And what he says is virtue’s mighty worthy, but nobody practices it. And so if you govern according to that, you’ll come a cropper. And so what you have to do is not do that. You have to govern according to the circumstances in ways that will produce success. And that means an alternation of virtue and vice, vice parading as virtue, often. And Machiavelli calls for that explicitly. And then in The Prince, he gives many examples, worthy and praised examples, of such things. Maybe the most famous, my favorite anyway, is a greatly-praised prince is one Cesare Borgia, who sends an agent into a rebellious area, which agent then proceeds to torture and maim and kill all the enemies of Cesare Borgia. The agent is named Ramiro d’Orco. And then when he’s done that, and all the enemies are dead, and the people are beginning, the Prince senses, to move from that place where he wants them, which is to fear him, to be feared is better than to be loved, toward hatred of him, which is very bad. Then he goes to the city and he causes Ramiro d’Orco to be dismembered and displayed in the public square, which produces the happy result. It has three parts. One is all his enemies are dead. The other is everyone fears him. But the third is, they don’t hate him. He has delivered them from their persecutor. There’s a break between that way of thinking, publicly proclaimed and advanced, and let’s say, Aristotle’s Ethics.

HH: Well, then let me ask Professor Morrisey. Is this a dangerous book? And do your students injure their own souls and their understanding of how they ought to act by reading it?

WM: I think they strengthen their souls by reading it. Unless you have a coherent account of evil, done not by someone who is a critic of evil, but by someone who is a philosopher of evil, you will not be able to stand up to it. You will not be able to understand it. I occasionally do have students who have said well, this is wrong, why are we reading it? And that’s exactly why you’re reading it. We want you to read things that are wrong. We want you to understand things that are wrong so that you will be alert for them, alert to them.

HH: You know, there’s a temptation, though, isn’t there? It’s sort of like the Lord of the Rings temptation to put the ring on. Isn’t that the danger of The Prince?

WM: Well, that’s…

LA: Well, let me just…

WM: That’s the…

LA: Yeah, let me say something about that. Yeah, you, there’s a sense in which one should put the ring on. Winston Churchill’s wife, I’ve always thought this is the greatest thing…

HH: You’re going to have to hold this through the break.

LA: Okay.

HH: Otherwise, you’ll break it right in the middle. I’ll be right back with Winston Churchill’s wife.

LA: Okay.

HH: …and putting on the ring when we come back.

— – – –

HH: When we went to break, I had asked my guest, Dr. Will Morrisey, who is the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution at Hillsdale, and Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of that august institution,, whether reading Machiavelli was dangerous, whether it wasn’t like the temptation in Lord of the Rings to put on the ring. And Dr. Arnn had begun to say something about Winston Churchill’s wife. What was that you were about to say?

LA: Well, the point I was going to illustrate is, it’s both dangerous to read it and dangerous not to read it. And I don’t think Betsy’s ever written about Hugh, and I don’t think Penny has ever written about Larry.

HH: No.

LA: What Clemy wrote to the prime minister about Winston, which was only Winston has the deadliness to fight the Germans.

HH: Oh.

LA: And I’ve always thought that was a great thing, right?

HH: She really wrote that?

LA: Oh, yeah.

WM: Yes.

LA: Oh, yeah, she did.

WM: She did.

LA: And that’s just, you know, by the way, that’s better than a knighthood, isn’t it?

HH: Yeah, it is. Repeat that again. Only Winston has the…

LA: Deadliness to fight the Germans. And…

HH: Approvingly, she added.

LA: Oh, man, you know, she was recommending him for a promotion. And that, see, so you know, after we have sunk into the depth of Machiavelli, because we should do that, because you’ll never understand this famous and incredibly important thing unless you do pursue the thoughts of it, that’s what it is to study, then after we’ve done that, there’s some distinctions we should make which will, in my opinion, Will will be an excellent guide for us all here, will establish that the propositions that Machiavelli is advancing are not unknown either to the classics or to the good, and that some elements of those make up good practice.

HH: Now here’s the hypothetical I have for both of you as we begin this. Machiavelli came into power at around the age of 25 when there was the equivalent of a coup that banished the Medici from the city they had ruled for a hundred years. And he got a big job in the new regime, sort of the secretary of state, almost, at a very young age. So imagine, if you will, that you’re sitting on that beautiful rooftop at the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C. with the Capitol dome in the backdrop, because Hillsdale runs this magnificent Kirby Center where they concern themselves with statesmanship, and on top of it, they concern themselves with cigars and adult beverages after they’ve concerned themselves with statesmanship. And you have around you that great group that I was a part of one night of young men and women between the ages of 20 and 30, some of whom are in the uniform of the United States, because Hillsdale has produced its fair share of such officers of the American military. When word comes by text and post and phone call that there’s been a coup, that the United States Military has had it with President Obama, or whomever they’ve had it with, and that they have seized the White House, and they have seized power, and it sounds from first reports as though it’s a pretty effective operation, a seven days in May sort of operation, and all of your students are then looking at Dr. Arnn and Dr. Morrisey, some of them in uniform, and they say what are we to do? So what do you tell them if you are, have been reading your Machiavelli, Dr. Arrn?

LA: Oh, well, so there are two ways to answer what would one say, and what would Machiavelli say? What Machiavelli might say about that, what he, he says something that’s similar to that situation, in Machiavelli, one of the things you learn is that if you concentrate on doing the good, it’ll be counterproductive. And what’s productive is to do what works. And works to what end, we have to talk about that. What does me mean by that? What do you know? How do you know if something works? What does it produce? Machiavelli, and we’ll get to that, but Machiavelli, in Machiavelli, foundings are scenes of crime and despotism. And they may give rise to freedom, but that’s not how you get it. And so Machiavelli, so what Machiavelli might say to a young person is maybe there’s an opportunity here.

HH: Well that’s, isn’t that what he, Dr. Morrisey, that’s what happened to him, right?

WM: Absolutely. And he was completely, he was completely indifferent as to which regime he would serve. He would serve the republic, and he quickly attempted to worm his way right back in as soon as the Medici through him out.

HH: So maybe there’s an opportunity here.

LA: Yeah, that’s a good, guiding spirit, you know, if you’re a Machiavellian. That’s what you should be thinking all the time. Maybe there’s an opportunity here.

HH: But what would you, Dr. Arnn, think, I mean, we’ve had a rough week, right? I haven’t talked to you about this incoherent West Point speech, that we’ve given up in Afghanistan, that we have traded five of their field group commanders for Eddie Coyle at best.

LA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HH: And let’s pause. And give me your reaction to this week.

LA: Well, it’s a good time to be taking up Machiavelli, as you said at the outset of this show, because you know, presenting weakness, you know, Machiavelli and the classics, and Winston Churchill would all agree, and Abraham Lincoln would agree, and George Washington would agree. Presenting weakness to evil enemies is the worst possible counsel. And this idea that we’re appealing to the better nature of people whose better natures are not in command is, its’ really nuts, right, because what deductions are they going to draw? And you know, if you know, like what would be the opposite policy? Take Ukraine, take Syria, I think Syria’s a complicated case, myself, and it’s possible that there’s no good result to be had there. And if one takes that view, then what he might do is pick whoever is the worst of them and support the other side just to cause him trouble, not expecting something really great to happen, but trouble to the worst of them, and you know, support the people in the Middle East you trust, and there are a couple. What about Ukraine, right? First of all, there’s an enormous spirit of freedom that’s apparent there. I said to one of our students here, she said you know, Dr. Arnn, politics is not the highest thing. We like to read our Dostoyevsky there, and we’re all famous for studying politics here. And I said that’s right. I said did you notice, dear one, that this week the students are pouring into a square to their deaths? And she said yeah. And I said I wonder why they’re doing that. And she said freedom? And I said freedom to what? What freedom do students value? Like ability to read and talk about your Dostoyevsky freely? Come to find out, dear, you are very interested in the Constitution of the United States, right? And you see, so with them, first of all, they’re allies in the Ukraine. Help them. Help them in some clever way, right? Help them, you send them some stuff. Empower them to fight. You know, there’s enormous things that could be done. And then speak in the terms of that. Like one thing our, so this is my Machiavellian advice. Well…

HH: The music is coming up. He’s well-trained.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Dr. Morrisey will learn that when the music is coming up, there’s 20 seconds to go to the break. I’ll be right back, America.

— – — –

HH: Dr. Morrisey, earlier today as we begin, it is the quintenary, we believe, of The Prince, 500 years since it appeared, give or take one year, no one’s quite sure when it appeared, so we’re roughly at a 500th year celebration. And it’s a great time to pick it up. But it’s also interesting for a reason Dr. Arnn just said, the times in which we live call for a good understanding. My colleague, Dennis Prager, and I don’t know that Dennis has been to Hillsdale. I know he’s a friend of Larry’s, and I don’t know that he’s been up there. But today, he declared, as I was driving to the studio, that it is unquestioned in his mind that President Obama is the worst president in American history with the possible exception of James Buchanan, about which he thought there was a good argument to be made that President Obama is worse. If that is the case, why ought we to read with urgency Machiavelli?

WM: Machiavelli at least knew what he was about. And I’m not convinced that Obama really does. If you think, there was talk about Obama meeting with Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin was trained by the KGB. My predecessor in this job here at Hillsdale in the political science department was a man named Alex Stromas, who was an ex-KGB agent. He was a defector. And he was trained from childhood in geopolitics. He was trained in special operations. He was trained in all of these areas that Barack Obama simply has no background in. When those two men sit down at the same table, Putin can have him for lunch, because while he, Putin, was at the when Putin was studying to be a statesman, and to be a KGB operative, which is not quite the same thing, but at any rate, he was studying geopolitics, Obama was community organizing. He was learning a bit about the law, not very much, but some. This is not, this is just not an even match. There’s nothing there.

HH: And is there a way to repair or to prepare, those who have to repair the damage via Machiavelli, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, you know, you need to cultivate the moral and the intellectual virtues, and they come to operate together in various ways when you know them. And one of the things they do is they make you tough. And you know, this is world where we say to the students here all the time, I mean, that young woman, I won’t say her name, but she’s a really great kid and about to marry a really great kid in the senior class in a few days. You know, she wants to be, she wants, she loves beauty. She’s a lit major. And she wants to be left alone and allowed to pursue that. And those are the aims of the American republic. And we remind them, yeah, and you know, that republic didn’t come to be, as Lincoln said once about war, he said you don’t fight wars by blowing rose water through elder stalk squirts.

HH: When did he say that?

LA: I don’t know, I’ll look it up for you. Yeah, he definitely said it.

HH: Wow.

LA: I’ve got it in my forthcoming book about Churchill, and I got a footnote to it, so I know that it exists. Churchill said a parallel. Churchill said we’ve not traveled all this way across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies because we are made of sugar candy.

HH: Yeah, that one, I know and love. And I know Thucydides, the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage. And they all are of a piece. Let’s turn to The Prince, and let’s begin there and tell people he had just been released from prison. He had been tortured, according to biographers of Machiavelli, and he sat down in an attempt to ingratiate himself. Well, what was the project, Dr. Morrisey? We have about a minute to the break. What was his project in writing The Prince?

WM: His project in writing The Prince was to overthrow the classical understanding of virtue, and the Christian understanding of virtue. He has two targets. His first target is antiquity. His second target is Christianity.

HH: Wow, he was not self-effacing, was he?

WM: No, he was very self-effacing. In order to do this, he had to use indirection in his way of writing. He couldn’t just, he’s no Voltaire. He doesn’t exist in a situation where that would be easy to do or say.

HH: He aims high. I guess I should have said he certainly aimed high, but he did it in a cunning way.

— – – –

HH: Last segment of this week’s first Hillsdale Dialogue devoted to the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, specifically the dedicatory letter that he sends to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of Florence, in which Machiavelli begins by saying most of the time, it is customary for those who wish to gain the favor of a prince to approach him with the things they hold most dear. Now Dr. Morrisey, most of the time, and it is customary, are two great qualifiers that make you wonder from the very beginning exactly how often is this going to be useful? What is he doing here in this letter, in this dedicatory letter?

WM: Well, The Prince looks like a, looks like a typical specimen of something that was courtesy book, which was a book of advice to two princes, and to rulers. Castiglione’s book was a fine example of that in the Renaissance. So he starts out seeming to be doing something that is expected, and well-understood, a well-understood genre. But there’s going to be a lot more going on in the book as one works through it.

HH: And as we work through it, we want to work through it in the same book. And today, I am using the translation which was at hand, the Rebhorn translation. But we’re going to encourage people to go and get Harvey Mansfield’s translation. Does it come as a standalone? Or will they also find the other writings of Machiavelli that Harvey has translated under two covers?

WM: No, it’s a standalone. It’s published by the University of Chicago, a small paperback, very affordable.

HH: And so I encourage all of you to get the Mansfield translation of The Prince as we work our way through it. Dr. Arnn, at the very end of this dedicatory letter, he says look, in order to know well the nature of people, it’s necessary to be a prince. And to know well the nature of princes, one must be of the people. He’s trying to say why he could presume to advise the prince. What do you think about that?

LA: Well, yeah, I don’t know, and so on the surface, it’s flattery, right? And the prince embodies the people. But of course, as he gives the advice, he’s, the subject of The Prince is the people, and what the prince does to the people, right, and what he makes them think. And he does make them think things. Will’s about to say something.

WM: The other thing is, you know, if you read The Prince, who is he talking about all the time, if not princes? So it turns out that yes, he says that he understands the people, but the prince understands the people, it turns out that Machiavelli understands both, the prince and the people. And so that’s a bit of flattery at the beginning, and it shows you how clever he can be.

HH: It’s also a big problem for me at the beginning, the last sentence of the dedicatory letter is, and should your magnificence gaze down from the summit of your eminence towards this lowly place which Machiavelli occupies, you will recognize how I undeservedly suffer from the continual malice of fortune. Now Dr. Morrisey, if he’s anti-Christian and anti-virtue, how dare he use a word undeservedly?

WM: Well, he wants to get the prince to do something, and he assumes the prince isn’t as comprehensively, shall we say, tough-minded as he is. He’s trying to give him…the other thing is, of course, the prince might read this and say, Cosimo might, and his magnificence might read this and think well, this guy is very bright. Maybe I ought to hire him as my advisor.

HH: But isn’t it an admission against interest, as we lawyers would say, Larry Arnn, to say undeservedly, because he’s appealing to some standard of fairness which presupposes some good, some virtuous standard?

LA: Well, he has one, and you know, he, Machiavelli, he’s establishing a new mode and order that is a more fully human way to live. And he thinks that first of all, Machiavelli is going to destroy or compromise the influence of Christianity, because he thinks that influence is too venal. Is that too bold, Will?

WM: No.

LA: And…

HH: Wow.

LA: You know, we’re supposed to be sophisticated and dance around these points, but Will and I are not very good at that. It almost sounds like a Machiavellian thing to say. So Lord knows what we’re going to do.

HH: Who knows?

LA: But he, Machiavelli sees what he regards as a great truth. And in this book, he announces it. He doesn’t announce his anti-Christianity in this book. That’s implicit in a much more complex book that we’ll talk about second, I imagine, the Discourses on Livy. But there’s a kind of a refounding that goes on in these Discourses, but the first thing that Machiavelli wants us to think is look, we’re living in misery here, and we can’t get our way, because we’re too focused on the restraints of virtue and doing good. And we’ve got to discard those, because we can’t get on and do any good until we stop worrying about doing good. And Machiavelli thinks that there is a refounding both of a way of thinking and of a way of living that will be better for us, right? And you know, it’s easy, you know, I personally believe that the doctrines of the modern left lead to nihilism. And I think these doctrines of Machiavelli lead there, too, but Machiavelli’s a wonderfully sophisticated man, and that isn’t his self-understanding, and that’s not the self-understanding of the left, either. And so the first step is to figure out what is that understanding of Machiavelli and of the left, if you’re studying them. What do they think, because it’s very uncommon for people to set out and simply do evil, and in fact, only really insane people ever do that. And so you have to unpack these arguments, because Machiavelli, you know, and on the surface, it’s actually pretty simple. We’re living in misery in Italy. We are divided. We have no greatness. We are prey to people outside us. I personally have been dislodged from my place and tortured. Because of the mediocrity and limits of those who rule us, which is a common condition, and if we will just take a better attitude, we can have a better life. That’s, on the surface, that’s what he says in The Prince.

HH: That’s what he says, and when we come back, and we’re going to do a special extra quick segment here, because I’d like to ask Dr. Morrisey and Dr. Arnn how they recommend people approach The Prince, how do get ready for next week. Do they read the whole thing? Do they read a chapter at a time, and in what order, at what pace? Don’t go anywhere, America. We’ll tell you how to go about getting ready for the next Hillsdale Dialogue. And as I said earlier, in these times, I can’t think of a better few weeks than we are going to be spending on a better subject than The Prince.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Will Morrisey, we have just a couple of minutes left in this week, and so Dr. Morrisey, I’ll start with you. As we go forward, how would you advise someone who hasn’t picked up The Prince ever, going to go out and get the Mansfield edition from the University of Chicago, probably $1.99 on the internet, very cheap, how would you have them read to be ready to get the most out of the next few weeks of conversation?

WM: The main thing is first of all, just read it from one end to the other. Don’t try to pick and choose chapters. Don’t try to read around and jump around. Machiavelli has a way of arguing, and that he unfolds very deliberately. So you have to follow the thread of the argument from beginning to the end. The other thing is to read things with a bit of caution. He will tell you things that aren’t quite so. And you can figure out that they’re not quite so if you look him up, if you kick the tires, so to speak. So read him with caution. He deserves the name Machiavelli, and he earned that reputation to some extent. And it’s wise for the reader to be a bit on his guard while reading this book.

HH: Do all Hillsdale students, Dr. Arnn, read the entire Prince? Isn’t it all in the Western Civilization reader? I’m trying to recall, but I’m not sure.

LA: No, it’s not all there. Everybody reads some of it.

HH: Everybody reads some of it. And so do you have anything to append to Dr. Morrisey’s suggestion on how to go, from start to finish cautiously?

LA: Yeah, be of good heart, because The Prince is short, and you know, delightful in a sometimes wicked way, to read. You’ve got a pleasure in front of you. And then let’s try to figure out what it means that somebody of surpassing importance wrote such a book. I mean, you know, that’s…and you know, the book is inviting you to do things. And Machiavelli, you know, he’s Machiavellian, which means sometimes, he’s a liar, as Will says, and the lies, and he points in the book to the place, gives you an instruction in a place in the book that we will mention to you, about how to read Machiavelli. Obvious mistakes are a clue to something important. And Will, as you know, is a really good teacher, was just pointing that out to the audience surreptitiously.

HH: Interesting. Well, people are going to have to go read the transcript again when that gets posted. Gentlemen, thanks to you both. I have to ask, just very quickly, 30 second round, of all of our presidents, who has deserved the title Machiavel?

LA: I don’t know. We’ve got President Simpleton right now.

HH: (laughing) Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, Dr. Will Morrisey, his colleague there, thank you both for a great introduction to Machiavelli’s The Prince. We’ll continue on there on the next Hillsdale Dialogue, same time, same place next week.

End of interview.

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