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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Will Morrisey Continue Their Study Of Machiavelli’s The Prince With An Eye On Present Day Iraq

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HH: It’s that last hour of the radio week, the hour of the Hillsdale Dialogue that I know many of you look forward to. And to my new audiences across the United States, you’re in for a treat, because never actually has a Hillsdale hour been so well timed between what’s going on in the world around us and the ancient book that we are reading, or the classical work that we are reading. We’re in the middle of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and I am joined by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Professor Will Morrisey, Dr. Morrisey on the faculty at Hillsdale College. At the beginning, I’ll note that all of the Hillsdale Dialogues that go back to January of 2013, weekly dialogues, are available at, and that Hillsdale’s many offerings are all available at Professor Morrisey, Dr. Arnn, always good to talk to you both.

WM: Hi.

LA: Good to talk to you, Hugh.

HH: Now here’s the backdrop to our conversation. There is a power struggle underway in the House Republican Conference, and there is a recently-conquered state coming apart at the seams in Iraq. The Prince applicable to either of those, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, you could say that The Prince is blasphemous, and al Qaeda probably doesn’t like that. But the methods proposed, there’s that joke they used to say about Nixon, you know, people would criticize Nixon, that they liked his ends, but they couldn’t bear his means?

HH: Yes.

LA: And Stan Evans, a great guy, used to say I didn’t like his ends very much, but you had to like his means.

HH: So…

LA: So yeah, there’s a, I mean, I don’t know if it’s a Machiavellian struggle that’s going on for the leadership positions in the House of Representatives, but it surely is in Iraq.

HH: And that’s what, I’m going to start with the House and go to Iraq. But Dr. Morrisey, before that, because you have to kind of jump ahead to, we’re going to spend a lot of time on Chapters 3-8 today, but I want to jump ahead to Chapter 8 where he talks for the first time about virtu. And he referred to it in some places as ability, and others, talent. What is virtu?

WM: Virtu is the, is an ability, alright, it’s an ability to acquire, acquire political power, essentially. The great moral revolution that Machiavelli gives you is, you can see it right in the first few books of The Prince, where he classifies political societies in a new way. You recall Aristotle had his regime classification. There was a quantitative element to it, the one, the few and the many. But there was also a moral element, the good or the bad. So the one rule of the bad was a tyrant. The rule of the one that is good is a king or queen. The rule of the bad that is the few is the oligarchy, which is just the rich trying to squeeze the poor. The good rule of the few is an aristocracy, which is the rule of the few who are really outstandingly virtuous, etc. What Machiavelli does is to redo regime theory. What he says the very first, the title of the very first chapter is How Many Are the Kinds of Principalities? That’s an Aristotelian characteristic, right, the numerical one, and in what modes they are acquired.

HH: Yeah.

WM: That is different, because acquisition is essentially covetousness, or the ability, what virtu is, is the ability to acquire.

HH: Now he says in Chapter 3, the desire to acquire things is very natural and ordinary.

WM: Yes.

HH: And when men who can do so are successful, they will always be praised and not blamed. So those who are successful in getting power, those with virtu, are going to get thumbs up from everyone. But he’s also warning us, right? Your reach might exceed your grasp?

WM: Yes. You have to be, you have to be a lion with a great appetite and ferocity, but you also have to be a fox, which means you have to be clever. And as you say, your reach can’t exceed your grasp. So if you do that, then you’re a fool.

HH: So Dr. Arnn, you know the members of the House Republican Conference quite well. I don’t want you to name any of them, but who, are there many people, are they many foxes running around, and many lions? Or are there just a lot of people who think they’re playing foxes and lions?

LA: Ooh, well, there aren’t very many of them, so how am I going to answer that question? To analyze what’s going on here, it’s actually better to break out of Machiavellian thought. It is true, let me start this way. I used to wonder a long time ago when I was young, and I had acquired a considerable part of my education, I used to wonder what are people in politics good at? And I would begin to wonder that, because I didn’t meet very many, living in California at the time and coming to Washington a lot, who actually knew a lot of the things that I knew, like you know, Will and I can tell you roughly what’s in the Federalist Papers from memory. And you don’t really meet anybody in politics who can do that.

HH: No, no you don’t. A few, but not many.

LA: And so what are they good at? And one night, I, with a bunch of California legislators, I had a long talk, some of them friends of mine, people I like to this day, and they got to talking about elections. They were all really good at that. They knew about direct mail, and they knew about precincts, and in other words, they knew the things that had got them where they were. And so that’s kind of Machiavellian, right? They had acquired something.

HH: Yeah.

LA: They were good at that. And you know, politicians tend to be tough, and they have to be, because you get your hide stripped off. So yeah, in that sense, sure, they’re good at that. I wouldn’t say that the people in the Republican leadership are people who are without conscience at all, or willing to do wrong to get power. And you know, with Machiavelli, it takes something more than willing to do wrong to get power. You’ve got to be willing to do really big wrongs, and you’ve got to be willing not to regard them as wrong if they are successful.

HH: Now I had dinner earlier this week with a very experienced Washington hand who had a particular animus towards Chuck Schumer, a deep animus towards Chuck Schumer because of wrongs inflicted by Schumer upon this individual’s interests. Nevertheless, he understood Schumer to be tremendously talented at what he did. And so do we have anyone like that? Do we have anyone who knows how to actually run the place to achieve ends?

LA: Well, there’s a weakness I can cite that’s pretty general. You know, you have to break out of the Machiavellian mode, in my opinion, to analyze. My models are not Machiavelli. Machiavelli is somebody you need to know a lot about, but not to follow, exactly. You just have to be prepared for a lot of people around you to be following him. So what I think they need to do that they’re not very good at is they need to learn to be adamant in principle, and flexible in practice. And they tend to be divided into two groups. There’s the flexible in practice and the adamant in principle, and they never come together.

HH: Never.

LA: And you know, everything you do, I mean, study Winston Churchill, study Abe Lincoln, study George Washington, study James, study any very successful politician, and I just named people I regard as great ones. Everything they do is a compromise. And you know, in life, everything we do is a compromise. You know, we want it to be so, and it’s never fully so, and so we are always getting the best good that’s available. And that discourages some people in leadership, in my experience, from stating what they’re really trying to do. And I think maybe subconsciously, but who am I to be a spokesman for their subconscious, I think that there’s a reluctance to state their principles, because they know they’re going to have to compromise them. And a healthier way is to state them and compromise them, and call it a compromise. And I think that there would be more unity among them, the whole bunch of them, if they cultivated that knack. I mean, I think, for example, my experience is the Republican Conference, to a person, is keen to repeal Obamacare. And you know, they accuse each other often of not being for that. But if the people who are accused of that could state better the deep principled reasons why they favor that, they would be better believed.

HH: Now they are not in a hurry to do that, though, and is that a lack of virtu?

LA: Well, some of them, there are politicians in Washington who are, you know, when you get in the leadership, by the way, you tend to be pretty ambitious. And there are plenty of people in politics in Washington, D.C. For them, it’s kind of like a sinecure. They’ve got a cool job, there’s a lot of honor in it, it pays pretty well. There are people like that, sure. And that, very much, is very un-Machiavellian. Those are the kind of, those are the figures who appear in Machiavelli who are always doing what the prince tells them.

— – —

HH: Professor Morrisey, in the backdrop is Iraq falling apart. And it’s a country recently conquered, and it’s a country poorly administered by those who conquered it, the Shia, and now it’s going, it’s just falling apart into a complete and utter state of catastrophe. As you read Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, aren’t there echoes there of what he suggests will happen when weak people take over big states?

WM: Yes, there are, and here’s another thing that is key. I was mentioning his revolution, Machiavelli’s revolution and the idea of what a regime is. There’s another way of classifying political communities with respect not to the one, the few and the many and that sort of thing, but with respect to the degree of centralization, and the size of the political community.

HH: Right.

WM: Let’s call it the state or the polity, whatever word you want to use. What Aristotle was seeing was these small, centralized states, let’s call them, city-states. Machiavelli saw them, too. We were talking about that last time, the 12 or so city-states that existed in Italy. They also saw empires, great, big, relatively decentralized entities, but very large. Feudalism kind of combined the two. You had medium-sized political communities with pieces of authority decentralized within them. You had aristocrats, and you had the churches and so on. What Machiavelli wants is something that’s as big as a feudal state, but centralized like a polis. And that’s what he calls il stato, the state. And he says explicitly that the French don’t understand the state, meaning they have allowed a powerful foreigner, namely the Pope, to gain undue influence in their state. What you’ve got in Iraq, to apply it to Iraq, is a country whose borders were drawn to be part of an empire. That is to say they were drawn around three different peoples who would, the imperialists figured, be at each other’s throats, so the imperialists would be indispensable. That’s one of Machiavelli’s precepts, that you have to make yourself, the prince, indispensable to those whom you rule.

HH: Go ahead.

WM: So what they did is to, once that country became independent, there was no longer an outside force, an emperor running it, and so you, the three pieces started fighting each other. And that’s what you have today. You have the Kurds, you have the Sunni Arabs, and you have the Shia Arabs.

HH: Maybe even four, because you have two kinds of Sunni Arabs.

WM: Yeah.

HH: Those that are traditional, and those who are radicalized.

WM: Oh, well, that’s a regime difference, you see.

HH: Yeah.

WM: But I’m talking just about a state difference. Even so, you see what I’m saying?

HH: I do, and I see that every error that Machiavelli told the prince not to make has been made there. And Larry Arnn, you know this. President Bush used to bring conservatives in and tell them, as he did you, as he did me, how hard he was working to teach Maliki how to be a prime minister. In fact, one day, he had talk radio hosts in after he had just finished a teleconference with Maliki, saying I spend an hour a week with the guy trying to teach him how to run a country.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And Maliki, interesting enough, since it doesn’t sound that different from Machiavelli, is anything but Machiavelli right now, is he?

LA: Yeah, and see, remember about Machiavelli, when we turn to the world at war, Machiavelli, one of the things that’s going on in him is that war and politics become synonyms in Machiavelli.

HH: Yeah.

LA: Politics is the art of war. And sure enough, if you’re fighting people who are trying to kill you, and I think I said last week that Churchill’s write wrote about him that, to the prime minister, only Winston has the deadliness to fight the Germans, these guys are mean. And they kill people.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And they mean to conquer large parts of the world, and have the rest hold them in awe. And they say that all the time. And so you know, you’re up against something like that, and then you’re in that incredibly complex situation over there that you and Will were just describing. You need somebody, if you’re going to be involved at all, and if you’re not going to be involved somehow now, you’re going to be involved later, maybe on less favorable conditions. You need to be a little like Machiavelli there, because this is war.

HH: Right, and a regime, a group so bad they are marching on Samara with the purposes of destroying religious shrines so as to incite religious hatred, so as to incite, basically, genocide, Will. So we are talking about people who are playing Machiavelli for real. It’s not just a classroom text. They’re trying to kill as many people as they can.

LA: If, you know, and by the way, I don’t really think that Obama is weak. I think he’s just got his mind on something else. That something else happens to be us. I think John Kerry is probably a pretty foolish guy. I think he sits down and has conversations with people in the Middle East included, and in Russia, where he doesn’t really hear what they’re saying to him. You know, he doesn’t know people like that, I guess. And so it’s, and you know, it’s easy and comfortable if you want to go win some victories to beat up on the Israelis, because they have a relationship with us and some dependency on us, and because in some important respects, they’re like us.

HH: Yeah.

LA: They, like if you’re an Arab, and you want to write a newspaper article and not be put in prison for it, it’s best to write it in Israel. So you know, there’s that going on, right? We, there, reading Machiavelli and the stuff that Machiavelli has princes do as the prime virtue of politics, those are war measures.

HH: When I come back from break, I want to go through the errors people make when they take over countries. But before I go there, I want to go back, Professor Morrisey, to your comment that Machiavelli made in Chapter 3, that he made a big mistake, France, he thought, made a big mistake by letting the Church in. Is there he just referring to a particular pope at a particular time? Or is he talking about religious rule

WM: He’s talking about especially, well, he’s talking about genuinely religious rule in the Christian sense. He certainly is not against using religion in order to rule. He’d be all for having a state-established church the way you have in Russia right now, where basically Putin and his people control the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s a different story. He’d be all for that. He’d probably, he has very few things bad to say about Islam, you notice, in his book. The use of religion is just fine with him. What he doesn’t want is a genuine spiritual religion interfering with the practice of virtu. Again, the notion of acquisition, think of the 10th Commandment, the most spiritual of the commandments, because it’s the one that tells you not to do something, but not to be something, not to be covetous, not to be acquisitive.

—- – – —

HH: I want to go to the six errors people make when they take over countries and see how they apply to what happened to us in Iraq, and our Iraq misadventure. And would you agree, Dr. Arnn, it is a misadventure at this point?

LA: Oh, yeah. Well…

HH: And Professor Morrisey?

WM: Yeah.

HH: You see, I’m not prepared to say that until after it’s totally gone a cropper, but it’s getting there in a hurry. The last segment, though, during our break, I was thinking, Dr. Arnn, you deflected my question about whether or not Republicans have the skill set to handle people like Chuck Schumer. And you brought up, perhaps craftily, that they’ve got their own John Kerry’s, and so they’re not all masters of the game. But do the Republicans have people with skill sets equal to the challenge of actually going up against folks who are Harry Reid-like in their lack of scruples?

LA: Not lately. You know, there’s some young ones that I have hope for, and you know, my way of thinking about these things is it takes a certain kind of skill, and it takes some ruthlessness. But also, it takes a consistent devotion to some principles, right, and the ability to make those work, and you don’t always, you never realize them fully. But they’re always a guide, and you have to be able to talk about them, in my opinion. But I have a very different model about it all than Machiavelli. The part that I agree with is that part about the skill. You know, these, like you know, there are many people in politics today, left and right, and the ones on the left are in the ascendant right now, and they’re very numerous, and they’re very ruthless people, and they’re very good at causing trouble to people they want to cause trouble to.

HH: Yeah. And we are not so good at even calling it out. Now back to Machiavelli, Professor Morrisey, he said Louie when he invaded, Louie had made five mistakes, six, really. He destroyed minor powers, he increased the power in Italy of one who already was powerful, he brought a very powerful foreigner into the country, he didn’t go to live in Italy, he didn’t set any colonies, and he took one state away from the Venetians. Now that’s just sort of a catalog of dumb things. Do the same dumb things occur all the time when there are cocked up situations?

WM: It’s a pretty good typology of dumb things, that’s for sure. And there’s also, I just think, though, that in Iraq especially, it’s a problem of the state. In other words, it’s not so much even a problem of the regime. It’s the state that is incoherent. And the powerful foreigner has now, that was able to unify the country in the first half part of the century, is gone. And so you’ve got these people at each other’s throats.

HH: Dr. Arnn, Chapter 5 could have been given to George Bush, I suppose, at the beginning of Iraq. It says as I have said, when those states are acquired that are used to living under their own laws and freedom, there wasn’t freedom there, but they had their own laws, there are three ways of holding onto them. The first is to destroy them, the second is to go and live there in person, and the third is to allow them to live under their own laws. We chose a fourth way, didn’t we?

LA: And see, there’s an argument, you know, I was not of the view that we should set up a government in Iraq. And I’m amazed at how well they did do in that, by the way, but the problems have all come from that. I thought Iraq had committed offenses against us, having made a treaty with us not to do it. The steps were simple. Iraq attacked Kuwait. Kuwait appealed for help. We were entitled to go help them. And we found it in our interest, and we did. And then in order to stop fighting with Iraq, because we were blowing them away, they made a series of commitments to us, and they broke those commitments.

HH: Right.

LA: And that means we could go punish them again if we wanted to. And that’s what I thought at the time, and you know, there isn’t any good thing to do, by the way, in all of this. It’s a very difficult part of the world, and there’s a lot of dangers there. But I would have done something more like what we did the first time, except more ruthless, and called for that at the time, and argued with some people in authority that that was a good idea. And they weren’t willing to do that, because they had higher motives. There might be a lesson in Machiavelli about that.

HH: Yeah.

LA: They thought the people in Iraq want freedom, let’s give it to them. And I said okay, but it’s complicated. And they said well, they want it, and I would say goodness, read the Federalist Papers. It takes more than that. And so the thing is, the first step is, are you going to go there? And I will tell you that Winston Churchill with his sidekick, Lawrence of Arabia, was involved in the establishment of Iraq.

HH: I was about to bring that up.

LA: But he didn’t want to stay there. He got out.

HH: Hold that thought. That’s where we’re going to come back for our last segment this week, Chapter 5 of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and the current chapter in Iraq playing out on CNN in front of you with a half million refugees surging south, and incredible levels of violence and a Rwanda-like genocide in the offing.

— – – — –

HH: When we went to break, I was being a little gloomy talking about the fact that this weekend, we’ll probably see incredible horrors out of Iraq, because many forces are rushing at each other. And we’re standing back from it. And when we went to break, Dr. Arnn, you were pointing out that Churchill went there, drew the lines, but he didn’t want to stay. We went there, kept the lines, tried to get everyone to get along, actually achieved it, and then we left, because we are a feckless democracy, and we can’t do anything for very long.

LA: Well, that’s right, and you know, you’ve, you know, there’s some rules of warfare in democracy that Churchill favored, and that was, you know, first of all, you should be reluctant to go to war for a discretionary war. You should try to prevent the big ones, too. When you’re in it, fight it to win. And you don’t want to spend a fortune on it and to have it drag on forever. And that’s, and there’s something inherent in the liberal regime, by that, I mean the regime of freedom, where people have a private life and they can function to build a life for themselves. And that is you’re not living in Sparta. And you don’t want war to be a constant state. And Churchill understood that profoundly. And you know, we went over there, and it took a long time, and people got tired of it. And it came to look, and you know, and by the way, I don’t fault George Bush the younger. His character was splendid, and he was very firm in doing all this, and his intentions were really good. Machiavelli would sneer at that comment. But you know, it looked like a welfare program for Iraq. And people got tired of it. And what do we get? And he talked about that a lot. I went back and looked at his speeches. But that message didn’t get through, and so you know, I don’t, I am very reluctant to write off Iraq, as you are, Hugh, because so much has been spent there by us, and the Iraqis have so much at stake, and many of them have proved themselves people wishing to live in freedom.

HH: Right. And our friends, the Kurds, and they are our friends, have taken advantage of the opportunity to seize Kirkuk, which has all the oil, and they’re building themselves a friendly state out of this. We get some ally out of it. But Dr. Morrisey, at the end of Chapter 5 where we conclude, this is what confounds. Machiavelli says look, it’s easier to take over a dictatorship than a republic. Take over a dictatorship, they’ll just switch dictators. But you take over a republic, there, there’s greater life and thus greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance. That didn’t turn out to be the case, where we got rid of Saddam, but it actually, they weren’t happy to take on a new less-terrible dictator. They just broke apart.

WM: Yeah, that’s the state problem. And of course, we weren’t taking over a republic. We were taking over a tyranny. But the Kurds have done well. It’s a very interesting comparative question. Why is it that the Kurds have done better under republicanism, under this new regime, than any of the other two groups?

HH: I don’t know. You know, that’s a fascinating, Christopher Hitchens when he was alive and used to be a regular guest on this show, used to always urge, as did our friend, John Agresto, always used to urge, go to Kurdistan. You’ll love Kurdistan. Kurdistan’s like going to Texas. It’s a different place, but it’s fun. And why is that, Arnn? Why do you think?

LA: Agresto tried to get me to go to Kurdistan.

HH: I know. He tried to get everyone to go to Kurdistan.

LA: Well, apparently, Kurdistan is great. We’ve had a student go teach over there, maybe two, and came back with glowing reports. And the one girl named Phillips did that. And yeah, you know, there’s something, it’s a very different kind of place. And they take to commerce, and they have some resources, and they take to the regime where you have a kind of civic trust, so you respect each other and each other’s rights.

HH: And they’re not run by a dictator. They are run by a democratically-elected parliament with some fairly significant tribal interests. And so Dr. Morrisey, that sort of confounds Machiavelli. Is Machiavelli wrong? Or has things changed since he wrote this?

WM: Well, Machiavelli is wrong. There’s something in human nature that Machiavelli doesn’t see, and that is what Aristotle and the classics, and also the Bible see, which is that there’s something good about people, and that sometimes, if you give them an opportunity, they can take it. they can take it and govern themselves. The Kurds could do that. By the way, I’m smiling about John Agresto. I knew John Agresto when he was about 24 years old and he was a young instructor at Kenyon College, wore denim and had long hair.

HH: Well, he still wears denim, he still has long hair. It’s gray. And I was his lawyer, which was a burden. It was a great burden to be his lawyer at the National Endowment for the Humanities. But I’ll conclude this way by asking Dr. Arnn the very easy question. What should we do about Iraq? If you were the president, what would you do?

LA: Well, I’d focus on Kurdistan. I would help anybody who’s friendly by indirect means, probably. And I would, you know, the Machiavellian thing to do is to cause some trouble for those guys who are stirring up so much trouble there, and there are ways to do that. And you know, you commit, one of the reasons, Churchill wanted, Churchill thought that Britain, you know, Churchill was an imperialist. And Churchill thought that the commitments you make in the empire should be to places where you can have friends, people who will be abiding friends of yours. He thought that, you know, the controversial one is India, but Australian, New Zealand, you know, those are runaway success stories, Canada. And so you know, he wanted the empire to be economically worthwhile for both the colonies and Britain, and he wanted it to produce justice and decency in the places where it was. And so you know, your long term aims in that area are first of all to defend yourself against the people who mean us harm by the cheapest, most effective and sometimes most relentless means, and then second, to look for friends and cultivate them.

HH: And that would mean airstrikes and friends with the Kurds. I think that’s what it means.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Meanwhile, though, the Shia Iranian National Guard are dispatched to the front lines with al Qaeda. We’ll talk more about this next week as we move into Chapter 6. Professor Morrisey, President Arnn, thank you as always. The Hillsdale Dialogues, all available at


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