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Dr. Larry Arnn And Professor Will Morrisey Conclude Their Study Of Machiavelli’s Prince

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HH: Quite a show today with George Will, Scott Walker, and a perfect day to finish our conversation on the Hillsdale Dialogue about The Prince with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and with Professor Will Morrisey, their prince in residence, their Machiavel in residence. That’s not very fair, is it, Professor Morrisey, to call you a Machiavel? I’m sorry.

WM: No, but I’ve been called, I don’t know if I’ve ever been called worse, as a matter of fact.

HH: All right, I have a first question. We’ve got to cover a lot of ground today. There are 26 chapters and a dedicatory letter in The Prince, Dr. Arnn, or a total of 27 chapters. Does that make Chapter 14 the key?

LA: Well, I think yeah, it’s one of them, sure. You know, he’s, if you just look for the wickedness in the titles, they tend to be pretty indicative.

HH: Well, I want to cover Chapters 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 23, and 25. And so I’m going to start with Professor Morrisey on Chapter 14, this excerpt. “A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study than war and its rules and disciplines, for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but often enables men to rise from private stations to that rank.” And so it seems to me that’s at the center of his book is a focus on war. So he’s very serious about this. He wants President Obama and every other person who aspires to be in power to be thinking constantly about how one does and doesn’t do war.

WM: The prince of war replaces the prince of peace. The armed prophet replaces the unarmed prophet. And this is one of the reasons why this is a central teaching of the Prince. Now there’s no doubt, of course, that one of the arts of any statesman would be the art of war. But to make it the core that way is really a radical revision.

HH: He does say something I imagine in Chapter 14, Dr. Arnn, you would agree with. He says that, “To exercise the intellect, the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men to see how they borne themselves in war, and to examine the causes of their victories and defeat so as to avoid the latter and to imitate the former. And above all, do as an illustrious man did who took us in exemplar, one who had been praised and famous before him. And he goes on to write about always model yourself on the successful.” Now you actually teach that at Hillsdale, don’t you? You spend a lot of time emulating, studying, thinking about Churchill and Lincoln and Washington, and people such as that. So you’re in agreement with Machiavelli.

LA: Very much. And so prudence is exactly the same in Aristotle and in Machiavelli, except for one thing. So first, what is prudence? By the way, within the last half hour, I’ve had a lecture from my eldest daughter on this very subject.

HH: Oh?

LA: Because she found out we were talking about Machiavelli, and she went and got her book, and she came and lectured me about Machiavelli for a little while. So I’ll tell you what she just said. In Machiavelli, well, first of all, what is prudence? Prudence is choosing things in the way of action. And what the right thing to do is depends a lot on the circumstances. And the circumstances are always shifting around. And so statesmen have this gift of prudence, and they are really good. They’re deadly, you know. A lot of this stuff, you know, this sounds like Winston Churchill, a lot of this war stuff, because that man could fight.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So…and Churchill himself goes on at enormous length to explain why in judging a statesman, he probably wrote more about this, he certainly wrote more about this than any statesman I know, explaining how you judge a statesman. And it depends upon placing their decisions in context, and making judgments as they must make them about what the necessities are. So that’s very Machiavelli, right? There’s just one difference. And the difference has to do with that other kind of intellectual virtue, because in Aristotle, where the classical site for the discussion of prudence is, that’s also the first clear essay or treatise, description of the kinds of regimes. And the kinds of regime are how many rule – one, few or many? And the second category is fundamental – are they good or not? Machiavelli takes that second one away. And the kinds of regimes in Machiavelli are the ones that conquer and the ones that are conquered.

HH: And you know, he says to that in the very next chapter, Dr. Arnn, “It appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it.”

LA: That’s right.

HH: “Hence, it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” So he’s having none of it.

LA: So that’s it. So Will should repeat a very good thing he said last week in a minute about the good in people, and how Machiavelli misses something. And that’s why Machiavelli, in fact, doesn’t work. But I’m going to add one more point. In Aristotle, there’s a description of equality. It’s not a virtue called, translates as cleverness, and that’s just being good at picking stuff without being devoted to the correct ends. What Machiavelli really does is he converts prudence into cleverness, because the only test is success.

WM: Let me just add to that. Machiavelli says he wants to go to the effectual truth of things, not to the imagination of it.

HH: Right.

WM: He is replacing, and the idea of the imagined truth is something along the lines of Plato’s Republic, that is to say the idea of something, the form of it, the shape of it. Both in Plato and in Aristotle, you understand something’s nature by looking at its shape or its form, and understanding it that way through the sight, in other words, what Machiavelli calls the imagination. What Machiavelli does is to say no, don’t depend on the sight. The sight is deceptive. What you need to do is to perceive things. He says feel something – the hand. You don’t, it’s all empirical. It’s all material. And the hand has two functions, right? On the one hand, it perceives. It perceives material things only. It isn’t distracted by imagination or anything it thinks it perceives through sight. But it also manipulates. It grasps. It controls. That combination of controlling and feeling, and feeling something that’s material, the shaping of the material world, that’s what virtu amounts to. And in that 15th chapter that we’re talking about now, you notice how he approaches the notion of these virtues. He’s just like, as in Aristotle’s Ethics, he lists 11 types of virtues. But instead of Aristotle’s approach, which is finding the center between two extremes, between, say, timidity and rashness, which is courage is in the middle, that’s the virtue, what he does is to give you 11 pairs or dichotomies – giving or rapacious, human vs. proud, etc. And he says what you do is you pull back from all of these things, and you use them. That is to say, you manipulate them, just like you’d manipulate clay.

HH: Yeah.

WM: And so virtue in Machiavelli is this, is the effective manipulation of both goodness and badness, using both goodness and badness. It’s all about use, control, manipulation.

HH: And thus, in Chapter 17, he says look, don’t worry if people think you’re cruel.

WM: Right.

HH: It’s very useful to be thought cruel. That’s not something we’re used to hearing, but in fact, it works. It’s worked everywhere and at all times, hasn’t it?

LA: Yes and no. I mean, you know, so the Machiavellian prudence, that drives the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, right? And both of those were places that would much better be feared than loved. They believed that their theoretical duty was the control and remaking of everything in nature. That means every person, every neighbor, every country, every everything. And their purpose, you know, Hitler, you see him striking his palm with his fist when he’s talking, and he’s talking about hitting things all the time. So that’s on the one hand, right? But the second there’s a weakness, then everybody queues up to be against you, because people hate that. Now Machiavelli’s prudence is profound. And here, it would be worth saying a word for Machiavelli, because generally, right through this book, Machiavelli’s counsel is always do the cruel things first. Better to seize your principality by crime than to inherit it, because you’re going to have to do the terrible things later. And Machiavelli’s counsel is do the terrible things in a hurry and get them over with.

HH: Then ease off. Exactly.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Then ease off.

— – – –

HH: I’ve got to say, earlier in the week, a friend of the college, Mark Steyn, said on this show that President Obama has made America treacherous to be a friend, and weak as an enemy, not feared as an enemy. And it brought to mind from Chapter 17, “Upon this question,” Machiavelli writes, “arises whether it is better to be loved than feared, or feared than loved. It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved when of the two either must be dispensed with.” Dr. Arnn, we are clearly neither feared nor loved. Which is it worse to be without?

LA: Well, you know, it depends on who you’re dealing with, right, because there’s a lot of very treacherous countries in the world right now, and you don’t want their love. It isn’t available. They love themselves, and they love the power they hold. They’re Machiavellians. So with them, it’s much better to be feared. Machiavelli’s case is it’s better in all cases to be feared, because when someone loves you, they’re in control. And when someone fears you, you’re in control. That distinction doesn’t work, in my opinion, again, because first of all, it’s really good counsel if you’re dealing with a bunch of mullahs running Iran right now.

HH: Yup, yup.

LA: And on the other hand, you know, I have a friend, he’s a retired guy now, but he was vicey. He was a very important diplomat from South Korea. And I got to know him one time, because I always think the Koreans are like the Irish. They’re surrounded by all these great powers, and it makes them really stubborn. And I said to him one time, I said well, you know, Korea is our way of doing a colony. And I think at the moment I said that to him, he was the vice foreign minister of Korea, South Korea. And he goes whoa, you know, and what are we talking about, you know, we’re no colony. And I said that’s exactly what you are. And he said what do you mean by that? And I said well, think. You know, we come over here, it’s not even clear it was a great idea, and we fight like crazy, and it’s terrible, and it’s hell, and it ends up kind of a draw. And then you get a country out of it. And you elect your own government. And you’ve got a million man army pledged to help defend us, and we’ve got 40,000 people over here, and you pay for it. You’re a free people. That’s our way of doing colony. Well that’s, you know, very valuable, right, because it’s cheap, and it’s, there’s somebody you can turn your back to so you can face somebody else.

HH: And you know, Korea came up on the show this week, I think with Fred Kagan when we were talking about the President’s inability to execute a status of forces agreement, and maybe it was Steyn, and he said and Rhee stood up on his hind legs once and got all barky at us, and we slapped him down and said this is how it’s going to be for a while. Now we would never be able to do that today, but we ought to have done that to Maliki in 2011. And had we done that to Maliki in 2011, we would not be watching the disintegration of our one-time colony, because Iraq was a colony as well, wasn’t it, Larry? It was a protectorate. And we let it go to hell.

LA: Well, that’s right, and you know, Winston Churchill helped to form Iraq. And he inherited it from the League of Nations after the first World War. And he got out of there as fast as he could. You know, you have to judge the circumstances, and Churchill didn’t think that was a place for Britain to hold onto. And while he was managing it, his number two in doing it was T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. And they both agreed to get out of there. And they used airplanes for the first time in history to police a colony, because it was cheaper. So there’s lessons for us to learn here, but, and you know, I, my own view is, we underestimated the difficulty of building a regime there drastically, on the one hand. And you know, and on the other hand, you know, I mean, George Bush did an awful lot there, and he had a lot of firmness in him. But still, it’s hard to do, right? And now on the other hand, we’re just, we look ridiculous to powers that are waxing, including China.

HH: And we look ridiculous to ourselves as well. Professor Morrisey, Chapter 18 has within it the very famous paragraph, “A prince therefore being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast ought to choose the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself against snares, and the fox cannot defend themselves against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares, and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about.” So that is a caution, really, against being the muscular, musclebound brute.

WM: Yes, and that again, the language is all about use. You have these features that are within your nature. And you notice just before that in that chapter, he talks about the Prince as a kind of centaur, right, the centaur who was Achilles’ advisor, half-beast, half-man, and you have to be able to use both of these natures, he says. And using both of them is, again, this pulling back. Think of what that means. You’re taking things that you would, previous thinkers would consider part of the human soul, and you’re, there’s part of you that’s pulling back watching these things and deploying them as if they were troops, whether they be virtues and vices, these characters of the lion and the fox, all these things, there’s this knot. It’s kind of a, it’s not even a soul anymore. It’s a sort of self.

HH: Oh, and it’s horrible. In this very chapter, probably the worst paragraph, “And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced in order to maintain the state to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity and religion. Therefore, it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it.” I mean, this means anything goes to keep the state, Professor Morrisey.

WM: That’s exactly right.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, we don’t really want, so do you underline this to your daughter and say we really don’t want Machiavelli in the house much?

LA: Well, my daughter’s just fine, but she understands her Machiavelli. And it’s ghoulish. Will and I are discovering this in each other during these dialogues, right, because we both really like Machiavelli. It’s fun. It’s just wicked.

HH: It is just wicked. And it is also necessary, right? There are people like this.

LA: And look at the, you know, I’ll say one more word for Machiavelli. This is not just, this is, you know, like read, you know, my favorite book about communism is Darkness At Noon. And the evil of that is a simple dehumanization of the human being. Machiavelli is writing in a context where his country is miserable because it’s weak and it won’t act. And he is trying to fix that.

HH: He is, and in fact, towards the end of the very last chapter, the book is on that.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, I address this to you, because you are the president of an institution. And it seems to me the most useful chapter and morally unambiguous chapter, just plain, good sense is chapter 23 on flattery. And in there, the counsel is empower a few people to speak to you when they are asked, and only a few people, but then listen closely when they begin to give you advice, and if I can add a codicil, and don’t ask them all that often. What do you make of this chapter?

LA: Well, you, so I guess what I think about that is this. It’s way better to work with people that you value, and you can’t…and you have to have a relationship with them where you trust them and you admire them, and they need to do that back to you, because running things is hard. There’s always complications, stuff gets in the way, you’re too busy, facts arise that may be very threatening, you’re afraid because you don’t know, you guess all the time, right? So it’s an atmosphere of stress. And any management of anything is like that. People managing their personal budgets are like that, right? This is human life we’re living.

HH: Do you, two, though, quote Machiavelli, discourage everyone from offering advice unless you ask for it?

LA: No. No, and you know, at the college, the way it works, and this is my experience, and you know, I know a lot about Winston Churchill, I know his cabinet worked this way. I know that the people who worked with him admired him very greatly, because he was awesome. And he really made things work. And the way you want it to be is, it has to be clear who can decide, because when you don’t know what the hell to do, then somebody’s got to decide, and it’s better if it’s the person with the rank. And then sometimes, the person with the rank thinks he knows, and then he can decide. And then there has to be some consistency brought to things. So you have to, you know, and you can’t do that if somebody doesn’t have the power to decide when he wishes. So Aristotle’s expression for just rule is ruling and being ruled in turn. And that’s not what Machiavelli means here. What Machiavelli means here is just be sly and make sure you find out all the facts, but keep them in the place even if you appoint them to tell you.

HH: Professor Morrisey, you agree with that? So he’s not really encouraging you to have a permanent standing cabinet who will speak freely?

WM: No, what he says is if everyone can tell you the truth, they lack reverence for you. And that religious language is significant, right? He does have something very sensible to say, though. He says a prince who is not wise by himself cannot be counseled well.

LA: Yeah.

WM: And that’s true.

LA: That’s the thing. You know, people are always saying it’s his advisors. And it’s never the advisors, right, because if you got bad advisors, who does that say something about?

WM: Well, let’s think of Reagan. This book that just came out about Reykjavik, the Adelman, who is it, makes it very clear that when Reagan sat down across the table from Gorbachev, he knew just as much about the details of the arms situation as Gorbachev did.

HH: Yeah, yeah, you know what he also said here that is remarkably true, and I think I found to be true, the prince ought to be a “constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired.” And Larry Arnn, I think you would say about Churchill, I’m not sure about Lincoln, that he was most definitely a constant inquirer.

LA: Oh, both of them were. Yeah, of course, you know, and both of them had the same relationship with their generals, right? And Lincoln probably better than Churchill ever did said, Churchill said war’s too important to be left to the generals. Lincoln said to McClellan one time, if you’re not using the army, my I borrow it?

HH: And but they pushed. They pushed constantly for answers.

LA: Yeah, and that’s, the thing is, and see, that’s like think about war for a minute, because you know, Machiavelli is, it’s, The Prince is a wonderful book to read, because it’s almost true.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And it’s very vivid, right? So here’s the way war works, right? War is subordinate to peace. You don’t, in any good country, you don’t fight wars for their own sake. You fight them to preserve what you do in peace. Now that means that politicians are superior to generals. On the other hand, generals generally know more about war than politicians do, and war could be the death of the whole state. So when you sit in a room, who decides? And that’s complicated to say, and it depends on the quality of the statesman and the general.

HH: When we come back, the most dangerous chapter of all, and so as an exercise of prudence, we will have Professor Morrisey explain why fortune is like a woman.

— – – –

HH: Professor Morrisey, I did say as I was going to break, I was going to task you with breaking this down, fully aware that earlier today I had on George Will, who this week has been subject of the professional outrage machine for a column he wrote, which has been purposefully misinterpreted and used to flog him from the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other places. Here’s what Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 25. “For my part, I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, before fortune is a woman. And if you wish to keep her under, it is necessary to beat and ill-use her. And it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventuress rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is therefore always woman-like – a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity to commander her.” Now we do not believe in abusing women, and I want to say that like three times. And no one on this call believes in that. But what was he trying to say in this medieval period about fortune and how to master it?

WM: The figure of fortune, Fortuna, the notion that either God’s providence of simply another goddess, namely Fortuna, was controlling the course of events, was a traditional figure in iconography both classical and Christian, the notion of Lady Fortuna. And the idea, of course, in those days was that she would change her mind, right? That was a part of the way they thought of women in those days. So the idea here is that you don’t want that to happen, that you want to control everything that is outside of you. You want to master fortune. And the way you do it is not by being passive, but by being active.

HH: And Larry Arnn, is he really counseling that the younger the ruler, the better, because the more audacious they will be in attempting to master their circumstances?

LA: Well, I think he’s in the education business right there. He’s looking for somebody young and impetuous who will seize the day, because he thinks that’s what he wants to train. That’s what he wants to happen. And he’s, you know, there is a profound act of liberation going on here to free the reader from the constraints of morality, and substitute a new morality that involves the working of the will. And that is a young man’s work.

HH: And this is where, the book ends here in urging people to be free of all restraint, and to try and make their own fortune. There isn’t anything of the resignation that a Christian might feel about their circumstances, Professor Morrisey, is there?

WM: Absolutely not. And he even, in that final chapter, exhortation to seize Italy and free her from the barbarians, says very clearly that Italy is now more enslaved than the Hebrews were. And the new Moses, right, who will lead you to the promised land is Mr. X. And who’s going to be advising Mr. X if not Machiavelli?

HH: So as you close your young Hillsdale College students’ study of Machiavelli, and the book is put down, what do you want them to take away from it? And I’m going to ask you both that. Dr. Morrisey, you first.

WM: One of the things I want them to take away from it is how influential it was. If you think about the materialism, if you think about the notion of mastering fortune, and think ahead to the modern scientific project of Francis Bacon, what does he say? We should master nature, right, in order to relieve man’s estate, that scientific experiment is torturing nature to reveal her secrets. It’s Machiavellian language. The way we use science and technology in the modern world is closely analogous to this notion of controlling fortune that Machiavelli introduces for the first time.

HH: And just as perilous and often just as apt to go wrong. How about you, Dr. Arnn? When you lay down your Prince, what do you want your students to know?

LA: Three things. I want them to know the power of this, as Will just said. This is a beautiful examination of what one is up against, you know, because these, you think our enemies, America’s enemies, and you think people in Washington, D.C. have not absorbed the principles of this book? And then the third thing is they need to know why it’s wrong, because it isn’t true, right? I mean, it can’t, its explanatory power is not sufficient to cover the best things that happen. And so to know that is to rise to a level of potential effectiveness beyond a simple follower of Machiavelli.

HH: When you say it isn’t true, I pause. It has to be true at least in part, because it has been practiced and effectively so for periods of time.

LA: Sure. What, you know, so here’s what’s not true. 1942, the Germans attack the Greeks. The British have a pact with them, but the whole world is falling apart between the making of that pact and the German attack, and so the Greek apply. Come send us some help. What help can they possibly send? And Churchill is told whatever you send, you’re going to lose it, and you’re not going to save the Greeks. And so Churchill goes into Parliament, and he says in their hour of need, the Greeks have appealed to us for succor. And having made a contract with them, I’m paraphrasing, before the war, we could say them nay. To abandon an ally in the face of the enemy, having by solemn promise guaranteed to come and help would be destructive of the honor and therefore the survival of the British Empire. There are rules against that kind of thing, he said. It’s a very beautiful speech, one of his most important speeches ever he gave. And that means that he made a counsel against him, he made a decision against the counsel of immediate effectiveness and expediency, and he won fame. Machiavelli would reply, well, what you ought to do is do a sham of that so you win the fame without the deed. But Churchill would respond to that with one of his favorite expressions – too easy to be good.

HH: Too easy to be good, and it wouldn’t have worked, either. Dr. Larry Arnn, Professor Will Morrisey, three great weeks on Machiavelli. Next week, on to the Reformation. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at Get all of Hillsdale’s free courses at And if you haven’t thought about it, send your student there. They’ll get this a lot more than you do, and they will profit by it.

End of interview.


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