Machiavelli: How to Live with Inevitable Tension

Bernard Crick in Democracy: A Very Short Introduction makes an interesting point about the virtue of democracy with reference to Machiavelli:

“Those who condemn the quarrels between the nobles and the plebs, seem to be,” he says, “condemning the very things that were the primary cause of Rome’s retaining her freedom.”  In every republic there are “two different dispositions that of the populace and that of the upper class and that all legislation favorable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them.” So, he concludes “if tumults led to the creation of tribunes, tumults deserve the highest praise.”

An inevitable tension exists between the way the rich, upper class members of a society would like to run things, and the way the mass would like to run things.  A constitution is a truce in this perpetual class war.  Rather than hope for perpetual peace, the best we can hope for, according to Crick, and Machiavelli, is a managed conflict.  The best we can hope for and the best we should hope for.  The dream of an end to the conflict is a totalitarian dream; a genocidal (or classicidal) fantasy.

Yet how do we put the Machiavellian insight into practice?  Do we stand back from the war between optimates and plebians, or do we take one side and add to the tumult because in the long run it will cause the greater freedom?  Maybe we participate in the conflict, but draw back from the abyss of total war because we have instrumentalized it.  We understand that the conflict is only worth pursuing if it leads to a more free society.  At the moment it stops doing that we lay down our arms.

It seems to me that these kind of unresolvable wars and tensions exist in personal life and inside the psyche as well as in the political community. If anybody deals with a severely mentally disabled family member you know there is a tension between saying “that is still Mom, she is just impaired” and “that is no longer Mom”.  Just as Machiavelli’s war between aristocrats and plebs leads to greater tension, allowing the war between these two positions to tear at our hearts leads to — what exactly?  Greater sensitivity?  Greater open-heartedness.  I’m not sure, but I believe it leads to something, something better than could be achieved by allowing either side to win.

How do we balance the different options?  These options include:

a)letting one side win

b)letting them fight each other fruitfully

c)letting this insight lead to despair or frustration

d)letting this insight lead us back from the brink of destruction?

The tricky thing is that the recognition that the two sides of the conflict are both required, itself can be enlisted in the conflict by one side or the other.

As Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus reminds us, anybody can reflect on life.  What we need is some help in the tricky art of reflecting while still living.


11 thoughts on “Machiavelli: How to Live with Inevitable Tension

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    I’m wondering if this post addresses some of the issues we discussed last week. I agree that “managed conflict” is probably the best for which a society can hope, but such conflict can be managed in different ways and at different levels of intensity. Was “the dream of an end to the conflict is a totalitarian dream; a genocidal (or classicidal) fantasy” what you assumed I meant last week? I just couldn’t figure out where your concerns were coming from, and that would explain it.

    There is a difference between wanting to avoid avoidable destructive conflict and wanting to eliminate conflict altogether. Any group of people, given absolute power, will tend to be corrupted by their power. Hence, it’s good for them and for everyone else to have some countervailing forces. That was, of course, part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution. It dispersed power between the branches of the federal government, and between the federal government and the states, assuming that each would jealously guard its prerogatives against encroachment by the others. So Crick and Machiavelli are both right on that score.

    One way to manage conflict is to have a super-majority of the population all come from the same tribe, with the tribe defined in whatever way works for a particular situation. E.O. Wilson talks about the issue in “The Social Conquest of Earth:”

    “Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves, and even when the interactions prescribed were trivial, prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or identified themselves groupishly as preferring some abstract painter to another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent. The prejudices asserted themselves even when the subjects were told the in-groups and out-groups had been chosen arbitrarily.” (p. 59)

    A tribe is like an extended family. Within a family, there are always fights but there are almost always limits to how far the fights will go, and members of the family must always forgive each other in the end. The constantly reinforced idea that “we are all Americans” would lessen social conflict, as would avoidance of deliberately making the population more fragmented into separate in-groups and out-groups, between which suspicion, hostility, and conflict are almost inevitable. In the Roman Empire, to which you referred, “Civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen) meant there were limits to what could be done to you, and prudent people tended to observe the limits.

    Voltaire nailed it: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Those who try to create Heaven on earth more often create Hell on earth. Better to live with imperfection.

  2. Balancing the options with a. b. c. or d. Each consists of letting, letting, letting and letting. We can allow an action only if we think we are the master and have that power. No man requires a master. If we have an allegiance to a group or a tribe or a flag, we are either mindlessly following, or seeking to dissent. I include governments and religions in that thought.
    I never read Kierkegaards’ thoughts. Edward Abbey (who was a neighbor and whose thoughts I have read) said: “All governments require enemy governments.” and “Recorded history is largely an account of the crimes and disasters committed by banal little men at the levers of imperial machines.”

  3. A superb idea to touch the theme, but the model you operate looks to me a bit archaic (I could easily be wrong), Models have considerably changed since Karl Marx posted on it. Forgive me my style, please, I blame it on your incredible Sheldon, I just can’t resist it 🙂

    I would talk about two big classes of objects with intellect – biological and non-biological. I am about to post on it in my blog, so I can’t get into details here. The idea is that the objects of class biological intellect have to get stratified (self-arranged in layers) on their ability to operate non-biological intellect.

    So, regarding your phrase “tension exists between the way the rich, upper class members of a society would like to run things, and the way the mass would like to run things”, I would rephrase it, tension would be (is) between the layers of objects of class biological intellect about their roles.

      • I did not update my blog for almost 3 years. But some months ago it started to be monitored by some chinese bot on daily basis. That’s the fact. Now let’s try to get it in a bit paranoid mode. The key point of the rephrasing is that those, who could operate non-biological intellect the best, will be able to manipulate others by having them encapsulated into managed virtual worlds.

        I have strong feeling that genotypes to produce the top are the selection from merge of 4 streams: first – from Africa through Western Europe, second – from Africa through Near East, third – from Africa, India, China, Kazakhstan, fourth – from Africa, India, China, going North through Northern Ural.

        Important are all 4 streams in the merge to produce the top sets of genotypes. China does not have first two, but it could fetch people of the types. And I would expect it to set the wall to stop the “Fourth” northern stream into the merge. Now I’d like to ask, is the idea to set the wall between Russia and Ukraine authentic, not just managing idea from outside the “Western” virtual world?

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