In the introduction to their translation of Niccolò Machiavelli’s “Discourses on Livy,” Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov make a profound observation about Machiavelli’s political wisdom.
“He tries to show,” they write, “that to understand political situations correctly, one must not listen to the intent of the words people use but rather look at the necessities they face.”
What makes this profound isn’t only its truth—who doesn’t know that to understand political actors, one needs to look beyond what they say to what they do?—but also the distance of its conclusion from the words that articulate it.
How, in other words, can we know what people believe are the “necessities” they face?
And what should we budget for any discrepancy between the necessities they believe that they face and the necessities they, in fact, face—something that the searchlights of time have a way of picking out, sometimes long after the dramas they reveal have ended?
What prompts this reflection isn’t only a fresh reading of Machiavelli but also my first trip into Paul Rahe’s excellent “Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty,” an overlapping companion to his “Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift,” an important study of what makes democratic republics tick as well as what makes them stop ticking.
While I will probably have more to say about Rahe’s study of Montesquieu when I finish the book, for now, I want to say a word or two about two central observations he makes.
The first revolves around the centrality of armed conflict in the history of mankind.
Some writers of a utopian cast of mind believe that we have proceeded beyond the messiness of war.
Since you may have just eaten, I won’t spoil your meal by invoking the name of Francis “End-of-History” Fukuyama. You know how that rosy-fingered speculation turned out.
Very few colleges or universities devote serious resources to the study of military history these days. But that just underscores their lack of seriousness.
Rahe is fond of quoting Winston Churchill’s astringent observation that “battles are the principal milestones in secular history.”
Indeed, Churchill was right that “great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of value, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform.”
Churchill admitted this was an “uninspiring truth,” though perhaps “sobering” would be a more apposite adjective.
A friend sends around a near-daily “on-this-day-in-history” email, to which he appends some recent political cartoons.
At a rough estimate, I’d say fully seven-eighths of the entries concern battles or other incidents attendant upon military matters.
On Oct. 8, for example, we learned that on that day in 314, Constantine I defeated his rival emperor Licinius; that in 876, Frankish forces led by Louis the Younger prevented a West Frankish invasion and defeated emperor Charles II (“the Bald”); that in 1573, the Spanish siege of Alkmaar ended, the first Dutch victory in the Eighty Years’ War; that in 1862, the Confederate invasion of Kentucky was halted at the Battle of Perryville.
And we haven’t even gotten to incidents in World War I and World War II yet.
I mention this to supply some candidates (not the only candidates) for those “necessities” that Mansfield and Tarcov mention.
Fragility of Liberty
Martial matters also provide a convenient bridge to the second of Rahe’s observations I want to touch upon, namely the fragility of liberty in modern democratic republics.
At first, this may seem counter-intuitive, especially for residents in the United States.
We’re prosperous, aren’t we? We have the Bill of Rights, with protections such as habeas corpus, the First Amendment, and so on.
We also have robust traditions of individual liberty and limited government.
Against that, alas, we have things such as nationwide vaccine mandates, the intrusion of the federal government into university life, the life of the media, and even the world of business.
We have an attorney general mobilizing the police power of the state at every level—from the FBI down to your local constabulary—to go after parents who complain to school boards trying to foist the anti-American diktats of critical race theory on their charges.
Ask any average American, “Do you live in a free country?”
The answer is almost certain to be “Yes.”
Unless, that is, they happen to have visited Washington on Jan. 6, in which case there is a good chance they are being detained without bail as political prisoners for the non-violent crime of walking through the Capitol.
Ditto for those parents complaining about the catechism of CRT or vaccine mandates in schools.
What happened with the lockdowns and other limitations of individual freedom during the height of the COVID crisis—what is happening still on every train, plane, and bus in many localities—shows just how subservient the populace and how overbearing the lieutenants of the government are.
It was in this context that Montesquieu’s description of a state in which all intermediary institutions had been dismantled applies to our situation now, today: “You will soon have,” he said, “a popular state—or, indeed, a state despotic.”
In “Spirit of the Laws” (1748), Montesquieu saw in England the cynosure of liberty.
But he also saw, as Rahe reminds us, how the lineaments of English liberty were susceptible to novel forms of despotism.
I’ll end with this snippet that Rahe quotes from Montesquieu: “The English, in order to favor liberty, have eliminated all the intermediary powers which formed their monarchy. They have good reason to conserve this liberty,” for, “if they should come to lose it, they would be one of the most fully enslaved peoples on the earth.”
Like an old television with bad reception, this reality is coming into focus only intermittently for the present.
The technology is steadily improving, however, and I fear that the day isn’t long off when that “most fully enslaved peoples on the earth” may shift from the realm of possibility to the harder currency of those “necessities” with which I began.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.