Thoughts on Michael Anton and Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli

Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent interview, Mr Anton said that he knew “Nick”, his short hand for Niccolo Machiavelli, for over 30 years. He qualified his support by saying he followed the Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli.[1] For his interviewer, this made sense. Leo Strauss is a famous scholar with a well-known book about Machiavelli’s teaching–Thoughts on Machiavelli. Why else would someone speak proudly, publicly, and unapologetically of Machiavelli? For his listeners, it would sound rather intellectual, hip, and a bit “edgy”. For the public audience, a presidential advisor at the centre of political power who cites Machiavelli will sound like they know what they doing. Only serious, scholarly, sophisticated people would be able to drop his name so casually. Yet, there is also a deeper message attached to Machiavelli’s name. For Trump’s white nationalist followers, Mr Anton would appear to hit the right notes when he referred to Machiavelli’s revival of Western Philosophy and with it Western Civilization. Such followers are not interested in philosophy but they do want to defend the West for they see it under attack. Thus, Mr Anton has done his mentor proud for he has spoken to many audiences simultaneously. However, with all things Machiavelli, we have to look beneath the surface. The surface often hides a deeper meaning that explains the surface since we cannot begin to understand the surface until we understand the depths. We have to consider whether Mr Anton intended a deeper meaning or whether the surface view is sufficient.

In that spirit, to learn and be instructed by those who know and test whether our understanding is sufficient, I raise the following points and questions. For it is in questioning those with superior knowledge that the less experienced may gain some hope to have an opinion about the truth. If we are lucky with such questions, we receive a glimpse of the truth. I beg the reader’s indulgence if my remarks and comments appear obvious or simplistic. If they do, please correct me so that I may learn. I ask Mr Anton’s indulgence if I misunderstand him or if my understanding of his intent distorts what he meant. If he or any of his friends could correct me on these points, I would be grateful.

As Mr Anton has spent 30 years studying and reading Machiavelli, I hope he can help me understand him. There are two issues, out of many, to consider when Mr Anton speaks to a select audience when he refers to his Machiavelli. The first is his reference to Publius Decius Mus (the Elder). The second is his reference to the Leo Strauss’s Machiavelli.

In this interview and elsewhere, Mr Anton discusses why he chose Publius Decius Mus (the elder) as a pen name. He says that he was attracted to his self-sacrifice that won a decisive battle that would determine Rome’s fate. I am curious to understand, though, whether he intended that we understand Decius as Machiavelli intended[2] or as Livy intended. When we read Machiavelli or Livy, we see that Mr Anton seems to overlook or at least leave unstated issues that would qualify Decius’s sacrifice effectiveness. The first is how Livy and Machiavelli understood the religious context for the sacrifice. He refers to the divinatory sacrifices before the battle which Decius followed, but he seems to forget how Livy, according to Machiavelli, dismissed such auspices. Harvey Mansfield argues Machiavelli makes a bold attack on Christianity with this episode. Machiavelli had a deep, abiding, hatred for Christianity because he believed it eroded the virtu needed to rule.[3] This sections within the Discourses refers frequently to the weakness of Christian armies. Earlier in the Discourses, Machiavelli refers to the way the auspices offered by the chicken men (religious augurs) are dismissed as required by necessity (see Discourses on Livy (I, 14)) so that they fit what is needed. The second point is that Machiavelli and Livy, contrast Decius’ self-sacrifice with Torquatas’ sacrifice of his son. From the Christian perspective, as Mansfield points out, the sacrifice of self, in this context suicide, is an atrocity while sacrifice of the son is the laudable.[4] Livy appears to suggest that Decius’ sacrifice was of secondary importance. He indicates (Book 8, Chapter 7, sections 8-22) that the success was due more to Titus Manlius Torquatus. Torquatus understood that with both armies, and virtues, being equal, he needed to give his side an advantage. To strengthen his army, he brought back the ancient military discipline. To demonstrate the ancient discipline, he killed his own son when he disobeyed orders. Livy argues that example instilled the soldiers with the obstinacy needed to defeat the Latins. What remained after the battle and contributed to the Roman army’s continued success was the ancient discipline rekindled by Torquatus not Publius Decius Mus’s sacrifice.

One would hope that Mr Anton does not share Machiavelli’s hatred of Christianity or America’s religion which is reverence for the law. Perhaps he means to suggest that one can excuse Machiavelli this trait, in much the same way we are told we must excuse President’s various traits because the current false religion has weakened America. When POTUS talked publicly and unashamedly that he would date his daughter or how she could make a lot of money with her body, we are to excuse these as inconsequential since they show us how far we have been debased by the false religion that rules America. Yet, we know that President Trump shares a disdain for Christian beliefs with his frequent fornication, infidelity, and disdain for Christ’s example as a guide for his personal or professional behaviour so we are puzzled as to how we are to understand him or those who defend him. Instead, Trump appears to practice a different religion. He gives lip service to Christ, acts worldly in other ways and in this he appears like Machiavelli’s Prince for he appears to adapt himself to the public morality. One would hope that Publius Decius Mus the Elder is more than a veneer of the apparently virtuous as a shield for the secretly sinful. These questions bring us to the second issue—Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli.

Mr Anton defends his love for Nick (it is curious he uses this familiar name) by referring to Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli.

I mean Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli, the great mind who revived Western philosophy in the 16th century.[5]

For the casual listener, this sounds honourable and enlightened. Leo Strauss wrote a famous book about Machiavelli and a seminal article about Machiavelli’s intention. On the surface, Mr Anton associates his love of Machiavelli with Leo Strauss’ reputation as a Machiavellian scholar. Yet, like the reference to the Publius Decius Mus (the Elder), we need to look beneath the surface to see whether the depths reflect the surface. If we look beneath the surface, it appears Mr Anton has shaped Leo Strauss’ legacy to support his position. What did he intend? In much the same way that the Pepe crowd signal their allegiance with gestures and language so too it appears Mr Anton signalled something with his reference to Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli. In this instance, I fear he has confused me.

I believe he meant to refer to Harvey C Mansfield Jr.’s Machiavelli for the Machiavelli that Mr Anton describes reflects what Professor Mansfield has said publicly while Leo Strauss never said such things publicly.[6] In particular, Machiavelli is proud of his supremacist credentials. Such a view is acceptable as a matter of intellectual probity. Is this the heritage that Mr Anton seeks to support? As Strauss said in Thoughts on Machiavelli, Machiavelli “is one of the two fundamental alternatives of political thought.” (p.14). Is Mr Anton suggesting that Strauss chose Machiavelli? If so, it would seem to undermine what Strauss wrote in On Tyranny when he explained that “tyranny is the danger coeval with political life.” (p.22). Is Mr Anton suggesting that Strauss shared Machiavelli’s supremacist ethos, which he argued against in Thoughts on Machiavelli? I would be grateful if he could show me where or how Strauss embraces that alternative of political thought in Thoughts on Machiavelli or any of his other works. If that is his intent, which I hope it is not, it dishonours a great teacher, thinker, and gentle soul. Mr Anton should know better and refrain from using a great man’s reputation to further Machiavelli’s supremacist agenda. I raise this tentative objection because Mr Anton appears to overlook what Leo Strauss wrote about Machiavelli.

Leo Strauss wrote famously that Machiavelli was a teacher of evil.[7]

“We shall not shock anyone, we shall merely exposes ourselves to good-natured or at any rate harmless ridicule, if we profess ourselves inclined to old-fashioned and simple opinion according to which Machiavelli was a teacher of evil.”

And

“If it is true that only an evil man will stoop to teach maxims of public and private gangsterism, we are forced to say that Machiavelli was an evil man.”

He never qualified this opinion nor did he change it. Strauss paid homage to Machiavelli as a thinker if not a philosopher, just as he accepted that Heidegger was a great thinker, but he never accepted his political acts or their consequences. Strauss would never accept Machiavelli’s political project just as he would never accept Heidegger’s. It is noteworthy that despite writing a seminal work on Machiavelli he never taught a course on him. Unlike Harvey Mansfield, Leo Strauss never went beyond what he wrote in Thoughts on Machiavelli to celebrate Machiavelli, advocate his broad acceptance, or show how he had been made safe for liberal democracy. It would follow that if you thought someone was a teacher of evil, you would refrain from public praise. Strauss never tried to make Machiavelli “safe” or “respectable” for America or American democracy. Perhaps he saw Machiavelli as a lesser threat than Heidegger since he never published anything on Heidegger in his lifetime.

Mansfield, by contrast, has written extensively on Machiavelli’s teachings. He appears to introduce him to American public as someone acceptable and necessary for American regime or any political regime. His book Taming the Prince appears to justify Machiavelli as if he has been “made safe” for liberal democracy. In this light, it is understandable that Mr Anton would refer to Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli in an attempt to refer to a safer version. Yet, neither Mansfield nor Anton can explain how Machiavelli can be made “safe” for America especially as his teaching represents the danger coeval with politics. In particular, I am puzzled as to how Mr Anton can discuss Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli in the White House, when Strauss wrote that the United States of America may be said to be the only country in the world founded in direct opposition to Machiavelli.[8] Strauss follows that claim by pointing out that Machiavelli argued the “foundation of political greatness is necessarily laid in crime”. Perhaps Mr Anton is trying to signal something about the Trump administration for as he says Machiavelli would approve of Trump.[9] To understand why or how America is founded in direct opposition to Machiavelli, we have to understand that it is founded in the principle of equality, the belief in the natural rights that all men are created equal.[10] Machiavelli wrote explicitly and emphatically against that belief. To put it bluntly, Machiavelli promoted a supremacist agenda for what is imperialism but supremacism? Trying to cover this up by referring to a safer Machiavelli, Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli, seems disingenuous. If Mr Anton is suggesting that Leo Strauss would promote or endorse supremacism, Machiavellian or otherwise, he does him a grave injustice.

To be sure, other commentators might note that Strauss sometimes referred to Plato’s discussion of the philosopher’s superiority and the need for philosopher kings who could transcend the law. Yet, these references would further distort his legacy. Strauss always qualified those as the Ancient view of political philosophy that would have no place within the modern era. He noted that such views were unachievable politically in an age where consent is required for political rule. Further, if Mr Anton were to make these references he would need to show the context for such remark. When we find these references in Plato’s work, they are in a private not a public setting. Strauss was clear, especially in Thoughts on Machiavelli, that the Ancients would never state such political things publicly. He understood directly that such public teaching has consequences that were deleterious for the common good that is needed for decent politics. One wonders if Harvey Mansfield misunderstood Strauss’ warnings about the perverted prince that followed from Heidegger’s teaching if he believed that a return to Machiavelli or a Machiavelli made safe for liberal democracy would offer a suitable constraint or prophylactic for those who indulge a knowing irreverence for America’s reverence for the laws.

One aspect of Trump that Mr Anton believes that Machiavelli would approve is his unpredictability, especially in foreign policy. In such unpredictability, we are reminded that another avid reader of Machiavelli was Benito Mussolini. In 1924, he wrote a Prelude to the Prince where he dismisses the idea of popular sovereignty or democracy with a clear disdain for power derived from consent. In this, he is faithful to Machiavelli. One wonders if it is this view that Mr Anton understands as Machiavelli’s defence of Western Philosophy. In a curious twist, Mr Anton sees President Trump’s unpredictability as a virtue[11], which is something he has in common with Mussolini. Unpredictability is also synonymous with arbitrary which is a trait that Strauss noted defined a tyrant.[12]

As Strauss noted, Machiavelli separates wisdom from moderation for he rejected classical political philosophy. When he rejected that moderation, he encouraged an immoderate approach to politics and statesmanship. His political project threatens any constitutional regime. The immoderate approach champions virtu at the expense of moderate thought and acts that sustain the constitutional order with its reverence for the laws. Perhaps Mr Anton would have been better served, as a citizen and a man, if he had read and reflected on Xenophon’s Hiero with the same attention he gives Machiavelli. Yet, if his or Trump’s success comes from such immoderate thought and behaviour is it any surprise he is attracted to a captain who will best embodies what he desires?

Two things emerge from this interview. First, Mr Anton’s admires Publius Decius Mus the elder. Second, he believes there is such a thing as Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli. From these two facts, I would speculate tentatively about his intent. If my analysis is incorrect or incomplete, I would be grateful if he would clarify his intent. I base this analysis on my limited understanding of his writings, Strauss’ writings, and Machiavelli’s writings. First, he intends to show he shares Machiavelli’s views about Christianity although this could be seen to suggest he embraces Epicureanism, the deeper intent is to show that the false religion that holds sway over America has weakened it. Second, he uses Leo Strauss to conceal Machiavelli’s problematic character and teaching so that Machiavelli can be made safe for the White House. Third, Mr Anton seems to have embraced as necessary the separation of wisdom from moderation since our age requires an unpredictable, or arbitrary, chief executive who will be freed from constitutional framework. We must accept such an approach to deal with a normal state that is warfare not peace. I would note in passing when considering this analysis that Mr Anton would do well to reflect that Strauss warned about a thinker who was contemptuous of reasonableness and praised resoluteness. If this analysis misunderstands his intent, then I would ask him what he meant when he referred to his love for “Nick” and Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli. One could accept that he follows Trump out of opportunism. Machiavelli would understand as a seasoned political operative, since one cannot practice politics effectively from the kitchen. As Mr Anton appears to follow Trump from a deep passion, a reasoned choice, and political judgement we may be led to the fearful conclusion, which I hope he can reassure is not the case, that suggests he prefers the political alternative that Machiavelli proposes and Trump attempts to embody. Whatever the intent, Mr Anton is to be lauded for his rhetorical skills for he has surpassed Machiavelli as his job application succeeded whereas Machiavelli’s failed.

 

 

[1] See http://www.politico.eu/article/donald-trump-russia-foreign-policy-machiavelli-would-approve-michael-anton/ the full text of the interview is here:  http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/michael-anton-the-full-transcript-215029

[2] The attentive reader will note that the Publius Decius Mus (the elder) story occurs near the centre of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy as well as in the centre of book 2, the central book.

[3] I will leave it to readers more perspicuous than I to determine whether Mr Anton is attacking the current religion. What is the American religion that he is attacking? Is the American religion progressivism, at least within the elites, or is it equality, or is the civil religion that binds America together the Constitution?

[4] See Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders: a study of the Discourses on Livy University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2001 pp233-235.

[5] http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/michael-anton-the-full-transcript-215029

[6] Harvey C. Mansfield Jr has written extensively on Machiavelli with the following books:  Machiavelli’s Virtue (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1996), Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power John Hopkins University Press, 1989) as well as Machiavelli’s new modes and orders: a study of the Discourses on Livy (Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1979). He has published translations of Machiavelli’s Prince, Discourses on Livy, and Florentine Histories.

I leave to others to consider why Mansfield felt that the time was right within America to make explicit what Strauss, at best, alluded to and why he thought it would be healthy to expose American democracy to Machiavelli’s thought in such an immodest fashion. I would also leave to readers to consider Professor Mansfield’s timing.

[7] See Leo Strauss Thoughts on Machiavelli p. 9 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1978 (paperback edition)

[8] See Leo Strauss Thoughts on Machiavelli p. 13

[9] We have to be cautious of such signals since the comments may only be for Mr Anton’s benefit not for enlightening others about himself or Trump.

[10] Here it is not surprising that Mr Anton overlooks Harry Jaffa’s work. Jaffa would want to know why he is praising Niccolo Machiavelli in the White House especially as Machiavelli’s praise of supremacism suggests that the truth that all men are created equal is simply a half-truth or a noble lie. It is also noteworthy that Harry Jaffa wrote on Lincoln rather than Machiavelli. Perhaps this is a sub-theme to the dispute between Jaffa and Mansfield as captured by Thomas West. http://www.vindicatingthefounders.com/author/jaffa_v_mansfield.pdf

[11] By contrast, the Athenians had no need for Machiavellianism because they were so powerful. In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians are unapologetically clear and consistent in their approach to the Melians. It is the Melian oligarchs who rely on Machiavellian like methods in the hopes they can avoid what Athens says they will deliver. See Harry Neumann Socrates and the Tragedy of Athens,Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 3 (AUTUMN 1968), p427 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40969919

[12] See Leo Strauss On Tyranny Corrected and Expanded edition Including the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2013) p

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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