26 Did Machiavelli invent political modernity?

Posted on September 5, 2011 by

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Machiavelli still is the icon of diplomacy – or at least of those who think that he overturned religion as a guide to statesmanship and unleashed a new spirit of  ethical rapacity on the world[1].  Religion and moral values then were a restraint; contrary-wise, political  vitality was henceforth to be measured by the human disposition to acquire ever greater power. Where security is to be found in the continuous acquisition of this world’s goods, so the philosopher, acquisition could only be practiced abroad – hence the prince’s ongoing task to wage war and enlarge the state – by war or diplomacy, depending on circumstances and fortuna.

Comparing histories of empires sometimes yields interesting nuggets, and I just found one, as I studied the emergence of the first Chinese empire[2]. The period of the Three Dynasties (roughly 2200 – 256 BC) was one of endless wars – the Warring States period at its end being the culmination. Emperor Qin, having created a “state organized for war”[3], won out against all others in an orgy of blood that might have left 400’000 Zhao soldiers dead. His empire did not last long, for in Qin’s worldview war was “ultimately fought not for gain but for loss, to expend energies and wealth that would otherwise accumulate in the hands of those who, by virtue of their growing prosperity, would come to serve their own interests rather than those of the state” (LEWIS, pg. 50)[4]. By 207 BC the last of the Qin emperors was gone[5].

I will not focus on this last paroxysmal episode of empire formation, but on the long preceding period, and show an interesting relationship between warfare and religion – Machiavelli’s dismissive concern. As China emerged from the Neolithic, it created the ancestor cult, which was the ideological basis for state formation around clans and agnate lineages. Monopoly in communicating with Heaven and divinized ancestors became one or the prerequisites of power. One expression was scapulimancy: reading and interpreting signs in bones that had been heated over fire (some think that Chinese writing emerged from recording such oracular messages from Heaven and heavenly spirits).

The other was the production of chiu ting – exquisite bronze objects used for shamanic/religions ceremonies: “hereby a harmony was secured between the high and the low, and all enjoyed the blessing of Heaven”[6]. The problem is – there were so many of them: despite the millennia of tomb depredation the quantity (and quality) of such sacred objects which have been recovered is amazing. It was not simply possession of sacred objects, it the quantity of such objects that secured political legitimacy to the ruler.

The production of such objects required enormous resources: ores had to be dug up, smelted and alloyed, and the objects fabricated in a highly complex and painstaking procedure. Mobilizing the required labor force indicated organized control over the masses – it was a proxy for the ruler’s ability to field a sizeable and effective army. That bronze was also used for weapons and even more for axles of the feared war-chariots is no coincidence.

Production of such items was “conspicuous”. It was meant to impress this world, not the heavens. It was doubled by “conspicuous destruction”, when chu ting were buried by the cartful in the tombs of the deceased ruler. Legitimacy was expressed by ownership of the chiu ting – and power by their number. Religious and political message (to the states beyond the frontiers) went hand and hand, and could not be divorced.

We find similarities in the frenzied building of temples by Tarquinius Superbus, the last Roman king[7]. He was an empire builder. He fielded armies, and when these rested, he had the jobless soldiers build temples, signifying to all neighbors of Rome his readiness to strike as well as his ambition for imperial legitimacy. If cattle-rustling was typical of nomads, the Romans (and other acquisitory/tributary states) specialized in “harvest-rustling”, stealing the harvest after it had been painstakingly gathered beyond the country’s borders. As all parasitic behavior it was not easy to find the proper balance in extraction – one could kill the goose than laid the golden eggs. Successful imperial elites managed this, but
they could be easily replaced by another elite. This is why dynasties – even when the empire itself lived on – quickly vanished. China is a here good example.

Pre-industrial states were tributary and thus expansive states[8]. With a stagnant agricultural base, the more land you had, the more surplus one could aggregate. And they relied heavily on religion for doing so – religion was no bar, in fact, it was precondition for empire building. Given the difficulty of controlling the empire once conquered, religion provided the necessary legitimating glue. Far from being “modern” the acquisitive state that Machiavelli preached was a throw-back to a bygone era and, to top this, shorn of its ideological glue. It would not work, and it did not work.

Probably unwittingly Machiavelli was struggling with another, new factor: technological change. Given that bronze (!) guns had become the wherewithal of victory, large states were needed to organize their large-scale production. Louis XIV leveled the immense forest between Paris and Brussels in order to produce the guns that took him there. He could not hold his empire together – for lack of an ideological kit. In the end people would not march to the tune of “L’état c’est moi”. It took the injection of the word “nation” into Art. III of the French Declaration of Human Rights to provide the glue. But nationalism was self-limiting[9], and focused on internal organization rather than sheer size (Bismarck called it Blut und Eisen – blood and iron).


[1]              Harvey C. MANSFIELD (1996): Machiavelli’s virtue. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[2]              Kwang-chi CHANG (1983): Art, myth, and ritual. The path to political authority in Ancient China. Harvard University Press,
Cambridge Mass.

[3]           Mark Edward LEWIS (2007): The early Chinese empires. Qin and Han. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[4]           Christianity solved this problem by promising Crusaders a martyrs’ paradise, if only they would fight a faraway enemy.

[5]           There is a lesson there for states relying on the army for state formation. The war machine will eventually turn on itself and self-destruct. See Gordon A. CRAIG (1979): The politics of the Prussian Army. Oxford University Press, Oxford. The Chinese took the lesson, and fast: universal military service was abolished in 32 AD. The role of the army was always subordinate in Imperial China, as shown iconographically: the Chinese “sages” and “divinities” fold the left (heart) hand over the right (warring) hand.

[6]           Tso Chuan, as quoted in K. C. Chang pg. 95

[7]              Andrea CARANDINI (2011): Res publica. Come Bruto cacciò l’ultimo re di Roma. Rizzoli, Milano.

[8]           Patricia CRONE (2003): Pre-industrial societies. Anatomy of the pre-modern world. OneWorld, Oxford.

[9]           It is noteworthy that all major European empires (Spain, Holland, Great Britain, Russia, and France) were established before the French Revolution – the Age of Empire in the XIXth century was a path-dependent outcome. In 1788 Britain declared Australia terra nullius. In 1840 New Zealand was taken over under the Waitangi Treaty with the Maoris. Napoleon failed because he could not reconcile “empire” with “nationhood” of other European peoples. The German and Italian Empires were “Jonny-come-lately” affairs that never did amount to anything serious. And Leopold’s Congo was a personal folly.

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