Machiavelli - Renaissance of Art of war

Machiavelli - Renaissance of Art of war


Machiavelli's philosophy is based on his pessimistic view of human nature. He has been called a "pagan Augustinian". Aristotle and Plato also called attention to the imperfect nature of man, but Machiavelli rejected their approach. He follows Xenophon more closely. It was Xenophon who took a rational organization, the army and applied the lessons learned in its construction and operation to the problems of society in general. Machiavelli follows his lead in linking military and civil societies.

He goes a step beyond Xenophon when he applies the lessons of military practice to the internal affairs of his civic body. For all his recognition of the failings of human nature, Xenophon could not free himself from the Greek distinction between friend and foe. For him, coercion was to be applied to the enemy, and both the army and the polis were to be based on friendship. Machiavelli does not recognize this distinction. To him everyone is a potential enemy, hence the civic rulers must employ the same measures employed by the general to defeat his enemies. This is the reason Machiavelli makes no distinction between the statesman and military commander and why his approach to politics is a military one.

Just as the unchanging character of human nature is the stable ingredient which makes the study of history important for the statesman, the presence of the man himself at the controls in all human organizations makes the study of his character the basic activity for the successful leader. Machiavelli's state and army are not abstract entities endowed with human characteristics or desires. All decisions are made by men and all evoke reactions in other men.

Machiavelli's insistence on this principle is seen in each of the diverse topics included in this study. For him the proper decision to such questions as whether to form alliances or not, when to invade the enemy territory, when to use the money, how to acquire and control colonies, how to use "peace" offensives, how to organize a community and whether to appease an aggressor or not are all based on an evaluation of the probable reaction of those humans affected by the decision

Likewise, his criteria for the selection of a leader and his precepts to guide the leader's actions in command of an army are based on principles of psychology. The reaction of the army is itself governed by an evaluation of the human material available to the leader. Such considerations as the proper type of soldier, the discipline to be developed, the training program to be followed, the most useful armament, the correct logistical procedures, and the proper role of infantry, cavalry and artillery are all made under the assumption that man has been, is, and always will be the central and essential weapon in war.

Based on this assumption, some of Machiavelli's major points are as follows:

  1. War between men is inherent and inevitable.
  2. War will be total or limited depending on the political objectives involved.
  3. Uncontrolled and unprepared for, war is destructive; but properly channelled and prepared for, it can serve socially useful purposes.
  4. The proper way to conduct a war is to carry it to the enemy; keep the initiative; maintain exclusive decision-making power; do not try to buy friends; do not remain neutral or passive when danger threatens, however remotely; always present your side as peace loving and leave your opponent every opportunity to retreat or surrender; use subversive agents inside the other society to pave the way; govern acquired territories through local intermediaries; do not risk total victory or defeat with less than all your forces; be prepared to adapt to the times-- to retreat if necessary to await another day.
  5. Leadership is a creative activity. It is the highest aspiration of man. It is the essential element in victory. The leader can and should use every means at his disposal to ensure victory, including all manner of psychological tricks and ruses. The leader should educate himself by studying the example of virtuous heroes of the past, especially Roman.
  6. The hold which fear and appearances have on the minds of men require the leader to employ techniques designed to take advantage of these human characteristics. In this connection money, religion, stratagems, and necessity all have important roles.
  7. The leader must be able to analyze a situation objectively and base his decisions on a careful estimate of the situation. He must not lose sight of his major objective in war, which is the destruction of the enemy's will and/or ability to resist.
  8. The army should be a citizen militia, highly trained and well disciplined, organized in small flexible units, armed with weapons for close combat, composed primarily of infantry. Quality is to be preferred to quantity.

Machiavelli's lasting importance is due to the way in which his theoretical structure is firmly grounded in a realistic appreciation of human nature. His uncritical acceptance of his sources led to some errors in his specific examples. The polemical nature of his writing led to some overstatement of position. He failed to appreciate the role of missile weapons in history. He was perhaps over-optimistic in is an expectation that an essentially amateur militia would be able to defeat the professional armies of his day. Nevertheless, much of what he wrote is still valid today. He understood the importance of military factors in the achievement of political objectives, both in foreign and domestic policy. He recognized the close interrelationship between the military organization and the social-political structure of a society. He saw that warfare was no longer going to be the exclusive affair of a specialized class of warrior who fought over large private interests, but the central activity of the then developing state and hence the concern of its rulers and indeed of all its inhabitants. He warned that unless the people understood and participated in military affairs they could not control the army and if they did not control it, it would control them. He emphasized that the creation of an army cannot await the existence of an emergency, but is the result of long and careful planning. He believed that the discipline and other virtues acquired in a properly functioning military organization had great value to the civic life of a community. His appreciation of the importance of psychological factors as being frequently decisive in any confrontation of man by man requires continual renewal in this technological age. He outlines an effective strategy for conquest which has modern imitators. A citizen militia is still important in a modern army as a reserve element, but no major power could achieve its policies today without at least part of its army being professional. Discipline and training are as essential today as they ever were. Weapons are different now, but the principles governing their use are the same.

Since Machiavelli equates political and military affairs so directly, it is not surprising that his guides to action in the military field are so strikingly similar to his pronouncements on political questions. An interesting question then is which came first, the political theory or the military theory. In other words, did Machiavelli derive his military doctrines from political doctrine or the reverse? To attempt to answer this question I have compared his three major books (The Prince, The Discourses and The Art of War).

Machiavelli himself states that he differs from most authors on the subject of rules and methods for a prince. His reference to imaginary republics is a clear attack on political philosophers such as Plato and Dante. The comments on making a profession of goodness refer to the mirror of princes literature in general. He attacks ancient writers while praising ancient statesmen and soldiers. It has been pointed out that The Prince does conform in style to this tradition of a mirror of princes literature, but that in content it is radically different. Machiavelli can be taken at his word, that he does not recommend the precepts of the classical or medieval political theorists generally held in high regard in his time.

In his opinion, the past is generally overrated by critics of contemporary affairs. Men's appetites change, hence they judge differently when they are old than they did when young and they tend to glorify the past. In spite of this, he constantly urges his readers to imitate the ancients.

Machiavelli begins the introduction to Book One of The Discourses with the claim to have opened a new route, to have discovered new principles and systems; to what end he does not say. Antiquity is held in great esteem and imitated by artists; ancient virtue, however, is more admired than imitated. He proposes that we imitate also ancient military and political systems. His route leads to a revival of virtue. The Discourses also represents a departure from anything previously written.

In the introduction to The Art of War Machiavelli discusses the relation between civil and military affairs more explicitly. Men entering the army transform themselves and appear quite different from civilians, but on a closer look at civil and military institutions, a close relationship can be seen. Once again, in this book as in the others, Machiavelli is quite specific in denouncing the contemporary military practice and in recommending the ancient practice, subject to certain modifications of his own design. This book contains less political theory and more military details than the other two, but all three repeat the same arguments. The style and content, however, are noticeably different. Far from having no previous models, this book is copied almost word for word from specific Roman military textbooks. While Machiavelli does not mention who the writers are, he is careful to state his reasons whenever he deviates from them, even in the order in which he treats the subjects.

Machiavelli writes that he does not agree with the most political theory, ancient or modern, nor with contemporary Italian military practice. What he does admire are ancient (Roman) political and military practice and ancient military theory. The ancient political and military practices were in conformity and were expressed more adequately in the military texts and histories than in the political theory books. Contemporary political and military practice is inadequate and is also not expressed adequately in contemporary literature.

In two books then Machiavelli expressly breaks with one tradition and establish new precepts, while in the third he consciously stays as close to another tradition as possible; yet the theories in all three books are almost identical. It would seem unlikely that he would have devised the new precepts in the first books from strictly political considerations and then found that they corresponded exactly to the traditional ones followed in the third book. Evidently, he considered military theory applicable to political problems before he wrote The Prince. This is further shown by reference to his correspondence written while still in office, and especially in his activities on behalf of the militia.

Machiavelli's political theory then is an extension of his military theory, and the whole is based on classical military doctrines. His major contribution then to political theory is the view of the civic body as a proper field for the employment of precepts derived from the military practice

Following article is extracted from: The art of war Machiavelli |