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Machiavelli & Burke: Philosophers in Conservatism

Machiavelli & Burke: Philosophers in Conservatism

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Published by Zach Vaughn
This was originally written in 2001. Since that time, I have studied more about each and have changed some of the positions I took. I have not changed my opinion that both are conservative, but I do have a deeper understanding of their philosophies, a lack of which caused me to err in my descriptions in 2001.
This was originally written in 2001. Since that time, I have studied more about each and have changed some of the positions I took. I have not changed my opinion that both are conservative, but I do have a deeper understanding of their philosophies, a lack of which caused me to err in my descriptions in 2001.

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Published by: Zach Vaughn on Jan 24, 2011
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Machiavelli and Burke: Philosophers in Conservatism
Throughout history, there have been those who were opposed to dynamic, or radical, change,either from irrational fears or to protect their interests. They were persons disposed to keep toestablished practices and well-beaten paths; they were conservatives. In political philosophy,there were two men who sought to guard these ways and keep them fixed, and they preferredgovernments that could preserve tradition. These two men were Niccolo Machiavelli andEdmund Burke.Born in 1469, Machiavelli was a native of Florence, Italy, during the reign of the mighty Medicifamily. Although he considered himself a republican, he understood the necessity of gainingfavor with those in power. So, in 1513, he addressed his work, The Prince, to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Medici. Along with The Prince, Machiavelli produced two other major works of political philosophy. In 1521, he wrote The Discourses on the First Ten Books of TitusLivy[a Roman historian], in which he introduced his preference for a republican form of government by examining the Roman one. In his later years, Machiavelli was commissioned byPope Clement VII to write The Florentine Histories. The forms of government may havechanged throughout these works, but the principles which allowed these various governments tooperate remained the same, because Machiavelli focuses on the means of the state, rather than itsends (Ebenstein, 284).Throughout his works, fortune held a primary place in Machiavelli’s political philosophy. In ThePrince, Machiavelli devoted a whole chapter to the discussion of fortune, its role in humanaffairs and how to oppose it. He began his discussion by mentioning those who believe in beingruled by chance. Machiavelli rejected this view, because in his analysis, free will had not beenaltogether extinguished (120). In chapter 25, Machiavelli compared fortune to a raging river thatoccasionally floods, and destroys, the earth, but when it is quiet, men might use their free will to prepare against it, “hoping to conquer her by force” (125). However, men could not eliminatechange, so “…the prince must be adaptable to unforeseen events” (34).A significant cause of these unforeseen events was religion. In The Florentine Histories,Machiavelli wrote, “But among so many changes, change of religion was not of lesser moment, because in the struggle between the custom of the ancient faith and the miracle of the new, thegravest tumults and discords were generated among men” (Machiavelli, 15). Some of thosetumults were centered around Girolamo Savonarola, who caused quite a stir in Florence,ultimately ending in his execution. Rejecting the secularism of the Renaissance, Savonarola became a Dominican preacher, calling the people of Florence to repentance (Grimm, 46). Hisforceful preaching earned him respect in Florence, whose people began to institute his reforms.According to Machiavelli, these reforms eventually lead to his undoing. In The Discourses, hetells a story of one of Savonarola's reforms, which involved trials for treason. The reformsallowed those convicted of treason to appeal the judgment, but shortly after the law was passed,five men were convicted of treason and were not allowed to appeal. Machiavelli states thatSavonarola never condemned the violation of the new law, and "Since this made it plain to allthat at heart he was ambitious and a party-man, it ruined his reputation and brought him muchreproach" (Discourses, 221). Ironically, when the people turned against him, he was convicted of treason and executed by the very government that he had created. One of the events leading to
Savonarola's execution was his excommunication by the Catholic Church. While Machiavelliwas often quite critical of the Church and could be critical of religion in general, he recognizedthe ability of religion as a controlling, calming influence upon the populace. Ruling by use of ancient religious customs, regardless of the theology, a prince could maintain good order due tothe power that those customs hold over men (Prince, 69). Machiavelli did not see religion as personal experience between God and man, but simply as a means of keeping power and order,and the best way to do this was to maintain the traditional religious practices.Another part of maintaining order in the Machiavellian state depended on the treatment of thetwo parties which make up the state – the aristocracy and the populace. In the Prince, he wrote,“Well-ordered states and wise princes have studied diligently not to drive the nobles todesperation and to satisfy the populace and keep it contented” (Machiavelli, 297). To understandhow this is done, a must have known the desires of the aristocracy, as well as the desires of the populace. In The Prince, he stated that the desire of the populace is to avoid the oppression of thearistocracy, and the desire of the aristocracy is to command the people (63). In The Discourses,he cited a more economic reason, that the aristocracy wished to preserve what they hadestablished, while the populace, who had not, desired to acquire more (117). Despite theseseemingly different causes, Machiavelli's point remained the same - there was a natural conflict between the populace and the aristocracy. When addressing the ruler directly, Machiavelli madenote of several ways in which the prince might satisfy the desires of these parties. In Chapter 17of The Prince, he advises the ruler in this manner: "but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others" (90). In another place, he told the prince that the populace was easier to please, since their aim was more honest, i.e., the desire to resist oppression (Prince, 64). Movingaway from the policies of the prince and more toward the constitution of the state, Machiavellinoted that those who created good governments recognized the existence of these two parties anddesigned the mechanism of government in such a way that the clash between them would produce legislation favorable to liberty (Discourses, 113). In this we see something of an end for the state - that of securing liberty, but the primary role of that body was to provide the order inwhich that liberty could be enjoyed.As has already been noted, Machiavelli conceived the role of the state to be one of providingorder, and he recommended several way of doing just that. In The Prince, he stated the chief foundations of all states were good laws and good arms, without which a state could not hope toexist, since it could not preserve order (72). By good laws, the state, or rather, the prince, should be miserly, because "niggardliness is one of those vices which enable him to reign" (Prince, 87),for by spending less, he makes the state rich, whereby he can conduct wars without burdening his people, thereby avoiding rebellion and revolt. The prince must also be a lover of merit,rewarding those who improve their lot and that of the state, and allowing trade to proceed in aquiet manner, whereby men shall not fear of being molested (Prince, 113). By good arms,Machiavelli meant a reliance on one’s own forces, those born within the state. The loyalties of auxillaries and mercenaries could be bought, and as such, it could be little relied on. In fact, theymight turn on you in times of peace, thereby causing instability in your state. Advising princeson whether or not they should build fortresses, Machiavelli says this, “Therefore the best fortressis to be found in the love the people, for although you may have fortresses they will not save youfrom the hatred of the people” (Ebenstein, 299). Through an orderly rule, the prince providesliberty, prosperity and stability - all necessary for the improvement of the state.
Born in Dublin, two centuries after Machiavelli, Edmund Burke was the product of Protestantrule in Ireland, and he too sought the improvement of the state. At 21 years old, Burke, the son of an attorney, left Ireland to study law in London, a study he later abandoned (Ebenstein, 506). In1756, he published his first major work entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. His purpose inthis work was to dissuade people from making rational, or scientific, inquiries into thefoundations of civil society and the state. However, it was not until 1789 that Burke began whatwas to become his defining social commentary. Unlike other Whigs, he was appalled by theFrench Revolution, which began as an expression of rationalism applied to politics and religion.So, in 1790, Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, the ultimate expression of hisconservatism.For Burke, change was not the result of natural forces, or fortune, as it was for Machiavelli.Instead, Burke saw it as the result of man’s use of Reason and metaphysics. In his Reflections, heremarked, “It has been the
[emphasis added] of this age, that everything is to bediscussed…" (Ebenstein, 527). In Burkean thought, it was considered taboo to discuss andinquire into the foundations of the state, because it would undermine the natural order. Thisnatural order was part of a divine plan, “a divinely ordained moral essence, a spiritual union of the dead, the living, and those yet unborn” (Kirk, 510), diametrically opposed to the chaos of Machiavelli’s world. Hence, rather than use reason to oppose change, it is reason, the cause of change, that must be opposed, because any change in the divine order would result in chaos.Since the divine was at work in keeping order, religion played a much more important role thanit did for Machiavelli. Burke saw religion as the basis of civil society and as “the source of allgood and all comfort”, because “man is by his constitution a religious animal” (Ebenstein, 527).As the basis of society, it could not be challenged, and while toleration could be allowed,outright dissent was intolerable. Atheism, which was in vogue in France during the Revolution,was a source of confusion and chaos, as it was the ultimate rebellion against divine order, because, Burke states, it was “against, not only our reason, but our instincts” (Ebenstein, 527).Had the British thrown off Christianity, he believed that they would have replaced it with some“uncouth” superstititon (Ebenstein, 527). Therefore, in order to protect the divine order, Burkeauthorized the use of an established religion to keep men within the proper bounds. This religionwas the Christian religion, “which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great sourceof civilization amongst us and amongst many other nations” (Ebenstein, 527). And unlikeMachiavelli, Burke required that the church have control over the minds of the rulers that “all persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an ideathat they act in trust” (Ebenstein, 528). One of Burke's quarrels with the French Revolution wasthat the National Assembly reversed this necessary construction with the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" by which the assemblymen took over church lands and made the clergy employeesof the state. No longer did the church in France hold sway over its rulers, but was now subject tothem, but perhaps the worst of the situation was the confiscation of church property by the lesser  party.Whereas Machiavelli simply recognized that two parties existed within the state, Burkeadamantly maintained that an established inequality was necessary for the preservation of order.For Burke, this inequality was natural and extended to an individual’s ability to rule. For example, in his Reflections, Burke wrote that if those engaged in such servile occupations as

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