If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s a good conspiracy theory. From the idea of a secret cabal forcing the Constitution on the new nation to the persistent belief that President Obama is really a Kenyan/Muslim/member of the Illuminati,* I don’t know that there has been a time in our history when we as a nation haven’t believed that someone, somewhere, is doing something to undermine the legitimacy of everything. The fact that there is no actual evidence supporting our theories is taken as proof of the power and ability of the conspirators—you can’t see President Obama’s fleet of nuclear powered unicorns, which is evidence that they exist and run the world economy.
Apparently, we are in good company with Renaissance Italy. The fact that Machiavelli dedicates his single longest discourse to describing and analyzing the fine art of the conspiracy suggests that he and his contemporaries shared our fascination with intrigue. Unlike Americans, however, rather than wondering about what might be going on out there somewhere Machiavelli flings himself into the topic as a practical matter and weighs its pros- and cons- with relish and clear delight. Speculation is for intellectuals and other worthless parasites; Machiavelli wants us to be planning for action. To that end, the next three posts will cover Machiavelli’s study of the how-tos and wherefores of conspiracy. If you’re systematically minded (Machiavelli is not), the outline for these posts goes something like this:
- General Introduction: Conspiracy against Nations or Individuals (today’s post)
- Conspiracy against the Single Prince
- Reasons for Conspiracy
- The Conspirators
- One (anybody)
- Many (nobility)
- The Dangers of Conspiracy (Friday’s post)
- The Dangers Before
- Exposure by report or by conjecture
- The written word
- The constraints of necessity
- The Dangers During
- Last-minute changes of plans
- Poor planning
- Lack of thoroughness
- The effects of conscience on the imagination
- The Dangers After (next Tuesday’s post)
- Leaving some alive
- The Dangers Before
- Reasons for Conspiracy
- Conspiracy against the Nation as a Whole
- By deception and artifice
- By foreign powers
So what does Machiavelli have to say about conspiracies? If nothing else, they are interesting to him because even in the harshest of despotisms, they can be inherently democratic:
For to be able to make open war on a prince is granted to few; to be able to conspire against them is granted to everyone. On the other side, private men enter upon no enterprise more dangerous or more bold than this, for it is difficult and very dangerous in every part of it. (III.6.1)
International war is only an occasional thing, Orwell’s predictions notwithstanding. By contrast, anyone can create or join a conspiracy at any time for any reason. The poorest beggar on the street can take up a sword or a club or a rock and take a swing at a passing monarch. Machiavelli suggests that this fact has a moderating effect on government. Whether they are successful or not, conspiracies tend to make princes restrain their own harsh tendencies while keeping a suspicious eye on their subjects. The subjects, in turn, become more hesitant about joining conspiracies and more accepting of the existing regime because of its restraint. Although never explicitly stated, the clear implication is that Machiavelli thinks a conspiracy is actually good for the virtue of the state.
So what goes into a conspiracy? As noted in the outline above, conspiracies can be undertaken against a state as a whole or against a specific prince. Machiavelli begins with the latter, arguing that most conspiracies against individuals begin because of that individual’s “being hated by the collectivity” (III.6.2). When there is such general hatred those who have a specific grudge against the prince become bold and make plans that they would otherwise fear to implement:
One rarely meets men who reckon an injury [done by the prince] so much that they put themselves in so much danger to avenge it… because if they were even of the spirit and had the power to do it, they are held back by the universal benevolence that they see a prince has. (III.6.2)
Personal hatred, however, is not the only cause of conspiracy. A close second is the love of freedom and the desire to liberate a nation from a perceived tyrant. From this type of conspiracy the only real defense is that of “laying down the tyranny” (III.6.2). The best defense for a prince from the former cause of conspiracy is not to be hated in the first place and to utterly destroy those who do hate him when necessary. Those who have been injured in their persons, property, or honor are always a danger—and infinitely more so when the prince is hated by the general public:
For he [the prince] can never despoil one individual so much that a knife to avenge himself does not remain to him, and he can never dishonor one individual so much that a spirit obstinate for vengeance is not left to him. (III.6.2)
Machiavelli also gives us an analysis of the sorts of men who enter into conspiracies. By far the type that are the least dangerous to the conspirators involved are those pursued by “lone gunmen.” These kinds of actions, however, are not really “conspiracies” in the technical sense. It would be a mistake, for example, to compare John Hinckley, Jr., with John Wilkes Booth. The latter was part of an organized effort to rid the world of Lincoln, while the former was merely a motivated (and insane) individual. This lone gunman approach nevertheless has clear advantages:
This alone lacks of the first of the three dangers incurred in conspiracies; for before the execution no danger is borne, since no other has his secret, nor does he bear the danger that his plan will come back to the ear of the prince. This decision so made can fall to any man of whatever sort: great, small, noble, ignoble, familiar or not familiar to the prince; for it is permitted to everyone to speak to him some time, and to whomever it is permitted to speak it is permitted to vent his spirit. (III.6.2)
Here perhaps above all, we see the truly democratic nature of this element of politics. Anyone and everyone can create “change you can believe in” if only they are driven and keep their mouths shut. (Insert your In the Line of Fire quote of choice here.) And again, Machiavelli gives us a laundry-list of examples of these kinds of loners attempting, and sometimes even succeeding in accomplishing, regicide.
And yet the individual fanatic is not really Machiavelli’s focus. In part, this is because the true conspiracy as such almost always involves the great and powerful:
I say it is to be found in the histories that all conspiracies are made by great men or those very familiar to the prince. For others, if they are not quite mad, are unable to conspire, since weak men and those not familiar to the prince lack all those hopes and all those occasions that are required for the execution of a conspiracy. (III.6.3)
In part, this is a logistical problem. Even the nobles struggle to properly execute a conspiracy, and they have all the tools necessary to do so regularly at their disposal—access to the prince, weapons, followers, etc.
Having a conspiracy organized by and composed of nobles by no means guarantees a successful operation. Unlike motivated common people, most nobles enter into conspiracies not out of hatred, but out of blind ambition instead. They are usually the ones who the prince has favored and elevated, to the point where the only thing they lack is the reins of government itself. Which of course ends up being the thing they want most, and in their ambition they strike before the time is quite right. “For if they knew how to do this wickedness with prudence it would be impossible that they not succeed” (III.6.3). This makes sense—ambition and patience may both be virtues, at least in Machiavelli’s world, but they are by no means complimentary ones.
*Please note that I endorse nothing linked here—these are merely provided as examples of conspiracy theories.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.