As a reminder, the outline of this discourse is as follows:
- General Introduction: Conspiracy against Nations or Individuals (covered Here)
- Conspiracy against the Single Prince
- Reasons for Conspiracy
- The Conspirators
- One (anybody)
- Many (nobility)
- The Dangers of Conspiracy (today’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
Moving on from the object of conspiracy and the nature of the conspirators, Machiavelli takes up the issue of the dangers of undertaking a conspiracy. These dangers arise, reasonably enough, either before, during, or after the “deed” itself. After all there is really no “safe” moment once a conspiracy has been hatched, “few are found that have a good outcome because it is impossible—almost—to pass through them all happily” (III.6.4).
The primary danger that arises before a conspiracy is executed (but of course after it is conceived) is that of exposure. This, in turn, can happen “either by report or conjecture. Report arises from finding lack of faith, or lack of prudence, in the men to whom you communicate it” (III.6.4).
As with war, when it comes to conspiracy we must be willing to be absolutely brutally honest with ourselves. We must know who can be trusted and who cannot. What we find is that the number of people who can truly be trusted so closely as to be worthy coconspirators is very, very small. In reality, it is usually just one or two individuals. The problem is, we all like to think more highly of ourselves, so we assume that we are beloved by our large circle of friends and take far more people into our confidences than we ought. If we must bring more people into our plans than the one or two closest two us, Machiavelli suggests testing them first to make sure they are trustworthy. (How exactly one might test someone he doesn’t say, but I suspect that Machiavelli’s suggested method would truly horrify modern Americans.) Whatever we do, we must not let hatred be our guide in this:
If you measure faith [to yourself as the architect of conspiracy] by the discontent that one individual has with the prince, you can easily deceive yourself in this; for as soon as you have manifested your intent to that discontented one, you give him matter with which to content himself, and to maintain him in faith it must indeed be either that the hatred is great or that your authority is very great. (III.6.4)
In other words, the leader of a conspiracy must not assume that all hate the government as much as he does and are as dedicated to the cause. That is how organizations are infiltrated and conspiracies are exposed.
This “before” stage is where most conspiracies die, since many are revealed prior to even being attempted. These revelations can be either intentional or unintentional (III.6.5), where loose lips, drunken boasts, or even casual joking can undo the whole endeavor.
As far as exposing conspiracies by conjecture, there is of course no defense against this. Sometimes princes or those who work for them just manage to put two and two together correctly. Machiavelli does not discuss false accusations of conspiracy here (III.6.5).
Ultimately, there is no true defense against exposure. The best thing Machiavelli thinks one can is not to pass on critical information until the absolute last possible moment (III.6.6).
Relating to not disclosing information about the conspiracy until the last possible minute is the danger of the written word. “Everyone should guard himself from writing as from a reef, for there is nothing that convicts you more easily than what is written by your hand” (III.6.8). And again, the safest bet is to 1) communicate to as few people as possible; and 2) to communicate as little as possible (III.6.9). Machiavelli’s examples of this are legion, many of which center around Nero.
Sometimes of course necessity forces the conspirator’s hand:
Close to this mode is when a necessity constrains you to do to the prince that which you see the prince would like to do to you, which is so great that it does not give you time except to think about securing yourself. (III.6.10)
When one hears that the mad Emperor (Commodus, in Machiavelli’s examples) has ordered one’s execution, instant conspiracy may be the only true opinion. Hence “necessity” mandates the death of the king. The best thing the king can do is not put people in this position (III.6.11).
There are many possible reasons a conspiracy might collapse during its execution:
These [dangers] arise either from varying the order, or from spirit lacking in him who executes, or from an error that the executor makes through lack of prudence or through not bringing the thing to perfection by leaving alive part of those who were planned to be killed. (III.6.12)
Machiavelli walks us through each of these in turn. The first is perhaps the most dangerous, since last minute changes of plan affect every other aspect of the conspiracy. They obviously undermine the established operations that had presumably been thought out, discussed, and possibly even rehearsed. They also sap the will from the conspirators—it’s hard enough to convince someone to assassinate a leader, but to suddenly change the game on them at the last minute undoes whatever psychological preparation they had put themselves through. Given time and a set plan, we can prepare ourselves mentally and physically for pretty much anything. But change that at the last minute and we lose whatever self-confidence we had built up. At least, that’s Machiavelli’s argument.
As we would expect from Machiavelli, he believes that those whose “spirit is lacking” should likewise expect the conspiracy to fail (III.6.14). Conspiracies should not be undertaken half-heartedly any more than anything else in politics. Machiavelli especially connects this to the awe with which we often hold our political leaders. “So great are the majesty and the reverence that accompany the presence of a prince that it is an easy thing for them either to soften or to terrify an executor” (III.6.14). That is, the inherent dignity and respect we believe political offices are invested with makes it difficult for us to earnestly desire the death of political figures. I don’t know that this particular point has held up well, given our general disdain for our politicians (whether that disdain is deserved or not is a different issue). Fortunately, despite the fact that we are not awed and shamed by our leaders, most Americans do not engage in conspiracies—after all we tend to believe that murder is bad for our self-esteem…
Directly related to half-heartedness are the dual dangers of poor planning and lack of thoroughness. Well-planned operations generate a bold spirit, while poorly planned operations sap whatever spirit was there to start with. The Catch-22 is that the best way to both plan well and be bold of spirit is to practice.
Therefore one ought to choose men experienced in such managing and to believe in no one else, even though held very spirited. For of spirit in great things there is no one who may promise himself a sure thing without having had experience. (III.6.15)
As in all things, practice makes perfect. Machiavelli does not explain exactly how one practices assassination.
What’s more, a truly thorough plan is to some degree impossible if there is more than one person being targeted. Ideally conspirators would strike against all targets at once, but
to do a like action at the same time in different place is almost impossible, for one cannot do it at different times if one does not wish the one to spoil the other. So if conspiring against a prince is a thing doubtful, dangerous, and hardly prudent, conspiring against two is altogether vain and flighty. (III.6.15)
In the age of instant communication this difficulty may be less, but humans being what they are, and chance being what it is, I think we can assume that Machiavelli’s maxim still holds. If you must conspire, conspire against only one person at a time.
When in the process of executing a conspiracy, it is very easy to let your imagination to run away with you. Every conversation the victims have is potentially a revelation of your plans. Every disgusted look is a sign that they know what you’re up to.
These false imaginations are to be considered and, with prudence, to be held in respect; and so much the more since it is easy to have them. For whoever has a stained conscience easily believes that one speaks of him; one can hear a word, said for another end, that perturbs your spirit and makes you believe it was said about your case. It either makes you expose the conspiracy yourself by flight or confuses the action by hastening it out of its time. And this arises all the more easily when there are many to be aware of the conspiracy. (III.6.16)
No doubt we’ve all had these kinds of experiences—when we know we’ve done something wrong, every conversation around us by people we know is potentially the exposure of our wrongdoing. Every sidelong glance is because that person knows our guilt. How much more so that must be the case when the crime in question is treason…
Accidents must likewise be considered an unavoidable part of the execution of a conspiracy. The best we can do is study previous examples of how accidents have affected the plans of conspirators and try to act accordingly ourselves.
Because such accidents are rare, one cannot produce any remedy for them. It is surely necessary to examine all those that can arise and remedy them. (III.6.17)
Accidents cannot be completely offset, of course. But they can be practiced and planned for to some limited extent–doing so may even be “necessary.”
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.