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Is Emperor Palpatine following Macheiavelli’s playbook when it comes to ruling his Galactic Empire.
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Has Emperor Palpatine been reading a copy of Machiavelli’s the Prince? That is the question we will consider on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
As much as many people dislike the Star Wars prequel movies I do think the rise of the Emperor to power makes an interesting study in the rise of tyranny and the exercise of political power. Emperor Palpatine started life out as a senator and secret Sith Lord who through careful political machinations manages to depose the previous chancellor of the republic and have others choose him for the role. Later he sets other long range plans into operation and has the Senate vote him emergency powers in a time of emergency that he never gives up. The parallels to Hitler’s rise are hard to miss here but it also has parallels with the fall of the Roman republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Perhaps this is the way all attempts at democracy are fated to end, with a collapse into tyranny.
Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the Italian city state of Florence where he worked as a diplomat during the exile of the Medici ruling family. Machiavelli lost his job and was jailed after the end of their exile and he wrote his most famous work the Prince as part of an attempt to get back into favor with the ruling Medici clan. Machiavelli also wrote a number of other works but for this episode we will concentrate on the Prince.
The Prince, is a manual on state craft for dictatorial rulers. It aims to set out how such a ruler should govern so as to govern successfully and avoid being over thrown. It is a brutally pragmatic manual that dispenses with any ethical concerns that might inform the actions of a ruler. One of the interesting innovations was its radical reimagining of the basic goal of government. The purpose of government that had been inherited from the ancient pagans and refined by the Christians saw the purpose of government as seeking to create an environment in which citizens could become more virtuous, to facilitate this proper end of man and not get in the way. Machiavelli would have none of this lofty idealism and in the Prince recasts the role of government as being limited to more ignoble ends. I’m sure you have heard it said “Politics is the art of the possible” and this is an idea we get from Machiavelli not from the older tradition.
Machiavelli was a child of his time and the Prince is his attempt at a political realism that sought to understand what really made for a successful ruler as opposed to what people said was desirable in a ruler. Machiavelli’s big idea was that of virtu and fortuna, these are the two forces that make up the scope of political life. Fortuna is what it sounds like and it, fortune or luck and it represents the forces in the world that are not in the control of a ruler while virtu is not virtue as traditionally understood but strength and power and an indomitable will, not unlike Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”. The goal of the ruler was to maximize virtu while minimizing fortuna. One thing to note about this virtu and fortuna dynamic is that it means that Machiavelli’s metaphysics is essentially atheistic. Machiavelli never explicitly came out and said he was an atheist, that would have been a very dangerous move in the culture of the time, but it is difficult to conclude otherwise from his basic metaphysical assumptions here. Any orthodox Christian or Ancient Pagans would never have reduced life to virtu and fortuna like Machiavelli did and would have allowed for a third factor, that of divine providence.
Machiavelli would never have explicitly said a ruler should declare them self an atheist although it seems he would have counseled a practical atheism and attendant amoralism as a necessity for a successful ruler. Machiavelli counselled an external piety that any ruler should exhibit regardless of their actual beliefs. This seems similar to what we see with politicians today who frequently rarely darken the door of a church or other religious institution except at election time but always affirm whatever nominal piety is required of them.
The practical amoralism that accompanies so much of Machiavelli’s advice continues to flow from his basic metaphysical assumptions about the nature of man. Machiavelli like Hobbes that would come after him assumed that man was by nature essentially selfish and vicious. Given the nature of 15th century Florence I suppose this is probably understandable. An event occurred during Machiavelli’s life that is illustrative of the experiences that seemed to have informed so much of his thinking. The Pizze conspiracy, a pair of mutual murder plots that included members of the clergy and ended with an attempted assassination in the city cathedral on Easter Sunday during the Easter Sunday mass. The two chief conspirators, one of whom was a bishop, were later captured and hung from ropes outside the church where, dangling 40 feet in the air they still sought to stab each other to death while the crowd below cheered them on. I suppose we can understand why Machiavelli developed the anthropology he did.
Machiavelli was one of those thinkers who people might publicly revile as despicable but he has cast a long shadow on political thought even to this day. His council to rulers on promise keeping would be familiar to most people in the west today. The advice was about what you would expect, a ruler should keep his word in all cases where it is to his advantage and break it whenever it is to his advantage to do so. Much of Machiavelli’s advice was like this and he would have defended it by stating that he was just being a realist. HE wasn’t trying to be an ethical ruler just a successful one. This again puts him at odds with those who went before him, who saw successful statecraft as intrinsically tied up with the good. Machiavelli sqw the two as at odds.
Another event that colored Machiavelli’s view of the world was the events surrounding the Franciscan Friar Savonarola. Savonarola came to Florence preaching repentance and humility and for a time gained a hearing and many in Florence were moved by his example and words. But in time the people wished to return to lives of vice but Savonarola was still there preaching virtue. The people of Florence sought to try to corrupt him or silence him but they ultimately failed and instead made Savonarola a martyr, burning him at the stake. Machiavelli later wrote that “Armed prophets succeed while unarmed ones fail”. I think this is interesting because the very culture Machiavelli was living in was built on the teachings of an unarmed prophet whose teaching overthrew the mightiest empire in history without the force of arms at all.
This leads to another interesting thing about Machiavelli’s metaphysics. He clearly sees bodily survival as the highest good. He says as much when working out his dismal view of man, observing that the reason people are basically selfish and vicious is because they prefer bodily survival over virtuous living. That most people do not want to end up like Savonarola and will compromise principles to do so. This clashes again with the more ancient understanding that it is better to suffer evil in the body than to take evil into your soul by participating in it. What do you think of this idea? Is it better to suffer at the hands of an evil person or avoid that suffering by participating in the infliction of it?
Is the emperor following Machiavelli’s playbook? It seems that in many ways he is. He rises to power through manipulation of those who stand in his way. It doesn’t hurt that the amiable and innocent looking minor senator Palpatine from Naboo is also the ruthless and powerful Sith Lord Darth Sidious. We see Palpatine playing both sides against each other and engineering the very crisis he steps in to save the galactic republic from. He uses the Jedi and distracts them by using them as generals in his war with the separatists and then turning on and destroying them as soon as it becomes possible to do so, so they will no longer be a threat to his power.
Emperor Palpatine has an interesting solution to a problem Machiavelli saw. Nobody wants to die in service to his country but people will vigorously defend their homes against foreign aggression. Machiavelli spends some time counselling against the hiring of mercenaries when soldiers are needed because they inevitably fight only for a pay check and are fickle and unreliable as a result. They may risk death for a pay check but they will not face it certainly for one. However on the other hand, fighting gets people killed and rulers can be resented for sending sons and fathers to die. Palpatine solves this problem handily with his clone army of expendable but skilled soldiers obedient to him. What more could you want? Nobody at home has to get killed or maimed in war but you have an army that will fight and die in your service without question. I wonder what Machiavelli would have made of such an innovation?
There is another turn that takes place as the Galactic Republic gives way to a Galactic empire is the increase in the number of soldiers necessary to police the new Empire. The various sorts of armored Imperial Troopers are the ubiquitous bad guy in the later movies, enforcing the emperors will in all the worlds under his jurisdiction at the point of a blaster rifle. This turn is also found in Machiavelli who councils that a good state requires soldiers to enforce the dictates of the ruler. This need flows directly from Machiavelli’s metaphysical assumptions about human nature. Machiavelli’s basic assumptions that humans are corrupt and selfish, that we are “basically bad”, means that, because humans lack an effective conscience, laws will need to be enforced externally. If you remember back a few episodes when we touched on the idea of how morality may be learned, we had the modern Rousseau who thought humans we basically good, and we had Machiavelli and a writer deeply influenced by him, Thomas Hobbes, who both though that “virtue”, by which they basically meant behavior conducive to civic order, was something that needed to be beaten into people against their baser nature. It shouldn’t be surprising with such an anthropology that lots of troops will be required to maintain order.
The Emperor in enthroning himself as head of the Galactic Empire employs many of Machiavelli’s ideas and strategies for maintaining order and securing his power base. Do you agree with Palpatine and Machiavelli that the successful rule must forsake virtue to secure his rule or were the ancients right and that successful statecraft and virtue go together?
You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. If you have never read the Prince it is a short work that is worth your time. You will be surprised how often you see aspects of it represented even in our democratic rulers of today. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If you do enjoy the show please go over to our facebook page and click like. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And don’t forget, it’s Phi with a P H.
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