Liberty Matters

Against Machiavelli: The Prince, a Political Manual for Bonaparte


Besides the question of selfishness, Staël's anti-Machiavellianism has at least a second source: she saw The Prince as a political manual followed by Napoléon Bonaparte. This idea is particularly developed in chapter XVIII of the Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, "On the Political Doctrine of Bonaparte." Indeed, she accused the emperor of being "intoxicated with the vile draught of MachiavellismItalian tyrants of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries" while comparing him with the "."[109] It is worth quoting the following paragraph where she particularly developed Machiavelli's influence on Bonaparte's conception of the aim of politics:
I am inclined to think that Machiavelli, detesting above everything the yoke of foreigners in Italy, tolerated, and even encouraged, the means, whatever they were, which the princes of the country could employ in order to be masters, hoping that they would one day be powerful enough to repulse the German and French troops. Machiavelli analyzes the art of war in his writings like a military man; he reverts continually to the necessity of a military organization entirely national; and if he sullied his reputation by his indulgence for the crimes of the Borgias, it was perhaps because he felt too strongly the desire of attempting every means of recovering the independence of his country. Bonaparte did not certainly examine the Prince of Machiavelli in this point of view; but he sought there what still passes for profound wisdom with vulgar minds, the art of deceiving mankind. This policy must fall in proportion to the extension of knowledge, as the belief in witchcraft has fallen since the true laws of natural philosophy have been discovered.[110]
Admittedly, it remains possible to underline certain similarities between  ideas held by Staël and Machiavelli, especially if we consider the question of political acumen. As Professor Craiutu puts it: "No social or political question can be decided, [Staël] believed, except by trying to find a judicious balance between the pluses and minuses of all proposed solutions. All we can do is balance inconveniences, compare, and calculate." (My emphasis.) No doubt Machiavelli would have agreed that politics is the art of calculating the pros and cons and finding the least bad solution to a given problem. However, there remains between them a fundamental divergence on what good and evil consist of, or, in other words, on the nature of the criterion standing at the center of their respective "balance." For Machiavelli, humans are selfishly aggressive and the political game necessarily entails that a player's victory happens at the expense of an opponent's loss. Staël, on the contrary, looked for a way of encouraging people to rise above their self-interest, express their intrinsic noble nature, and understand that a feeling of mutual responsibility should blossom from their fundamental interconnectedness. Enthusiasm is her solution to that problem, and it could not be further from Machiavelli's casual acceptance of selfishness.
[109.] Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, ed. with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2008), p. 517.
[110.] Germaine de Staël,Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, p. 517.