“Kant” Revisited: Machiavelli and Voltaire


I’ve been through a lot the last couple days. I started writing something today when it occurred to me: “what am I talking about?”. That’s when I realized I had nothing left in the tank.

So please enjoy another flashback to the Life With Kant podcast.

Now the thing about this episode is that I have no idea where I got these facts from. If you asked me a few hours ago to write a paragraph about Voltaire, it would have read “is that the guy who wrote Candide?”

So you’ll just have to trust that pre-sober Wes knew what he was talking about. (He did)

As usual, I don’t edit or spellcheck.



The film director Werner Herzog recently said that his writing works will long outlast his film work. Despite being a renowned filmmaker, he seemed to have indicated that he will likely be remembered as a writer of prose rather than a director when people think back on him. Which for some reason makes me think of Barry Goldwater. When we think of that guy now, we only think of him as a failed presidential candidate. So hundreds of years from now, will they still think of him as a politician, or will they think of him as the author of the Conscience of a Conservative, that would later spark the Reagan Revolution and the Conservative movement in the United States.

When we look back on some of the thinkers that we all studied in history or philosophy courses, we imagine them as these giants among men. But in their own time, they might have been certainly well respected, but no one knew what sort of impact that they would have. Perhaps no one knew that all their writings would one day be pedantically analyzed word for word, and would leave many readers puzzled as to why they wrote the thing at all. They would wonder what the author’s intentions were, even if perhaps they had no intention on deceiving the audience. Perhaps their writings were perfectly clear in their time, but that it hasn’t been translated well to modern audiences.

On such writer during the Renaissance era was Niccolo Machiavelli. We all know Machiavelli, or at least we can all think of an example of someone that can be described as ‘Machiavellian’. When I think of that word, I think of Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. It’s someone that would do whatever it takes to gain power. The ends always justify the means.

But what do we know about Machiavelli himself? Was he a person that believed that the best policy was nihilistic governance over man? That’s At least in how we characteristically define Machiavellianism. The man himself wasn’t necessarily a defender of the throne. In fact, he served under the Florentine Republic, mostly as a diplomat, before that government was toppled by the Medici family and their supporters. Afterwards, he was taken prisoner and tortured. Upon his release, he went off into exile where he began his writing career. However, that didn’t stop Machiavelli from trying to get back into the good graces of the government. While he never fully achieved that ambition, he did end up writing several notable pieces of literature, most notably (outside of his most famous work), The Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy, that seemed to promote a republican form of government.

However, Machiavelli’s dreams of re-entering public life would never stop plaguing. His most famous work, The Prince, whom he addressed to Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici, he attempts to explain how to rule. Many would later interpret this writing as a philosophy of evil. However, it would perhaps be better interpreted as describing that the best policy for a ruler would be to reject whatever ideals he might possess, and instead govern through more realistic approaches. In his time, perhaps the best way to maintain order was through more iron fist techniques, but a prince that comes to power must use these techniques in a more tactical way, rather than haphazardly. An intelligent prince would be able to balance fear and love, so as to breed discontent among the people.

Perhaps the greatest long-term consequence of The Prince, was the new political concept known as realpolitik. This idea sacrifices ideals and moral character in favor of a more practical approach towards achieving objectives. Taking action and being bold were the principles that Machiavelli espoused. Ruling through fear is pragmatic, he would argue, but he would also warn against using fear to the point of provoking hatred. It’s important to seek love from the governed, in addition to utilizing fear.

There has been much speculation as to why Machiavelli wrote this. Some have speculated that it might have been written as satire, and if that were the case, we can think of him as like the Stephen Colbert of his time. However, it should be pointed out that Machiavelli wrote this not long after being imprisoned, tortured, and disgraced from public life, and when someone has to endure that, it’s highly unlikely that they would be in such a comedic mood. It’s more likely that the Prince was his attempt to redeem himself so that he could re-enter the rarified echelon of a public servant. Despite Machiavelli’s preference for a republic over a princedom, he had to utilize realpolitik to achieve his own objectives, even though they might have fallen short.

Nevertheless, The Prince was the first time, or at least one of the first times, when people were granted a peak behind the curtain regarding their rulers. This work exposed the mindset that someone from that era must possess in order to rule territory, and perhaps most importantly, how to keep their power from those that were seeking to unseat them.

However, as the Enlightenment caught fire across Europe, Machiavelli understandably earned his critics. One of whom was Voltaire, who, unlike Machiavelli, was actually a full defender of the monarchy. Soon he found himself in the company of the Prussian King Frederick the Great, who fully embraced the development of liberty under his rule, as well as the arts and sciences. Unlike other monarchies of the time, Frederick the Great saw himself as a public servant, rather than the other way around. Additionally he came to respect freedom of worship, although there are some exceptions to this, which is something I imagine we’ll return to in the future.

Voltaire had originally began a normal career of poetry and prose. It was only later he found himself gravitating towards philosophical works. Regarding his philosophy, he had vigorously defended scientific inquiry and rejected metaphysics, the aim of other philosophers of the time, and was also a proponent of religious liberty. Voltaire’s views led him into the company of Fredrick the Great. Regarding Machiavelli, Frederick wrote an essay, along with Voltaire, that completely rejected the ideas presented in Machiavelli’s The Prince. The essay, titled Anti-Machiavel, stated that Frederick wasn’t a tyrant as described by Machiavelli, and also proposed that the main objective of a sovereign should be to deliver justice for the people, or as he stated in the essay, quote:

“It is thus their happiness and felicity that he must augment-or procure it if they don not have it. What becomes then of such ideas as interest, greatness, ambition, and despotism? The sovereign, far from being the absolute master of the people under his domination, is nothing else but their first servant and must be the instrument of their felicity as they are of his glory”. End quote.

Therefore the relationship between sovereign and the people is a two way street. However, likely echoing Voltaire, Frederick the Great felt that a monarchy and not a republic was the best possible way to rule. This could be interpreted as being his own defense of the monarchy, or as Voltaire’s skepticism regarding democratic or republican governments.

Nevertheless, Frederick the Greats approach to rule was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. Instead of seeing his rule as a divine right, he saw governance as a social contract between the people and the king. This idea would have ripples across Europe, and would forever change the trajectory of the monarchy.

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