Machiavelli and Xenophon

XenophonMachiavelli read Xenophon and was so impressed by him that Niccolo cited Xenophon’s works eight times in The Prince – more times  than he cited Plato, Aristotle and Cicero combined.*

Xenophon was author of many works including histories and philosophical dialogues, However, it is his CyropaediaThe Education of Cyrus – that was an important guide for Renaissance humanists in the art of princely rule. Along with Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, it formed a trilogy of political guides. But whereas Aristotle and Plato focus on the ways to create the best state, the Cyropaedia focuses on how to establish personal rule. Civic community versus personal ambition.

The Cyropaedia is, I believe, the first comprehensive examination of personal rule. Xenophon’s shorter piece, Hiero, examined (and defended) tyranny, but was presented as a dialogue, not a lengthy history (with moral, political and philosophical components) as the Cyropaedia was.

Xenophon gently suggests that there is a conflict between the moral restrictions demanded by a state focused on the greater good and the personal needs of its citizens to grow, to acquire and to succeed. And in lowering its standards to allow personal growth and success, the state fails.

Machiavelli was ambivalent about the popular interpretation of “just empire” of Cyrus, as contemporary humanists moralized about it, and whether the generous and affable character of Cyrus really contributed as much to his achievements as his cunning, his treachery and his use of force (both direct and indirect).

He argued the point obliquely in Chapters 15-19 of The Prince. There, Machiavelli contrasts the methods of Hannibal and Scipio in managing their armies: the former with severity and force, the latter with kindness and generosity (Machiavelli says Scipio was too easily influenced by Xenophon’s Cyrus), noting that Hannibal was the more successful of the two.

He is suggesting that Cyrus’ successes were worth celebrating precisely because of the methods he used to rise to the top and manage his state effectively – and they should not be overlooked when reading Xenophon. And, as Paul Rasmussen wrote, for Machiavelli, morality was not iron: it was “malleable” in the service of the ruler, and a “‘just’ regime is one in which the citizens feel secure in their pursuit of their own selfish interests.”

Machiavelli seems to be arguing not so much against Xenophon, but rather that the later interpretation of his works by his fellow humanists ignores that part of Xenophon’s descriptions that didn’t fit well into the “noble prince” viewpoint. In the end of Chapter XIV of The Prince, he wrote:

And whoever reads the life of Cyrus, written by Xenophon, will recognize afterwards in the life of Scipio how that imitation was his glory, and how in chastity, affability, humanity, and liberality Scipio conformed to those things which have been written of Cyrus by Xenophon. A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.

But cunning alone is not enough: you need force, as he wrote about the “unarmed prophet”  – Savonarola – who he argued failed because lacked force (arms) to keep his followers loyal – in Chapter VI:

If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long — as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.

In the Discourses, Chapter XIII, Machiavelli wrote:

Xenophon shows in his life of Cyrus this necessity to deceive, considering that the first expedition that he has Cyrus make against the King of Armenia is full of fraud, and that he makes him occupy his Kingdom by deceit and not by force. And he does not conclude anything else from such action except that to a Prince who wants to do great things, it is necessary to learn to deceive. In addition to this, he made Cyraxes, King of the Medes, his maternal uncle, to be deceived in so many ways, without which fraud he shows that Cyrus could not have achieved that greatness he attained. Nor do I believe anyone will ever be found of such fortune to have arrived at great Empire only by force and ingenuity, but indeed only by fraud, as did Giovanni Galeazzo in order to take away the State and Dominion of Lombardy from his uncle Messer Bernabo. And that which Princes are obliged to do at the beginning of their expansions, Republics are also obliged to do until they have become powerful so that force alone will be enough.

And in Chapter XX:

It is also to be seen how much people desired this virtu in great men, and how much it is praised by writers, and by the biographers of Princes, and by those who describe how they should live. Among whom Xenophon makes a great effort to show how many honors, how many victories, how much fame came to Cyrus by his being humane and affable, and by his not giving example of himself either of cruelty or haughtiness, or of luxuriousness, or of any other vice which stains the lives of men. Yet, none the less, seeing that Hannibal had acquired great victories and fame by contrary means, it appears proper to me to discuss in the following chapter whence this happens.

In the Oeconomicus, Xenophon posited the notion that a ruler could not simply be taught to rule well: he needed to have a good character and an appropriate education, too. But Xenophon’s Cyrus turns the Persian’s civic education (rigorously taught to citizens from an early age) from the general-welfare-minded to the individualistic: focused on personal ambition and achievement. Cyrus’ goal, as Newell states, was not virtue for its own sake, but to craft citizens of “surpassing nobility” who can excel at noble and good things because they are driven by ambition. The pursuit of personal ambition and material wealth, inimical to the Persian civic education, was turned on its head, and encouraged.

Cyrus wasn’t greedy for material things himself, but appreciated his subjects’ competition for them as part of the race to the top. Ambitious effort should be rewarded.

Don’t be fooled: Cyrus was a tyrant and capable of deception and cunning – as Machiavelli well knew. Cyrus used fear as a tool to control his subordinates, even against his lifelong friend, Araspas. He fostered envy and distrust among them in order to make sure none ever grew strong enough to challenge his rule (many centuries later, Hitler would use the same methods in his Nazi government).

What begins with optimism and exemplary princely rule ends in corruption and autocracy, as the greed of Cyrus’ self-centred subordinates dominates their actions. Xenophon’s point was that, freed from the concerns of the general good, and from philosophic considerations about what being a good citizen means – conventional morality – people degenerate into selfish, avaricious squabblers with no concern for the state, just their own well being. Once again, one is reminded of the final year of the Third Reich.

One might remark that the attitude the subordinates showed – individual greed versus greater good – has resonance today among many ultra-right conservatives, like the Tea Party who see the greater good as merely a welfare state to eradicate.

Machiavelli understood the need to use both reward and punishment to run the state, but felt Xenophon didn’t emphasize sufficiently the need to use a firm hand to keep the ship of state on course. For Machiavelli, Xenophon was too ambiguous when describing what Paul Rasmussen in his book, Excellence Unleashed, has called the “morally dubious aspects of Cyrus’ rule.”**

Blogger Brieanah wrote,

Whether Machiavelli’s deception works towards virtue as Xenophon’s does is another matter, but both discuss the need for a ruler to know how to use deception and manipulate peoples… Both The Education of Cyrus and The Prince have a complete understanding of what a good ruler must do in order to maintain a state; since peoples will always turn out “bad” unless they have been made good by a necessity. For Cyrus, the practice of good rule seen was valued as important as the appearance of it. Therefore his ideas of virtue, seeing laws, and common religion were all observed by him in order to influence the mode of the state towards the good. Machiavelli understood similar ideals, however he instead stressed the necessity for appearance over direct action. Therefore, his ideal prince would simply need to appear to have whatever qualities the people needed him to have so that the state could move towards the best mode.

Machiavelli and Xenophon looked through the same lens to see the form of the ideal state and its ruler, but drew different conclusions about what they saw and how to achieve it. Where Xenophon was more idealistic, Machiavelli was, as ever, more pragmatic.

* Source: Machiavelli and Xenophon on Princely Rule, by W. Newell, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, published in The Journal of Politics, No. 50, Feb. 1988, available on JSTOR. See also: Thoughts on Machiavelli by Leo Strauss.

** This post was sparked by a review of a new book on Xenophon aimed at the business-management reader: Larry Hedrick’s Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War. The review by Richard Feloni, on Business Insider, noted:

Niccollò Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a guide for the ideal ruler, made his name synonymous with a ruthless pragmatism based on the manipulation and total defeat of an enemy. But the ancient book that significantly influenced Machiavelli, Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia” — which translates to “The Education of Cyrus” — depicts a leader who believes quite the opposite…
Xenophon depicts Cyrus as a leader who kept a cool head and knew when to be severe and when to be compassionate. The book survived antiquity and became a favorite of not just Machiavelli, but also Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.

Feloni is not accurate in his simplistic reduction (reductio ad absurdum) of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. However, the review includes an overview of the leadership precepts derived from Hendrick’s book, attributed to Cyrus:

  • Learn from the failures of those who came before you.
  • Minimize hierarchical distinctions.
  • Lead from the front.
  • Celebrate your team’s greatest assets.
  • Immediately follow up a victory by pursuing another.
  • Understand your followers’ motivations.
  • When giving orders, be brief and to the point.
  • Reward your followers for their loyalty.
  • Give your team a cause to fight for.
  • Keep emotion out of your decision making.
  • Do not make your allies expendable.
  • Negotiate even in situations of mutual distrust.
  • Remain innovative.
  • Practice courtesy and self-control.

While I cannot speak to the rest of the book’s content (I have only read the review, although I have since ordered a copy), these precepts strike me as sensible and laudable. Whether they accurately capture Xenophon’s views I cannot say.

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Author: Ian Chadwick

Semi-retired writer, editor, reviewer, media relations & communications consultant. Former municipal politician. Researcher. Ukulele and guitar player. Aficionado of Shakespeare, Horace, Chaucer, Cicero, and tequila. Curmudgeon and cynic. Lay historian. Godzilla and ERB fan. PC gamer. Avid reader. Skeptic. Website and WordPress tinkerer. Companion to one dog and three cats. Loving husband. Passionate about my small town. Perennially curious about everything. Blog:

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