Report on Niccolo Machiavelli's
The Art of War
by: John Sloan
Table of Contents
Introduction by Neal Wood:
The highlights of Wood's observations on Machiavelli:
Machiavelli and his era and his military experience:
Structure and sources of Machiavelli's work.
Art of War
Form: of Art of War.
Structure of Art of War.
Outline of contents:
Sources: of his theories
Significance and Influence of the Text:
As historian - History of Florence:
Relation of political and military art:
Common style of the two arts:
Patriotism is the chief of all values:
Conspiracy and counter conspiracy
Military Model of the Rational Community
The Strategy of Attrition versus Annihilation:
The Art of War is a popular title for books on warfare, not only the
one written by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1521. It is also a broad subject that has
been addressed by many authors in works bearing many different titles.
Machiavelli, himself, addresses the subject not only in the book given this
title, but also in his other principal works. To study Machiavelli's ideas
about the art of war, then, one needs to consider also at least the
Prince and the Discourses. And there are quite a few other works
that are important on this as well. Or, when focusing on this book in
particular, then one ought to consider also the very important introduction
written by Neal Wood, since it is itself a major contribution to the
historiography on the theory of war. Press here to go toMachiavelli home page.
These notes were presented as a book review of The Art of War to the
Military Classics Seminar in Washington DC. Since it was hoped this paper would
stand alone, it was necessary to repeat a few paragraphs from the essay on
Machiavelli's general theory on war, which is found in another page related to
this one. Go to contents
Introduction by Neal Wood:
Dr. Neal Wood was professor of political philosophy at Columbia University
in the early 1960's. He died in 2003 and is considered a major author and
teacher of political theory. He rates a biography in Wikipedia and a obituary
from the Guardian. I was fortunate to be his student for a year at Columbia in
his seminar on Machiavelli and have him for my thesis advisor. He was a veteran
of the Royal British and the U.S. Air forces during World War II, which may
have increased his appreciation of military affairs.
One of his major fields of interest was the English political philosophers of
the 17th - 18th centuries such as Hobbes, Locke, and especially James
Harrington. These are the philosophers whom Wood and others stress were
fundamental sources of the political thought of the American Founding Fathers.
One subject that particularly interested Dr. Wood was the concept of an ideal
civil order described by Harrington and then by the others. He wondered where
this idea came from. While investigating the influences on these English
philosophers, he came to Machiavelli and especially to Machiavelli's thought
about war and politics and the relation of these in the organization of civic
society. In 1961-64 Dr. Wood conducted a series of graduate seminars in the
political philosophy department in which students would all read practically
everything Machiavelli wrote but would focus for an entire year on some aspect
of Machiavelli and present their ideas to each other.
One of the outcomes of that seminar was the publication in 1965 of a new
edition of The Art of War. Go to contents
The highlights of Dr. Wood's observations on
Professor Wood divides his introduction into seven parts. Machiavelli lays
great stress on his doctrine of imitation and practices what he preaches by
imitating his classical mentors.
1. Machiavelli and his era and military experience
2. Structure and sources of the Text
3. Significance and Influence of the Text
4. Relation of Political and Military Art
5. Common Style of the Two Arts
6. Conspiracy and Counter conspiracy
7. Military Model of the Rational Community
Machiavelli and his era and his military experience:
He was born in Florence in 1469. Dr. Wood has very little to say about
Machiavelli the person beyond noting that be became second Chancellor and
Secretary of the Ten on Liberty and Peace in 1498 (age 29). Most commentators
remark that little is known of his youth and background. The Machiavelli family
was one of the most prominent politically in the city having about 15
Gonfaloniere among his ancestors. However he was of an illegitimate branch of
the family, hence ineligible for high office. From Felix Gilbert we learn that
Niccolo's father was Bernardo Machiavelli, born in 1428, a legal consultant in
the city, prominent participant in humanist scholarship of the day, and close
associate of the city's First Chancellor. From this Gilbert concludes that
Niccolo received the very top quality humanist education available, entered the
second chancellery before 1497 and was appointed its head on the recommendation
of his father's close friend. This chancellery was the permanent civil service
that supported the city's rulers in diplomatic and military affairs. Another
source of Machiavelli's personal power, such as it was, came from his close
association with the republican party and its elected Gonfaloniere for life -
Machiavelli grew up in the Florence of the Medici and Savonorola. Three of
the most dramatic events of his youth were the death of Lorenzo de Medici on 8
April 1492, the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII in 1494, and the death of
Savonorola on 23 May 1498. In addition of course the more distant discoveries
by the period's active explorers caused their share of excitement and
Machiavelli takes note of them. Dr. Wood and others note that Machiavelli went
on diplomatic missions, but one has to consult a list of these to appreciate
the tremendous energetic activity this involved and the scope of the
assignments from Rome to France and Germany and most states in between.
However, Machiavelli was very rarely the delegation's leader, the ambassador,
but was rather the chief clerk. Nevertheless, his official reports have been
recommended as masterpieces of diplomatic correspondence and intelligence
Machiavelli was simultaneously deeply involved with military matters due to the
unsettled nature of the times with its constant warfare between shifting
coalitions. His attention was particularly focused on the long war with Pisa
(which had revolted in 1495). In 1500 he was secretary to the two Florentine
commissioners of War who were overseeing the mercenary army the city had
assembled to besiege Pisa. Repeated failures and the disgraceful conduct of the
mercenaries over several years led the city fathers finally to accede to
Machiavelli's energetic entreaties that he be allowed to recruit an infantry
militia. He began to do this in December 1505 and the city finally adopted the
famous militia ordinance that Machiavelli had drafted on 6 December 1506. On 8
June 1509 Machiavelli gained his triumph with the fall of Pisa to his new army.
During the following two years he began assembling a small cavalry force and an
ordnance for its control was passed in 23 March 1512.
That same year the Florentine militia was routed by the professional Spanish
army of Viceroy Cardonna at Prato. The same Cardonna who commanded the Spanish
army that was defeated at Ravenna in which battle the Italian cavalry was
commanded by Machiavelli's mouthpiece in this book, Fabrizio Colonna. Wood
barely mentions this and other commentators take it as proof of the idealistic
and impractical nature of Machiavelli's theories and work. Only Delbruch has
taken the trouble to examine the actual battle in detail. More about that
later. From this it seems the Machiavelli's ideas were not so foolish as some
He was an ordinary person and civil servant except for his profound
intelligence and need to question the appearance of things in order to discover
their permanent qualities. He was courageous and independent and did not fear
the consequences of his stated opinions.
With the restoration of the Medici, November 7th 1512, Machiavelli was tortured
and exiled to his small country house. There he spent the following 12 years
writing the books that have not only made him famous, but also brought the
world's attention to the otherwise obscure events with which he was associated.
He was not content with the life of a secluded scholar, however, and attempted
repeatedly to regain some position in the Florentine government. His main
avenue of approach to the ruling powers was by writing a number of books
designed to bring himself to their attention. His most important political
works were The Prince, 1513; The Discourses on the First Ten Books of
Titus Livy, 1513-1518; The Discourse on the War with Pisa, 1498;
Report on the Fortifications of Florence, 1526; The Life of
Castruccio Castracani, 1520; The Art of War, 1517-1520; Discourse
on the Reform of the Government of Florence, 1519; and The History of
Florence, 1520-1525. In addition, he wrote several literary works:
Mandragola, a very successful play; Clizia, an adaptation from
Plautus; Belfagor, a novel; A Discourse on Language; and several
poems such as On Ambition, The first Decade, and Ass of
Gold. Writing in an age when letter writing was a highly polished art, his
dispatches, both official and private also stand out as masterpieces.
In 1525 he tried to get the Pope to organize his armies around a militia,
but to no avail. However, in 1526 he was recalled to Florence to prepare a
study for the fortification of the city against the Empire. His report on
fortification is still rated highly. He continued until his death on 21 June
1527 to serve with the Papal armies against the Empire. In November that year
the city again raised a militia and this time it served with considerable
distinction in holding the city against overwhelming odds until 1530. One of
Niccolo's sons, Lodovico Machiavelli, died in the defense. Go to contents
Structure and sources of the text:
Machiavelli sought to instruct - a common form of writing in his era. His
main works, the Prince and Discourses are technical treatises on
politics in general and the Art of War is a technical treatise on the
specific part of politics concerned with war.
Art of War
The third of his major works in time sequence. Published in 1521. It was
better known that the Prince or the Discourses and was published,
while they were denounced. It was thought to be technical. It was the first to
appear in translation in countries from Russia to the US. It has the same
spirit as the other works.
Most importantly, from a theoretical point of view, is the dedication to
Lorenzo de Medici. In it Machiavelli affirms the unity of a country's civil and
military life. This is not accepted today by people who think only of civil
life. Machiavelli states that the civil and military life of a nation are
indivisible and that war is therefore a necessary and vital moment in the life
of a nation. The armed forces of a country are the expression of the general
capacity of a nation. In them the moral, technical, and intellectual forces of
a people are fused and put to the test of survival. Machiavelli saw grave
consequences in military defeat and maintained that after defeat a country
would never be the same again. Go to contents
The Art of War is in the form of a discussion among Machiavelli's
friends. It is actually a dialogue between the condotierri captain, Fabrizio
Colonna, and each of the others in turn acting as questioner. This was a common
form of the period. Go to contents
In structure the work is in seven books. The subject contents of the books
follows almost exactly in the sequence of the books of Vegitius, except for the
very original interpolation of a description of an imaginary battle in book
Three. Xenophon's description of Cyrus may have been an inspiration for this.
While treating Vegitius' subject, Machiavelli describes Roman and Greek
military practice based largely on Polybius as well. He gives much attention to
stratagems taken from Frontinus and others. Go to
(For a longer and more detailed summary of the book, please see the essay
on the Art of War.)
Book 1. The nature of war and the military profession, recruiting of
quality troops, size and proper ordering of a militia.
Book 2. Arms and armor used by ancient and contemporary armies, proper armament
for infantry and cavalry, drill, formation of units, baggage, officers and
music and digression about military virtu.
Book 3. Order of battle from Roman and other practice, ideal army combined from
best features of Greek and Roman methods, methods for drawing up an army in
battle order, description of a model battle.
Book 4. Precautions and stratagems, rules generals should follow, avoiding
battle, psychology and motivation of troops.
Book 5. Roman and current methods for conduct of march, giving commands,
provisions and logistics considerations, ambushes, terrain appreciation, river
crossings and moving in mountains.
Book 6. Greek and Roman methods for encamping the army, military justice,
ancient regulations on women and gambling, more on logistics, more on avoiding
battle, psychological warfare against enemy, winter fighting.
Book 7. Fortifications, defense and attack of fortified towns, more on
psychological warfare related to sieges.
The main thesis is that citizens must defend their country at all costs. War
waged instead by private individuals like the condottieri is thievery and
The militia represents the individual's sacrifice for the state. Military
discipline shows the capacity of a people to be free from foreign occupation.
Machiavelli discusses the specific technical problems that faced Italy around
1492- 1530. The main issue was to create an Italian infantry capable of
conquering the Swiss and Spanish infantries that were winning all the battles.
Cavalry was no longer as important. The book also criticizes mercenaries and
the princes who recruit them. He proposed to restore a modification of the
Roman legion yet also he saw early the development of modern national and
democratic armies. Democracies introduced conscription and changed wars into
wars of nations.
There is nothing, except technical detail, in The Art of War not in
the Prince or Discourses, including his distrust of fortresses,
and opinion of artillery,
Read his letters about the war against Pisa to see his views in Art of
War. Art of war needs to be considered together with other works -
Discourse on Calling the State of Florence to Arms 1506 - Discourse
on the Law of Forming Florentine Militia 1506 - Provisions for the
Florentine Republic. He was a detailed organizer of war activity.
Go to contents
Machiavelli drew on two sources for his theories: the military history and
practice of contemporary Europe, especially Italy; and the military history and
practice of the ancient world, especially the Roman Republic.
The Italian condotterri had long since established schools of warfare in which
they sought to study and develop both strategy and tactics. The international
character of armies aided the dissemination of information about the latest
developments in warfare during this revolutionary period. As an avid student of
the art, Machiavelli no doubt questioned every leader he met and engaged in
constant discussion of military affairs. One of the scenes of his discussions
was the Rucelli Gardens, where the Orti Oricellari met and in which locale
The Art of War is laid. He uses the distinguished condoterri, Fabrizio
Colonna, as his mouthpiece in this work, but of course this does not mean
Colonna actually subscribed to these views. In the Orti Oricellari group he
came in contact with several leaders who were interested in military affairs,
among them Francesco Vettori, Luigi Alamonni, Zanobi Buondelmonti, Donato
Giannetti, and Benedetto Varchi.
At the siege of Pisa, Machiavelli had contact with Paolo and Vitellozzo
Vitelli, two noted condoterri captains, and with the Florentines, Giovani
Batista Ridolfi, Luca Degli Albizzi, and Antonio Giacomini, all of whom were
interested in military affairs. Machiavelli was on a diplomatic mission to
Ceasare Borgia during the campaign in the Romagna and witnessed the famous
incident at Sinagaglia. Problems of a military nature were clearly of primary
importance at this time. The question of militia versus condoterri was
especially pressing. The use of militia involved becoming expert in the rest of
the art of war. It is not possible to determine how much or what Machiavelli
learned from these contacts, but he must have been influenced to some degree.
On the other hand, his books are polemical and much of his attention is devoted
to refuting arguments presumably held by his contemporaries, so that perhaps
their influence was mostly negative.
In his paper on Leonardo da Vinci, Jim Bloom draws attention to the close
cooperation between Machiavelli and da Vinci and other military engineers and
specialists. He quite aptly terms the group a Defense Think Tank. Among the
other famous names he includes Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Benvenuto Cellini
and Albrecht Durer. He also notes the military engineering publications of
Fransesco di Giorgio Martini, chief engineer to the Duke of Urbino, and Roberto
Valturio, military instructor to the Malatesta tyrants of Rimini. Other sources
were the German military technical writer, Konrad Kyeser, and Andrea da
Ferrara. I particularly enjoyed reading da Vinci's letter of job application to
Ludovico Sforza, Signore of Milan, because it reminded me of Machiavelli's job
applications to the Medici rulers of Florence and the Pope.
Working under Machiavelli's direction, da Vinci helped draw up the plans for
diverting the Arno River at Pisa, never carried out. This brain storm was
probably brought on by Machiavelli's recall of the success Cyrus had in
capturing Babylon by diverting the Tigris River. Machiavelli also sent da Vinci
to assist Jacopo Appia with the fortification of Piombino. The plans conform to
Machiavelli's theories about the characteristics of fortifications.
Go to contents
If Machiavelli's debt to Florentine writers and specific military leaders of
his acquaintance is unclear, his literary debts to the ancient Romans are quite
apparent. He obtained his knowledge of Roman military practice from his
extensive reading of the classical authors. He grew up and was educated in a
city noted as a center of the revival of learning and had available a wide
selection of contemporary editions of the classics. Father Walker, in his notes
to the Discourses, has given a thorough discussion of the sources and
possible sources of this work. The list reads like a catalog of classical
historical literature. In particular, Machiavelli relied on Livy, Xenophon,
Vegetius, Tacitus, Thucydides, Polybius, Cicero, Frontinus, Aelian, Sallust,
Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch.
It is interesting to note that Machiavelli's principal sources for his
ideas about Greek and Roman military affairs committed the very same
"sins" that Machiavelli is accused of. Xenophon created a fictional
account of the campaign of Cyrus the Great in the Cyropaedia due to his
desire to instruct the readers on what an ideal commander and ideal army should
be. Polybius, in his detailed description of the structure of the Roman army,
thoroughly mixed up aspects of that army as it existed at various times over 3
or 4 centuries, and Vegitius in his advice to the Emperor Valentinian II did
worse in mixing up characteristics of the Roman army from 6 or 7 centuries of
time. Go to contents
Significance and Influence of the Text:
While considerable attention has been focused on Machiavelli as a political
theorist, especially in recent times, those portions of his writing concerning
military theory have been relatively less studied by modern critics. The few
who have dealt with this aspect of Machiavelli's work differ widely in their
evaluations. J. H. Whitfield puts The Art of War aside as a mere echo of
Vegetius. Frederick Taylor, however, notes that Machiavelli has an important
place in the history of military theory and comments that "Machiavelli is
the first secular writer to attempt to allot to the practice of arms its place
among the collective activities of mankind, to define its aims, and to regard
it as a means to an end." Earle included Machiavelli in his Makers of
Modern Strategy. Probably the most thorough analysis of the
interrelationship between military and political theory in Machiavelli's
thought was made by Neal Wood in his introduction to The Art of War. In
any case, it is clear that The Art of War is the first full scale modern
attempt to revive classical military thought.
In addition to being the first modern political and military theorist,
Machiavelli is a superb prose stylist. his writing has been praised by
Macauley, and T. S. Eliot. His play, Mandragola, is considered the
finest play in the Italian language. His essay, On Language, is one of
the first to contain the principles of the science of semantics. Recently
management theorists have become increasingly aware that Machiavelli
anticipated them also in developing precepts for action applicable to the
problems confronting business executives.
Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy contains
the fundamental modern treatise on political expansion. It is an indispensable
work for the interpretation of subsequent theories of expansion advanced by
Hobbes and Burke. It is often assumed that Hobbes was Machiavelli's disciple
and that Burke opposed Machiavelli's teachings. On the contrary, Burke and
Machiavelli stand together as patriotic, liberal, and "imperialist"
philosophers against the anti-imperialist Hobbes, who, despairing of the
unpredictable forces of liberty and patriotism, left his Leviathan virtually
defenseless and incapable of expansion. The study of imperialism considered as
a political phenomenon should be based on the theories of Machiavelli and
Burke. They agree that the conquering force and the imperial capacity of any
state is determined primarily by its constitutional arrangements: further, that
a liberal constitution is an excellent foundation for an empire, as well as the
least impractical domestic system. As the supreme object of empire is lasting
fame, a liberal state is well constituted to seek such gratitude in return for
extending its own system. Aware of the dangers inherent in imperial rule,
Machiavelli and Burke both warn against arrogance, avarice, and rule by terror.
Go to contents
As historian - History of Florence:
He was a born writer even when he was not trying. He was first to see the
connection between foreign and internal affairs, between armed forces and the
constitution and first to realize that history of Florence cannot be written
apart from the history of Italy. His history is for a purpose. It is a story of
individuals and of events and each one serves as an example and teaches a
He always tries to find a law at work in events. Yet he believes the
uncertainty in mens lives from forces acting from far off constantly threatens
all their plans.
His thought is completely his own and not to be found in other authors due to
the special tone and quality he develops in the whole.
He was acutely aware of his own originality and unafraid to go completely
against convention. He compared his own discovery of a new politics to Columbus
discovery of a new world. Go to contents
Relation of political and military art:
He is one of most misunderstood and distorted of philosophers.He is first
to use the term - state - in a modern sense of an enduring political entity.
And he is the first to express the concept of "reasons of state" as
being something profoundly different from private motivation or justification.
The concept of the state is central to Machiavelli's thought. It is
naturalistic and organic. And this concept is tied directly to his concept of
an army. It is a living body composed of individuals, and the state's aims
transcend those of the individual members. The birth, life, and death of a
state conforms the general laws of history like a person's conforms to laws
governing the body. Machiavelli's advice to citizens is similar to that of a
doctor who cannot promise immortality but only rules of proper hygiene and
preventative medicine. The main goal and purpose of the state is simply
survival. The state is not an agency for the benefit of individuals and neither
is an army. In fact a conflict of interest often occurs between the army or
state and its individual members. He advocates performing case studies in
political history as doctors do of patients and he applies the findings to
provide cures for the evils brought on by men's weaknesses.
States become corrupted over time as they age. To save them from death it is
necessary to generate youthful vitality based on first principles. War is one
of the chief pressures that generates this return. He is a strong believer in
necessity as the force behind action.
Every state originates in violence and are imposed on man. But a state has no
life outside the people and its own form comes from its ability to give shape
to the people. In fact, giving form to a people is a basic function of the
state. In this it is like the difference between an army and a mob. This
creation of the form must be the work of a single individual, a leader who is
stronger than the rest as well as wise. This is a result of the virtu of one
man who has known how to take an opportunity provided by fortune. The success
of such statesmen and political founders stems from their ability to organize
armed forces. He places great stress on the role of armed forces in the life of
a state. He believes it is of the utmost importance for the army of the state
to be formed of its own people.
"The chief foundations of all states, whether new, old or mixed, are good
laws and good arms. And there cannot be good laws where there are not good
arms. And where there are good arms, there must be good laws." (Disc I-
He made profound studies of various practical problems of government and
expressed his findings with unusual honesty - but he was not consciously trying
to formulate a system of political philosophy.
His message is profoundly pessimistic - called a secular St Augustine. But he
is one of the most anti-Christian thinkers. He denies the value and relevance
of Christian ethics as few others have. He denies the relevance of Christian
morality - the basis of Western world.
Machiavelli quite different from Aristotle or Plato who tried to define ideal
politics. He has been compared to Kepler and Galileo - scientists.
Go to contents
For Machiavelli the forces of history are as much beyond the control of man as
the forces of astronomical motion are beyond man's control for Kepler and
Galileo. And man is a changeless in nature as a star. Men are always the same
throughout history and they are always full of evil, but worst of all they are
mediocre. As a scientist Machiavelli considered knowledge to be power. And
knowledge of human affairs comes from the study of history not merely for
pleasure but for understanding of how to imitate it. Machiavelli makes the
principle of imitation a law of politics as he points out toward the end of the
Art of War in Book VII.
"As exercise for the mind, the prince ought to read history and study the
actions of eminent men, see how they acted in warfare, examine the causes of
their victories and defeats in order to imitate the former and avoid the
latter, and above all do as some men have done in the past, who have imitated
some one who has been much praised and glorified, and have always kept his
deeds and actions before them, as they say Alexander the Great imitated
Achilles, Caesar Alexander, and Scipio Cyrus." (Prince book 14)
Few have so exalted the power and importance of religion in social life, but no
one has placed religion in such a subordinate position to the state. Religion
has a critical but purely political function to strengthen the state by making
people courageous enough to serve it well.
The modern doctrine of the separation of Church and State represents the
victory of Machiavelli's view that the state does not believe but wants its
citizens to believe.
For Machiavelli a sin is not the Christian concept of sin but not doing what is
necessary for the common good.
The most important characteristic of the successful and admirable man in
virtu. This has a natural and warlike origin. Virtu is a vital
spirit that shifts over time from place to place in its distribution among men.
One of the chief faults of Christianity, according to Machiavelli, is its
attempt to humanize the rules of warfare which made Rome all the weaker and
opened the way for the barbarians. Go to contents
Common style of the two arts:
More than any other political writer Machiavelli believes there can be no
government without power - military force. "It is easy for strength to
acquire a reputation but not for reputation to acquire strength."
For the Greeks peace was an interlude between periods of war, war was the
normal condition of man. For Machiavelli civic pease is also an interlude
between wars in which overt conflict and violence diminish but do not
disappear. Machiavelli discusses politics as classical military writers discuss
the art of war.
Neal Wood lists 43 of the categories of stratagems given by Frontinus and
points out that Machiavelli's political principles and precepts are remarkably
The art of politics consists of combining law and force.For armed forces to
function well they should not be too different from the form of the state.
The idea of a citizen militia was taken up again by Machiavelli's successor and
friend, Donato Giannotti.
In Leonardo Da Vinci's papers were notes in Machiavelli's own handwriting which
provided the painter with detailed information on the battle of Anghairi. This
was used for Leonardo's famous painting. The notes mention the high casualties
in the battle. Yet Machiavelli in his history of Florence makes the famous
remark that only one man was killed in the battle and he by being trampled
after he fell off his horse.
He exaggerated in order to denounce mercenaries and promote democratic, citizen
Machiavelli believes that military training is the source of human virtu
because it forces the individual to sacrifice for society.
The state is the ultimate end for man and the highest form and goal. Ethics
comes from the sacrifice of individual interests to the state. The most
admirable citizens are those who subjugate their own ambitions and interest to
those of the nation. Man can only reach his own highest ethical potentialities
within a state and by serving a state.
Compulsory military service - conscription - is the main form of education for
a people who want to be free and the best remedy for a people already corrupted
by indolence of peace. Machiavelli's ideal education is that of the army. He
thinks of educators as army leaders, not learned academics. The youth of a
country should become used to discomfort, hardship and work, get accustomed to
fighting and not fear death. Again the necessity of warfare is the best school
for proper education and the condition of war is what will force men to make
the most of themselves.
Idleness leads to indolence and corruption.
Necessity is the force that brings out the best in man. And when there is not
enough natural necessity, then laws act as a kind of substitute.
Go to contents
"Men never do good unless necessity drives them to
(Disc I 3) Necessity engenders virtu.
Necessity is the ultimate god of mankind. Necessity and artificial necessity
(law) drive man to glory and service of the common good.
Liberty means freedom from tyrants and foreigners, not our idea of personal
Fortuna - varied and changeable - it is the basic condition in which
humans act. It provides opportunities to the virtuous as well as disaster to
the foolhardy. Fortuna often brings necessity to the fore which in turn
makes people or a leader reach the heights of virtu. But it can also destroy
even the virtuous.
"Lucky is the man in tune with his own time and unfortunate the man out of
tune with his time and with the order of things." (letter to Soderini)
But men have to seize the opportunities presented by fortune and act resolutely
and quickly. Go to contents
Patriotism is the chief of all values:
The motive for political action is ambition and the fear of other's
ambition. Machiavelli sees man divided into two groups, one governed by the
desire to dominate and the other driven by the desire to be free from
Lesser motivations are greed, boredom, and patriotism - human passions include
malice, timidity, fear, hatred, envy, ignorance, and vanity.
History contain the rules of an art - copy history by studying the best
examples. His writing is full of counsels, prescriptions, formulas, commands,
warnings and remedies. Much is in the form of maxims.He is like a doctor
diagnosing a sickness and prescribing a remedy by showing what created success
in the past.
His writings form a single manner of thinking and all have the same style even
though they are of different forms. United they form a single body of political
doctrine. Go to contents
Conspiracy and counter conspiracy
I am going to leave out Neal Wood's remarks on this subject except to say
that I agree with him that this issue was of the greatest importance to
Machiavelli and to note that Machiavelli devoted more attention to this than to
any other single issue. Machiavelli himself pointed out that more states have
fallen due to internal conspiracy than to all the attacks from outsiders. In
the Washington Post some pundit was commenting on the growth of
terrorism and various forms of civil war in the post-nuclear era as if this was
some kind of recent and modern phenomena and as if his own observations were
some kind of revelation. Go to contents
Military Model of the Rational Community
Dr. Wood devotes a lot of attention to this because it was the aspect of
political theory that first brought him to Machiavelli. In a separate, long
essay that has not been published to my knowledge Dr.Wood continues this line
of thought and elaborates on his contention that Machiavelli derived much of
his ideas on this from Xenophon. It is for this reason that he remarks that the
"study of Machiavelli's social and political thought might well begin
with The Art of War, rather than in the conventional fashion with The
Prince and The Discourses." He notes that one of Machiavelli's
assumptions is that an army tends to reflect the quality of the civil society
of which it is a part. Delbruch agrees, about which more in a minute.
The army depicted by Machiavelli is a supremely rational mechanism. His idea of
the nature of civil law and civic leadership comes in part from the same
source. Wood notes that Xenophon was first to make the discovery that an army,
like a city, is a community of friends. But Xenophon never recognized that
fellow citizens or fellow soldiers can be treated correctly as enemies.
Machiavelli stresses this very fact. Go to contents
HansDelbruch on Machiavelli:
Of course Machiavelli has drawn distinguished commentators like clover
draws bees. One of the most important was Hans Delbruch. Unfortunately his work
was not readily accessible until publication of the excellent translation by
Walter Renfro in 1985. Delbruch's comments on Machiavelli are in volume 4 of
his history of the art of war.
Commentators on Machiavelli (yours truly not excepted) tend to mine the raw ore
he provides for the particular treasures they are seeking. The master is called
either an ignoramus and fool or the greatest genius depending on whether or not
he agrees with the commentator's opinions.
Delbruch has several special interests (hobby horses) so he naturally devotes
his chapter to Machiavelli's views on these, rather than giving a comprehensive
discussion or evaluation of all Machiavelli's theories. The chapter comes as it
should at the transition point after Delbruch has described the organization
and functioning of the medieval army at its culmination around 1500 and before
he launches into description of the early modern army of the 16th-17th
centuries. Go to contents
He points out "The new art of war also produced at once its great
theoretician." and goes on to remind the readers that Vegetius and
Xenophon were the principal theoreticians in vogue during the Middle Ages.
Machiavelli is called "the classical military author of the period".
But, one very interesting aspect of Delbruch's commentary is that he evaluates
Machiavelli not only as a military and political theorist from the words in his
books, but also and perhaps more interestingly he evaluates Machiavelli as a
practical military leader from his deeds. I have not found any other such
examination. And in order to make this evaluation Delbruch delves more
thoroughly into the historical sources to describe the reality of military life
in Italy and the events in which Machiavelli participated.
One of Delbruch's principal themes is the whys and wherefores of the shifts
between infantry and cavalry (or more properly between foot and mounted
troops.) So it is not surprising that he immediately focuses on Machiavelli's
emphasis that infantry has now supplanted cavalry as the dominant arm and that
a competent citizen infantry is now the ideal military organization. Delbruch
agrees with the infantry part, but not the citizen part. He thinks Machiavelli
was far ahead of his time on that.
Various commentators have dismissed Machiavelli as a dreamer and idealistic
theoretician in the military realm, despite his own rejection of idealism. They
base the assessment on the utter and ignominious failure of Machiavelli's
principal brainchild and labor of love, the Florentine militia, at the siege of
Prato, which resulted in the rapid surrender of the city and the restoration of
the Medici in 1512.
One of Delbruch's main themes is that the transformation of war from its
medieval to modern form was not so much a result of changes in technology but
in the ability of the state in practice to enforce the discipline essential for
the organization and operation of a powerful army. He faults Machiavelli for
failing to see this, but most commentators stress that Machiavelli did stress
the vital importance of discipline at least in his theories. His problem was he
could not create the political prerequisites that would make it possible in
practice. This is one way in which Delbruch faults Machiavelli the practical
military leader for trying ahead of his time to create an impossible dream.
Delbruch discusses at length the problem that lack of discipline caused for the
Florentine militia and explains why, despite Machiavelli's emphasis in theory
on the critical importance of discipline from the Roman example, Machiavelli
himself had to give priority to internal political considerations in the
recruitment and control of the militia. He then goes into more detail on the
actual nature of this militia and the specifics of its performance at Prato
than I have found anywhere else. Go to contents
Delbruch has scoured the official documents that are not often published with
Machiavelli's more literary works and quotes at length some written
instructions issued to some Florentine captains. The lengthy quote perfectly
suits Delbruch's contemporary purposes and it also suits mine, so I will quote
"In consideration of the small compensation that our
enlisted men receive for their trouble and discomfort in their training as
members of the militia, we desire that they be treated humanely and corrected
in a kind manner whenever in drill they make mistakes as a result of their
inexperience. We desire this so that they will carry through with this work all
the more gladly and with joyous hearts. For from the foregoing consideration,
we consider this means to be the most effective to maintain their obedience and
positive attitude toward this training. It appears to us that to bully and
irritate them would serve to produce the exact opposite. For this reason we
have wished to exhort you to deal with them in a kindly manner and to take the
trouble to maintain a good attitude in them. You must be careful to avoid
everything that you know or believe could cause any kind of incident."
Delbruch takes this quote as proof that the Florentine body politic was not
structurally capable of creating or enforcing the kind of discipline essential
for a real army. Nor, according to Delbruch, were the Swiss or Germans. This
capability only came a hundred or so years later.
By stressing that the true transformation of war came as a matter of the
social-political changes that created the modern state and not as a result of
technology, Delbruch agrees with Machiavelli on the matter of the importance of
artillery and small arms. While firepower did replace cold steel more rapidly
than Machiavelli expected, it was not the essential ingredient.
At this point we may consider Machiavelli's treatment of artillery, for which
he is more often denounced than for practically any other "mistake".
The assessment of Machiavelli is based on his description of the ideal battle
in Book Three of the Art of War. In the battle both sides deploy
artillery. The good guys, on the attack, fire one salvo and immediately charge
in to overrun the enemy. The enemy gets off one salvo also, but the shot flies
over the head of our heros. The questioners immediately challenge Fabrizio
Colonna (Machiavelli) on this very point. Fabrizio replies with a basic
principle, that first of all it is better to forgo inflicting some damage on an
enemy rather than allow yourself to receive damage. The point being that with
the artillery of the day in order to continue fire on the enemy one could not
move forward masking your own fire and this would result in your being
subjected to enemy artillery fire as well. His second principle is that a
battle cannot be won without taking the offensive eventually, so better do it
rapidly and take out the enemy artillery. Fabrizio says that there is no other
way to overcome artillery but to over run it. So it is not so much a disdain
for the power of artillery as it is recognition that its power ought to be
eliminated as quickly as possible that motivates Machiavelli's prescription.
Go to contents
I have not found any commentator who has noted that Fabrizio Colonna was the
commander of the left wing horse at the battle of Ravenna, 11 April 1512 (a
battle Machiavelli knew well from first hand accounts, even though he had just
been exiled) and that the Spanish army there entrenched at the behest of the
noted Engineer Pedro Navarra, who was commanding the infantry as well, in order
to conduct a planned artillery duel with the French. But the French cannon soon
played such havoc with Colonna's knights that they refused to remain in place
and charged in a disorderly way. This forced Navarra to order the infantry
forward as well and the whole Spanish army was soundly defeated.
Moreover, in the very next battle, at Novara on 6 June 1513 the Swiss infantry
inflicted a stunning defeat on a larger French army with much artillery by the
very tactic Machiavelli advocates, a rapid surprise attack that overran the
cannon. They tried the same tactic at Marignano on 14 Sept 1515 without
surprise and without success, but they were very badly outnumbered by a French
army with 60 cannon entrenched behind water obstacles. However the contemporary
reports obscured their defeat and they were widely credited with a tremendous
moral victory. The art of war was written in 1520, before Biococca in 1522, the
last time the Swiss tried this tactic. So I think it would be inconsistent to
fault Machiavelli for being too much ahead of his time on the matter of
discipline and then again for not being ahead of his time in his assessment of
artillery. Go to contents
The Strategy of Attrition versus Annihilation:
Another of Delbruch's characteristic interests is the theory of strategy.
This is still of great interest and continues to be badly confused in the
literature today. He states that Machiavelli "did not have success in
formulating an incontrovertible and consistent strategy. He saw the problem of
his period and in his pronouncements there was something that was prophetic,
but did not yet create a well-rounded theory."
Delbruch again focuses on the rapid introduction of new technology that should
have brought greatly increased means for waging war. He says the new means
provided support for both the offensive and defensive.Delbruch sees two
significantly different kinds of strategy. One is the "strategy of
attrition" which he defines as the gradual approach and "that
strategy in which the general decides from moment to moment whether he is to
achieve his goal by battle or maneuver, so that his decisions vary constantly
between the two poles of maneuver and battle." "This strategy stands
in opposition to the other one, which sets out directly to attack the enemy
armed forces and destroy them and to impost the will of the conqueror on the
conquered - the strategy of annihilation".
Delbruch notes Machiavelli's many statements supporting the idea of a strategy
of annihilation. But he continues "the practical aspects of the warfare of
his period in no way reflected this picture". And neither did the book by
Vegetius. So we find in Machiavelli also such comments as "Good generals
fight battles only if necessity forces them to do so or the occasion is
favorable". "It is better to subdue an enemy by famine than by sword,
for in battle, fortuna has often a much greater share than virtu." And
this reliance on a strategy of attrition was the reality of the commanders of
"In Machiavelli's writings we find the principles of the
strategy of annihilation and of attrition side by side but unbalanced... For
centuries the problem remained in this fluid condition."
His overall assessment is that Machiavelli was a theoretician and
doctrinaire. Everything he saw and heard was immediately fit into the
schematics of his theory. And when the facts did not fit they gave way to the
theory. Consequently he writes that" it is extremely questionable that
Machiavelli can be considered as a witness for the military system of his time.
Despite being an astute observer, when it came to writing theory Machiavelli
gives inaccurate reports. In this Delbruch notes that Machiavelli is analogous
to Polybius. Go to contents
Summary and conclusions:
Machiavelli's philosophy is based on his pessimistic view of human nature.
Rejecting Aristotle and Plato he based his ideas mostly on Xenophon. It was
Xenophon who took a national organization, the army, and applied the lessons
learned in its construction and operation to the problems of society in
general. Machiavelli follows this lead in linking military an civil societies.
He goes a step beyond Xenophon when he applies the lessons of military practice
to the internal affairs of his civic body. Machiavelli does not agree with
Xenophon's distinction between external enemy and internal friend. To him
everyone is a potential enemy. Hence civic rulers must employ the same measures
employed by the general to defeat his enemies.
Human nature is unchanging in character. This makes the study of man the basic
activity for the successful leader. All decisions are made by men and evoke
reactions in other men. For him the proper decision for all political and
military issues must be based on an evaluation of the probably reaction of the
humans affected by the decision.
Based on this assumption some of Machiavelli's major points are the
- war between men is inherent and inevitable.
- war will be total or limited depending on the political objectives
- uncontrolled and unprepared for war is destructive, but properly channeled
and prepared for it can serve socially useful purposes.
- the proper way to conduct a war is to carry it to the enemy, keep the
initiative, keep unity of command, do not try to buy friends, do not remain
neutral of passive, and always present your side as peace loving and leave your
opponent every opportunity to retreat or surrender.
- use subversives inside the other society to pave the way and govern
acquired territories through local intermediaries
- Do not risk total victory or defeat with less than all your forces - be
prepared to retreat if necessary to await another day.
- the leader must be able to analyze a situation objectively and base his
decisions on a careful estimate of the situation
- he must not lose sight of the major objective in war, which is the
destruction of the enemy's will and or ability to resist.
- be prepared to adapt to the times.
+Machiavelli's lasting importance is due to the way in which his
theoretical structure is firmly grounded in a realistic appreciation of human
nature. His uncritical acceptance of his sources led to some errors in his
specific examples. The polemical nature of his writing led to some
overstatement of position. He failed to appreciate the role of missile weapons
in history. He was over optimistic in his expectation that an essential amateur
militia would be able to defeat the professional armies of his day.
Nevertheless much of what he wrote is still valid today. He understood the
importance of military factors in the achievement of political objectives, both
in foreign and domestic policy. He recognized the close interrelationship
between military organization and the social political structure of a society.
He saw that warfare was no longer going to be the exclusive affair of aa
specialized class of warrior who fought over largely private interests, but
rather the central activity of the then developing state and hence the concern
of its rulers and indeed of all its inhabitants. He warned that unless the
people understood and participated in military affairs they could not control
the army and if they did not control it, it would control them. He emphasized
that the creation of an army cannot await the existence of an emergency, but it
is the result of long and careful planning. He believed that the discipline and
other virtues acquired in a properly functioning military organization had
great value to the civic life of a community. His appreciation of the
importance of psychological factors as being frequently decisive in any
confrontation of man by man requires continual renewal in this technological
age. Go to contents