A Galileo of politics?

Machiavelli paved the way for modern forms of political enquiry - but to describe him as a political

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Machiavelli’s status as a political thinker rests in part on the novelty he claimed for his method of political enquiry. A common interpretation of Machiavelli hails him as the founder of modern political science and as a pioneer of empiricism and what is now known as the inductive method of reasoning – a process of inferring generalisations from the observation of particular examples.

Machiavelli’s new method consisted of collecting facts drawn from his own political experience or from political literature in order to discover constant patterns in history and generalising from these; he devised rules for acquiring and maintaining political power. On this view, Machiavelli is the Galileo of politics who transformed history into an empirical science and made politics into ‘a system of universal rules’ based on a realistic assessment of politics in terms of power and control.

Machiavelli’s status as the founder of political science is hotly disputed. Many complain that Machiavelli did not actually use a scientific or inductive method. His technique is at best shoddy induction. His reference to classical authors and use of recent history is selective and his general theory is based on a few dubious examples.

At worst, Machiavelli’s technique does not constitute a method at all and his induction is a spurious procedure. The essence of induction is that a conclusion should emerge from a sifting through sources, but Machiavelli imposes conclusions on evidence, fails to take account of competing theories and examples which would invalidate his theory and misinterprets or even falsifies sources when they don’t fit his preconceptions.

Machiavelli did not engage in serious political analysis and strict logical argument. Machiavelli was not a philosopher, nor a systematic thinker who carefully defined and justified his ideas. His prose style lacks the emotional detachment of an impartial scientist. Machiavelli was a man of passion who wrote to provoke action and effect. We can see this in his arguments which begin with ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘because’ or ‘hence’: in his fondness for aphorisms; his pithy sentences, juxtapositions, dramatic statements, violent contrasts and polarised either/or formulations.

These features make Machiavelli’s argument vivid, bold and arresting. They ensure maximum impact, they startle and shock and they excite controversy. They also function to plaster over the gaps, inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his argument. From this viewpoint, Machiavelli is not a scientist, but a spin doctor, or at best an artist striving for effects, whose disturbing insights were intuitive rather than the result of the application of any scientific method.

It is an exaggeration to describe Machiavelli as a political scientist because he was interested in facts rather than ideals or because he claims to support his conclusions with observation and experience. His methodology was not systematic or coherent enough to be called scientific in the manner of Galileo and the persuasive force of his argument is strengthened by rhetoric rather than logic.

But, it would not be seriously misleading to see in Machiavelli the suggestion of more modern forms of political enquiry. By maintaining that facts about political life and man’s behaviour patterns were the only valid data on which to base political conclusions he paved the way for a transition to a more pragmatic approach to politics that rested on observable reality rather than Christian virtues, abstract speculation or utopian thinking.

Dr. Maureen Ramsay is a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Leeds. She is particularly interested in the application of theory to practical issues in contemporary politics.