Summary by Lewis G Miller
Travelling on my way home through London this summer, I took the chance to visit the city’s gigantic Waterstones bookshop. It was there where I stumbled across a small book by Machiavelli which I had never seen before; On Conspiracies.
If you flick through its pages, you might sense some familiarity in what you are reading. The reason is that this short book, published by Penguin as part of their “Great Ideas” series, is not actually a treatise in its own right. Rather, “On Conspiracies” is a selection of chapters from Machiavelli’s other well-known work, “The Discourses on Livy.”
On Conspiracies is still worth a look at as we are invited to consider this chapter in greater detail than we might when looking through the Discourses as a whole. This sizeable chapter appears in Book 3 Chapter 6, and has far too much detailed analysis to really cover in half an hour. As a result, I broke it into a three part series of episodes, where you can listen to the first above.
The first part of the chapter opens with a statement you might not have expected. Machiavelli tells us that conspiracies should be avoided, that they normally end in failure, and even that if we are unfortunate to have a poor Prince ruling our lands then it is better to make do with them rather than attempting to remove them. Yes, Machiavelli counsels against conspiracies despite his name now being almost synonymous with them. The rest of the chapter, summarises his research into the matter by looking at different aspects of why conspiracies occur, fail, and how we can guard against them.
Conspiracies themselves are basically plans which are concocted together (“Con” = together, “spirare” = to breathe), in this context to seize power. Machiavelli’s conspiracies often involve killing, which is largely as a result of his maxim that “a dead man cannot contemplate vengeance.” This is a view we have moved on from somewhat, but many of his conceptual musings on why they occur still seem applicable today.
In this first episode we compare his advice to recent intrigue in British Politics after the country’s vote to leave the EU, and how Machiavelli can help us understand why conspiracies have formed in these days of intrigue. In this first part, we see the conspiracy viewed from two dimensions; how the Prince can avoid conspiracies and what might motivate conspirators to plan one.
In summary, Machiavelli’s logic slightly resembles a cost/benefit analysis. Since we have established at the beginning of the chapter that conspiracies are so prone to failure and that the costs are so high that we might as well not bother; people who do conspire are likely to be facing enormous costs by not conspiring. Certain actions are likely to increase these costs of not conspiring, such as threatening their lives and undermining their honour, and other factors are likely to reduce the costs of conspiring thus making them more likely, namely being universally hated by one’s people.
In this episode I’m joined by Mark McGeoghegan, my pre-Nicholas sparring partner and an employee of the IPPR.