Summary by Lewis Miller
In our second episode surrounding Machiavelli’s chapter titled “On Conspiracies,” we discuss the practicalities of the Machiavellian conspiracy, or, to be more accurate, what exactly can go wrong.
While in the last episode we were discussing what can cause a conspiracy, this time we discuss the many elements of conspiracies which have caused failure both in Machiavelli’s experience and in his studies of ancient Rome and Greece. In essence, the argument is that one can protect against most things going wrong through planning and selecting experienced individuals, but even then much can still go awry. He does this by looking through the conspiracy in stages; planning, execution, and aftermath.
In planning, the first thing that can go wrong is that we hire cowards, those who can be bought, or that we become too confused by the act to actually carry it out. Inexperience caused one Quintianus to shout his slogan too early, causing both his arrest and his plot to fail. From his discussion, Machiavelli’s sums up this element by postulating that “when it comes to doing big things of which a man has no previous experience, no one can say for certain what will happen,” something relevant for for life more generally.
In carrying out a conspiracy to overthrow any ruler, few examples stand out as much as the attempted assassination of Pandolfo di Siena. This plot failed thanks to a friend of the target approaching for a conversation after the trap had been sprung, giving Pandolfo enough time to escape his early demise. Alongside the failed plot against Pandolfo, Machiavelli notes how many conspiracies failed or almost failed due to sheer fortune. Indeed, the only successful plot which Machiavelli finds is one conspiracy, that of Pelopidas, which was so extraordinary in its execution that Machiavelli advises that it’s best to not bother ourselves with copying it.
And then there is the aftermath of our plot; how do we deal with the hatred levelled by our target’s admirers? Even after we have overthrown a Republic or Prince, we should never really be finished executing our plan. There will always be those seeking vengeance and power amongst the chaos, an element which was not taken into account in many of the most famous conspiracies. Examples of this include the killing of Julius Caesar, which was a success in its preliminary target but a failure in what it did to Rome. Caesar’s killing ultimately ushered in the age of the Roman Empire under Augustus, rather than reinstating the age of the Roman Republic. So even if our conspiracy avoids all pitfalls, it can still result in total failure.
To understand this, we continue discussing our two, so-called, Machiavellian plots in the British Conservative and Labour parties and discuss why these have failed and whether they are Machiavellian at all.