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Machiavellian Manners in the 18th Century

October 4, 2010

Rejection of Machiavelli’s amoral philosophy came to a head during the Enlightenment and era of the philosophe. Voltaire and Frederick the Great co-authored a rebuttal of The Prince in Anti-Machiavel. Rousseau proceeded to criticize Frederick for “beginning his [reign of] Machiavellianism by refuting Machiavelli.” Even so, the tenets of Machiavellianism (in particular, that of dissimulation) would have been widely accepted by participants of 18th century aristocratic society, in the same salons Voltaire and Rousseau frequented. This is a point I brought up in section, but I’ll expand on it here.

A striking example of 18th century societal Machiavellianism comes to us through one of the most renowned and reputable insights into that period: Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son. In what Dr. Samuel Johnson famously declared as promoting “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master,” Lord Chesterfield advises his son on the means of success in European courts, stressing the necessity of dissimulation (i.e., concealing one’s true motives or character through deceit, something endorsed by Machiavelli many times in The Prince). As he tells his son in Letters: “It may be objected, that I am now recommending dissimulation to you; I both own and justify it. …Without some dissimulation, no business can be carried on at all” (pg 256). Chesterfield, if he was not a student of Machiavelli, would certainly have agreed with many of his principles.

In his advice, Chesterfield draws heavily from the prolific writer Viscount Bolingbroke for endorsement of dissimulation. Bolingbroke’s most famous work, On the Idea of a Patriot King, is surprisingly similar to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Both are political treatises intended for the eyes of a powerful patron (in Bolingbroke’s case, Frederick, Prince of Wales). And both works freely advocate dissimulation: Bolingbroke, according to Chesterfield, calls dissimulation “a shield, as secrecy is armor” (pg 257).

Of course, Lord Chesterfield and Viscount Bolingbrokes’ views on dissimulation would not have been shocking to any observer of 18th century European nobility, including the sociable wit Voltaire. In fact, on the eve of the French Revolution, many satirical publications and cartoons (such as those pictured above) had long portrayed the nobility as hypocritical, dishonest, and profligate. In the end, the Machiavellianism of European society was a double-edged sword: it protected nobles from each other, but helped fuel the wave of public opinion against them, resulting in a tide of revolutions which would destroy the societal Machiavellian roots of the aristocracy over the next two centuries.

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