Saturday 12 October 2013

Wargamer’s Texts II: The Art of War Part 1

Niccolo Machiavelli is, probably, one of the most divisive and derided political philosophers in the Western canon.  This is for assorted reasons, but mostly because his political philosophy is regarded as being without morality, to be a pure grab for power and, when power has been grabbed, advice as to how to hang on to it.

Machiavelli has also had the misfortune for his name to be applied to all sorts of abusive terms. For example, as you probably know, the term ‘Old Nick’, used of Satan, is supposed to derive from his forename. Similarly, the expression ‘Machiavellian’ is, of course, derived from him. Any political manoeuver which is perceived as devious and subtle is thus termed, and so Machiavelli is condemned by association with such activities.

All of which is really to say that Machiavelli has not been treated kindly by history or politics, even though some of his works are still widely read. How relevant they are is really a bit moot, in my view, but they are still trotted out as a defence of the purely pragmatic approach to politics. The basis here is that a politician can, in fact, do nothing unless they are in power. Therefore, the need to seize power and hang onto it is vital for someone who wants to do the right thing.

I am sure I do not need to remind you of the context in which Machiavelli wrote. He was born in 1469, and entered the chancery of Florence in the 1498. He thus had a grandstand view of the Savonarola regime of democracy (at least, for some meanings for the term) and its collapse.

Of course, the date of Machiavelli’s appointment into the Florentine government is important for his writings. What we now know, at least as wargamers, as the Italian Wars were in full swing by the time of his appointment and, for the Italian states, tightropes were being walked between independence, client ship and destruction.

Even discounting the external pressures of France, Spain and the Empire, the Italian states did not do much to help themselves. In fact, political disunity did as much to aid the (relative) destruction of Italy as, for example, Celtic disunity did in Gaul and Britain against the Romans of antiquity.

Which brings on on to another interesting aspect of Machiavelli’s views, that of the renaissance. Machiavelli was heavily influenced by the writings of ancient Rome, which were becoming available through the printing press and humanist work. For example, in around 1503 machiavell obtained a copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and, later in life, composed a tract on the writings of the Roman historian Livy. This work was published in 1531, four years after Machiavelli died.

Of course, Machiavelli’s reputation rests mainly on The Prince, a work which, for a wargamer, is somewhat peripheral and which has fascinated and horrified generations of people. As wargamers we are probably more interested in his Art of War. As it is, The Art of War is not widely discussed (or even printed in full) in modern times. In a sense, this is odd, as it is one of two works of Machiavelli that were printed in his lifetime, but, as the note to my abridgement indicates, many of the sections are technical and of interest only to military historians.

Actually, I cannot think of many military historians who are interested in Machiavelli, but I suppose that there may be some.

How useful could Machiavelli be to a wargamer anyway? He, as with so many writers, harks back to the concepts of the Roman legion, of Livy and Polybius, and as such his ideas tend to the theoretical.  He is also notorious for abuse of the system of mercenaries in his own time, and belief that a citizen militia would be much more useful. The bloodless battles of which he accuses the mercenary armies were not, in fact, as bloodless as he claimed, and the armies of Cesare Borgia which he admired were not citizen armies.

However, Machiavelli believed that war and politics were entwined, and the Art of War was much read in the seventeenth century as well as Frederick the Great, Napoleon and von Clausewitz, so it is probably worth us taking note of what he has to say. We must be aware in our reading, though, that Machiavelli was not a seriously military man, although he did see some action in the early 1500’s.

Finally, before diving into the text, it is well to remember the style of the writing, which is a bit annoying (at least, I find it so). The book is written as a dialogue, which was a form very much in vogue among humanists. Indeed, the use of the dialogue style is probably to be related to the rediscovery of classical texts, such as the (you’ve guessed it) dialogues of Plato.

The dialogue form can be quite frustrating, but was widely used into the eighteenth century. For example, David Hume wrote Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in the late 1700s. One consequence of this has been a lengthy scholarly wrangle about which, of the characters in the dialogue, represents Hume’s own view.  In terms of the Art of War I do not think we have a similar problem, at least most of the time, because we know from other things he wrote that Machiavelli favoured the militia system and the Roman legion. We may, however, have to be a little careful about any counter positions which are represented. Straw men, I think, possibly abound.

I feel like I have written much about Machiavelli, and a bit about the context of the Art of War, but nothing about the text itself. Next time I really will put some effort into saying something, at least, about that text, and what it might mean to use as wargamers.

In the meantime, the text I am going to use can be found in Kindle format on the ‘Library of Liberty’ website. Make of that what you will…


  1. The bar for where the limits are may have moved but the philosophy of power at all costs ranging from mis-information if not down right lies and cheating to disregard of long term effects and morality over short term votes seems to be alive and well amongst many of our political parties.

    1. Quite. Isn't The Prince serialised in Hansard?

      Actually, I read The Prince many years ago and remember thinking that some of the passages seemed distinctly tongue-in-cheek. There is a school of thought that it is a satire.

    2. I suspect that some of the Prince is indeed satire, or at least deeply ironic. Is the happy prince really the one who can cling onto power come what may, executing anyone who might stand in his way? I'm not sure that any prince of the period, even some of the more barbarous and violent (like Henry VIII) really behaved like that.

      Nevertheless, as Ross says, Machiavelli is alive and well and living in a politician near you...