Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 January 2022
In this chapter, I want to use our present political moment to think about why we are still reading Machiavelli. To put this in a more pointed way, I want to ask: what is the interest of reading Machiavelli now, when in the United States, in Europe, and in other parts of the world, we see a rise of nationalism and nativism, an undermining of democratic institutions, and an increasing authoritarianism on the part of democratically elected rulers? I am thinking of Donald Trump in the United States, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and movements like the Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany. By way of addressing our contemporary moment, I want to begin with an earlier, similarly charged moment in the reception of Machiavelli, the years immediately after the end of the Second World War.
At the end of his life, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer wrote a controversial history of political thought entitled The Myth of the State, in which, as we will see, Machiavelli plays a central role. In one way, the title was a misnomer, since one of Cassirer's main points was that political thought in the West has historically set itself against myth, in favour of philosophical or scientific analysis. In another way, however, the title was apt since the book was composed in response to Cassirer's experience in Nazi Germany, in particular his experience of the artificial or manufactured myth of the Nazi state. Earlier in his life, Cassirer had published a three-volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, in which myth featured as both an early stage of symbolic thinking and a permanent feature of human culture. This conception of myth, he now felt, could not completely account for the form myth took in the twentieth century. In particular, it could not account for the role of technology in producing myth and for the use of such manufactured myths to manipulate opinion and belief in the fascist state.
In an eloquent passage in the last chapter of The Myth of the State, Cassirer spoke of his dawning realization that the technological manipulation of myth could fundamentally transform human nature:
Of all the sad experiences of these last twelve years this is perhaps the most dreadful one. It may be compared to the experience of Odysseus on the island of Circe.