First version posted April 3, 2019. Revised June 12-15, 2022 for presentation at the 15th Annual Summer Conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry, June 16, 2022, at Mugla Sitki Kocman University, Mugla, Turkey. Minor revisions added, June 16, 2022. Minor revisions added July 14, 2022 for presentation at NASSP Conference, Neumann University, July 15, 2022.
Anyone who teaches Machiavelli’s Prince in a college setting faces a daunting set of pedagogical problems, among them the apparent anachronism of the examples that Machiavelli adduces in support of the advice he gives the prince. Few political philosophers are trained to discuss the political histories of Greco-Roman antiquity, the Ottoman Empire, or Renaissance Europe, and fewer students can endure reading or hearing about them. Yet such examples clot the text of The Prince, jeopardizing its accessibility and relevance to twenty-first century students.
The first few chapters of The Prince offer advice on how to maintain a military occupation over a foreign land. Despite its pitfalls, one way of teaching this material (I’ve found) is to cover it anachronistically as a set of prescriptions for a twenty-first rather than fifteenth century “prince.” To describe a concrete case, I draw here on my experiences teaching The Prince to Palestinian students at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a small town just east of Jerusalem, located on the “wrong” side of the security wall that separates Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. What better way to teach about occupation than from within one?
I teach The Prince in a survey course on Western political philosophy from Plato to Mill. Students come to the course with a variety of attitudes toward the material, ranging from eager curiosity to open hostility, and a variety of doctrinal commitments, ranging from secular nationalism to Islamism. Machiavelli is inevitably the Western thinker that most powerfully captures their interest, if only because he most clearly epitomizes their stereotype of “Western culture”: amoral, treacherous, conniving, and power-hungry. I neither confirm nor disconfirm that impression. My basic pedagogical strategy is to validate what I think the students get right, and push back on whatever needs questioning.
It’s a hard sell. The students I teach at Al Quds have spent a lifetime under military occupation, and expect to spend the rest of their lives that way. Most of the men have been arrested; many have done jail time. Most have been shot at; many have sustained wounds. Almost everyone knows someone, often a close friend or relative, who’s been killed in this or that altercation with the Israeli authorities. Shootings, detentions, surveillance, searches, checkpoints, interrogations, house demolitions, and wholesale military incursions are everyday events for them, a way of life. Since permits are required to leave the West Bank, and in some cases to move within it, some students have never been outside of the West Bank; others have spent their lives confined to the equivalent of an American county within it.
Unsurprisingly, every class I’ve taught at Al Quds seethes with repressed energy and anger. What can’t be expressed with words in the classroom gets expressed with rocks and Molotov cocktails on the street. In a sense, then, my students, both men and women, are the living embodiments of the exhortation from Petrarch that Machiavelli gives at the end of The Prince, of “valor’s” impulse to take arms against a foreign invader. Those aren’t just obscure words for them in some ancient poem, but the actual motivation they bring to class.
I have students read the whole of The Prince in Arabic translation, focusing heavily on chapter 3, innocuously titled “Of Mixed Principalities,” but actually a blueprint for imperial conquest and occupation. In broad outline, Machiavelli distinguishes here between conquests over ethno-cultural kin and those over ethno-cultural aliens. Conquests over kin are relatively easy: simply “extinguish” the ruling class (or would-be ruling class), leaving the essentials of the occupied peoples’ law and customs in place, quietly assimilating them as you would assimilate members of your own state.
Conquests over aliens are harder. Ideally, the prince colonizes the conquered land, fragmenting it so as to make political unity among the conquered people impossible, and arming the colonizers so as to avoid having to maintain extensive garrisons in the conquered place. As a second-best strategy, the prince is advised to move the seat of his government into the heart of the conquered land, partly for purposes of surveillance and supply, but partly to convey a sense of finality and civilizational superiority over the conquered peoples. As an adjunct to these strategies, the prince is told to divide the population he conquers, “annihilating” some parts of it while “caressing” others, distributing despair and hope in ratios favorable to long-term conquest. In doing all of this, we’re told, the prince should give the appearance of morality and religion while being prepared to flout them, making sure to observe all of the other princely advice Machiavelli dispenses for maintaining the state—to be feared but not hated, to be judicious with cruelty, to be careful about relying too heavily on fortifications, to make careful judgments about whom to arm and whom to disarm, and so on.
The parallels between Machiavelli’s advice and the Israeli occupation at first seem so striking that students jump reflexively to the conclusion that Machiavelli is not just the perfect guide to the occupation, but likely its direct, Satanic inspiration. On this reading, The Prince serves in their minds as “documentary evidence” of a centuries-old plot against Palestine by “the West,” confirming unreflective beliefs they bring to the text. The key to teaching The Prince in this situation is both to capitalize on and to disrupt that reflexive reaction, forcing students to articulate what they take to be so obvious about it while questioning its obviousness. Consider four interlocking issues to this end.
Palestinian students take for granted that Machiavelli’s advice is advice intended for “Israel,” treated in effect as a single Machiavellian prince, identified in turn with whoever happens to be Prime Minister at the time. Such students reflexively ignore the fact that Israel is not a principality, and that its rulers are not princes. Internally, at least, Israel is a democracy, a fact that might seem to render Machiavelli’s advice inapplicable. But does it? Machiavelli’s advice cannot, in the Israeli case, address a prince. If it applies at all, it must apply to some functional equivalent of a prince. But who or what plays that role in a democracy, insofar as Israel is one? That question forces students to clarify what they mean when they refer in an undifferentiated way to “Israel,” what they know about it, and how.
The first issue leads naturally to the next. As we’ve seen, Machiavelli distinguishes between conquests of ethno-cultural kin and ethno-cultural aliens, making different recommendations in each case. Note that Machiavelli’s claim is offered from the perspective of the occupier, one prima facie inaccessible to the occupied: the occupier sees the occupied people as either alien or kin. Machiavelli never addresses the occupied peoples’ perception of the occupier.
My students take an interesting approach to this issue, effectively reasoning about it in reverse: taking themselves to be representative Palestinians, and the Israelis of their experience to be representative Israelis, they infer that because they see Israelis as ethno-cultural aliens, Israelis must inevitably believe the same about them. That assumption makes more sense to them of the occupation than the alternative, for what sense would it make (they wonder) for kin to occupy kin? So, they infer, fundamental cultural difference is what marks the occupation out as Machiavellian, and licenses further inferences about it. It seems safe by this reasoning to ignore what Machiavelli has to say about the conquest of ethno-cultural kin; since the Israelis obviously aren’t kin, time spent on such an inquiry would be time wasted.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but two assumptions are worth singling out for discussion. One is to question the inverted reasoning: why assume that Israelis see Palestinians the way that Palestinians (or at least the ones in the classroom) see them? What if they don’t? Is it so obvious that kin would refuse to occupy kin? Machiavelli’s Prince, after all, is mostly a guidebook for that very purpose. Another is to question the basic assumption involved. Why think that the ethno-cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians outweigh the ethno-cultural similarities between them? The similarities are there if one looks. And how did the antagonism between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism come to swamp the kinship between two kindred Peoples of the Book, arguably with more in common than either has with the other People of the Book? The answers are not self-evident.
The preceding issue leads to a third. Suppose we assume that the Israeli occupation is a straightforward application of the second prong of Machiavelli’s strategy: if so, it tells us that an alien conqueror must divide the conquered population in order to rule it. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, this advice presupposes that there are divisions within Palestinian society to exploit. The latter presupposition contradicts a great many Islamist and nationalist pieties about the social cohesiveness brought about by adherence to sharia, or the indivisible unity of the Palestinian people. How to deal with this?
If the initial inference–“Zionists are ethno-cultural aliens in Palestine”–is easy enough to make, the further implication–“The occupation succeeds by exploiting Palestinian division”–is both a bitter pill to swallow, and in tension with the first. It’s a bitter pill to swallow because acknowledging internal division involves an admission of weakness, and requires an unpleasant (even dangerous) discussion of the issue of collaboration with the Israelis. It’s in tension with the first inference because the first reifies both sides into mutually exclusive, mutually antagonistic parties: Us versus Them. The second implies that there is no cohesive “Us”: “we” are an internally divided pseudo-polity that half-identifies with our oppressor.
There is good material here for a productive-but-potentially-fraught discussion of the nature of political unity and disunity, both generally and as applied to the case at hand. How united are the world’s Zionists, Palestinians, Arabs, Jews, and Muslims? How valuable is unity, and at what cost is it to be sought? How widespread is Palestinian collaboration with the occupation? Why does it take place, and how much does it explain about the occupation’s durability and power? How should it be handled? How not?
The third issue leads to a fourth. Whatever Machiavelli’s intentions, and whatever his claims about the relation of real to imagined principalities, the advice he offers in The Prince functions as a set of idealized prescriptions for an idealized prince. In reading The Prince, and applying its prescriptions to what they see around them, Palestinian students often fall prey to the belief that ground-level realities perfectly exemplify Machiavelli’s prescriptions. On this reading, adherence to the Machiavellian blueprint stands out more conspicuously than deviation from it, so that the occupation seems infallibly to enact what The Prince prescribes. This interpretation not only falls back into the conspiratorial mode of thinking I described at the outset, but gives the occupation an air of omnipotence it doesn’t actually have. In accepting it, students often lapse into despair that licenses either cynical indifference to the occupation or quixotic outbursts of violence against it. A closer look at the text and at students’ own experience of the occupation slows some of these inferences down, while suggesting more productive courses of action.
I find it useful, in this light, to dwell on ways in which the Israeli occupation departs from Machiavelli’s blueprint. If the Machiavellian blueprint really identifies ideal prescriptions for an ideal occupation, it follows that Israeli deviations from the blueprint are weaknesses to be exploited. Maybe the occupation isn’t as powerful as it seems. Alternatively, if deviations from the Machiavellian blueprint make perfectly good strategic sense, then perhaps it’s Machiavelli’s advice that’s defective. In other words, maybe he’s not the military genius he’s held out to be. Either way, it’s important for Palestinians to see that “the West” is not, even by its own standards, the infallible deity valorized in its own rhetoric.
Machiavelli famously begins The Prince by likening political inquiry serenely and delicately to landscape painting: the person knowledgeable about politics must, like the painter, “ascend an eminence in order to get a good view of the plains.” It famously ends with an impassioned exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians. These two passages have seemed to some like unrelated or incompatible parts of the text, but they are perhaps better seen as bookends to a single, integrated enterprise, political liberation. It’s not possible successfully to liberate a country by engaging in dispassionate observation, however acute, and leaving the matter there. Nor can anyone do so through unthinking allegiance to a vengeful prince or party, however forceful or terrifying. Liberation is a systematic, methodical task that involves a disciplined alliance of coldly dispassionate reasoning, and burning, even fanatical commitment. To fail to integrate these roles is to fail at the task itself. Integrating the claims of The Prince is, we might say, a modest preparation for liberation.
In reading The Prince under occupation, my basic aim is to induce students prepare for the task of liberation, arraying the psychic and political forces at their command for a battle that will last their lifetimes. Like Machiavelli’s Italians, my Palestinian students often daydream the end of occupation, invoking God’s presumed favor on them as a guarantee of its eventual collapse: “God willing, the occupation will end.” It’s useful to take a page from Machiavelli and remind them that God cannot be expected to supersede their free will, depriving them of the “glory that falls to their lot.” It’s also occasionally necessary to quote Scripture to this end:
Do you imagine that you will find your way to Paradise, not having known what others before you have suffered? They suffered affliction and loss, and were shaken and tossed about, so that the Apostle himself cried out to his followers, ‘When will God’s help arrive?’ Remember that God’s help is ever at hand (Qur’an, II.214).
According to Machiavelli, help is always at hand for those with arms (if you’ll pardon the pun).
The liberation my students seek can’t be realized by waiting for some latter-day Saladin to fall from the skies, but by daring, intelligent acts of self-liberation. As a mere foreigner, I can only watch that enterprise from afar. Ultimately, they must enact it, follow it where it leads, and take responsibility for the results. As Machiavelli puts it, “For the battle is just when it is forced upon us.” The task of course is to know how and when to fight—and how and when not to. Easier said than done, of course. But inescapable.
Thanks to Sari Nusseibeh, Said Zeedani, Awad Mansour, Maha Samman, Sinan Abu Shanab, Hadi Abu Hilweh, Amer Dajani and my students and colleagues at Al Quds University for the many helpful conversations that shaped this paper, as well as to interlocutors at the 15th Annual ISME Conference for stimulating discussion. Thanks also to Monica Vilhauer of Curious Soul Philosophy for helpful written comments. Thanks above all to the many brave people across Palestine–in cities, towns, villages, and refugee camps too numerous to mention–for trusting me, and taking the time to talk to me.