Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Critical Survey of the Modern State, Part 1

"By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down."
- A proverb of King Solomon

The modern state has become the standard of acceptable statehood in the 21st century world. The most basic main components of the modern state include a centralized political decision-making and administration that can be projected over a large area. Additionally, modern states have been coextensive with a distinct nation, forming nation-states.

With the ubiquity and permanence of modern state regimes, it may be surprising to some that this predominance has only been the case for the last few hundred years. The modern state has overcome all previous regimes when the have come head to head in wars because no other regime has been able to match the modern state in centralized organization and projecting power.

For those interested in the proper understanding of human right and authority and the implementation of justice, the problem of the modern state should raise some serious questions. Over the next couple weeks, I will be publishing a series of blogs excerpted from papers I have written for a previous study of the modern state up until the end of the 19th century when it really became entrenched in the international political order. Though this study, we will take a critical look at the philosophy and development that undergirds the modern state. We will have the opportunity to reflect on the following (and other) important questions:

1. What is the thought behind the moderns state? Does this thought fit into a Biblical understanding of statehood?

2. Is the modern state inherently at odds with a Biblical conception of states or can the two be reconciled in a reasonable manner?

3. How has the development of the modern state affected its appearance today? Can the modern

4. Does the modern state provide for the ethical ideal of justice? Can it provide justice? Is the modern state a perfect system? A useful but faulty one? An inherently corrupt one?

5. Is the modern state here to stay or will history provide for the development of a new (better or worse) political organization.

After our survey we will be able to come back and touch on these questions directly.

Any survey of the development of the modern state must begin with Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th Century Italian political theorist, and here we will begin as well:

The modern political project developed in response to the feudalistic regime structure of the Middle Ages. States began to assert sovereignty and centralize over against the influence the Catholic Church and feudal lords. But what exactly is sovereignty and how was it being centralized? Early theorists and scholars of the modern state attempted to develop answers to these questions. Power played a major part in answering these questions. The quest for power, its organization, and its use have long been the focal points of regimes. The modern state gives a new perspective on all these fronts.

In arguing for the importance of modernizing politics, Machiavelli developed the state system which he though could make best use of the new political form. Power plays the central role. Power itself gives rise the modern state as Machiavelli’s Prince looks to acquire territories and assert sovereignty within them. Then the power becomes centralized under the state, and the state uses all necessary power to further its ends. At Machiavelli’s time the Catholic Church still exercised extensive influence, and all previous projects had to work within the strongly Christian ethical and moral structure that pervaded Europe. To counteract this and allow the state to further itself in the wise use of power, Machiavelli needed to tweak the moral structure. He does this by implementing a more humanistic and materialist standard. On this new moral basis Machiavelli builds.

Machiavelli begins by looking at the territory in which he can build his modern project. This brings up a basic tenet of the modern state, clearly defined territory. Power must have a territory in which it can exercise its sovereignty or it is not sovereign. The mode of acquisition also is very important to Machiavelli. (The Prince, 5) However the territory is acquired, the Prince (Machiavelli’s term for the state) must assert full power. Thus, in acquiring new territory, the Prince must make it a priority to gain popular support. Raw power conquering a territory is not enough. The wise use of power includes the garnering of real support for its sustenance. Whether entering a new territory or being raised to power in an old one, the Prince needs to maintain support. This support is best to be popular rather than oligarchic because popular support leaves no possible rivals to power. (40) The people generally are easier to please than the aristocrats. The people have a greater awe of power. Power without support will fade. The same holds for power used badly. In acquisition, the Prince must be sure to eliminate the previous bloodline or hereditary power within that area. (9) Thus, secondly, the modern state must eliminate all other claims to its power. Power used wisely is power used exclusively. This exclusivity of power carries farther as the Prince must curtail the influence of the church or religious authorities within his region. (16) Any use of power outside of the state structure represents a potential threat to it. Here also begins the development of Machiavelli’s new morality of the state. It is materialistic in that it bases itself on the acquisition of things and power towards acquisition. It is humanistic in that all is based on the activity of the state disregarding providence or religious influence. It is a materialistic humanism.

The Prince must fully devote himself to power of acquisition and maintenance. Machiavelli basically describes the Prince as a prophet of war (conjuring Christ in Revelations as Machiavelli humanizes everything).
The Prince must constantly prepare to make use of his power by force. (60) Use of power must be accompanied by the centralization of power in order for the modern project to succeed. Machiavelli takes a practical approach here. The rising modern state and the drive for power that accompanies it place a new strain on the international structure. The power must then be centralized in order to be used well as describe above. Machiavelli looks to the Turks for his example of a more modern centralized nation. (17) He recognizes that the centralization of power not only provides for its better use, but it also insulates the state. The centralized state is harder to conquer, and easier to hold once the Prince is in place because the power structure of the modern state flows completely from the Prince’s will to power. Key to the centralization of power is the centralization of force. Force must be at the use of the Prince to ensure the maintenance and expansion of the power structure. For this reason, Machiavelli, notes that the force of arms best suited to the modern project are those belonging exclusively to the Prince, not mercenary or auxiliary forces. (49) This wisely keeps all force, which is nothing but another use of power, within the direct purview and command of the Prince himself. All power must flow from the Prince and as directly as possible. The defense of the principality must also have direct correlation to the power of the Prince. (44) Good force basically makes good laws for Machiavelli. (48) Force is power in use, and good force thus is good use of power. All good government flows from the good use of power.

Power for the Prince also means power over the seemingly uncontrollable in life. Power must be total. For Machiavelli, nothing is truly out of man’s control. In terms of Machiavelli’s new material humanism, the “powers” of fortune can also be mastered by the Prince. (101) They are not something extra-material, but fully within the Prince’s grasp when he wisely uses his power. The Prince must prudently use all means necessary to take power over the “powers” of nature and fortune (and even God). Cruelty then is judged not in itself but in its use. (37-38) All the virtues of antiquity only have value in as much as they are useful to the Prince. They no longer represent good ends in themselves, but as with everything else they become means towards the ends of the state and the Princes will to power. The power of the state must be protected at all cost. When the use of classical virtues facilitates the Prince’s will to power, it is good. When it does not, the virtues are discarded until further usefulness can be found for them. The traditional ends to which the moral structure previously pointed disappear in Machiavelli’s new moral stance. As the only true powers are of this world, or subordinate to them, the ends or bases of morality for the new state cannot be found outside of this world, but within it. The only judge of actions then is in terms of the maintenance of the Prince’s power structure. Virtue is replaced by strength, word by force. Prudence, relative to the external and internal conditions of the state, dictates the necessity and use of virtue by the Prince. Virtuous appearance must be maintained, but the true Prince must be strong, a user of virtue, not a slave to it. (38) The Church, then for Machiavelli must also modernize or it will die out. As the modern Prince/state allows for no rival claims to authority, the Church must develop its own principalities if it wants to maintain temporal power in the modernized world. (45-47) The Church must play by the same rules as other states, which virtually means abandoning its former religion for Machiavelli’s new humanism, or it will lose all temporal significance outside of the state’s allowance.

Power must also be on constant display in the modern state. Power in the modern project becomes the only thing really worth respecting in itself. Everything else has become only a means to the use of power. Thus, the Prince must be always ready to make show of his power to gain the fear and awe of the people. (40) The people will recognize and support a truly powerful state for their own well being. This power need not interfere with the people, but instead inspire them towards peaceful productivity. (91) The full use of power, Machiavelli recognizes, is not always the wisest use of it.

* This blog is adapted from a previous essay entitled “The Founding of the Modern State: By Nature and Power”

** All parenthetical citations are page references to: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. University of Chicago Press, 1998.


  1. This blog post was interesting in content and an ideal length. I would enjoy discussing and interacting with other readers in this comment forum.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Hannah. I really appreciate it.

    I too look forward to interacting with all the readers on here. Make sure to ask any questions or share your thoughts. Who knows? It could inspire a future post.