The Art of the State: Political Principles of Machiavellian Realism, Burkean Conservatism, and Hamiltonian Nationalism

Edited by Luke Phillips

Maxims of human nature, empirically observed and poetically crafted, provide the closest things to scientific truths available to practical men of public affairs. The epistemological challenges of consciousness and bounded free will preclude us from observing our own behavior and that of our fellows with the ease and precision of, say, the scientists’ observation of hydrogen atoms, celestial bodies, or bacteria cultures. 

This being said, we are neither a blank slate- there is order within human nature, barely perceptible to us even though it is. The study of history, society, and statecraft, buttressed by theoretical frameworks, can lead a thinker to something approaching a systematic rationality of human political life. But such an understanding, it seems, cannot be comprehended out of context, and to the extent that it can be communicated it can only be known through maxims and axioms for one to ponder.

 Thus, the “science” of politics is more like the art of wisdom- it cannot really be objectively communicated, theorized, or taught; it can only be observed and learned through experience, though not through experiment. Three thinkers, all practical men of affairs, who have in their own ways sought out to learn the science and wisdom of public life, are honored in this collection of such principles. They each confronted the challenges of modernization of traditional societies, and the organization of power domestically and internationally; they each sought both to preserve and to reform. And in my view, there are few theoretical muses who are simultaneously such practical guides for thinker-actors of the 21st Century United States.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s realism, Edmund Burke’s conservatism, and Alexander Hamilton’s nationalism have all been influential in my own education, though through their maxims rather than through their systems. Isaiah Berlin and Clinton Rossiter have helped them speak to we moderns a little more clearly.  

As I have mentioned before, I hope to write a commentary and reflection upon these maxims of statecraft in due time, and in a few decades perhaps I will be worthy of writing my own treatise of axioms of politics; but for now, the maxims of Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Burke will suffice, as told through Berlin and Rossiter and edited by myself. All errors and confusions in interpretation are mine; all logical inconsistencies and theoretical contradictions reflect, as Hamilton and Machiavelli and Burke saw it, the inconsistencies and contradictions within human nature.



The Political Principles of Machiavellian Realism (Isaiah Berlin, edited by Luke Phillips)

(From “The Originality of Machiavelli”)


What superior men seek is the fulfillment and glory that come from the creation and maintenance, by common endeavor, of a strong and well-governed social whole.

Only those will accomplish this who know the relevant facts. If you make mistakes and live in a state of delusion, you will fail in whatever you undertake. We can achieve what we want only if we understand firstly ourselves, and then the nature of the material with which we are working.

The best source of such information is a mixture of shrewd observation of contemporary reality with whatever wisdom may be gleaned from the best observers of the past, who invariably will teach that men are in need of firm and energetic civil government.

We can only obtain systematic knowledge of the required techniques of government if we look at the practice and theory of the most successful societies we know.

Men must be studied in their behavior as well as in their professions. There is no a priori route to the knowledge of the human material with which a ruler must deal.

There is, no doubt, an unchanging human nature the range of whose response to changing situations cannot be determined; one can obtain this knowledge only by empirical observation.

Men are not as they are described by those who idealize them, nor by those who want them to be widely different from what in fact they are and always have been and cannot help being.

One must be on guard against those who do not look at men as they are, and see them through spectacles colored by their hopes and wishes, their loves and hatreds, in terms of an idealized model of man as they want him to be, and not as he is and was and will be.


To make it possible for different men to pursue different ends and goals according to their own particular skills, governments are needed, for there is no hidden hand which brings diverse human activities into natural harmony.

Men need rulers because they require someone to order human groups governed by diverse interests and bring them security, stability, and above all protection against enemies, to establish social institutions which alone enable men to satisfy their needs and aspirations.

Men will never attain this unless they are individually and socially healthy; only an adequate education can make them physically and mentally sturdy, vigorous, ambitious, and energetic enough for effective cooperation in the pursuit of order, power, glory, and success.

Techniques of government exist, although the facts, and therefore the methods of dealing with them, may look different to a ruler and to his subjects.

It is certain that unless there is a firm hand at the helm, the ship of state will falter. Human society will collapse into chaos and squalor unless a competent specialist directs it.

Though freedom and republican rule are preferable, there are situations in which a strong prince is preferable to a weak republic.


Men seem for the most part to be ungrateful, wanton, false and dissimulating, cowardly and greedy, arrogant and mean; their natural impulse is to be insolent when their affairs are prospering and abjectly servile when adversity hits them.

Men care little for liberty, and place it well below security, property, and desire for revenge, which rulers can easily provide.

Men are easily corrupted, and difficult to cure.

Men respond both to fear and love; if these emotions cannot be combined, fear is the more reliable, provided that it does not turn to hate, which destroys the minimum of respect that subjects must retain for those who govern them.

Men ought to be improved but not transfigured, not superhuman.

Society is, normally, a battlefield in which there are conflicts between and within groups. These conflicts can only be controlled by the judicious use of both persuasion and force.

Energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, firmness in adversity, strength of character- these are the admirable qualities indispensable to a durable society.

A good society is a society that enjoys stability, internal harmony, security, justice, and a sense of power and of splendor.

Power, magnificence, pride, austerity, pursuit of glory, vigor, discipline, the virtue of old- these are what make states great.

Such a society, community, and polity satisfies men’s permanent, unchanging desires and interests.

Men cannot survive in decadence. States and societies which have lost the appetite for power are doomed to decadence and are likely to be destroyed, by enemies foreign or domestic.


A great political order can be created in the predictable future, because such has been realized in the past. Such an order can be created and maintained in the most desirable condition that can, as both history and observation teach, be attained by men.

The reason some polities became great is that there were men in these polities who knew how to make them great.

They did this by developing certain faculties in men, of inner moral strength, magnanimity, vigor, vitality, generosity, loyalty, above all public spirit, civic sense, dedication to the security, power, glory, expansion of the polity.

What was done once can be done again. The glories of old can be revived if only men vigorous and gifted and realistic enough can be mobilized for the purpose.

The moral ideal for which no sacrifice is too great- the welfare of the polity- is the highest form of social existence attainable by man. It is attainable, not unattainable; a world within the limits of human capacity, given human beings as we know them, creatures compounded out of these emotional, intellectual, and physical properties of which history and observation provide examples.


In order to cure degenerate populations of their diseases, founders of new modes and orders may be compelled to have recourse to ruthless measures, force and fraud, guile, cruelty, treachery- surgical measures that are needed to restore a decayed body to a condition of health. These qualities may even be needed after a society has been restored to health, for men are weak and foolish and perpetually liable to lapse from the standards that alone can preserve them on the required path.

The qualities of the lion and the fox are not in themselves morally admirable, but if a combination of these qualities will alone preserve the polity from destruction, then these are the qualities that leaders must cultivate.

These qualities must not be cultivated solely for self-interest- they must be cultivated because this is how one becomes a leader capable and worthy of wielding power.

Human societies are in need of leadership, and cannot become what they should be, save by the effective pursuit of power, of stability, of greatness.

Mere lust for power is destructive; it must be oriented towards higher ends.


There are two worlds, that of personal morality and that of public organization. There are two ethical codes, both ultimate; two exhaustive alternatives between two conflicting systems of value.

If a man chooses the morality of public organization, he must suppress his private qualms, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of society, or during its pursuit and maintenance of power and glory, will go to the wall.

Such ruthless methods are necessary as a means to provide good results, in terms of a secular, humanistic, naturalistic morality.

In choosing the life of a statesman or active citizen, with enough civic sense to want your state to be as successful and splendid as possible, you commit yourself to a rejection of good behavior.

There exist at least two sets of virtues- let us call them the Christian and the pagan- which are not merely in practice, but in principle incompatible.

All these maxims have one property in common: They are designed to create or resurrect or maintain an order which will satisfy men’s most permanent earthly interests.


The Political Principles of Burkean Conservatism (Clinton Rossiter, edited by Luke Phillips)

(From “Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion”)


The mixed and immutable nature of man, in which wickedness, unreason, and the urge to violence lurk always behind the curtain of civilized behavior.

The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit.

The fallibility and limited reach of human reason.

The essential role of religious feeling in man and organized religion in society.

The civilizing, disciplining, conserving mission of education.

The mystery, grandeur, and tragedy of history, man’s surest guide to wisdom and virtue.

The existence of immutable principles of universal justice and morality.


The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.

The inevitability and necessity of social classes, and consequent folly and futility of most attempts at leveling.

The primacy of the organic community.

The prime importance of property for liberty, order, and progress.

The uncertainty of progress- and the related certainty that prescription, not purposeful reform, is the mainspring of such progress as a society may achieve.

The indispensability and sanctity of inherited institutions, values, symbols, and rituals, that is, of tradition.


The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy.

The fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule.

The consequent desirability of diffusing and balancing power- social, economic, cultural, and especially political.

The rights of man as something earned rather than given.

The duties of man- service, effort, obedience, cultivation of virtue, self-restraint- as the price of rights.


Reverence, contentment, prudence, patriotism, self-discipline, the performance of duty- the marks of the good man.

Order, unity, equity, stability, continuity, security, harmony, the confinement of change- the marks of the good society.

Dignity, authority, legitimacy, justice, constitutionalism, hierarchy, the recognition of limits- the marks of good government.

The absolute necessity of conservatism- as temperament, mood, philosophy, and tradition- to the existence of civilization.


The Political Principles of Hamiltonian Nationalism (Clinton Rossiter, edited by Luke Phillips)

(From “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution”)


Men are driven to strive and to achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.

Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings. It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.

There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.


The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”

The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next stop beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.

The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.

In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.


The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.

Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.

No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.

No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.


As the opinions of the people are the decisive force in the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.

Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.

It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.

The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest-which is the indispensable quality of good government.

The executive is the chief source of political energy.

An energetic executive is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.

Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for such instruments of society.

The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of good government, not merely to keep order and to protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.

2 responses to “The Art of the State: Political Principles of Machiavellian Realism, Burkean Conservatism, and Hamiltonian Nationalism”

  1. Eduardo Paez says :

    Great work. A succinct explanation of their philosophies. I, for one, have not read any Burke yet and have not read the whole of The Prince or The Federalist Papers. I will get on it so that I can debate these philosophies on here.

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