“Breaking Bad” By Niccolo Machiavelli, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 7 2013 @ 11:40am

First, a sing-along recap of the serieswith spoilers galore:

Second, a display of Dish-readers’ erudition. One writes:

As a fan of Breaking Bad and someone who teaches a seminar that is partially devoted to The Prince, I have to disagree with your characterization of Old Nick. First of all, you say that Machiavelli would have approved of Walt’s empire building.  I have to disagree.  We have to remember that, above all else, The Prince was an exercise in statecraft.  The prince was justified in doing all manner of evil so long as he was doing it in the service of the higher good of serving the state.  It is certainly true that Machiavelli appreciated leaders who imposed their will with style and flair.  But would he have smiled upon the creation of a criminal enterprise designed just to make Walt rich?  I think not.

466px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoYou also quote Machiavelli’s line about a leader needing to be “altogether bad.” But this is not Machiavelli’s desire – it is something that a leader may have to embrace from time to time if it makes him more powerful.  But, again, this power is only useful if it leads to a better and stronger state. Remember that Machiavelli deplored the division that plagued the city states of Italy.  Also, this “altogether bad” attitude is more similar to Mike’s endorsement of full measures.  And, indeed, this is true.  It’s like when you break up with somebody and keep stringing it out.  Or if you’re a boss who is reluctant to fire a bad employee. You’ve already made the decision to do the thing – you just have to do it.

Your biggest indictment of Machiavelli is the notion that his philosophy begets unhappiness. You say “which is why, for me, Machiavelli’s great flaw is that the life of such a brutally powerful figure, ruling by force and fraud, is a mug’s game. Isn’t the consequence of his proud immorality a never-ending insecurity?” To this, I would note again that Machiavelli’s advice is for a prince – and Italian princes of that era were constantly being overthrown and killed.  The prince does not follow Machiavelli’s advice to be happy; he follows it to be secure.  If he truly does follow these teachings, he will be secure enough to not have to constantly worry about assassination – and most importantly, his people are free to live their lives without fear and they may achieve happiness.  Virtu  may be cold comfort, but it is what is needed to protect life. This is not Saddam Hussein.

Is Machiavelli an apologist for ruthless actions?  Let us remember that he is constantly imploring the reader to view the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.  He notes: “He who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation. A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”

I’m grateful for my reader’s more conventional reading of Machiavelli. My own is darker and doubtless influenced by my old professor, Harvey C. Mansfield at Harvard. I understand and appreciate the view of Machiavelli as a defender of city states in an age of violence and instability, but there is a relish to his writing about evil that perhaps requires someone saturated in Thomist thought to appreciate its full radicalism and its resilient impact on Western civilization, for good and ill. Another reader:

If you only know Machiavelli’s The Prince, a work designed for autocrats newly made, then virtu only makes sense in the context of being a ruthless bastard and Machiavelli is the chief advocate of ruthless bastardy.

However, if you look at the great body of Machiavelli’s work –especially his Discourses on Livy – one sees that the idea of virtu is not just about ruthlessness, it is the ideal of the good citizen working with bravery, strength and ambition in the interests of the state, following the Roman republican tradition – and most certainly not following or derived from the Christian religious tradition or its ideal of the good man. The difference, between good citizen and good man, is important.

Agreed. I studied almost all of Machiavelli and taught him. What interests me is the worldliness of the achievement and honor. This was Machiavelli’s challenge to Christianity. Another reader:

Your analogy between Walter White and Machiavelli is flawed in one critical way: for all of his growing megalomania, Walt was never interested in being the guy in charge. He just wants to be the absolute best at what he does, and cheerfully gives over responsibility for the business side of things to a succession of partners – Jesse, Tuco, Gus, Mike, Lydia – and despite the massive amount of money he ends up making, it’s really on the business side of things that the power lies. No, what matters to Walt is being the absolute best bloody meth cook in the known world, and, more significantly, reaping the respect and admiration of his colleagues and those out in the drug and law enforcement world who know him only as “Heisenberg.” He feeds off the admiration, indeed demands it, making his prospective new partners “say my name” and risking everything when he suggests to Hank that Gale probably wasn’t Heisenberg, simply because he could not stand having someone else earn the respect he believes is his alone.

Another:

I’m also a long-time fan of Breaking Bad and appreciate a fellow fan who sees the obvious allegory of Walter White’s post-battle Richard III climax (“my kingdom for a horse”), tied all together with the pathos of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (“show us your badges!”) and Ozymandias rolling his own “legless trunk” through the desert. But your post does a disservice to Machiavelli, Vince Gilligan’s script, and the concept of Christian salvation. You conclude:

Machiavelli’s great flaw is that the life of such a brutally powerful figure, ruling by force and fraud, is a mug’s game. Isn’t the consequence of his proud immorality a never-ending insecurity? … You call that happiness?

The radical objective of Machiavellian virtu was not earthly happiness, but immortal glory, which, as Leo Strauss puts it, “liberates men from the desire for petty things – comfort, riches and honors – as well as from fear of death.” Machiavelli undermines the ethereal promise of immortality offered through Christian virtue with the substantive possibility of immortal fame achieved with Machiavellian virtu.

This is Breaking Bad‘s story to the end: Walter vanquishes everyone, achieves all his objectives including his own death, knowing that he has secured his ultimate Machiavellian objective of eternal glory. Not surprisingly, this is also Vince Gilligan’s hope for Breaking Bad‘s legacy:

You want your work to be remembered. You want it to outlive you. My favourite show ever was The Twilight Zone and I think about Rod Serling, [who] started that show 54 years ago this year. It long outlived him – he passed away in 1975 – but there are kids who haven’t been born yet who will know the phrase ‘the twilight zone’, and hopefully will be watching those wonderful episodes. I can’t say that’s what will happen [with Breaking Bad], but you wanna have that kind of immortality through your work. That would be wonderful. I’d feel very blessed.

I’d say that both Walter White and Vince Gilligan have achieved their immortality.

Well he’s not done yet, if Stephen gets his way: