Thursday, May 3, 2012

Considering Niccolò Machiavelli

Today marks the birthday – the 543rd to be precise – of the great political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence, known best for his small treatise Il Principe (The Prince, or as he originally referred to it – De principatibus) on how a leader most effectively retains power and benefits his people.  He and his work  are controversial (though see also his Discourses on Livy and Art of War), and he is popularly branded as a philosopher without scruples (the term ‘Old Nick’, referring to the Devil, derives from his name), and celebrated as the most pragmatic of power practitioners (studied by leaders throughout history, whether they agree with him or not, for one ignores his ideas at their peril).  Though often portrayed grimly, he was actually quite droll and showed a dry and dark sense of humor, courageously so considering his history.  Contemporaneously, he was popular as the author of comedies and some ditties or drinking songs, after his torture and exile from Florence at the behest of the returning Lorenzo de Medici, the Magnificent.  (The Prince was published posthumously.)

Niccolò Machiavelli as rendered at Gli Uffizi di Firenze

It is not my purpose in this small post to expound upon the ideas and practical applications of Machiavelli, other than to caution that the popular view suffers from a lack of study.  He was a creature of his time and circumstances, living in a tumultuous period of the Italian Renaissance, greatly influenced by his view of the recently executed Savonarola, failed theocrat of Florence, and Cesare Borgia, noted Italian condottiero.  His views as explained in The Prince were startling at the time and still somewhat discomforting now for some, but reflect a basic and profound understanding of the way that life is, rather than how one would wish it to be.  There are those who dwell in the academic catacombs of Political Science (whatever that is) who cling to the notion that Thomas Hobbes (of the Leviathan) is the Father of Political Science, and not without some merit to the idea.  Yet to my mind and many others, it is really Niccolò Machiavelli, born in the previous century, who can rightly claim the title.

I will leave you with this portion of a letter that he wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori, at the time the Florentine ambassador to the Pope, describing his life in exile and announcing his work on what was to be The Prince.  His literary gift of Italian prose (along with Dante) helped mark the Florentine dialect as the foundation of modern Italian, and it is a delightful example of his style, remaining as one of my favorites.  (I remember translating this many years ago as an exercise when I lived in Italy and was far more familiar with Italian than now.)  It tells of a life that I can recognise on my own, as some of you may as well.  He found some small measure of recompense toward the end of his life: though he was never restored to his previous station, he was able to enjoy a reconciliation with the Medicis.
I am living on my farm since my disgrace and have not passed more than twenty days in all in Florence.  Until now, I have been catching thrushes with my bare hands. . . . Eventually this diversion, though contemptible and foreign to me, withered away – regretfully.  I will tell you of my life: I awake at dawn and go to the little wood where I see what work has been done from the day before and kill some time with the woodcutters, who always have some dispute between themselves or with their neighbors….  Leaving this grove, I go to a spring and thence to my aviary where I string my birdnets.  I have a small book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets such as Tibullus, Ovid, or the like.  I read of their tender passions and their loves and I remember mine, enjoying myself for a time as if dreaming.  I move along the road to the inn and speak with those I pass, inquire of the news of their villages, learn about various matters, and take note of the variety of tastes and differing fancies of men.  As this time passes there comes the hour for dinner, and with my family I eat such food as this poor farm and tiny property allows.  Having eaten, I return to the inn to converse with the miller, the landlord, the butcher and a couple of kilnworkers.  I sink into vulgarity with these boors for the whole day, playing at cricca and trich-trach, which lead to many squabbles and vituperations; we quarrel over farthings, and we can be heard yelling as far away as San Casciano. Involved as I am with these trifles and confined as I am with these lice, I nevertheless keep my brain from growing moldy, and expunge the malice of my fate, content to know that though she runs roughshod over me, I may discover whether she will be ashamed of treating me so. 
As evening comes I return to my house and enter my study. On the threshold, first I remove my rough working clothes, covered with mud and dirt.  I put on my royal and curial robes and, thus fittingly attired, I enter into the venerable assembly of the ancients. Welcomed by them with affection, I truly nourish myself upon that food which is mine alone, and for which I was born. I am unashamed to speak with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. They in their kindness answer me, and four hours pass without a feeling of boredom.  I forget all of my worries; I no longer dread poverty; I no longer fear death.  I live entirely through them.  And because Dante says that knowledge is not produced when we hear and do not remember, I have noted all of their conversations that have been of profit to me, and from these notes I have composed a little work, De principatibus, where I delve as deeply as I am able into the considerations thereof, debating what is a princedom, and of what varieties, and how they are gained, how they are kept, and why they are lost.

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